Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Trail Runner's Shoeshine

I must admit, I rarely scrub the filth from my shoes after a muddy run.  I know I should, to save the seams from the deteriorating effects of the drying, occasionally caustic mud.  One of my regular training runs ends near a nice shallow brook, so I will usually have a dip to rinse the worst off.  Once or twice in the life of the shoes I will put them under the water butt and take a brush out to re-discover the shoes' original colour, but that's usually after stepping in something particularly unpleasant.  But to get anywhere close to properly clean, there's nothing better than a run in the snow!  So, when the forecast came through for a bit of snow I was excited on two counts:  first, I really enjoy a run in fresh snow; and second, I might be able to keep the shoes in the house instead of on a shelf out back where the smell doesn't offend.

As ever, though, the best laid plans can go awry.  The 2-3 inches that would have made for a pretty run through the hills was down before dawn, and the snow was still coming.  By 8:30, I decided that I would move the run to the late morning, after I had a chance to run some errands.  By 10, with about 8 inches of snow down and more to come, my plans were truly scuppered. 

A snowy Evesham gets even snowier.

Nic had (sensibly) cancelled all non-essential visits to her clients, and was home to "persuade" me that it would be foolish to drive out to into the Cotswolds.  Ah, the unspoken threat of "if you go out there and somehow manage not to get stuck, injured, or killed on the untreated roads, I'll throttle you anyway for making me worry!".  So, what to do?

The normally pleasant river-side path transformed into a Winter Wonderland!

Not having run for 2 weeks due to a combination of taking some recovery time and catching the snot-tastic cold going around, I was pretty much climbing the walls.  All the while, the snow was still falling.  With about 10 inches lying, I decided that pretty much any sidewalk, road, path, or trail would be alike.  So, we figured out a route that should be tranquil, open, and "outdoors" enough, without taking me anywhere unduly dangerous.  The result:  I could go out in my trail shoes and plough through the snow just like the kid I am, with the added bonus that the horrid concrete-like mud from Portland was magically washed away by all of the snow.  I can't wait to go out to play again tomorrow!

Enough snow for more fun tomorrow!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series: Portland Marathon

Another month, another marathon.  That's kind of how I was thinking in the run up to the latest installment of my running challenge.  Having previously given a 5-10 year gap between marathons, three in seven weeks felt like a short step into the realms of madness.  So, I approached the two lap tour of Portland with all of the nonchalance I could muster (i.e. none!).  I must have packed and re-packed half a dozen times in my head before I even approached the suitcase - and two or three times for real!

A last-minute business trip took me to Italy just in time for my carbo-load. Perfect, or what?  A combination of cheap flights and tight transfers meant I demolished my emergency stash of energy bars as meal opportunities slipped by.  Much to my amazement, I managed to spend 24 hours in the ultimate carbo-loading country without touching a plate of pasta.  That said, the pizza was good!  So, with the feed-a-thon put off by a day, I spent Friday eating and drinking healthy carb-filled good-for-me stuff.

The drive down to Weymouth (a causeway away from Portland) was dramatic.  The snow that had closed so much of the country during the week rested beautifully on the hills, but was old enough for the roads to have been well cleared.  When we arrived, even the beach had snow covering it.

Snow at the hotel - it was too dark to get a good picture of the beach!
We headed into town for some pasta (now that I was back in the UK!), picking our way along the occasionally slippery sidewalks.  The forecast was for an overnight thaw, but I wasn't hopeful.  But, on the walk back, sure enough the rain started to fall and the ice and snow began to melt away.  So, I went to sleep on Friday night at least assured that I wouldn't be racing in sub-zero temperatures.

I woke up to find the temperature above freezing and almost all of the ice gone from the roads.  Of course, that complicated matters a little, because now the race conditions were completely uncertain.  Wind, rain, snow, hail, and sun all formed a part of the forecast.  So, I packed a little bit of everything into my kit and we headed for the start.

Registration was smooth.  I managed to be on time and ready, unlike the previous race.  It's amazing how much easier things are when you read the instructions!  We lined up in a rather depleted starting field.  Nearly 100 runners were unable to extricate themselves from the snow to get to the race.  At the sound of the air horn, we gently jogged out of the National Sailing Academy, who kindly hosted our event and will host the 2012 Olympic Sailing events. Now I'll have to watch some of it on TV, so I can point and say "I've been there!"

Ready for the start of this one!

Those at the front of the field eased away as we headed for the first hill - 350ft over half a mile.  The first half was basically runnable at around 20% incline.  The second half was runnable by the leaders, but the rest of us opted for a fast hike to save some legs for the next 25 miles.  After a short flat section we climbed up the wall of a late 19th century artillery battery to the highest point of the course.  This was more of an interesting diversion than an obstacle.  With the next big climb not due for another 5 miles, there was plenty of time to recover.

The flat section on the way to the lighthouses.

The course headed towards the cliffs and down a fairly technically challenging gully so we could enjoy some nice views of the Dorset coast before heading West towards the Portland Bill lighthouses. 

Portland Bill in the "sunshine"

The next few miles were fairly dull, but the sun started to break through the grey to make for some fairly comfortable running.  I kept thinking, "This really isn't much of a challenging course, except for Chesil Beach."  Chesil Beach, Nic has been repeatedly telling me ever since the Gower, was only ever mentioned in hushed tones by anyone who had ever tried to walk or run on it.  But, more of that later.  As the course rounded the southern-most point, we started a gentle three mile climb back to the top of the hill.

The cliffs and the path up from Portland Bill

This stretch put the wind at our backs and saw many runners stripping off their outer layers as the sun continued to try to break through the now dark and defined clouds.  While we sweated in the warmest temperatures any of us had seen for a few weeks (the dizzying heights of 6C!), the footing softened a bit and I began to feel like I had magically acquired ankle weights.  Portland is known for its stone (St. Paul's Cathedral and the New York UN building are two resting points for the final product).  Quarry dust, combined with snow melt, basically results in a fine layer of wet cement. 

Hot and sweaty was a bit of a surprise.

One of the many great cliff views.

With the shoes getting heavier and the course gently climbing along the quarry roads, I started to wonder what the upcoming descent would be like.  The course profile shows something akin to leaping off a cliff, so I feared it would be a nasty old staircase that would have to be negotiated more than run.  Luckily, the wet stone stairs only lasted for a short while before a 30% grade down a grassy slope.  The footing was sure, so I sped down without a care in the world.  I had so much fun I was actually looking forward to the second lap just so I could do it again! Then came the beach...

Just a quick drop down to the beach and then the fun starts!

Was that it? The short sharp descent goes more or less down the centre of the picture.

As I approached the lovely pebble ridge that is Chesil Beach, I did a mental review of the course.  Of my off-road races this year, the course so far was probably the least challenging up to that point.  So, the beach was certain to be tough.  Nic had been whispering "Chesil Beach" at me in her best Gollum imitation ever since the Gower.  Apparently, the runners she had overheard talking about it all spoke with a look of fear and/or loathing.  The course description is no more encouraging:

Expect to develop a special relationship with Chesil beach. This unique natural wonder will push you to your limits as you work your way along its shingle ridge - this is where this race is won or lost - stay positive - mind over matter!

"Chesil Beach, my Precious!"
During the race briefing, we were advised to just enjoy the view and forget about our feet if we wanted to avoid losing the mental battle with the beach.  So, I tried that.  Unfortunately, at about this time the clouds let go with what weather forecasters have taken to calling "wintery mix" - something between hard raindrops and sleet.  Anyway, I donned my jacket and muttered something rude about the stinging drops as they peppered my face.  So much for the sea view!  Looking straight ahead wasn't much better.  The beach section is 1.5 miles straight along the top of the ridge.  Looking up just shows a long line of people moving along into the distance.  The only thing left to do was to convince myself that I was having a good time and to try to figure out how to get through the pebbles without injury.

Luckily, after around 10 miles, I can stop thinking rationally and easily convince myself into believing that I'm having fun.  So, I just carried on, smiling grimly and thinking about how much more this must be hurting all those other poor unfortunates that weren't embracing the stupidity of it all.  I revelled in the fantasy that I was moving quickly and well. 

Eventually, I reached the point to run down the ridge and onto the roadside path.  I saw firm footing and smiled for real, aching to run properly.  Well, mostly just aching, to be honest.  After a mile and a half, it turned out that it wasn't so easily to run.  Every step uncovered a new discomfort as my body readjusted to solid terrain.  We had around 2 miles to recover before taking on the first climb for the second time, so I concentrated on getting back into a proper run.

As I approached the finish line and the start of the second lap, I noticed a lot of people running very quickly indeed. For a few seconds, my befuddled mind had me looking out for the winner, certain that I had been caught.  Then, I checked my watch and realized that I was running much better than at the Gower, and was on for a 2:20 half-marathon time.  Since there was no way I was being lapped, I looked closer and noticed that none of the runners had kit bags.  Then my brain started to function again and I realized that I had finished my first lap as the 10k racers were warming up.  So, I continued on in a relative plod happy in the knowledge that I would not be lapped.

The second lap went much as the first, but much slower.  The big climb went from a run/fast-hike to a moderate walk.  The climb over the battery involved much more care over balance and foot placings, now that 150+ pairs of feet had been over the muddy foot holes (the half marathon had already been through since my last visit).  As I approached the cliffs, the 10k runners started to pass, which pulled me back into a reasonable pace.  I enjoyed the challenge of keeping up with the 10k leaders on the tricky descent, but eased back once the path widened and then they split off - there were still 10+ miles to go and I wasn't going to keep a fast pace for anything like that distance.

Sure enough, the expected bad patch started at around 16-17 miles.  I struggled to have any rhythm or strength on the rocky path.  What was easy running before the beach became an obstacle-filled and hilly torment.  When I crossed paths with Nic, who was walking the course in reverse, I could easily have stopped for a chat and a cup of tea - fortunately she encouraged me onwards and I kept pushing towards the lighthouses.  I shortened the intervals between gels, drank as much water as I could, and hoped that I would get it together again before that final descent.  I really wanted to enjoy that drop down onto the beach, because everything else in the course was going to be deeply uncomfortable.

Feeling tired with 10 miles to go

The final climb - three miles of it, remember - was now even muddier than before.  I succumbed, as we all knew I must, and fell flat onto my right side to add a nice coating of low-grade mud-cement to my attire.  As I jogged along, trying to find new surfaces to wipe my hands on, I began to pick up ground on some runners and lose ground to others. 

Upwards once again
The sight of two runners I hadn't seen for nearly 10 miles encouraged me to keep going, offering a distant target to reel in.  I caught up with them finally at the final descent.  On the first lap, we had started down the stairs together and they took almost the entire beach to catch me again.  This time, I figured I would again see them on the beach, wished them well, and shot down the hill. 

Caution! It's steep and you're tired!
Mentally, I got a huge boost from the descent.  I hit the beach with a real smile on my face, ready to take on the challenge and pick up a few more runners that I could see struggling ahead of me.  I tried walking, to see if it was as inefficient as running had been during the first lap.  Strangely, it was even harder to walk on the shingle than to run on it.  I kept thinking that what I really wanted was snowshoes, or at least bigger feet.  Since I had very little energy left, I tried different stride lengths and speeds to find any way I could to efficiently navigate the beach section.  Finally, I settled on something like a cross-trainer / cross-country skiing motion.  At a run, I kept my strides quite short and concentrated on landing with flat feet to minimize the displacement of the pebbles.  I alternated this with a shuffling walk that was similar but with faster and shorter strides.  Although two runners did catch up with me on this section, I picked off another two who had basically given in to the beach and were ambling to the exit point. 

For the final mile I tried (and failed) to catch one last runner who, like me, was running along the path, but struggling to cross even the smallest of obstacles.  As we approached the sailing centre, my grimace from the chase turned into a grin.  When I saw Nic looking out for me near the finish, I developed an ear-splitting smile.  I was nearly done, I had managed the dreaded beach twice, and I was well ahead of my expected finish time.  I crossed the line happy to have successfully navigated another marathon.  Now, I'm looking forward to a long break until the January event!  A few long runs and a couple of short races will keep me busy until the next one.

Happy to finish!

Weymouth beach on Sunday - go run here instead!  It's nice compact sand.

Once again, the great pics are from Nic.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series: Gower Marathon

One of the highlights of the Autumn was scheduled to be Endurancelife's Gower Marathon.  I had planned to run it last year, but had a calf injury and down-graded to the half.  It was difficult, but in the way that makes one think it's worth trying again.  The full distance takes in a vast array of coastal views, so I really wanted to get the total experience.

By taking the Friday off, we were able to arrive at the Wyndgarth House B&B at around 3:30 - having learned previously that it's better to drive through the winding roads in the Gower peninsular during daylight hours.  As it happened, daylight was dark grey, as opposed to the black of night, but it was still better than the driving rain on a moonless night that we had for last year's trip.  As ever, Lynda and John's warm welcome was an immediate tonic to the dreary drive.  We made our way to The King Arthur Hotel for an early dinner.  I had chicken, rice, and peas while Nic enjoyed a perfect steak.  It was just the sort of light and lean meal I wanted. Later on, I realized this is pretty much the ingredients list of the dried cat nibbles - maybe I should just keep it easy and have cat food!  After dinner, we drove out to Rhossili to register and get race number, chip, etc. to allow more time in the morning - thank goodness for that!  We headed to bed early, hopeful that the forecasters would be right and the wind and rain would blow through by dawn.

Getting ready the night before - it paid off!

Indeed, the day dawned with clear blue skies and little wind.  We were set fair for a warmish run, bathed in sunshine.  After the experience of the last two marathons, I had been eating double portions for the past few days, to avoid completely cracking.  So, first breakfast was porridge and isotonic drink at 6am.  Second breakfast of more porridge, toast, and juice came at 7:45 with Nic.  We headed to the race HQ, ready for the race briefing and the 9:30 start.  We parked in the soon-to-be muddy field, hoped we would be able to get out again, and wandered in to find the briefing underway.  It soon became obvious that something wasn't quite as expected, so I checked with the registration desk that the marathon would start at 9:30, which they confirmed.  About 10 minutes later, it was even more obvious that the person I asked was as clueless as me - leaving me about 5 minutes to get my shoes on, my warm clothes off, and be on my way!  At some point in the run up to the event, the start time had been moved 30 minutes earlier.  Still, I was given the opportunity to learn a few valuable lessons.  First, read the e-mail carefully - it clearly shows the schedule (which had probably changed a good 2 months ago...).  Second, if I'm not expecting to run at 90% heart rate, I can eat quite near to the start of a race.  Finally, if you ever have a choice between getting everything ready the night before a race and the morning of, choose the night before!  I arrived with very little left to do, and that saved me a lot of panic given the lack of learning for the first lesson.  In the end, I set off in 91st position - out of 104 runners.

The sun enjoyed a day at the beach!

We set off through a field of cars and into a field of cattle - the cattle make for a much more hazardous footing.  Not wanting to start my day ankle deep in muck, I kept a beady eye out as we made our way onto the coastal trail.  The first real hill of the day was up, along, and down Rhossili Down.  After a couple of gentle miles to warm up, we re-entered Rhossili to be cheered by a few onlookers.  Nic was there to take my picture and give me a shout.

Worms Head in the distance as we head into Rhossili Village

Feeling great - but then we hadn't hit a hill yet.

Then, we hit the 1:4 climb. The path we take is great for hiking.  Running it requires a level of strength and fitness I have yet to achieve.  It's only half a mile worth of climbing, but the gradient in the first half ranges from 1:5 to 1:2.  So, I climbed at a walk like everyone else near me.  Long steep hills are at least sociable.  I exchanged pleasantries with a few people and enjoyed the sound of a non-stop chat from a group of friends who had obviously not had a chance to catch up for a while.  I also noticed that one of the group was wearing road shoes, or possibly light-traction trail shoes.  At this, I made a mental note to keep away from her on the equally steep descent.

Heading up Rhossili Down

 Last year, the grassy hillside had been quite slippery as the previous night's rain left an inch of water working its way down in a slow-moving puddle.  Sure enough, as I quickly skipped through the bracken and among the rocks, I heard squeals of "oh my God!" from those who ignored my shout to avoid the middle section.  Once you're into the slippery grass, it's very difficult to get out except by sliding or stopping and gingerly picking your way down.  I was long gone by the time they made it down, so I assume that I was the only one of my pace group who took the hill at a run.  I only saw 2 of them again during the race.

Rhossili Bay & Beach

 The fifth mile took in the beautiful Rhossili Beach, part behind the sand dunes in the soft sand, and part along the beach on firm, wet sand.  We took a gentle climb off the beach and along a boardwalk generally used by the local surfers to move around the worst of the dunes.  Our next climb, not much better than a muddy sheep track, was a lonely slip-slide up Llanmadoc Hill.  The sun was warm and I shed my buff, gloves, and windproof.  Happily, I had chosen a top with a zipper, so I could unzip in the sun and zip when the clouds came through. There were a few runners in the distance fore and aft, but none close enough to share the dark humour of hiking ankle deep in mud and peat.  It was a bit of fun, followed by a slightly more sure-footed descent to around 11.5 miles.  At this stage, I consoled myself with the knowledge that there was only one more big hill, and then a fairly flat second half.

For races like these, I take the view that ignorance is bliss.  I know roughly where we're going, approximately how many hills there are, and generally have a good idea of how long it should take.  But, I avoid knowing precisely how long each hill will be, or how many minutes before the next steep drop.  The main reason for this is that I can't keep it all in my head, and I get confused when I try.  The other reason is that it's often best to just look ahead and keep plugging away - thinking too far ahead can make it harder to deal with the task at hand.  Consequently, I hadn't really noticed that this "last big hill" would be two miles long.

As I ran/hiked/shuffled up the hill, I noted that the hill was actually pretty runnable - if one wasn't already suffering from the previous 12 miles of silliness.  It turns out that most of the ascent is at less than 10% gradient, so my feeling was correct.  Towards the top, the path was littered with large "puddles" of varying sizes.  Being rather peaty, the water was rather dark, making it difficult to judge how deep they were until it was too late.  Still, by the time I'd passed half way, I was happy to dip into these convenient "foot spas" for some refreshment.  After all, my feet had already been wet for over 2 hours, so keeping dry wasn't a priority.  Finally, at approximately 15 miles we topped out and headed back for the beaches.

The run down through the moorland was a good chance to stretch out and properly run for the first time in miles. We hit a short stretch on the road, which helped to knock some mud off the shoes, and gave a chance for some supporters to join the course.  I came on Richard Baker as his family surprised him by joining in for a few hundred yards, racing ahead to take a picture, then racing ahead again.  It was great to see his grandaughter chasing after him and cheering.  Finally, we left the road for the beach - and then turned onto a steep staircase strewn with soggy leaves.  The Autumn colours looked amazing, but having them wet and underfoot presented a serious hazard for a tired runner with a bit of a reputation for nose-diving.  So, I swore profusely as I concentrated hard to get off the stairs in good order.  Honestly, I don't know which hurt more, my quads or my head!

At the bottom, it was another trip into the loose footing of the sand dunes.  Whatever energy I had left was quickly ebbing away.  Three hours into the run, with an expected 2-2.5 hours left, and I felt just as bad as I had at Amsterdam.  My hip flexors weren't flexing, and various muscles whined at the continued effort.  After what felt like ages, but was only a little over a mile, the course took me back onto firm sand at Oxwich Beach.  The sun was low, and the beach long.  I gave in and took a short walking break on the premise that it couldn't possibly be much slower than the shuffle I was adopting.  The rest worked, and when I finally got off the beach, I was able to drag myself up through the woods and back onto the cliff paths at Oxwich Point.

Oxwich Beach - the footprints heading for some firmer sand

A couple of gently rolling miles of cliff path ended abruptly at Horton and our last water stop.  At Horton, we headed back to the beach for the last time.  The beach was only about half a mile, but I'd finally had enough of sand!  I shuffled along, thankful that I had sunglasses to help against the now very low sun.  As I neared the end of the beach, one of the very chatty group I'd left behind 17 miles previously passed by like I was standing still (I wasn't far from it, to be fair).  She had obviously grown tired of waiting for her ill-shod friend and was running quite easily among the mossy rocks.

Finally, with around 6 miles to go, I climbed up back onto the cliff paths.  One small sign said "Rhossili, 7 mi".  I saw this and said something akin to "7 miles?!  It had better not *#@#*& be!!"  For the next mile or two, I shuffled along narrow cliff tracks, encountering more runners than I had seen in miles.  Some I passed, some passed me back as we each struggled through the sharply varying terrain as best we could.   I spent some time running with Noel Cheseldine, who is training for a second attempt at the Marathon des Sables.  It was, for me, the most sociable part of the event - and we all kept looking at our watches with a confused look.  I even started to check the map screen on my Garmin, to make sure I hadn't passed the turn off and accidentally taken the Ultra course.  No, still on course, 26 miles long past, and still at least a mile from the finish!  I am sure the organizers' ears were red, because the coastal air was starting to turn blue as we vented our frustration at not having finished yet.

Are we there yet?

 Finally, the sign pointing to the finish arrived, and we knew it was less than a mile to go.  The cattle, bored with the wait, had not lingered to wait for the end of the race.  I continued to shuffle up the hill to the finish, turned the corner, and was greeted by Nic cheering and shouting at me to run.  I smiled, raised my arms for the picture, and tried to move less slowly towards the flags.  In the end, my Garmin says the course was roughly 28.5 miles long with a time of 5:55:48.  I'd managed the expected 27 miles in just over 5:30, which was near expectation.  The extra mile and a half were tough, but by that stage I was actually moving fairly smoothly (if very slowly!).  I politely thanked the organizers for the extra distance (no really, I did - I hope the sarcasm wasn't lost on them...), collected my goodies and headed for the car to get changed.  There was no way that anything I was wearing was going into the B&B - Lynda and John are far too nice for me to bring such filth into the house!

Yippee!  Here comes the finish line!

Looking fresh as a daisy but smelling like a camel

Of the marathons I've done, this was by far the toughest.  It was the furthest I've ever run, and the longest time I've ever been running (walking/trudging/shuffling).  Strangely, it is also the one that has caused the least pain.  I finished feeling OK, if very tired and stiff.  My traditional recovery meal of fish and chips with 2 pints of real ale felt great (especially the beer - the King Arthur knows how to treat its ale!).  So, although I am a bit trepidatious about the Portland stage of the series in less than 3 weeks, I am pretty sure I'll survive it.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

What can you learn from your resting heart rate?

One's resting heart rate can be a great friend. It tells us how fit we are, whether there's an illness on the way (or maybe just a bit too much red wine), when to push the exercise, and when to hold back.  Many athletes track their resting heart rate each day to keep a close eye on how their bodies are coping with life.  I've managed to learn that much and more!

So, how can you make best use of this fabulous tool?  Well, it's simple, really.  Take your heart rate every morning when you wake up, say all the books, articles, etc.  Track the line.  Gradual changes relate to fitness (up=bad, down=good, zero=dead).  Sudden jumps relate to condition on the day (up=body working hard to fight off illness / yesterday's training / night out, down=can't count).  It's all just so easy!  Or, is it?

For those 90% of us who don't naturally wake up, it can be quite difficult to assess heart rate first thing in the morning.  I expect I'm not the only person who is woken by an alarm (radio, in my case), swears at the interruption, and then quickly jumps up to turn the thing off before incurring the wrath of a woman awoken.  It's not as scary as that of a woman scorned, but it's not nice for either of us.  So, to make a short story long, I am very rarely in a state of rest by the time I can see a watch or count past 3.

I've tried to grab a RHR at weekends, when I do have a chance now and then to leave the alarm off.  But, it turns out that I generally wake up from some active dream or another, with my HR at around 65 - quite elevated for first thing in the morning.

How am I supposed to make use of this great tool, if I'm never both at rest and awake enough to count? Well, apparently I am sometimes quite chilled when I'm driving.  I know this by checking my HRM when I drive somewhere for a run.  Because the HRM isn't all sweaty, I double check with a pulse count at the odd stoplight.  According to my heart rate, I generally drive around half asleep.  The other night, I noticed the HRM showed 47 - I've never actually seen it that low, even though that's roughly what I estimate given when I can measure it.  I pulled over to a) check it was true and b) give myself a bit of a slap.  I was driving, after all, so I didn't need to be quite that chilled! 

So, by loosely tracking my RHR over the past few months, I've discovered:
  • I am getting fitter
  • I managed to shake off the worst of my cold (but not entirely recovered from it) in time for a race
  • I have really weird dreams in the hours between my normal alarm and my weekend wake-up time
  • I drive in something ranging between relaxed ambivalence and a coma...
So, get your watch, take your pulse, and see what kind of deep insights into your life you can find!

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Amsterdam Marathon - 1 down, 7 to go!

Every race has a purpose.  Some are a trial of body and mind, some a tune up for a special event, some a bit of a jolly somewhere fun, and some exist solely to provide a personal best.  After this year's quest at the Three Forts Challenge, I decided to use my new-found fitness to grab a PB and a new club age-group record.  The record was a pretty soft 3:30, since all the club's quicks are 40+.  Shortly after I entered, my friend Steve kindly dropped his objection to running a marathon and dropped in a 3:22 just before his 40th birthday.  I figured that 3:20 was possible, if difficult.  Then, I went a little mad - I've wanted to put in a sub 3:15 for a few years, and was finally fit enough to try.  So, I put together my training plan for a 3:15, mentally switched the race goal from a PB to a (fast) trial of body and mind, and got to work.

The build-up wasn't the best.  You'll have seen in the previous installment, I'd managed to put in very little running in the final weeks before my taper.  In the end, my weekend runs eased correctly, but I was only getting in one other run each week due to other commitments.  But, the forecast was for perfect conditions (10C, light breeze, mostly sunny), and Amsterdam is incredibly flat, so I decided to lay it all on the line and stick to the 3:15 target.

Nic and I arrived in Amsterdam early on Saturday, dropped our bags at the hotel (too early for check-in), and headed for lunch (Italian).  After lunch we headed to the Expo to get our numbers and hunt for bargains.

Olympic finish - Wow! (pictures courtesy of Nic)

It was just a little exciting to get to the Olympic stadium.  I've been in bigger stadia, but never an Olympic one!  The marathon starts inside and finishes on the track finish line, and the half starts outside and finishes inside.  I was already over-excited, but actually being there had me smiling from ear to ear.  We had a peek in on our way to sign in.  I just couldn't see how thousands of runners would fit on the track!

The number pick-up was easy, as was the t-shirt collection.  Everything seemed busy but well-controlled.  The Expo was small, and had a few items worth buying.  But, I was a little disappointed to see so many new-season products - I was really hoping to pick up some end-of-line shoes to replace the ones I would race in.  We did find Ice Power, which eased Nic's sore calf as we walked about during the day. (Aside: it felt great on the legs during Monday's sight-seeing as well).  Not finding any great bargains, we headed back to the hotel for a nap before heading for dinner.

Sunday morning was clear and fine.  Breakfast was a bit of a disaster - I struggled to make myself eat more than a bit of muesli and a banana.

No time like the present!

Even in the walk to the stadium, my body wasn't keen on the energy bar I was stuffing in.  Pre-race excitement was obviously getting the better of me.  When we arrived, I kept an eye out for club-mates Ned and Sheila, who would be finishing a few minutes either side of my target 3:15.  We had agreed to meet at a statue that was barricaded off, so I expected we wouldn't see each other until we got into our start pen (3:00-3:30).  That's when the "Olympic inspiration" jumped up and bit me for real.  I hadn't really noticed the torch tower on Saturday, but the early-morning sun was playing on it and the goose-bumps ran down my spine.

Is that a torch I see before me?!

I planned to set out at better than 8-minute mile pace (crowd-willing), so I did a slightly shorter version of my usual pre-race warm-up.  Everything was moving well after the 20 minute walk from the hotel, so I peeled off the insulation, checked my baggage, and headed for the starting pens.  Somehow, 7000+ runners did fit into the space!  But, because of the well-organized start pens, it was easy to get in the right place and also to meet up with Ned and Sheila for a last-minute "Good luck!".

I'm in there somewhere!

Seven thousand runners squeezed into two hundred metres.
As we got closer to the starting time, the organizers cranked up the "Chariots of Fire" theme tune.  The pulse quickened and adrenalyn started to pump.  I had to close my eyes and do some deep breathing to re-focus and keep from getting totally caught up - after all, I had a plan to follow.  Finally, the gun fired and I watched as the elites rounded the bend and headed out through the tunnel.

The first mile was an easy 7:40, gently easing into race-pace.  The crowds were loud and fantastic, cheering on the runners in a variety of languages.  I settled quickly into a pace that was comfortable, but constantly found myself having to ease back.  My mind was saying "keep it at 7:27", but my body kept aiming for 7:10.  In the end, I compromised at around 7:20 - it required concentration to keep from going faster, but I felt quite relaxed and at ease.

Along the first few miles, there were a steel band and a brass band (I only noticed on the walk back...).  The crowds in Vondel park cheered and then occasionally looked confused as runners darted off the course (the call of the bushes).  Through the first 10k, I was concentrating so much on keeping my pace back and avoiding the tram tracks and other runners, that I have to admit I didn't take in much of the surroundings at all.

I was keeping such a tight focus on slowing the pace that I didn't really notice the distance.  I'd accidentally slipped up and let in a 7:13, so I was now keeping a beady eye on the pace section of my watch.  I did, being a bit of a magpie, notice an increase in foil packets on the road.  I thought, "it's a bit early for all of these gels!"  So, I had a check of my watch and was surprised to see 5.8 miles had already passed.  I untaped my 10k gel from my water bottle and squeezed it in just in time to chase it with some water from the 10k water stop.  Then I drained my 250ml bottle and disposed of it.  At that point, I was 10k down, feeling good, and everything was on target for a 3:15 finish.  I knew it was the second easiest section of the race done, so just tried to stay relaxed and enjoy the easiest bit - 10k-20k.

The second 10k is, I think, the best part of a marathon.  You're in your rhythm, still have (hopefully) the energy for 32k worth of running, and haven't hit the serious pain yet.  The race headed out onto a long canal section, which was very pretty.  It was also just a bit more breezy than it had been in town.  There were only a few bystanders by their houses, clapping us on.  About a mile down the canal, a VW bus was hooked up to some big speakers and belted out some tunes to cheer us up after a quiet section of the course.  As I approached, a pumped-up version of the overture to Aida was playing.  I smiled widely as we passed, enjoyed the music, and accidentally knocked out half a mile at sub-7 pace. 

The course took a short turn away from the canal at this point, seemingly just to make the correct distance.  As we neared the turn-around to go back to the canal, I kept an eye out for Ned, who should have been about a minute in front of me at that stage.  I gave him a shout as we passed, but missed Sheila, who was about 45 seconds behind me.  Coming back to the VW, I again got carried to a short section of exuberance, but checked it before it got out of hand, hitting 10 miles at 73:30.  It was a little faster than I'd planned (about 5 seconds per mile), and I started to wonder when payback time would come around.

The long drag up the canal kept going, with a band (and comically bad singer) on a barge keeping everyones' spirits up.  Finally, we crossed over and headed back to town.  Unfortunately, I hadn't noticed that the breeze was becoming a slight wind, since it had been at my back.  Now, there was a headwind with only the shelter of the few runners nearby.  I now had no problem at all staying back to a 7:25, and hit half-way at 1:37:27 - dead on target.  We smiled at the camera and kept plugging away and towards the soulless part of the course, where only empty highway awaited. 

As we left the canals, Sponge Bob Squarepants passed me.  I wished him well, and bemoaned getting beaten by a cartoon character.  He advised me that he normally runs a 2:40, so I shouldn't feel bad.  Which is worse, getting beaten by a cartoon sponge, or getting beaten by a cartoon sponge that's taking it all really easily?!  Sponge Bob got a lot of cheers at an underpass, and we left the support behind for a while.  Why is it that 15-18 miles in a city marathon seems to be in the emptiest part of town?  By the time we got out of the wind I knew for certain that payback for the early pace was not too far away.  I popped my final gel a kilometre early (29k), figuring it wouldn't hurt and that I was going to hit trouble in 15-20 minutes. 

The little rises on the road started to feel like hills, and I started to experience a few breaks in pace for the first time.  By 18 miles, my calves and hamstrings were a little hot, so I eased back a bit further.  It's funny how keeping back to a 7:25 early on was almost impossible, but slowing to a 7:33 after 17 miles is really quite easy.  I took the opportunity at around 18.5 to stop and admire the folliage of a hedge, hoping that the nagging in my bladder would go away to be replaced by a feeling of renewed energy.  I was sadly disappointed.  It just turned out to be a waste of 30 seconds.  I kept my pace below 8-minute miling as my back and piriformis muscles started to complain that I hadn't finished this run yet.  I pushed on, reminding myself that 8-minute miles from here would still get me that club record.  I played all the mind games I could, remembering all the hard, cold hill runs and how I could manage to keep moving on this flat, easy course. 

Inexorably, I slowed further.  Any obstruction cracked my shaky rhythm further.  Sheila passed by, encouraging me to keep going.  I stayed with her for about 100 feet before I realized that I just couldn't keep moving.  My legs were seizing up and it was a struggle to get one foot in front of the other.  From 21 miles, I was doing short walks of 50-100m every kilometre or so, hoping to get through the bad patch, but never really finding the end of it.  I kept the pace at 9-9:30 pace until around the 39k marker, where the wheels finally fell completely off.  By this point, I was working hard to stay on the right side of 3:30, but I could feel that slipping away as well.

At the 40k mark, I confirmed on my watch that 3:30 would require a miracle.  As we re-entered Vondel Park, the crowds cheered us on, encouraging me with kind words like "You can do it, only 2 kilometres left! Keep running!"  Oh, to still be running, instead of shuffling!  Unbidden, the reality of the situation finally broke through all of the positive thinking: "Marathons are really quite tough!  What the **** was I thinking when I signed up for 8?!?!?!"  I half-chuckled to myself at that thought and walked/shuffled/jogged to the end thinking, "Don't do something stupid for the sake of 15 seconds, you've got a marathon in 4 weeks!".  I entered the stadium and watched the continuing stream of people that had been steadily overtaking me since around 21 miles.  It was like watching the first 15 miles of my race in reverse, as people I hadn't seen for 3 hours came by. 

I crossed the line, relieved to be finished, and headed for the exit. I came across Ned and Sheila, who were waiting to see how I did.  Ned had posted yet another 3:14:xx, and was a little disappointed by that.  Sheila had run an absolute cracker to finish in 3:22.  We made our way to the medals and refreshments, and went our separate ways.  I walked back to the hotel, showered, started to eat all of the post-race food I had waiting, and then made my way back to the stadium for Nic's finish of the half.

The happy half marathoner!
Boringly, as runners do, we spent the rest of the day (and the next) talking about our runs.  I enjoyed lasagne followed by a beautiful steak as an accompaniment to the celebratory beer. Nic again chose red wine as her evening recovery drink. 

Following our extended analysis, I am pretty happy with the time, if not the way the last 12k went.  The final 5 weeks of training wasn't great, so aiming for the 3:15 was always a risky strategy.  I'm also pretty sure I didn't take on nearly enough carb in the few days before the race.  That, at least, is something I can put right before the next one!  Bring on the Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series!

Medals all round!

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Kenilworth Half Marathon - or "Go Maureen!"

September 26th was the day.  When I entered this race several months ago, I knew I would be in for a PB.  I've been in great shape, have trained well, and knew the course from a few years ago when it knocked me on my metaphorical backside.  With good weather, I was on target to finally break 1:30.

Then, I suffered some calf issues due to a little too much time in flip-flops during my beach holiday in September.  I know, the sympathy violins are all being uncased now - sore leg caused by being a lazy article on the beach!  Sad, but true.  The only other possible cause was the increase in running and hiking during the first 4 days of my vacation, since I had so much free time and sleep.  But, it can't be more exercise!  It must be the flip-flops!  Anyway, the result was 5 days with no running, much to my annoyance.

Then, after only 1 run, I caught a cold upon my return to frozen England.  From 30 degrees (C) to 6 was a bit of a shock!  I have a rather nasty habit of turning sinus congestion into a chest infection, so I was pretty annoyed.  For once, though, I listened to the best practice of the entire running community and stopped running as soon as the cold symptoms moved below my larynx.  The good news was that this was enforced rest to allow the full benefits of my fabulous massage from Sara.  The bad news is that I was fit to run on Friday (very cold and rainy) before Sunday's race.  So, I decided to take the rest of the week off and waited until the race for my first return to running.

Given the poor preparation, I changed goals to:  finishing the race without re-introducing illness, run at my goal marathon pace or better, feel OK after the run since I was flying to Japan that night for a business trip.  On Sunday morning, I practiced as much of my pre-marathon prep as I could.  Breakfast of oatmeal at around 2 hours before the start.  I missed my energy bar at T-1 hour, since I was running a little late and was still driving.  Then, 1 Torq caffeinated gel at T-20 minutes followed by my warm-up.

The warm-up was a bit scary.  Within about 2 minutes I was up to 90% heart rate.  I normally have to push quite hard to get there in early warm-up.  So, I eased back a little and focused on getting all the muscles moving for a few minutes before ramping back up.  The unexpected jump in HR gave me a revised race plan of maintaining 80% heart rate for a few miles before re-assessing.

Then, the gun fired and we were off.  I kept an easy pace for the first mile (mostly up-hill anyway) and eased into the race.  Even with the gentle undulations, it was a struggle to stay at marathon pace, so I let my legs have free reign for a bit to see how things went.  As long as I kept below roughly 90% HR, I was able to keep a comfortable pace (with a bit more work down the hills where I could pick up time).  By 10 miles, I knew I was on for a pleasing time (no PB, but pretty good given the prep).  The run in for the last 5k is roughly 2 miles up hill, 1 mile down.  So, I kept pace as much as possible and aimed for around 1:33-1:34.  Since I've only beaten that once, I was in a good mood entering the last 5k.

At 11.5 miles, my knees started to complain about all the activity after a week off.  I pushed on, hoping to recover a bit of form and speed on the down hill.  It was, rather unfortunately, against a very strong wind.  So, my form remained ragged and my pace was still slowing.  I looked into the distance to see the guys I'd hoped to catch stretching away from me.  I'm pretty sure one of them (Ranjit Samrai) did the same thing to me a few years previously.  He'd obviously improved just as much as I had!  Then, we hit the flat, turned out of the wind, and everyone seemed to be shouting "Come on, Maureen!" or "Go, Maureen!".  I thought to myself, "I don't know who she is, but this Maureen is running strong and I feel like death warmed up, so I guess she'll pass me."

Then, my friend Dave, who had finished some 6 minutes earlier, started shouting some encouragement from the sidelines, including "Don't let her catch you on the line!"  That woke me up.  I usually have a pretty strong finish, and I reminded myself that I wasn't going to get caught on the line.  That's what I do, not what's done to me!!

Still, the shouts of "Go Maureen!" and "You can catch him, Maureen" were ringing in my ears.  Obviously, this Maureen was pretty popular.

Now, my aunt and godmother's name is Maureen (well, it's one of her many names, and one that she has been known to use fairly regularly).  So, I had a fleeting image of a venerable, six-foot tall, generously proportioned nun bearing down on me.  There was absolutely, positively, no way I was going to let a big old lady in a habit catch me in the finishing straight - no matter how much I love my aunt.  When we turned on to the grass for the final 0.1 miles around a field, I reminded myself that I am an off-road runner, and this was my territory. Some unknown roady wasn't going to pass me on a lumpy, difficult surface!

Cue the internal feeling of winding up a dirty great hulk of a machine to make it move slightly less slowly, and I pushed forward with what must have actually been a pretty imperceptible increase in speed.  In the end, I held off "Maureen" by a second (it turns out her name is Mallory - so my ears were obviously not recovered from the cold!).  Turned around, and noticed a young woman who had the look of one who had been using me as a target for quite a while.  I congratulated her on a good run and carried on towards the massage table hoping not to cough up a lung once I'd slowed down and they realized what I'd been doing to them for the last hour and a half.

In all, it was a good and challenging race.  The result was much better than I expected given my preparation (just under 1:35), so I'm hopeful that once I get over the Japanese food (yum!) I will be able to get into a good state for Amsterdam in a couple of weeks.  And to Mallory:  thank you for pushing me as much as I'm sure I pulled you towards the finish.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

The Bugatti Beer Race - the best 10k ... in the world!

There are few events in the world that I plan my diary around - my September holiday in Greece, my family trip to Georgia, New Year's Eve.  The Bugatti Beer Race doesn't rank with these, but it's very, very close!  The race is pretty low key, very good value, and every runner gets a T-shirt, beer, and burger at the end.  It's mid-week, which means that on a tough training schedule it can be a speed session, or on an easy schedule it can be a focus race.  Oh, and the second half is fantastically undulating!  Hurrah!  None of the boring, flat, out & back PB course here.  A good time at Bugatti is something like 10k PB + 2-3 minutes.  It challenges the mind and body, and with its great atmosphere, feeds the soul.  Add to that the fact that the Bugatti is a focus race for several of the local clubs, and you get a bit of fun, some familiar faces, and just a little bit of needle to try and put your club ahead of the others.

So, this year, I have been looking forward to the race for a few months.  I'd planned a pretty quick attempt (for me).  It would be a full on speed session - 10k at the fastest pace I could keep up for the duration.  Due to a minor revision of the schedule, though, I was going into the run with a 14 mile goal-marathon-pace effort.  I knew it would be tough, but I also knew that I wouldn't have a clue how I was going by time and pace.  So, I planned to use my heart rate monitor to keep the effort high.  I aimed for 85%-90% of the max HR for as long as I could hold on.

On the evening of the race, the legs were, as expected, feeling a bit tender and heavy.  I warmed up as usual, trying to push a bit of speed into my legs, and to get my head in gear.  To minimize impact on the local villagers coming home from a long day at work, Cheltenham Harriers kept us off the road until the last minute.  Then, we moved out to the line, stood still for a few seconds, and the horn sounded.  Without all the usual standing about and waiting, it was pretty much straight from the warm up to the race.  So, I set off down the gentle decline (100ft in the first 1/2 mile) with half an eye on my HRM to keep from going off too hard - a common mistake among Bugatti newbies.

This was my first try at "racing" the Bugatti.  Previously I'd done it as a "just finish" on unfit legs - followed by a 4-month layoff having finished off a tear - and a 1/2 marathon pace tempo run.  So, as I paced along, I found myself among several of EVRC's top performers of the year.  We had the chance to watch the very fastest guys shoot down the road, and joined into a mini pack about 50 runners back.  A few of my fellow EVRC runners were heading out pretty quickly.  Sheila, Steve, Shrimp, and Julian all worked past me as we moved through the second mile.  When we turned into the wind, I upped the effort a bit, moving to about 95% to keep onto the back of Steve and Shrimp - they're taller than me and offered a little shelter from the headwind.

Once we turned out of the wind, I let them go, hoping to pick them up again in the hills.  I had no hope of seeing Julian again, since he'd blown past me like I was standing still (you may remember his first 10mi run was the Hilly Hundred in May - he's having a great Summer!).  I eased back down to 85% to recover from the extra effort against the wind and prepare for the hilly section.

Ah, the hills!  The Bugatti isn't actually particularly hilly, by trail running standards.  But, for the flat-track bullies of the 10k road race fraternity, the second half of this race is a killer.  There is a long drag (~100ft ascent) after 3.5 miles, and a few 50-75ft rollers to get the blood moving after that.  The finish is at the end of a nice half-mile drag, just to kick you a little while you're down.  Unless, of course, you know it's coming and you like some hills!  For the first climb, I set into a good rhythm, ignored the HRM, and powered past the nearest runners.  I must admit a bit of smugness as I noticed that these guys & gals who left me for dust on the flat hadn't changed their stride, their RPM or, as far as I could tell, anything else except their speed as they struggled up the hill. 

Once at the top, I flew down the other side, catching the first of my club-mates.  I began to pick up the others as the rollers took their toll.  At the penultimate hill, I picked up Julian - to the surprise of both of us!  At 9k, I pushed the pace a bit, working to 95%. With 800m left, I pushed a bit harder and again stopped looking at the HRM.  The final drag of around 400m was an all-out affair - I didn't know whose footsteps I could hear, but I didn't want them to get any louder.  I had one runner in view, and was determined to pass him before the finish - and I did!  I finished in 43 even, and was absolutely elated!  Even with the hard run a few days before, I'd managed to take 30 seconds off the previous year's time, and I'd finally raced a controlled 10k.  In fact, hindsight says I could have pushed harder from about 1k further out and taken another 10-20 seconds off the time.

I waited at the end to congratulate my club-mates as they raced in, and when Nic crossed the line we headed for the beer & burger queues.  Eventually, we divided and conquered.  Nic went to get the beers, while I held our place for the burgers.  She rejoined and I got my 3-4 sips before handing over the bottle (I was driving), and we picked up our delicious burgers, celebrating a fantastic event.  Thanks, Cheltenham Harriers!  We'll see you again next year!

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Seaview 17

My friend Dave posted an announcement on our club discussion board describing a great trail race in Devon - the Seaview 17 - 17 miles if you can fly, 20.5 if you're on foot.  The race description included helpful tips like:

Take some sustenance and a deep breath here as looming above you is the long climb to Selworthy Beacon which will take every ache in your body and double it.
So, what's not to like?  Normally, I would jump at a chance to test myself against a tough course in a beautiful part of the country.  But, right now I'm deep in training for a fast run in the Amsterdam Marathon, so I've got to spend a few Sunday mornings on the roads, getting used to maintaining a steady pace.  So, I left the web page open to return to after a little more thought. 

After a little more thought, I declined the offer and continued to plan my race-pace training run.  But, the best laid plans of mice and men are often over-ruled by our nearest and dearest.  I had forgotten to close web page, and Nic saw the race description.  Nic loves the North Devon coastline, and we haven't been down there for a few years.  So, with only a little effort, she convinced me to go and enjoy the trail, taking a fairly relaxed pace, and move my race-pace run to the next weekend.

We found a nice campground in Exmoor National Park, about 30 minutes from the race HQ for Saturday night.  Since I've never been camping before (shocking! I blame the parents...), it was a bit of an adventure.  After joining the queues on the motorway (first weekend of the school holidays), we enjoyed a tranquil evening and a fabulous meal at The Royal Oak in Winsford. 

The intrepid campers prepare for a peaceful night at Halse Farm Campsite.
On Sunday, we got up, packed up the dewey tent, and headed to Minehead - just in time for me to collect my race number and jump on the bus to the starting point, near Lynton.  As we headed into the hills, low, concerned voices began to ask, "how will we see the trail, much less the markers?!"

This may be The Blue Ball Inn near the start.  It'ss hard to say, as I was a full 30 feet away...
You see, it can be a bit misty on Exmoor.  So, although it wasn't too cold, it was touch-and-go whether the cloud we were in would burn off or turn to rain.  Having nearly frozen on the South Coast, I decided to be cautious and chose the short sleeves instead of the vest.  After all, this would be a nice easy run.

Where's the sea view?

At the horn, we quickly trotted 10 metres and then waited for everyone to join the single-file track.  Those with ambition, like Dave, sprinted off down the trail.  The rest of us filtered in and went at whatever pace the person in front could manage.  So, I had a slow and easy 3 miles of warm-up, passing where there was space and jogging along where there wasn't.  I didn't feel any need to hurry, since I hadn't run 20 miles since the 3 Forts in May.  I knew there would be time and space to tire myself out later on.  During much of this time, I was actually happy to have a mist to keep me from enjoying the views.  At times the track was quite technical, so a glance at a stunning sea view might have quickly turned into a snail's-eye view of the trail-side bushes (some of them a fair way below the trail). 

At about 5 miles, the mist rose just enough to confirm that I did have the sea on the correct side. The course rose and fell enjoyably, with a nice steep track down to Portlock, the lowest point on the race.  We joined the pebble beach/sea-wall for a short distance and then passed through the fields to the foot of Selworthy Beacon.

The rather large pebbles at Portlock
The pebble beach looked much worse than it felt, but I wouldn't have wanted to run it in a hurry!

The long, slow, hot, slow climb (slow) up Selworthy Beacon
I'd spent a bit of race-prep time looking at the big climb on the topographic map, so I knew it would be evil.  Preparation is one thing, but execution is another...  I kept my heart rate down as I hiked up the hill, so I wasn't exhausted at the top.  Unfortunately, my calves were in rebellion - they didn't get much of a break even though the heart and lungs did.  So, with 5-6 miles left to go, I shuffled along the top of the ridge until the legs started to relax enough to break back into a run.  Any pretence of speed was killed by the hill, but I still hoped to pick up some pace on the descent into Minehead. 

As I headed down the final hill, I realized the switch-backs would be too short to allow any good running and eased down to the beachfront.  I checked my Garmin and was relieved to note that I only had a mile or so left.  As I approached the finish, I heard Dave cheering me on.  I checked his result (8th!).  He had done well, but added a little extra with a wrong turn.  I misunderstood, and thought the course was longer than expected, and my heart sank.  I only had enough oomph left for another few hundred yards, not another mile!  I struggled through the chewed-up ground near the cricket club, rounded the fence, and ran in the final 200 yards to the finish.  I was spent! 

A shower, followed by fish & chips on the seafront, helped revive me enough to decide that, on balance, this was a good race.  The organization was great.  The route was a mental and physical challenge, and the finish in the cricket club featured some nice tea and cakes.  What more could a runner want for a nice day out at the seaside?

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Short and to the Point - Man vs Bicycle

On my recent holiday to the Georgia Appalachians, I had the opportunity to properly test my hypothesis that a cyclist climbing a mountain on the handy switchback roads is not going to reach the top as quickly as a runner on a slightly straighter trail.  The venue was Brasstown Bald - Georgia's highest peak.

For a few years, my dad has forged an annual battle with the Bald.  He spends a week or so getting used to the mountains and then does a one-man time trial from the base of the climb to the scenic car park below the observation area (2.4 miles, 1890ft).  Last year, Nic and I joined him on his attack - we hiked the nearby trail that tops out on a minor peak and then descends to the car park (1.9 miles).  All the way up, I thought, "this is nearly runnable".  Especially for the gentle drop from the peak to the end.  So, this year, I challenged Dad to a race, fairly sure that it would be close enough for some good family rivalry - he's been in top form in his racing, and I've never been running stronger.  After a good deal of needle, and the promise to Nic that I wouldn't race back down the fairly treacherous slope afterwards, we set out on the challenge.

Although the distances are different, the challenge is pretty equal.  The trail is shorter, but includes some stretches that run between 30% and 50% grade climbs.  The road is longer, and requires pushing a bike, but is steadier with gradients generally ranging between 10-16%, with a short evil stretch of 24%.  Given all that, I figured the winner would be the one in better shape for his sport.

The race started, and within seconds I was already above Dad and his road.  From then on, I was never at a lower elevation than the road.  The first quarter mile was about as horrible as I remembered it, but manageable.  Then, a short runnable ascent followed by a steep, tight switchback.  My heart rate topped out in the low 170s (about 10bpm lower than I'd expected), and I could tell it wasn't going to get any better.  Occasional 5-10 second stops for recovery became necessary, and I had to give up all hope of running.  The steep part was lasting a lot longer than I'd remembered.  I looked at my watch and took my phone out to send Dad a message - I wasn't injured, just very slow.  I knew at 25 minutes that I wasn't going to beat him, and that he'd have a bit of a wait on his hands.  Finally, after around 1.5 miles, I peaked and was able to hit the fun gentle descent.  I was sure it would be more of the route!  Anyway, I took a couple of mind-clearing breaths and hit my pace.  Then, I hit a root, followed by the ground.  I minor fall, except that I'd already landed on the same bits earlier in the week on a short trail run.  I quickly washed the mud out of the re-opened wounds and raced on.  I wasn't about to let an evil ascent and a little fall ruin the fun of this fabulous drop from the peak.  I reached the car park in just under 37 minutes, 4 minutes behind Dad and about 8 minutes behind what I'd thought possible (bad trail memory, for sure!).

Still, I'd say my hypothesis is still correct.  A trail runner in the same relative form as my dad has at the moment would probably nip in before him.  This trail runner, though, was totally outclassed!  Hats off!

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Endurance Running - the best training for modern air travel

I enjoy running for hours in the hills.  It's what keeps me sane (relatively).  But little did I realize that it has the added side affect of improving one's ability to cope with the modern air travel experience.  My latest trans-Atlantic journey wasn't going to be easy, but it was scheduled to take less than 24 hours door-to-door, including stopovers, security queues, and all the usual guff that surrounds flying.  For the sake of an easier trip back and an affordable ticket, the outbound leg included an extra few hours via Amsterdam.  But, we would get in at about 21:30, giving a good night's sleep and minimal jet lag.  Alas, had it been so simple.

The main leg of the trip was from Amsterdam to Atlanta.  A long-ish flight, but nothing too strenuous.  The KLM Airbus was comfy with plenty of legroom (even in the back row of cattle class, where we were).  The food was palatable and the crew were very attentive.  Unfortunately, just as we were preparing our descent into Atlanta, the heavens errupted with what would have been an awe-inspiring display from the ground.  For us, it was the cue for a diversion to Memphis to refuel and wait for the Atlanta airport to re-open.  Three hours on the tarmac and we were back in business, flying into Atlanta to see what waste had been lain to their flight schedules.

When we arrived, we confirmed that we'd missed our flight to Austin, TX and joined the long queue to re-book.  As it turns out, the plane we should have joined left at about the same time as we got our new boarding cards for the 21:30 flight, delayed to 01:00.  It had obviously been delayed a couple of extra times, which meant we probably would have been able to join it anyway.  Tip to airline groundstaff:  when tired people show up at your desk after a series of delays, including nearly an hour waiting to talk to you, it's really stupid to say "oh, your flight just left 2 minutes ago".  We'd rather have assumed it left hours before and we'd had no option to board.  As it is, we just had to wonder why on Earth the transfer hall can't have a departures board that shows us our flight so we can get to the gate on time.

So, what's this got to do with endurance running?  As background, let me say that Nic and I heartily dislike long trips, being in someone else's control, or repeated changes to the schedule.  Well, the 01:00 time became 01:20, then 02:00, then 02:30, and finally 03:00.  That meant arrival at 04:00 in Austin, with our car rental available from 06:00 (or, 05:00, if Avis had bothered to have a sign saying their little shed by the cars opened an hour earlier).  As the hours passed, we passed through "The Wall" (around the time we were informed that our intended flight could have been possible) - shaky, wobbly, ready to throw in the towel and lie on the floor. A drink of water later, and we entered that sort of dead zone where your body is moving, but you don't know how or why.  Then, following a short death-like sleep, all felt fine. It was easier for me to see in Nic, but I know I was the same - we were drawing on the mental and physical benefits of our training.  We had the same withdrawn focus on the back-up plans and next steps, keeping our bodies fuelled as though we were doing a long run (plenty of fluids when possible given the various security rules, enough food to keep going, but no overloading), and reached the eventual resigned peace that as long as we kept going, we'd get to the end.  In previous years, we would have driven each other crazy with the tension and frustration boiling over.  Instead, following 18 months of learning to push on regardless, we arrived with a relieved smile, no tension, no lashing out, and the ability to recover quickly with only a little rest.

So, thank you to trail running!

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Evesham Asparagus Run 5k - a final experiment in coffee management

Another week, another 5k...  As I mentioned last week, I don't really like the distance, but it provides some much-needed speedwork.

The race today centred on the paths along the River Avon, about a mile from home.  The party atmosphere for the balloon festival (hot air, rather than helium) was great.  The organizers had a live music stage, plenty of things for people to see and do, and a random 5k fun run to raise money for the local air ambulance.

Nic and I popped down a bit early to drop off some forms for our club's 10k at the club's table, took the chance to socialize, and enjoyed the celebratory mood.  Then, as we completed our warm-ups, the official news came that the celebrity starter (Countryfile's Adam Henson) was stuck in traffic, so we would be delayed by 30 minutes.  It turns out that the county council, who are kindly destroying the town's main street as part of a renovation and rebuilding plan, put signs along the bypass saying "road closed" at all entry points (about 1/4 mile is actually shut).  So, all the people trying to get to the festival were driving around to find an open road.  Glad I walked in...

Eventually, we had the official warm up (where the official warm-up leader kindly got the crowd moving and then led them into some nice cool-down exercises...  obviously he's not keeping up with the latest advice on warming up and stretching).  Then, the race started and I went hard off the line to get past the mini-runners who can put on a mean sprint and then stop in front of you after 50 yards.  I settled into my rythm and watched the front 5 pull away. From there it was a nice hard run down the river, turn around at the sports club, and then run back trying hard to keep from slowing down too much.  Along the way I reeled in 5th, then 4th place.  With a kilometre to go, I checked behind and it was all clear.  So, I tried to push a bit harder knowing that if I blew up I could at least keep hold of 4th.  In the end, the final push wasn't up to much and I finished in just under 20.5.  A good, hard speed session, but not my best race.

For today's race, I again experimented with a nice espresso before the race - as it turned out, an extra half hour before the race.  But I needed the boost after a nice dinner and drinks evening with friends last night.  So, during my warm up I was easily getting my heart rate into the high 170s - a little too easily.  I felt more on edge than I would have liked, and a bit tight in the chest.   So, the coffee hit before a run is back on the shelf - I'll stick to guarana for my caffeine buzz, and coffee for the recovery.