Runner at the Sharp End #4: Ben Wickham

I first met Ben at the Hackney Marshes ParkRun where it became immediately obvious that we were quite evenly matched. At the time I was living in Hackney so Ben and I were neighbours and ended up running the same races a few times. I was immediately and really hugely impressed by Ben’s level of dedication (as well as his amazing sun glasses – more on that later) and it was obvious to me that Ben would be someone that I would find myself chasing quite often in races. He had already set himself the target of a sub-75 minute half marathon and a sub-2:45 marathon when I met him and at a couple of races where we both ran, he came fiercely close to the half marathon target. Then with the London marathon 2012 looming on the horizon, it clearly all came together and Ben ran 73:19 at the Paddock Wood Half Marathon on 1 April and then cruised to an eight minute PB with 2:42:19 time in the London. Truly a runner at the sharp-end, here is what Ben had to tell me and if you want more from Ben follow him at twitter.com/@benjiwickham

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)?
Ben in full flow... in a triathlon (but we'll forgive him for that)

I used to occasionally run the odd 10k. Maybe once a year. I always wanted to do a marathon, but badly strained my IT band whilst training (badly) in 2009, making it almost impossible to run any distance. From there I took to swimming and cycling to rehab it, and built the miles slowly to get to the start line of the 2010 London Marathon. Along the way I sort of turned myself into a triathlete.  My previous best time was somewhere around 55mins for a 10k. In training for that marathon I realized I had some potential to run pretty well, and by the time I got to the start I was shooting for sub-3. However, I exploded, running the 2nd half in 2hrs 10min, posting 3:39. Rather than put me off it fired me up to see how fast I could go. So far I have a 16:38 5k, 34:45 10k, 73′ half and 2:42 full. Those last two took some doing 😉

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

I’d say I’ve been seriously running since the build up to VLM in 2010, so maybe just under 3 years, but I’d done a little bit of fun-running before. I always enjoyed the racing and the act of seeing how hard you could push you body over a given distance. As my limits expanded I just kept on looking for the edge, and still am.

Are you coached? And if so, by whom?

I’m not coached, but I read a lot, and listen a lot. I tend to try and absorb every detail about anything that interests me. I have a number of people who I bounce ideas off and discuss anything sports related. Top of the list are Mark Sheppard, who taught me Tai Chi, and coaches a variety of sports, and Hilary Ivory, who is a journalist, author (collaborating on Paula’s latest book), personal trainer, and has a marathon PB of 2:40.

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

Ironically, I’d say the biggest influence on my running was the injury to my IT band. It forced me to take up swimming and cycling, which have been vital in allowing my training to continue injury free, and it forced me to forensically examine my technique. The memory of not being able to run also keeps me sensible when I develop niggles.

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

Stretch your calves. So many injuries and niggles that I develop can be traced to tight calves. They tend to feel OK, but pull on other bits of your legs, and you develop an injury that seems unrelated… and it’s not until you do a decent stretch you actually notice how bad they are!

What is your favourite bit of kit and why?

Definitely my Oakleys. I think it’s vitally important to keep your face relaxed, as tension creeps into the shoulders and down into the hips and legs. The ability to keep your head up and eyes open is crucial to reducing tension. They also put me mentally in race-mode… physically feeling like a barrier to the outside world. And let’s face it.; I’m a triathlete too… They look cool.

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

New York Marathon 2011. It was the first time I felt controlled and relaxed all the way through a marathon, allowing me to soak up the sights. Lots of friends on the course, simply the best start I’ve ever seen, and coming down onto 1st Avenue is spine-tingling.

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

Specific training. Lots more slow miles, and less, but more targeted speed work. I leave it really late these days to tailor my training for races and as a result arrive much less burnt out to the start line, and have less injuries.

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

You have depths and abilities you cannot imagine right now. I was never picked for any team at school, and was bottom of the class at music. These days I happily play guitar by ear and blitz marathons. I’m not sure I would change my past, but if only I’d known I may have found out sooner.

Do you stretch enough?

See my answer above. Calves, calves calves. And some IT bands for good measure.

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?

Running at elite level to me seems to be coming out of a bit of a low patch. Whilst we aren’t up there with the east africans, there are certainly green shoots. It’s always going to be a hard sell as a lifestyle, but improvements will take years, and there are genuine characters in the sport to help. We need to push these characters. Use the interest that they generate with sponsors and race directors to create massive events, and media coverage off the back. Athletics is starting to get huge coverage these days, and it’s likely that in 3, 4 years time we may see the benefits of that. However, at a grass roots level, I think it’s never been greater. Parkrun, running clubs and local races all combine to make it a genuinely mass participation sport, and one that brings me into contact with all sorts of people. At my level, running has everything I ever need.

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

Simply to keep on pushing that edge. I’m aware that my limits will occur before I can set the word on fire with my running, but as long as I’m on my limit, I’m happy. I need to be honest with myself, and push more when I can. You need to learn the difference between your body saying no and your mind.

Please complete the following: I run because…

… by looking for the outside edge of your performance, not only do you learn  that edge is much further away than you ever thought possible, but quite probably all your self-imposed limits.

The London marathon 2012

As I stood on the start line of the London marathon this year, I couldn’t help feeling a pang of fear. Obviously there was the usual butterflies associated with the desire to do my best, the knowledge that pain was inevitable, the worry that maybe I should have done more or eaten less or worn different kit. But there was an added dimension this year. Twelve months ago, on a hot day, I had run the London in a disappointing 2:43. Disappointing because I had trained hard and thought I was in shape to improve on my 2:40 personal best. The heat and my inability to adjust to cope with that, along with a fairly quick first half, put paid to that. In the subsequent de-brief with my coach Nick Anderson from RunningWithUs we had agreed – me rather reluctantly – that I would not run an autumn marathon in 2011 and instead wait a year for my chance to redeem myself.

So here I was, on another sunny morning, after a year of training, hoping for the elusive personal best performance. Nervous only begins to describe it!

The race unfolds

© Enrique Casarrubios

The air temperature at the start was ideal: around 7˙C. However there was a breeze, blowing from the west and there wasn’t really a cloud in the sky. It was not going to be perfect so I knew I would have to deal with that, but I felt ready.

I edged closer to the front of the Championship start pen than I had the year before. No matter that the qualifying standards for the Championship start are pretty tough (sub-2:45 marathon or sub-75 minute half for the men), there were still people that I would have to pass, so I wanted the clearest run possible. We were walked up behind the elite men and after the elite field introductions, right on time at 9:45am, we were off!

I had been told by Nick that the first three miles were to be the warm-up. In fact, with a downhill start and a bucket-load of adrenaline, I passed each mile marker at target race pace – 6 min/mile. But it felt great – really easy and smooth and I soon feel in step with a group running at the same pace. The only downside to this is that I was shielded from the westerly wind which I would encounter in the last six or seven miles, so I wasn’t prepared for it when I faced it on my own. Still, I was loving racing and the feeling of gliding along.

By half way I was still feeling great. I had talked to Nick about pacing the race right and we had agreed that I would go through half way in 78-79 minutes. As I passed under the half way gantry the clock read 78:30. Perfect.

It’s getting hot in here…

The only issue at this stage was that it was warming up. I had consumed two of my four gels by that point and so I took out the two that were tucked in my arm-warmers and pulled my arm-warmers down to my wrists. But then I just had hot wrists. So the arm-warmers came off and down the front of my shorts. A mere 800m later and my new cod-piece was feeling very uncomfortable. So out they came and I tossed them to the side of the road about half a mile before we turned right into Wapping. I felt free again!

I had also decided that I needed to take on water. I think that one of the problems in 2011 was that I didn’t adjust my water intake sufficiently and so I was horribly dry by the time I was forced to stop and take a drink. This year I deliberately slowed through the water stations and made sure that when I took a bottle of water I drank three or four good mouthfuls. The rest went either over my head or more usually I squirted the back of my legs (ahhhh, bliss!)

Friends and crowds

I have heard it said that one runs the first half of a marathon with the head and the second half with the heart. I agree, that there is a switch where emotion becomes massively important. During the race I heard my name called out a few times. At mile 16 I saw my Mum and Dad. At mile 17 there was an advanced RunDemCrew party with Linda Byrne shouting encouragement. At that stage I still felt pretty good.

Just before the 21st mile, on a very sparsely populated section of the course, I saw Nick and his fianceé – and fellow coach – Phoebe. I was feeling good and just thinking about getting my head around the last 10km. Nick and I locked eyes and he repeated the instructions he’d given me before the race for this point. Relax, work hard and try to catch the vest in front. At that point I knew that I was going to succeed with my targets.

At mile 21 I passed the RunDemCrew‘s main cheering point. That was a massive boost as a huge group roared me on (you can read about what it felt like to see the ‘Crew here). Next stop, the Mornington Chasers.

The Chasers cheering…

My club, the Mornington Chasers, traditionally have a cheering point on the Highway, near mile 22 so they can see the runners just after half way and then again on the way back with 4 miles to go. On my route out to Canary Wharf I had, of course, seen the Chasers across the road and I noticed that the club flag was tied to a huge tree. I banked that bit of info for later.

On the way back I spotted the tree from quite a long way away, but this is a dead straight section of road and I know that Tom Craggs, who had his hawk-eye on times for the Chasers running, also saw me quite a way out. I must admit, and I’ll take this opportunity to apologise, that I didn’t really see anyone except Tom. But there was another rush of noise, much like at the RunDemCrew station, which sent the hairs on my neck into a frenzy!

In 2011 I had passed this point, and many of the same people, in a bad state and quite a way behind schedule. This time I had good form, I felt great, I was on track and I loved seeing the flash of smiles and hands and the noise. Four miles left and I was going to do it.

The end is nigh

From Tower Hill the race did become a matter of battling the wind and trying as hard as possible to catch the person in front. I pushed as hard as I could, but the lack of a group to shelter from the wind with meant that I was working hard to keep 6 minute miles. Some of the people I passed looked crushed and I flew past them. Others, who were holding it together, proved impossible to catch. So I simply locked in the pace (thanks to Alex Kitromilides for that phrase), repeated my mantras and concentrated on not allowing the nausea I was feeling to develop into anything that would slow me down.

Past Westminster and along Bird Cage Walk, I just counted and counted. I saw Catherine Wilding on the right and flicked her a wave. But really all I could do was keep pushing. As I came onto the Mall I could see the clock and raced for every second I could get. Nothing registered in that final 300m. I crossed the line in 2:38:30, in 138th place, with a new personal best and bloody sore feet.

And that is really the story of my race. I was a little disappointed to run a positive split and ‘lose’ 90 seconds in the second half (78:30 1st half vs 80 minutes for the second half) but PB are rare as hens’ teeth and so I’m delighted that all the work paid off on the day and I managed to hang on into the wind in the last few miles. What I do know is that it was most definitely worth the training and I’ll be back for more!

Pre-marathon advice from Catherine Wilding

Catherine Wilding is a 2:49 marathon runner who started running in 2003 and ran her first marathon in 2005.  Two years later she was competing in the women’s elite race in London and toed the start line as part of the elite women’s field in New York, so she knows a thing or two about preparing for a marathon. She has very kindly taken the time to give some advice for  those looking forward to the Virgin London Marathon this weekend as well as all marathoners with a race just around the corner. If you have any comments or questions about Catherine’s advice please put them in the comments section and I’ll see if Catherine will answer them.

Marathon Day Tips

Sunday 22nd April is going to be the most exciting day of the year for you.  You can already congratulate yourself on a very big achievement:  Being fit and healthy and ready to toe the start line with a smile on your face.   However, you may now be starting to wonder what exactly awaits you on Sunday.

Your training will have prepared you physically for the 26.2 mile challenge.  For most of you it will have been a story of tiredness, aching muscles and mental anguish.  In the process, you will have built a huge amount of mental strength, having become accustomed to dragging yourself out of the door with little motivation and in all sorts of inclement weather. Whether you realise it or not, this dedication will give you the focus needed to get to the finish line.  The race isn’t done yet but the hard work is now behind you and you will be able to draw on this during the race.  The bit no-one tells you, is that the marathon itself is the easy part.

The marathon is as much an emotional challenge as it is a physical one. It will be a roller-coaster of a journey with nerves, excitement, exhilaration, pain, frustration, determination but finally a huge sense of achievement as you cross the finish line.   You have already begun that journey and the marathon itself is the last step on your journey.

What to do in the last few days

With just a few days to go, you should now be focusing on getting yourself mentally prepared.  You will have been given all sorts of advice on pace, preparation, nutrition and injury prevention but don’t underestimate the power of the mind.  You will run the first 20 miles of the race with your legs and the last 6.25 with your mind.   The body will start to tire as you run out of glycogen but as human beings we have the emotional and mental strength to push ourselves beyond what we think is possible.   Take some time in the next few days to visualise yourself running strongly along the Embankment and finally down the Mall towards the finish line. Remember how you felt on your best training run or during your best race and keep that feeling and that image in your mind. Have a mantra which you can repeat to yourself in those last few miles when your legs will be begging you to stop, but your mind will keep you going. Tell yourself you can do it and visualise yourself crossing the finish line.

Remember that even the most experienced runners get nervous before the start. There will be a lot of nervous energy and excitement on the morning of the race.  Revel in it. This will get your adrenalin going and ready for the race of your life.

Our friend Simon Freeman wrote a brilliant race report recently which resonated with me as a runner:

line up
check numbers… twice
grin nervously at fellow runners
gun
run… hard
get out of comfort zone
stay out of comfort zone
try to not get passed in last 200m
finish
mis-read clock
whoop for joy
realise actual time
still smile from ear-to-ear
start thinking about the next race…

Admittedly, Simon was reporting on a 3K race.  You have the challenge of running 42K on Sunday but I think the above summarises brilliantly what most of you will experience.

Finally, enjoy the excitement and exhilaration of the day – you are about to take part in one of the greatest and most iconic sporting events.

 

 

 

 

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.

“The only antidote to mental suffering is physical pain” Karl Marx

When I started running, pain was something that I understood would be inevitable, but assumed would be temporary and periodic. However as I progressed my training over the years increasing my mileage as well as the intensity of my sessions, I came to realise that pain could be a pretty constant companion. At the moment, as I am logging regular 65-70 mile weeks, I wake up every morning with a very tight, sore right ankle. Following my easy morning run and after an hour at my desk my right knee twinges. By lunchtime there is a pain in my lower back. And before I set out for my session in the afternoon my IT Band feels like a tensioned steel cable. These niggles are a part of being a marathoner.

The regular companionship of mild pain or discomfort has, however, made me think about what it is like for other runners and especially 100+ mile-per-week elite athletes.

Elite runner, elite pain

In Charlie Spedding’s brilliant autobiography, From Last to First, he describes how, when he was training full time, pain was something he had to deal with constantly. This was especially true for his Achilles tendon, thanks to which he almost died after a negative reaction to an operation he was having.

Ben Moreau
Scott Overall

So what about contemporary elite athletes? I had the opportunity to ask Ben Moreau, an aspiring Olympic marathoner, Scott Overall, whose 2:10:55 at Berlin in 2011 secured him the first place on the Team GB marathon team and Alyson Dixon who is also hoping for a place in the Olympic marathon for Team GB.

When I asked Ben about whether he deals with constant pain he said that, thankfully, he doesn’t. However Ben went on to tell me that he has trained through pains that have lasted for weeks and that in fact at the moment – with 13 weeks until his shot for a place on the Olympic team at the Virgin London Marathon – he has a hamstring issue that has been going on since early December (that is for around seven weeks). Ben said that this pain has meant that he has reduced intensity of training somewhat but that his volume of training has remained constant.

Scott Overall was similarly sanguine about pain when I asked him, telling me that

I think the aches and pains that athletes have are natural as I think its quite un-natural to be running over 100 miles per week, week in and week out

and he went on to say that in his experience a pain is often a sign of a problem away from the site of the discomfort. In his case calf pain was due to hip issues:

once I had a calf problem but the cause of this was because my pelvis was out of alignment and the pain was showing itself at the weakest part of the chain. No amount of stretching or icing the calf would help it because the root of the problem was with my pelvis, and it was this that needed to be corrected.

Alyson Dixon

Last weekend I was at a marathon training conference in Brighton and had the opportunity to run with Aly Dixon, who is looking to take the third and final place in the Team GB  Olympic team for the London Games. When I asked Aly about managing pain she laughed wryly, after all Aly has only recently returned from injury having run last year’s World Championship marathon in Daegu with a the double whammy of fracture to the distal phalanx (big toe) and sessamoid (ball of the foot) that she thinks started when she ran the Great South Run in 2010.

Aly is reported as saying that she was in pain during that race “but thought it was because I needed to change my shoes as they were worn out.” Aly went on to tell me that because the pain was intermittent she assumed it was a natural part of having increased her mileage and that it was something she just had to manage. In interviews Dixon described how the physios at Team GB in Korea did a great job at managing the ‘niggle’ to allow her to run after which they discovered the broken metatarsal.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional (according to the Buddha)

So we have established, from some of the best runners in the UK, that with hard training comes pain and niggles. There is of course, quite a challenge in telling the difference between natural soreness or tightness and the start of an injury. So what do the experts say? Well Scott Overall told me that

Elite athletes tend to be very in tune with their bodies and would know why something is sore, it might be my calves are sore because I did a session on the track the night before, or my Achilles is sore because I’d stupidly been walking around in flip flops the previous day. A lot of the time there is a reason for the pain and you can generally narrow it down to what’s caused it.

and Ben Moreau gave me tips on how he manages the inevitable discomfort:

  1. if I feel like I’m changing my running style to accommodate it [the pain], I’m on a hiding to nothing and so will have to rest
  2. if it is getting worse constantly, that’s a bad sign, so I’ll rest
  3. assess rest vs healing and see if a reduced training amount now will impact the end goal vs possible benefits

Aly Dixon, now something of an expert in dealing with pain and recognising (or ignoring) injury, told me much the same as Ben – that she tries hard to recognise when pain is constant or worsening and affecting the way she is running and then decide whether, with a goal in mind, rest is possible and appropriate or whether she simply needs to push on and manage the issue.

How does that affect me?

To summerise, it seems that pain is an inevitable part of being a marathon runner and to avoid all pain would mean that the runner was not able to train enough to really reach his or her potential. The challenge comes when the pain is not a niggle but actually an injury. Scott Overall advises that

It’s important to nip these niggles in the bud before they get anymore serious. Keeping on top of things and getting regular physio and even massage can really help – if those things are not an option then just simply stretching or getting a foam roller to massage yourself.

One thing I have learned from talking to Ben, Scott and Aly is the importance of getting to know your body and recognise the difference between a niggle and an injury. Obviously being overly sensitive will mean that one doesn’t run enough whilst not being sensitive enough means that a serious injury could develop whilst the runner stubbornly refuses to acknowledge it.

I think that my advice would be that if you feel sore before you run, get out of the door and go for a 10 minutes warm-up. If after that the pain goes then it is fine to carry on (but get a physio to check out the area of pain anyway) but if the pain really remains or worsens, go home and immediately book an appointment with your favourite physio!

To conclude this ramble about pain, I think that my coach Nick Anderson of runningwithus, gave me some great advice this morning. We were out running together and I mentioned my sore ankle. I told Nick that the pain subsides within a couple of minutes of waking and goes completely once I have been walking or running for a minute or two. Nick said that this meant that the problem is manageable at the moment, but with three months until my ‘A’ race – the London marathon in April – I should get the ankle checked out by a physio now to avoid problems later as the volume of training continues to increase. I think that this is pretty good advice for all you marathoners out there so please let me know what you think and what you are doing to be the best runner you can be despite the pain!

 

 

Is the Kenyan smackdown coming to London?

I recently wrote about the ‘difficult’ problem that the Kenyan selectors have choosing their marathon squads for the Olympics. It might be amusing for the rest of the world to watch the Kenyan selectors squirm, but there is a serious point here – how do you pick only three when your nation has produced such a massive plethora of incredible runners?

How to choose?

One idea that was mooted was that there should be a US-style smackdown with all the Kenyan runners who hope to be in contention racing one marathon and the first three past the post come to London for the Games. Brutal but arguably fair… and at least it takes the pressure off the selectors. The ideal race for this to happen at, of course, is the London marathon – an iconic race perfectly timed four months before the Olympic marathon and with a field that always boasts a fantastic array of the worlds leading runners.

Well it seems as though, whether the Kenyan selectors have sanctioned this plan of action or not, the smackdown is in fact coming to London. The BBC has reported that several of the best runners from Kenya are coming to the Virgin London Marathon in April (read the piece here) including:

  • Emmanuel Mutai  – defending London marathon champion who won last year in 2:04:40
  • Patrick Makau – world record holder with 2:03:38 in Berlin last year
  • Abel Kirui – current world champion
  • Wilson Kipsang – winner of the Frankfurt marathon in 2011 with 2:03:42
  • Martin Lel – three-time London marathon winner and second place finisher in 2011
  • Vincent Kipruto – world championship silver medalist (behind Abel Kirui, above)

Now if I was in charge of picking a team I might be tempted to say that the first three Kenyans in London in April are in the Olympic team, but life is rarely that simple. In a further twist in the plot two others will also be vying for a spot:

  • Geoffrey Mutai who will be racing Boston on April 16 (and who won last year in 2:03:02)*
  • Moses Mosop who was second in Boston last year in 2:03:06 who will be racing in Rotterdam on 15 April

So I would say that if you are watching the London this year make sure you get there early or turn the television on to catch all the action, because I think this is going to be an incredible race. As Dave Bedford quite rightly has said:

With the Olympic men’s marathon due to be held here exactly 16 weeks later, we expect the battle for podium places to be even more ferocious than usual.

Too right Dave, too right!

* in case you are wondering, Geoffrey Mutai’s blistering 2:03:02 is not the current world record because the Boston course does not conform to the rules that the IAAF set out for an eligible course for a world record. But still… 2:03:02 – the mind boggles!

A nice problem to have

Patrick Makau of Kenya during the Virgin London Marathon 2011 (Christopher Lee)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today in the Sunday Times there is a very small article about something that is undoubtedly a very big issue in the country in question: the problem that the Kenyan Olympic selectors have in choosing a team to send to the 2012 games in London. The Times reports that Kenya has produced too many of the world’s top marathon runners to be able to choose the maximum three that they are allowed to send to the Games this year.

According to David Okeyo, the head of athletics in Kenya

It’s nothing short of a headache

The list that Okeyo and his team must choose from is really extraordinary and includes:

  • Abel Kirui, two-time world champion
  • Patrick Makau, world record-holder
  • Geoffrey Mutai, winner of the Boston and New York marathons
  • Emmanuel Mutai, winner of last year’s London marathon
  • Wilson Kipsang, who won the Frankfurt marathon

I recently wrote about the way that the USA picks it’s marathon team – get all the leading contenders together and have a race. In the case of the Americans this will be at the Houston marathon in a few weeks. You can read my thoughts on that here.

But the Kenyans use a similar process to many Olympic team selectors, including Team GB. They are supposed to just pick the runners that (a) have met the qualifying standard and (b) they think will give them the best hope of at least one medal. So how do the Kenyan selectors pick? Well this is the most interesting bit. Quite a few of the runners in contention want the Kenyan selectors to let all those who want to be considered for the team have a race and the first three home come to the Games in London in August.

Now whether or not you think this is the best way to pick a team, if that is what the Kenyan selectors decide to do there is a distinct possibility that they will pick a race that is very close to my heart as the trails race – the London marathon in April 2012. Can you imagine? That would have to be the most tremendous smack-down of all time. I’m just disappointed that if they do go down that route, I’ll be too busy with  my own race to see it unfold live!

Up, up and away, away, AWAY!

As some of you will know, some time ago I was lucky enough to meet a wonderful man who goes by the name of Charlie Dark (who can be found on twitter @daddydark). Poet, teacher and runner (amongst other things) Charlie is the founder and force behind the RunDemCrew (@rundemcrew), where I have been welcomed and made to feel part of the family, as well as having the privilege of helping a few of the runners there where I can.

This year the RunDemCrew, captained by Mr. Dark, took on the London marathon and in celebration of that, the design agency Rosie Lee, led by Mark Fleming (more commonly known as Chop and found on twitter as @chopbot) designed a book, incorporating photography from the amazing Tom Hull (who has a lovely website here and can be found on twitter as @tomhull) to celebrate the journey and the event.

The book incorporates six photo essays to illustrate the journey the ‘Crew took including regular RunDemCrew Tuesday night runs and track sessions (instigated by me and, to my surprise and delight embraced with fervent energy by many of the ‘Crew) as well as the big day of the marathon.

The book has a fantastic look and feel, really energetic and creative which is what makes it a perfect reflection of the people who appear in it. I don’t think I have seen such a creative treatment of a running group or a race before and this makes the book unique. Having checked with Chop, there are a few copies available so contact him via twitter (@chopbot) or at Rosie Lee on 020 7613 3752. I would love to hear the thoughts of anyone who gets hold of a copy.

Oh and if you’re wondering where “away, away, away” comes from… then you’ll just have to come along to the RunDemCrew for a run and find out!