Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Hilly Hundred - Award-winning Adendum

OK, so we entered the race this year for the personal challenges, the fun, and because it's a good time of year to do some challenging hill work as part of a wider training regime.  Based on the previous 2 years' times, and our predicted finish time, we were a solid bet for 7th place in the mixed-team race.  We didn't care.  We weren't out for any awards.  No pressure, just run.  As it turned out: no pressure, just win

Most of the winning team: Me, Sara Turner (10mi pb by 9 minutes), Tim Heslop, John Peacock, non-running captain Robert Hale, Julian Gillece (first time to run this far), Marie Lord, Johann Importante (previous longest race was 10k); missing runners are Phil Parsons, Caroline Kent, David Hughes

A victory of any type is incredible and worth savouring.  For our team, this result was unbelievable.  Our club has won prizes, individual and team.  But these have been overall race prizes - the best of the best in the race or in each age category.  Today's team was in the "B" mixed-team challenge, and shouldn't have been competitive there on paper.  Only one of the team would have made our "A" team, had it entered.  Otherwise, we ranged from top 10%-30% in our local races to a couple of guys who had never even run 10 miles before.

So, what happened?

When you're racing, it's important to remember that you can only run your race. The other guy will beat you if he's better.  For the Hilly, the temperature jumped into the 30s for the first time since July last year.  Our challenge was against the course and the weather, more than the other teams.  So, we held our form as the sun beat down and accepted that in the heat you have to walk or slow down on occasion.  One of our runners even kept cool on her leg by putting ice cubes in her sports bra - tough lady!  Some runners had tried their legs out in easy training runs two weeks prior, and had run them 10 or more minutes faster than in the race.  The early runners kept close to target times, but it was a struggle.  The goal for the last few runners was simple - finish the leg.  In the end, this goal was the difference between winning and failing to finish.  At 70 miles, we were 45 minutes behind the leaders.  They were racing against the potential of the teams that traditionally finish in the top three.  As the heat mounted, their runner collapsed and was unable to complete the leg (thankfully, with no long-term damage!).  The time pressure accounted for the perennial favourites.

Aside from a very nice trophy, I'm left with the reminder that if you want to compete at anything, you have to be there at the end.


Sunday, 23 May 2010

Hilly Hundred Road Relay

The latter half of May brings one of my favourite races, Hilly Hundred Road Relay.  This is a fairly informal fling put together by the Stratford-upon-Avon Athletic Club, bringing roughly 10 local clubs out to celebrate the beauty of our local area by running us up and down the minor roads in 10-person teams.  Each leg is around 10 miles.   The unfortunate, or masochistic, take the two most difficult legs from the valley up onto the escarpment.  Most of the remaining 8 legs are allocated by the preferred race start time (some like the 5am leg, some prefer to race in the afternoon).  I am a little wacky - I like the two downhill legs.  These feature some pretty steep drops - the kind with signs warning drivers to drop their gearing.  Since I'm snail-like up a hill, I opt to metaphorically (well, usually metaphorically), throw my hands in the air and shout "Wheeeeeeeeeeee!" as I sprint like a madman.

For last year's race, the weather was foul - 25mph winds, cold, with driving rain.  Well, that was my leg.  For the start and finish there was some nice sunshine - the vagaries of the hills.  This year, it's the hottest day of the year so far (25C in the shade, which is hot for us this early in the year).  So, at each changeover point, the smell of sunscreen and menthol combine for a heady mix that says "Summer Running".

What makes this race such a treat, though, is that it blends the camaraderie of a team event with the solitude of a long training run.  After about leg 2, the challenge is all in your head.  You may have a few other runners nearby, or you may run the full leg with no one in sight.  But, all the way through you know you're in a race.  You know that putting another 30 seconds into the person in front or behind is another 30 seconds your later teammates won't have to chase down.  If you keep that thought in mind, each little hill and challenge pushes you to the handover point.  If you lose it, then the solitude can be worse than any hill, squall, or beating sun.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

The Dangers of Post-race Recovery

All of the advice you read following a big race involves some form of "make sure you recover".  What the various articles, books, and coaches don't tell you is just how dangerous it can be to break out of your running routine.  Now, as a result of too much free time and not enough soreness in my legs, I managed to catch a cold and enter another marathon.  Beware!  Idle feet can get you into trouble!

Following the big race - the farthest I've ever run before, I had a good easy week of recovery planned.  Then, a business trip to Madrid for a few days ensured it.  For the first multi-day trip in over a year, I didn't take any running gear, to make sure I didn't get tempted to explore the delights of my host city and endanger my long-term running.  A full week of non-running, for the first time since before Christmas - and with all that free time, I managed to pick up an unpleasant chest cold to help my recovery go into its second week.

So, I spent time analysing the 3 Forts performance, comparing it to other races, and decided that I'm in good shape to try something that's been on my list for a few years now - a 'fast' road marathon.  I went in to the race thinking that a road race in the Autumn would come in at about an hour faster.  A sub 3:30 would be great, but what I really want is sub 3:15.  I looked for the latest marathon nearby, and found Amsterdam.  Amsterdam as a marathon location is pretty much the opposite of everywhere I run - maximum altitude of 33 feet.  Now, instead of aiming for a fast half in October, it's now a fast marathon.  Five months of speed sessions loom large.  Who knows, I might even enjoy it...

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Three Forts Challenge

The big event for the first half of this year was the Three Forts Marathon.  So, my wife Nicola (running the 1/2 marathon) and I took the opportunity to spend a long sunny weekend on the coast.  We headed to Shoreham-by-Sea for a 3-day, 2-night break from the real world.  Putting a big race into the middle of it just added to the potential fun of the trip.

We found a B&B full of character and charm in Harpers Ferry.  Rick, the proprieter, built it as a tribute to the American way of life.  The house is beautiful, and Rick is incredibly friendly.  He also makes a fabulous omlette!  On arrival, we sat on the covered front porch with a mug of tea and relaxed.  It reminded me of my grandma's old place in Louisiana when I was a kid - a fabulous start to the weekend. 

On Rick's recommendation, we headed to La Galleria for the requisite pasta fest.  When we saw the menu, we knew we were in trouble.  The selection had too many nice options to go for the ultra-sensible balance of carbs, lean protein, and veg.  Nic opted for a creamy and delicious carbonara. I a chose a spicy and stupendous veal/tomato sauce.  The meal was a delight - simple, tasty, and just a little more than we needed.  So, we left all smiles and headed back for an early night.

So, back to the race, and race planning.
I'd been planning for this race ever since a calf injury caused me to downgrade my December trail race from marathon to half.  Week in and week out, I ran up and down and along the hills near our home in Evesham.  Three weeks before, I decided that, having done all the training I could in the time I had, I should probably figure out precisely how I was going to run the race.  I took my longest run (20 miles) and figured out the average pace on hills (up, then down).  Then, I compared the hills I usually run to each section of the 3 Forts.  To me, it makes no sense to assume an average pace for a race like this.  I am decidedly slower than I want to be on the ups, and much faster than many of my peers on the downs.  So, I made a plan based on how long it should take me to get to the top and bottom of each section.  I figured I'd be doing a sluggish 12:00/mile on the first ups, and probably around 8:00 on the downs, which might be fairly technical.  I knew the steepest and longest climbs were in the second half, so I figured I would be slowing down to 15:00 and then 18:00 for the last 2 climbs (~6 miles in total).  That planning narrowed my expectations from the 4:30:00-5:30:00 I had in my head when I entered to a 4:35:00-4:50:00 range.  I left home confident that I would be, at worst, able to come in under 5 hours.

This race is dubbed "The Tough One".  I don't know when it received that moniker, or from whom.  I'm not entirely certain it would be deserved every year.  The South Downs around Worthing are a potentially stunning location for enjoying a challenging course.  This year looked set to be a stunner.  Three weeks of beautiful sunshine in the lead up to the race.  Any run in those hills in such weather would be a joy for the soul.  Then, the weather turned, and all of the rain Mother Nature had been storing began to find its way down from the sky.  Result: this year, for sure, the race earned its nickname!

The race director called us to the line for a prompt 10am start.  The rain had abated to a heavy drizzle with the temperature hovering at around 10C.  I've never before seen a race where the runners trudge to the start.  On Sunday, it was almost as though everyone felt, "do I have to?"
 (Runners' response to the call to the start.  Any moving legs here?)

When the car horn sounded to send us on our way, most of us eased into the steady 2 mile climb with an air of resigned amusement - how could we already be so wet?  The rain began to ease and turn into a light mist, so I took off my rain jacket as we passed Cissbury Ring (Fort 1).  We turned the corner, headed down hill, and the heavens opened with renewed force.  So, throwing the jacket back on at a 6:35/mile pace down the hill meant there was plenty of water inside and out.  But, I hit the bottom of the hill ahead of schedule and feeling good.

Knowing that I still had 20+ miles of running to go, I eased through the next couple of rolling miles.  At 8 miles or so, I got chatting with local Trevor Nash, who pulled me up the long slow drag towards 10 miles with an enjoyable conversation about how nice the Downs are to run in when it's not tipping down with rain.  A nice chat can be a great way to pass the miles, and sure enough I hit the turnaround at Devils Dyke (Fort 2) a good 5 minutes ahead of schedule.

 (Trevor about to catch me up for a chat while I hike a steep section)

  (The long and winding road...)

I lost Trevor on the trip back down the hill thanks to a troublesome shoe and a quick comfort break - I never did catch him....  At half way, I was in line for a 4-hour finish assuming an even pace.  I wasn't, even for an instant, assuming an even pace. I took it easy down the more technical bits of the hill, and saved energy where I could. I knew I didn't have enough to run up the final 2 hills, but I was still keeping within my schedule and enjoying the run.  The weather, however, was becoming a bit tiresome.  The return crossing of the Adur River saw me dead on schedule, with nearly 2.5 hours to get through the final 12-13 miles.

The next challenge was the 4 miles or so of climb to the highest point on the route at Chanctonbury Ring (Fort 3).  At times, the hill was unpleasantly steep.  At others, it was just rolling and tough.  A mix of walking, shuffling, and occasionally swearing got me to the top.  Along the way, I passed a collection of dry casters on a hill top having a competition (fishing without water?). I wonder what they caught, besides a cold.  The bemusement from 50 or so men casting a line off a hillside with the wind and rain driving up and over helped to alleviate the burning sensation up the back of my legs.  At the top, the marshalls practically needed lifelines to keep to their checkpoint station.  The mist was coming through, and I started to worry about losing sight of the runners in front.  Fortunately(?), the wind became strong enough to keep the mist rolling on to hills where I wasn't trying to run.

 (Here come the clouds again - and away goes the camera!)

Up and over the top and then down the penultimate hill, I was still running with something that looked like a running motion.  I kept up a 7:30 pace down and then managed as best I could along the rolling terrain to the bottom of the last climb.  I new when I got there that any pretence of running was gone, and the last 5 miles were all about finishing any way I could.  I was cold, wet, tired, and verging on grumpy.  The long walk/shuffle back to Cissbury Ring (Fort 1 again, from the steep side), was unpleasant.  By then I couldn't run fast enough to keep properly warm, so I was wearing my windproof gillet over my waterproof and hiking as fast as I could to keep from getting truly cold.  The cheery lads at the top (how were they still smiling?) confirmed that I only had 2 and a bit miles of downhill to go, and then I could stop.  At this point, I was still well ahead of schedule, but it felt like every part of my body was calling out for me to stop.

 (Is that a wall I see before me?  Or is it two?)

I take pride in my ability/willingness to steam down a hill at speeds that make many faster runners balk.  For this hill, it was a struggle to move my legs at all.  I'd hit a mini wall.  By 25 miles, I started to weave a bit.  Thanks to Tim Noakes for the reminder when I was dipping into "The Lore of Running" a couple of weeks ago, that, although the muscles can only take so much sugar in at a time, a little sugar hit can quickly get to the brain.  This thought popped into my head as I tried not to fall over.  So, I slowed to a walk down the hill and dug into my pack for the "break packet in case of emergency" gel.  Within a minute or so, possibly as much due to the walk as the gel, I had my head and legs back under some control.  I dragged my sorry body down that last mile and a half of hill at a dismal 10:30 pace, knowing that to keep going was to exceed my expectations.  It was also the only way to get warm.

I saw Nic cheering me on from the finish, after waiting 2 hours since she finished the half marathon.  Normally, I would have put on a "sprint" to finish.  Here, I put on a "less slow shuffle" to finish in just under 4:30 - 11 minutes faster than plan.  According to Nic, my words upon crossing the line were "Thank God that's over!".

Recovery is an essential part of every run.  Equally important is a celebration of achievement.  So, as I stuffed a few sweets into my shivering mouth and put on dry clothes for the short drive back to the B&B and warmth, I considered the recovery plans.  Some food - I like granola bars and a cup of milky tea after a frozen run - check.  Hobble to the shower - check.  Post-run massage?  The masseurs stationed at the end of the race had abandoned all hope of anyone lying still in their tent long enough for a massage, given the conditions.  The tent stood empty.  But, Nic kindly provided a gentle rubdown to get the blood flowing through my legs again.  Then on with the compression socks & tights and out for a gentle stroll through Shoreham-by-Sea.  After all, it was time to celebrate the achievement!  We followed our noses to the Crown and Anchor. A fabulous plate of fish & chips accompanied by a fine ale (or glass of red for Nic) was just what I needed.  It's my favourite meal, and one that I rarely enjoy on account of its incredibly high fat and salt content.  After burning nearly 4000 calories, I figured I needed plenty of both!  I added a little ice cream after just for fun, and we gently meandered back to base with a stop for some frozen peas to ease the soreness a bit further.  A good night's sleep and a long slow walk the next day completed the weekend's excitement.  The race was fantastically challenging, the town of Shoreham provided a great base, and the weekend was one of the most enjoyable I've had in a long time.  So, weather permitting, I'm pretty sure I'll be seeing those three forts again!