Saturday, 24 December 2011

2011 - The Breakthrough Year

I started 2011 with high hopes.  My endurance was good, I had five tough trail marathons left in my Endurance life 7x Challenge, and nothing hurt too much.  The goal was to complete that series, hopefully pick up another marathon as a "bonus" for completing the challenge, throw in another in July to keep the legs ticking over, and then head into the Autumn on song for another PB on the road.  So, how did it go?

2011 Training:  Plenty planned, but to what end?
The first race of January was my annual tilt at the local cross country county championships (survival, rather than victory, is my goal!).  Once again, I had a lot of fun, and once again, I tweaked my calves.  It wasn't really a surprise, given that I don't do nearly enough speed work.  But, with a bit of rest, some good work by Sara to break up the knots and tape me back together, I duly headed off to Anglesey for marathon number 3.  I didn't have much fun, but I completed it. With the combination of the calf issues and recovery from Anglesey, I averaged a paltry 20 miles per week for January.

I also, for the first time in many years, had decided to keep an eye on my weight.  Once upon a time, I'd weigh myself to see if I had managed to put on a few pounds so that people stopped looking at me like some sort of underfed alley cat.  At Anglesey, I realised that the waistband of my Skins was folding over due to the pressure from the remains of Christmas and New Year revelry.  Ah, how times and metabolism change.  So, I weighed in at 11 stone (154lbs) and cut back on the beer (except for marathon recovery, of course!).

February took me to South Devon for marathon number 4.  The day shone bright and I had an absolutely wonderful race.  The joy of having a good race is that it usually takes less time to recover from than a bad race.  So, even with the planned recovery, I managed to nudge the weekly mileage up to 25.  I also managed to leave seven pounds on the trails.

March was planned as the tough month of the year, with marathons 5 and 6 with only one off weekend in between.  Pembrokeshire was fast, but exhausting.  Sussex was exhilarating until I had to tackle Beachy Head, and also rather tiring.  With two big races, much of the month was geared towards recovery and repair, so I dropped back to a weekly average of 20 miles.  Another couple of pounds melted away, and the Skins finally started to fit properly around the midriff.

In April, I only had one race planned, so I started to look at the upcoming calendar and realised I needed to re-introduce speed sessions to be prepared for the post-marathon season.  So, I headed out to the local race at Peopleton and picked up a small PB for that course.  Then, it was down to Exmoor for marathon number 7 - expected to be the toughest of the series.  By this time, the tape on my legs was more placebo than requirement, but I was taking even more recovery time.  I averaged only 17 miles per week and the weight finally stabilised at 144lbs (gross!).   But, the recovery of low/no mileage seemed to work.  Exmoor was an amazing race in a fantastic setting.  By the time we got home from the race, it was marked in the calendar for 2012.

May brought "The Edge," Endurancelife's bonus race for series completion and fast finishing.  The course was reasonable, I went off far too quickly, but the series of speakers in the evening was truly inspiring.  The mad ideas that have been going through my head ever since are slowly turning into a long-term plan for foolishness.   May also brought the annual club team relay at The Hilly Hundred.  As the team organisers, Nic and I bombed about the countryside delivering and cheering the runners.  I enjoyed my leg, albeit somewhat more slowly than I had in 2009.  Again, weekly mileage was low, but mostly because real life took its chance to get in the way of some good running.

June's schedule rapidly filled up with some short local races, as I tried to get some speed into my legs.  A couple of hilly midweek dashes and another hilly relay later, combined with some hot weather training during a trip home to Texas, and I was back to 25 miles per week.  The weight was still steady (a great result considering a trip to the US!), and I was looking forward to my first experience of running in the Lake District.

I started July with a rather warm Coniston Marathon, and followed it up with some great hiking in the Appalachians.  No running in the mountains this year, on account of the amount of falling down I did the previous year.  We headed to the Atlantic coast for a week of R&R and beach running, which just managed to keep the excellent Atlantic seafood from taking hold.

August was due to be another big month.  Not having any big racing planned, and with a hole in my schedule until the October PB attempt, I mentally slipped and added a solo ultra into the schedule.  The attempt to hit nearly 50 miles turned into 50km as I repeatedly lost my trail and eventually was so hacked off by the combination of weak mind and tiring body that I bailed out at the earliest of my potential finishing points.

September slipped by without much notice.  I was finally managing regular speed sessions.  My race-paced runs were actually going better than planned.  Weekly mileage was still hanging out in the mid-20s.  October's PB attempt at Abingdon was looking pretty feasible.

Of course, there's always one last speed session required to tune up for a big race, so I popped over to Stourport for their 10K the first Sunday in October, and got to within a few seconds of my PB - completely unexpected and a most welcome mental boost for the trip to Abingdon a couple of weeks later.  Then, just a few days before the big day, a business trip that involved 90 minutes of traffic and a stiff clutch resulted in nasty cramp in the glutes with 5 miles to go after 21 miles of staying dead on schedule.

The PB didn't happen, my butt is still not fully recovered, and November was a bit of a write-off.  The various fell runs I had pencilled into the training plan got rubbed out, and training is still a bit hit-or-miss, depending on which days the glutes decided to go on strike.  Sara steadily put me back together, and I joined some fellow club members in Shropshire for the Mortimer Forest 10.  It was a blast to get back into the mud and hills as Winter approached.

As a bonus, my running clubmates kindly recognized my inability to say no to a race in our annual awards ceremony.

A lot going on, but to what end?  With the loss of November and the extra recovery between marathons, not to mention a bit more travel time than usual, 2011 will actually have fewer running miles than 2010.  But, what miles!  Most of my running has been in the Cotswolds or racing other stunning trails around the UK.  Of course, 2011 was unusually dry, so I actually got to see where I was going - let's not fool ourselves into thinking it will be the same every year.  As a result of all this fun, Nic's signed herself up for a few Endurancelife marathons, which gives me the ideal excuse to bump myself up to the ultras.  If that goes well, then I may just get that chance to run the complete Cotswold Way this Summer.  2011 seemed incredibly ambitious when I planned it, but it looks like it's main purpose was to whet my appetite for 2012.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Mortimer Forest 10 - The final race of 2011

This year, I managed just over 50 miles of road racing - half of them in October.  The other 250-odd race miles were off the beaten track.  So, what more fitting way to end the year than a 10 mile jaunt through the trails and tracks of Mortimer Forest near Ludlow?  And in an unbelievably dry year, where the waterproof hat and the snazzy OMM jacket I bought last year spent most of their time on hooks, it was about time for a bit of mist, rain, and ankle-deep mud.  So, I joined some friends to take in the sights and sounds of the Shropshire hills.

Mortimer Forest has a fine history for our club.  Some keen speedsters have found their bodies crumbling (oh, sure, they blame the flu for that green pallor...).  A few bloody knees and elbows tell tales of treacherous descents where the brambles creep beneath the leaves to snare the unwary and unlucky alike.  Phrases like "I've never felt so awful in my life" and "I can't wait for next year" are heard in quick succession - not always from the same runner, it must be said.  Having never partaken of this particular race, it sounded to me to be too good to miss.

Arrival and warm-up were easy and without incident.  Parking is tight, so we joined up in Evesham and Bob drove.  Great for the environment, but it meant 3 runners, 1 car key, and all the kit in the boot due to a lack of secure bag-drop facilities (what do you expect for 5 pounds - at least they had hot showers).  I got to carry the key, on the assumption that I'd be back first.  No pressure, then.

The start was a little unexpected.  I lined up, ready to head around the playing field where we were gathered, and when the starter shouted "Go", everyone shot to my left.  Turns out we were going to run straight across the field, rather than around the tape markings (why bother with the tape?).  Anyway, I trotted along and tried to ease into the race.  I'd done 15 minutes of warm-up, but just didn't feel like I had it together yet.  After about half a mile, the first bottleneck trapped me mid-pack as we climbed a narrow path.  I wasn't really in much of a hurry, since I was still feeling my way into the race, but it is quite irritating when people shoot off down a road only to realise they should probably not have worn road shoes on a wet and slippery race.  As I picked my way past the ill-shod, the course levelled out and I was finally off and running with some rhythm.

As predicted, an even harder hill came along about a mile later.  Yes, it was steep.  Yes, it was slippery.  About 100 people had already scrambled up it, and there wasn't much solid turf left to grip into.  Where I could, I kept to the long grass.  It was harder to see what I might step on or into, but I could at least keep from sliding back down onto the runners behind.  The ascent seemed to go on forever, and I didn't know whether to hope for or against coming back down the path at the end - that would have been quite exciting!

After eventually levelling out, we had a mile or so before a series of three short and steep ravine crossings.  Both up and down were at a steeper grade than I normally get to play on.  With plenty of surface mud, the descents were part running and part skiing.  Or, in the case of the third drop, my youthful impression of a slide into second base gained me a place or two as I slid past my fellow runners on my right hip - righting myself straight into a run when my left foot found purchase on a clump of grass.  If I tried that a hundred times, it would never work so well again - with luck I managed to avoid all rocks, sticks, roots, and other injury-inducing obstacles during my slide.

Once out of the third little ravine, I was looking forward to a bit of flat running to sort myself out.  Instead, I found a long track winding its way further up the hill.  So, I speed-hiked up, losing only a little ground to a few guys who were moving slowly with a running motion.  This was the ideal place for pictures.  I could tell that, were it not for the heavy mist / light rain, I would have a fantastic view of something.  As it was, I was looking at water not quite suspended in the air and decided to leave the camera in its pocket.

By this time, I was starting to wonder about my choice of attire for the day.  At around 6C with heavy moisture, I'd opted for shorts, a short-sleeved top, and a club vest over the t-shirt.  Gloves and a buff came on and off as the temperature and gradient dictated.  But through this section the wind was up and reminding me that all of my clothes were wet.  I held off on digging my jacket out of my pack on the grounds that eventually I'd get back into the woods and be too warm.  Finally, at around 6 miles, we turned out of the wind and started the "easy" section of the race.

Footing for the final few miles was better on the hilly parts, and there were some good, long descents to help get the pace up.  A pine wood with a nicely needled track made for some interesting footing, but as long as you kept an eye out for roots it was quite exhilarating.  As I moved up what turned out to be the final climb, I kept wondering how far the race would actually be.  I'd mentally budgeted for 10.5, on the grounds that nothing is ever accurately measured on the trails.  Then, I topped the climb and headed onto yet another narrow path.  Soon, I heard the voices and cheering of the finish nearby and sped up.  I didn't want to be passed in the final approach - even though I thought I had about 3/4 of a mile left to go.  It turned out to be closer to 1/4, so the final effort was a good move.

The race finish is a 5-10 minute walk from HQ (depends on how cold it is and how tired you are).  I felt full of energy, if not speed, as I headed back to the car.  I grabbed my warm, dry clothes and headed for the changing room (eventually located in a nice, warm, basement of the hosting school).  Normally, at this stage, I would take my time to ease out of the wet and muddy gear and into something less disgusting.  But, as I gingerly eased off my filthy shoes, I realised that Bob should only be a few minutes behind me and wouldn't have any way to get his gear out of his car.  So, I quickly changed and headed to the cars to find a slightly chilled Bob delighted to see me.  Note to self:  next time, figure out before the race how to manage the 3 runners, 1 key situation.

Eventually, we all managed to get ourselves changed, listened to the presentations, and had a nice return trip home full of tales of running and runners.  Of the eight Evesham runners, we came away without significant injury, although Bob lost a fight with one of those creepers under the leaves, but it resulted in only a rather spectacular stumble and a few scratches.  It's nice, on wet and miserable days, to go out and have a good time, rather than let the weather dictate.  It's even better when everyone comes through injury free!

Now, it's time to review the year, reconsider the crazy ideas for next year, and chart out the thrills and inevitable spills that 2012 will bring!

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Recovery has now become boring

I'm recovering, and I'm bored.  Normally during the past 18 months, I've enjoyed my little spells of recovery.  A bit more sleep, a bit more food, and maybe even a bit less pain all combine to make for a relaxing few days. But, when I finished Abingdon, I knew I needed a proper recovery - the kind you read about in running magazines.  A week of no running at all, a week of shortish runs, and then build back up to fitness.  I finished tired, jaded, and ready for a break.  The good news is that work is busy enough to make sure I don't really have much time for running.  The bad news is that long hours don't leave much time for the extra rest needed to accelerate my recovery.

The first week, with no running, wasn't too difficult.  I was limping for 2-3 days while my left ITB and associated small muscles refused to unknot.  Even a good beating from Sara only got me to a gentler imbalance.  By Thursday, we tried out a new Japanese restaurant in town (excellent!) that only takes cash at the moment (oops!).  So, I had to run a few hundred yards to and from the cash machine.  It felt amazing to be running even just a little bit again.  Friday I woke up a bit sore from my little dash, but I didn't care, because I knew I'd be running again soon.

The second recovery week has been the tough one.  I'm tired pretty early into a run (3-5 miles is tiring - how dull!).  The legs are doing OK, although I do wish my left knee would make less noise when I'm on the stairs.  The breathing muscles - core and intercostals - are still pretty shattered.  As a result, when I got a bit bored after a slow mile and a half on Friday night and decided to spice it up with some 800m repeats, I had to give in after 3 1/2 reps because I couldn't get enough air into my lungs:  dull.

Today, the sun is shining and I've got the time to enjoy a bit of Autumn colour.  I'm looking forward to my first trip onto the trails for a month - I just hope my body feels the same!

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Another month, not just another marathon!

This weekend saw the end of my "marathon season."  I woke up on Sunday feeling confident that I would close my 12 in 12 months with a bang.  I felt fairly wretched from my taper - the combination of work stuff and reduced training time meant I was desperate for a good long run.  My legs felt twitchy, my feet felt like they were strangers to my running shoes, and I was way too organized; obviously not enough time on the road to be wandering around looking for what's clean rather than what's first choice!  This was the day to wash away the painful memory of last October's effort in Amsterdam.

The weather for the day was pretty good - cold (~6C warming up to ~13C as the race wore on) with light cloud for most of the morning.  The warm-up went well, except for my left shoulder seizing up as I jogged.  What it had to complain about I don't know, but it meant that I was trying to loosen up my shoulders as much as my legs as I trotted and went through my pre-race drills.  As close to the last moment as possible, I handed my warm clothes over to Nic and joined the throng.

Once again, I was aiming for a big PB.  I still had that 3:21 to aim for, and all of my training pointed to a 3:20-ish being on the cards, as long as I didn't do anything stupid like forget my target pace.  7:35 miles would give me 3:19, so I was aiming for between 7:30 and 7:40, depending on the hills and state of the race.  The planned exceptions were miles 2 & 3, which are on a really nice, long, steady downhill.  When the horn sounded, I eased into the race, at around 7:50 pace for the first half mile, bringing it down to 7:40 once we started the descent (OK, gentle decline).  As expected, I kept the effort level very easy but knocked out a couple of 7:20s on the most helpful section of the course and then eased into target pace.

I would like to say that there was some amazing scenery, and that I was experiencing a wonderful experience.  In reality, I noticed a couple of nice views, but generally was only looking at the road ahead or my watch.  I maintained a relaxed, if focused, mindset and just ticked off the miles and kept the pace in the right range.  When I got to Nic at around 5.5 miles, she handed me my bottle of sports drink, I drank it, popped a gel, and carried on.

I was feeling strong and relaxed, and even smiled for the camera.  On the main hill of the course, which we take twice, someone had kindly written inspirational mantras on the pavement in chalk.  It was an enjoyable way to pass a steady climb, and I was surprised that I'd not really lost much time.  I figured that the second pass would be harder, but that the helpful graffiti would come in quite handy then.  Having maintained my target pace on the up, I took it easy on the way back down to allow recovery, rather than speeding up a bit to get my time back.

Eventually, we reached the industrial estate section.  Is it possible to plan a marathon that doesn't include some soulless business park or other blot of turns and emptiness?  Apparently not.  But, as dull and dreary go, this wasn't too bad.  There was a very well supported water station (good loud cheering all round), and a few hardy souls came out to help the marshals to give some encouragement.  Finally, by half way, I realized that I'd mistimed a crucial part of my warm-up and had to briefly stop to admire the bushes.  At half-way, I was 4 seconds inside an even split for 3:20, so I congratulated myself on at least keeping my pace under better control than I had at Amsterdam.

I picked up another bottle from my ever-encouraging crew chief and carried on into a second lap of the hill and dull section.  By now, I was feeling like I'd been running for a while, but also still felt strong and relaxed. I still had a smile for the marshals and the camera.  I was keeping my pace well, and entered the business park full of confidence that I would finish in the low 3:20s, maybe even under 3:22.  At 20, I did some really complex calculations (pushed a few buttons on my Garmin and then added 50 to the big number) to realize that the last 10K or so in 50 minutes would give me my time.  Feeling strong enough to push through for the final miles, I carried on with the 7:35 pace and was thankful to see the 21 mile marker go past.  Only 5 miles left at this pace and then I'd be on the track.  I hurt, but I kept running strong and maintained my pace.

Over the space of the last half of mile 22, it's safe to say that my condition went from OK to oh-so-bad.  My left leg (that's the "good" one, for those who keep track of which leg is acting up at any particular time) lost most of its range of movement.  My stride length dropped to a bizarre limp, and I had to stop and stretch.  I couldn't actually extend my foot in front of my body.  My piriformis and hamstring basically locked in position, which made it impossible to support my weight on the left leg - not ideal for running, really.

The next three miles are essentially a blur of hobble, stretch, run, hobble.  Nic caught me at around 23 and walked with me for a bit.  I assured her that I was not seriously injured, but that I couldn't actually make a running motion for any length of time.  I carried on with the hobble, stretch, run, hobble method until a little after 25.  My leg finally loosened up enough to allow me to run again, and I managed to run nearly all of the final mile and a half (amazing what a few wide turns can do to add distance!).  As I ran, I kept telling myself to run through the pain (somewhat loudly at times).  Once I was on the track with only 300yards to go, I gave it my final "sprint" to reduce the damage as much as possible.  Although my leg felt a mess, I was able to get through that lap at full running speed.  With a finish time of 3:35, I was pretty disappointed to have crashed and burned so badly - again.  But, I took heart that I wasn't actually tired, just unable to get my left leg to move.  This, I figured, was a big improvement.

It's interesting how memories fade.  My memory of Amsterdam was of being unable to get my heart rate under control and of being absolutely shattered with nearly 9 miles to go.  Until I'd added the link to this entry, I hadn't looked back at my posting for a while.  Reading it tonight, I realize that the same thing happened - a bit later and with a larger impact. So, there is obviously a core weakness that's causing me problems when I get fatigued.  Something to work on over the Winter, I guess.

So, not just another marathon.  Twenty-two miles of good running and 4.4 miles of getting through to the end.  I love trail running, but the need for specificity of training if I'm going to get that 3:20 is something that I have to respect.  If I want to run fast on a dull road once a year, then I'll have to do more fast road training.  I've got a bit of recovery time and a few fell races to do while I decide just how much I want to go back and try again.  But, at the end of the year, I'm pretty sure I'll have a training plan with more long fast road runs and a new set of exercises to sort out my back line!

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Shuttle 10K: The final tune-ups for Abingdon Marathon

For the past few years, ever since our club won the first team prize, I've wanted to race the Shuttle 10K.  It's supposed to be a fairly fast course and it falls as I usually approach the fastest part of my year.  Unfortunately, it also usually falls during my annual retreat to the beach with my in-laws.  This year, though, the host club moved it to the beginning of October.  So, I pencilled it into the calendar and waited to see if I really wanted to race a 10K just two weeks before my target marathon at Abingdon, instead of one last long run.

As I have mentioned in a few other posts, my wife and crew-chief extraordinaire has been enjoying a fantastic year in her own running.  After narrowly missing the two-hour mark when knocking five minutes off her half-marathon PB, Nic has become a speed-work enthusiast.  Shortly after our beach retreat, she headed out for a five mile tempo run and ended up knocking a few seconds off her 10K PB, even though the 10K included a slow mile to get into the groove before heading for her tempo pace.  Since we wouldn't have another opportunity for a fastish 10K course until the Spring, and you never know how long a run of good form will last, I re-arranged my last few tune-up runs and fixed the Shuttle on the race calendar.

The reschedule meant that my final goal-paced long run moved ahead one week, which would leave me racing on an incomplete recovery - great for training, but not ideal for racing.  With 10 days to go before the Shuttle, I really didn't have a clue how fast I would be able to run.  All of my racing for the year was based around strength and endurance.  There had been no PB attempts, no fast road courses - nothing, in fact, to prepare me for a quick 10K.  Being an occasionally curious soul, I was looking forward to finding out just how fast I would be compared to 2010's series of personal bests.  When, on the 24th, I held my pace at 7:35 for the first 10 miles, and then got bored and sped up for the last 10K, I decided I was actually faster than I'd thought.  Not as fast as last year, but probably able to sustain the effort for longer.  So, I figured I've give the shuttle a go as a full-on race.

The morning saw Evesham bathed in sunshine to accompany the wonderfully, unseasonably, warm temperatures.  We headed over to Stourport ready for a hot race, and found that the western side of Worcestershire had missed the weather report and was instead cloaked in a shroud of high grey clouds - ideal for a 10K.  When the horn finally sounded to set us off on our 3/4 lap of the track, the clouds were starting to break up and the temperature finally started to climb into the high teens.

The course itself is fairly mundane.  The first mile takes in a fairly narrow footpath alongside a busy road.  It had the appearance of a path that once allowed comfortable overtaking.  Now, though, the path is generally a squeeze for two, so any passing had to be done on the grass banks.  It wasn't ideal, but it also meant that I had some obstacles to help keep me from going off too quickly.  I was able to start steadily at 6:49 - the first time in a long time that I've been within a second of my first-mile goal pace!  I started to speed up after that, aiming to average 6:45 for the next 4.5 miles. 

Mile two passed without really seeming to, and then mile three came, with its "big" hill.  I'd had a chat with Richard Warder, the race director, before the race, and he had confirmed my research that the hill was fairly minor and had equivalent ascent and descent that would allow one to regain any lost time.  With that in mind, I looked at the 5-10% grade, shortened my stride, and enjoyed passing my fellow competitors safe in the knowledge that I would be able to recover at speed in just a few hundred yards.  In the end, the uphill was only a quarter-mile long.  This gave me a 400 yard downhill dash during which I concentrated on getting as much air as I could into my lungs and my fastest mile of the race.

By this time, the sun was finally out and I began to wonder if there would be a water station on the route.  The race had a few issues with water previously, so I assumed there would be a station around half way.  As I neared the end of a rather dull mile four, I gave up hope of a chance to refresh my sticky mouth, turned a corner, and saw the volunteers at the ready.  With a few gulps of water and a nice splash onto my chest to help keep cool, I embarked on the hardest mile of the race.  Other runners were few and far between, we were back onto the first mile of the course on a short second lap, and I was starting to be tired without having that buzz of knowing it's nearly over.  I struggled to keep my pace anywhere close to my 6:45 target.

With the final mile underway, I was passed for the first time since mile two.  I stuck to the runner, obviously feeling good, and held on grimly.  Then, we left the road for a section of dirt track, and runners again started to come back to me.  I got a real boost from seeing nearby runners struggle with the change in terrain while I was actually finding it nice to get off the road.  I pushed harder, and left the others well behind.  As the track, and its final lap, approached, I tried to pick up the pace again.  By the time I hit the track, I was running at a delicate balance between searching for more speed and trying to keep my breakfast down.  The sprint for the line brought be within a few seconds of my best 10K time, and was short enough to keep me from decorating the infield.

As I'd guessed, I'm not quite as fast as I was at this point last year, but I've gotten much better at holding my pace.  Now, it's just a case of seeing how that all translates into the PB attempt at Abingdon.  And for those waiting to find out how Nic ran:  she succeeded in making use of her fantastic form and dropped her PB by 2:30!

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Trailblazing on the Cotswold Way

It's always nice to have a goal.  To achieve any goal, you need a plan.  To achieve any goal, your plan has to be realistic and based on accessible steps - reasoned, understandable, and feasible steps.  I'd like to complete the Cotswold Way in a single stage - all 100+ miles of it.  Until now, that was a thought, perhaps a consideration, certainly a dream.  Now, it's a goal, and it's time to work out the plan.

So, what turns a dream into a goal?  First, you need just enough understanding to know that, with thought and effort, the dream is possible.  Then, add in just enough ignorance to get through the tough times, and you've got a real shot.  At the end of August, I dipped my toes  into the world of trail ultras far enough to know that I can go from Chipping Campden to Bath, and to understand that the key to reaching the end is to make a plan that accounts for the weak points I've discovered and builds on what went well.

My first "ultra" was a Trailblaze up the Cotswold Way.  Trailblaze is basically an "in your own time" open time trial on a variety of England's fabulous trails.  Participants choose their day, start time, and run one of approximately 10 distances on the trail.  Results are collected through the year.  It's a nice, low-key way to try out ultra running.

I've been planning this 3-day weekend for a few months now.  Originally, I would do my run on the Saturday and have two days to recover free from the constraints (and stairs) of the office.  Then, due to a few scheduling conflicts, the plan had to change to eating all day Saturday, run on Sunday, and recover on Monday.

Sunday morning started at 4AM, so we could drive down to the start point in Bath in time for me to have a full day's running.  My goal for this run was to do the 38 miles (61Km) to Dursley.  I'd never been on any of the trail between Bath and Cleeve Common (~70 miles), and intended to use this as a chance to run somewhere new.  But, I really didn't know how I'd react to the distance, so I was prepared to go up to the 103Km check point, if I were to have a miracle day.  Nic and I packed up the car with enough food and drink to get through a 14 hour run.  I hoped to use it all, while Nic hoped I'd spend a slightly more reasonable time on my first properly long run.

We got to Bath and found a serendipitous start - the Action Medical Research charity was hosting a ride from Bath to Reading.  It's often difficult to find a toilet open at 6:45 on a Sunday morning, and finding a random clump of trees isn't really an option in the middle of town.  But, Action were using Bath's rather fine Guildhall as its base, so Nic and I walked in along with all of the cyclists and were pleased to find such an accommodating facility.  So, in a shameless plug of thanks: if you're looking for a charity to give money to, drop a bit Action's way - they do good work and inspire new levels of sporting achievement among the public at large.

Bath's very nice Guildhall provided a great start to the day.

With the necessary pre-race preparations completed, it was time to find the starting dib point near Bath Abbey.  Having read in my route book and various accounts of route-finding in town that Bath's markers are quite well hidden, I took a few minutes to find a few markers to make sure I didn't miss my first turns (a pretty standard trick when I try a new route).  I know the standard markers well from the end of the CW I normally run.  But in Bath, the markers are subtly placed to maintain civic beauty.  Once I knew what I was looking for, I headed back to the Abbey and dibbed in - it was time to set out on my first ultra, but with no idea how far I'd go.

Ready? Set? Go!
Knowing that I'd have between 8 and 16 hours of the Cotswold Way ahead, depending on how my body would hold up, how much I could eat and drink, and how adventurous I would feel after the first 20 or so miles, I set off at a pretty easy pace.  In time-honoured tradition, I planned to walk up the steeper hills and run everything else.  So, it wasn't long before I was hiking up to Bath's famous Royal Crescent, following my trail guide to make sure I didn't end up on the wrong street.  The tiny way-marks weren't always the most clear, but I managed to find my way out of town without any significant confusion.

The iconic architecture of Bath

Once the crescent was behind me, Bath didn't really have much to offer in terms of interest.  I just carried on at an easy pace, concentrating more on keeping the route than keeping pace.  The hill to the check point at Upper Weston provided some nice views back down to Bath and over to Bristol.  The sun started to create a nice light and a bit of warmth, but the rains of the previous couple of days provided some very nice, long, wet grass and a rapid regrowth of nettles, just to keep things interesting.

Bye-bye, Bath!

Climbing up onto the escarpment
Once I'd passed the first check point, I was happy to find plentiful way-marks to help me on my way.  So, rather than continue to run with my route book in hand (it's a bit heavy - I should have just cut out the pages I needed...), I stowed it in my pack.  It wasn't long before I came up along the local race course.  Sadly, there were no horses out - it was only a race day for me.  I carried on along the twists and turns of the trail until I encountered a few golfers out for the Sunday morning round.  I'm sure they were enjoying the wet grass nearly as much as I was - the ball didn't look to be rolling too quickly on the greens. 

Landsdown Race Course - apparently the CW goes around it, rather than past it...
Before I knew it, I was onto the Landsdown Battlefield.  I stopped briefly to look at the monument and double-check the marker (it was blank due to sun aging) and then carried on down the hill.  It would seem that in my efforts to find a suitable location for a comfort break, that I failed to take sufficient notice of the right-hand turn part-way down the hill.  So, when I found myself on a road at the bottom of the hill and turned the page in my book to find that I shouldn't be on a road at all.

Now, it's never wise to be reading a map while on a technical descent with plenty of underbrush, but this little mistake also provided a stark reminder that it's always a good idea to have a good map as well as a route guide.  You see, when you're on the route, it's easy to follow the guide.  But when you're off route, and you're not quite sure by how much, then it's quite helpful to have a good map of the nearby area.  With a bit of thought and much turning of the page back and forth, I decided that a turn to the right would get me to the next check point with the addition of maybe half a mile or so.  I based this decision on the map's "Display Board - Battle of Landsdown" marking.  How was I to know that there was one just after the golf course and one just on the other side of the next check point.  So, I was not only on a different road to the one I thought I was, but I wasn't even looking at the correct page in my map book.  It's funny how running for an hour and a half can make one even more stupid than normal.  Eventually, by checking with a passing motorcycle instructor, following a few road signs, and calling Nic to confirm she was on the same road as me, I made my way to the check point (from the wrong direction) - an extra 1.5 miles and one hill later.

Relieved, and with the first leg done about 20 minutes later than planned, I stopped for a chat and some food.  Lessons of the leg:  1) have a very good map! 2) pay attention to where you've been as well as where you're going.  I was well off course by the time I realized it, and wasn't entirely sure how to get back to a known good point. My assumption was that I'd gone down the hill at about 20 degrees off bearing, so I could go around the farm and come to the check point with a small addition to the distance.  But, since I was looking at the wrong map page, I was completely stuffed.

Having refueled with some isotonic fluids, nuts, a cereal bar, and a peanut butter & jam wrap (corn tortilla for extra calories), I carried on in the correct direction and strangely found myself passing landmarks that I had been looking out for (and not finding) when I was looking at the wrong map page.  Refreshed, and enjoying the sunshine, I carried on towards Cold Ashton.  Once again, the trail was well marked (a track, with hedges on either side and no escape!) which was nicely reassuring following my little scenic diversion.

Excellent views from Cold Ashton
Cold Ashton appeared, and I retrieved the route guide to make sure I got through the village without incident.  The guide kindly mentioned great views, so I turned to my right and took a picture.  Turning into the village, the route passes through a quaint churchyard before making its way off towards Pennsylvania (long run!).

The day's first village church, at Cold Ashton

Wheat fields between Cold Ashton and Pennsylvania
It wasn't long before I encountered a fairly small field of dwarf wheat.  At this point (~12 miles in), I was running easily and comfortably.  The path through the wheat wasn't too narrow at first.  Then, I got to enjoy a gentle exfoliation around my knees.  Running through crops is a tricky business.  If you take your eyes off the path, there's always a stray stick from a passing dog or a hole or some other hazard waiting to trip you.  As a consequence, I realized I hadn't actually seen much of the passing scenery.  So, after a few hundred yards of being whipped by mini-wheat, I decided I might as well stop and have a look around.  By luck, I was in a bit of a dip, so the view behind was of golden wheat and blue sky (let's ignore the gathering clouds, shall we?).  Of course, I stopped for a quick snap to remind me of how beautiful it was and moved on.  Nic, while sitting around waiting for me near another field of wheat, had plenty of time and managed to capture the light much better.

Nic had time for some artistic pictures while she waited for me.

With the wheat behind me and the next check point about 45 minutes away, I was again running my way happily through the countryside.  To avoid getting lost, I had my map in hand.  It turns out, map in hand doesn't always help either...  I came to a gate where the sign pointed left.  The gate was on my right.  So, I was left with the option of staying on my current line and running into a field of unknown crops with no visible path or running on the other side of the gatepost on a marked path.  As someone who takes to these fields as a tourist, I try very hard to avoid running through crops, livestock, etc. that might cause problems for the people trying to make a living out of them.  So, I chose the latter (wrong), and added another 20 minutes (but only ~half a mile) talking to a herd of cattle asking their opinion.

The cows, being rather curious but unhelpful, simply stared blankly at me.  Perhaps they were only mirroring the look I had on my face when consulting my route guide.  Looking at it now, I can see quite happily that I was at Sands Farm.  However, at the time, I couldn't even figure out which map page I was on, to see how far away I'd gotten!  Eventually, I hopped a gate and went to knock on the farmhouse door.  I was met by a very kindly woman who pointed me up the road a bit to a path that would get me safely across the field and back on track.  I often find that being only one field out can be very disorienting, when one doesn't have a good map.  With a nice Ordnance Survey map, it's all quite easy.  I am used to reading them and can usually find my way pretty well even when I'm tired and thick-witted.  Why did I not have an OS map for this section of the Cotswold Way?  Stupidity, mostly:  I thought I'd bought one, but actually hadn't.  Anyway, typing this has reminded me that the next time I want a proper map, so I've just ordered it.

Anyhow, where was I... Oh, yes, I didn't know where I was.  I regained the trail and headed into Dyrham.  By now, I was feeling a bit frazzled and more than just a little hacked off.  I had managed, twice, at about seven-mile intervals, to lose my way and with it plenty of time and energy that would have been better spent going the correct direction.  I was also finding that PB&J on a corn tortilla may taste great, but it's a bit heavy on the gut.  I carried on for another mile or so and found Nic waiting for me at the next check point.  It was a bit of a surprise, because I'd forgotten that the check point was before reaching Tormarton, which was still a mile or so away.  I refueled, moaned a bit, happily received some encouragement, and carried on into the waiting sunshine.

With a bit more fuel on board, I was again feeling reasonably positive as I finally approached the M4.  I'd been waiting to cross the dreaded motorway for what seemed like hours.  To me, it marked the point when the route really enters the Cotswolds.  As I crossed over, early on a Sunday morning, this nightmare of a highway looked very peacful - so tranquil, in fact, that I was moved to capture its lack of jam for posterity.  Who knows when I'll see it so empty again?

The M4 - without much traffic!
Just after the M4, I entered the village of Tormarton.  This was the first time I've ever been able to look ahead on the Cotswold Way and be able to see a sign pointing off the road to the left, while standing at a sign pointing off to the right.  Rather than continue 50 yards down the road to leave the village, the CW takes a short diversion to take in the Church of St Mary Magdalene.  It's a nice church (I didn't stop for a photo because there were people heading in for the morning service), and probably quite worth the diversion.  But, I'd had enough silly diversions and the succession of gates and stiles that prevented me getting into a run were starting to wear on me.

Climbing through the sunflower fields near Tormarton

I think, in hindsight, that I wasn't really in the most positive frame of mind on the day, and that it made small irritants or confusions into major distractions.  So, when I entered a field of sunflowers waiting for the chop, I had finally had enough.  The "footpath" part of this field was lacking.  Sunflowers are quite tall and rigid, and some sort of ground cover was growing at about ankle-to-knee height in long tendrils.  Running was out of the question, and a machete would have been quite handy.  I picked my way through, chuntering away to myself that the CW in my neck of the woods is full of panoramic views, long, sweeping hills, and is generally beautiful.  Here I was struggling through a bunch of beat-up old sunflowers... Blah, blah, whine, whine.  And then, I crossed the A46 (again!) and the world opened up in front of me and looked wonderful again.

Dodington Park's ornamental bridge.

All of a sudden, I was in the countryside I love once again, and I could run freely again and enjoy it.  I passed through Dodington Park's vast open spaces with a smile.  Now 20 miles in, I was still holding it together on the flat and downhill sections.  But, uphills that needed to be walked seemed to be getting smaller.  Still, I carried on towards Old Sodbury.  It's apparently a very historically well-trodden area, according to Wikipedia.  It also contains at least one friendly person, who offered to cool me off with a spray while he washed his car (I politely declined) and one insane driver who confused every road user within sight as she drove towards opposing traffic in the wrong lane before veering into the road where I happened to be.  With much shaking of heads, we all survived and headed safely onwards. 

Old Sodbury is also home to the rather well-placed St John The Baptist church.  It looks out across the Severn Valley which was quite a picture in the sunshine.

Climbing up to Old Sodbury
By the time I reached the foot of the climb, I was starting to feel a bit more energetic from the recent refuelling, so I did the sensible thing and pushed any thoughts of running up the hill out of my head so I would still have some energy later on.  Hands on knees, I pushed up towards the church.  At the top, I encountered a very friendly couple who were sitting on a bench admiring the view.  They applauded my effort and proclaimed how much they enjoyed watching me make the ascent, and then kindly pointed out a variety of sights in the distance.  I enjoyed the 30 second breather to take in the view and then headed across the fields to Little Sodbury, where I had the chance to run through the ancient hill fort that mad the area such a focal point in years past.

Climbing through the ancient hill fort at Little Sodbury
From Little Sodbury, the going was clear and straight to Horton, with only a few gates and small hills to negotiate.  As I ran, I came across occasional bits of red and white tape that looked like it may have been placed to mark the way during the Cotswold Way Relay.  It seemed a little odd to be racing against the flow, but it was nice to feel a link with that excellent day.  With only about two miles left to my next meeting with Nic, I sent her a progress report and then thought to myself, "the last two times I did this, I got lost.  I'd better keep a close eye on where I'm going."  After making my way through another ancient fort, I duly entered a field where the waymark pointed towards two paths.  Each was as well trod as the other.  One path went up, the other straight along to the other side of the field (too far away for me to see the exit point).  Looking up the hill, the earth was pretty chewed up, like it would be if a hundred or so runners had descended in haste.  So, I guessed that up was the way to go and followed the trail for a short climb.

At the top, I found a couple of horses who displayed an air of indifference to my presence, as well as a lack of markings or any indication that I'd taken the correct path.  So, I headed back and decided to run straight down the hillside instead of working back along the path.  As a result, I got a nice 40 yards at about 50% gradient (amazingly fun!) before rejoining the path and finding the expected marker at the gate ahead.  Once again, the use of a route guide rather than a topographical map led me slightly astray.  Only a few minutes and one or two hundred yards extra this time, but it certainly worked the brain more than I'd have liked.

Here comes the rain!
It's not every day you get views like this!
As I made my way to Hawkesbury Upton, the patchy sunshine became suddenly much less patchy.  I donned my jacket and enjoyed watching the standard Holiday Weekend weather descend.  The rain didn't last for a particularly long time, but it was very heavy.  When I finally arrived at Hawkesbury, and the roaming restaurant that was Nic's car, I had to get into the car for my lunch of turkey wraps and assorted snacks.  Unlike the previous stop, I felt quite hungry - probably a good sign that I'd not eaten enough earlier.  With 3 small wraps, a ceral bar, some cashews, and a pint of sports drink on board, I got out of the car and started walking in the now bright sunshine.  After about 10 yards, I headed back to the car for some sunscreen.  I'd been out for around six hours, and I really didn't feel like having a sunburn.  Heading out again, I eased back into a run, looked around and put my jacket back on just in time for the rain.  Sunscreen turned out to be surplus to requirement for the next hour.

By this time, I was pretty tired, and my main focus was to just keep going.  The trail was generally good and there were a few more walkers than I'd seen for a while.  At Lower Kilcott, I was bemused to see a small lake surrounded by patient fishermen.  Judging by the general mood, I'd say it wasn't a good fishing day - they didn't have the look of men who's had much success.  I carried on down the road, wishing I could get back onto a trail.  With tired legs and feet, I'd much prefer the extra cushining the grass and dirt provide.

When the route finally left the tarmac, I encountered a sign telling me I had 5 miles left to Wotton-under-Edge.  At this point, the will to continue fled the general area.  With an hour to my next check point, and a likely two more hours to Dursley, I decided that I'd had enough.  Of course, over the next 20 minutes or so, I debated whether that was the correct decision. 

My legs had long-since stopped working in any way that I considered to be proper running.  On a reasonably flat section, I managed to get all the way back to high-speed hobbling and even loosened up enough to jog for a bit.  As I got closer to Wotton, I accepted that the tightness in my left hip was probably going to go away after a while, but the pain in my right achilles was real and needed to be treated very carefully indeed if I wanted to still be running for my target race at Abingdon in October.

Having finally accepted that I was going to finish at Wotton instead of continuing on to Dursley (officially 61K, but with my superb orienteering skills, at least 66K), I found myself running at below 6 minute mile pace down a steep hill.  I briefly thought about changing my mind yet again when the road flattened, the achilles muttered obscenities, and the check point appeared as if by magic.  The elation I felt at having finished told me that I'd made the right decision.  I stopped the clock 53 kilometers and nearly eight hours from my start in Bath, and headed off to find Nic.  We approached each other from opposite ends of Wotton, due to difficulties finding a place to park the car, finally meeting at a churchyard (hmm, finishing my run surrounded by headstones...).  We then walked back to the car along, as it happened, the Cotswold Way.  It was a joy to take off my shoes and sit down. 

Overall, the run was pretty amazing, if slightly less amazing than I'd hoped for.  I'd set out to break 50Km as a minimum, and had hoped to break 50 miles.  I managed the former, but lack of experience made the latter pretty much impossible.  Looking back, the preparation wasn't up to my normal standards, probably caused a bit by managing fear with an "ignorance is bliss" approach.  With a better map and a bit more preparation, I am confident that I could have reached Dursley in the nearly eight hours it took me to get to Wotton.  With a bit better refuelling strategy, I think I'd have managed the 46 mile point at Stroud.  But, it will take something more to get me through the longer distances, starting with a bit better support of my achilles.  The new shoes are now on the shelf and waiting for my short road season to end so I can give them a whirl.  After all, I've still got another 70 miles to go when I try again next year.  Add to that a bit more experience and a more positive attitude, and I've got a good chance of success.  Time to start planning!

Tired and happy to get the shoes off!

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Paris-Brest-Paris makes for an interesting distraction

First and foremost, no, I did not ride the PBP.

Why, then, does it make an appearance here?  Well, every now and then we get some inspiration from other people's crazy adventures, and this one appeared on my doorstep.  But how, one might ask, did a cycle race through Brittany get to my doorstep?  Last week, I got to spend some time with my Parisian colleagues.  Our Paris office is in an otherwise non-descript and fairly hum-drum business park in the southwestern suburbs of Paris.  The business park was also hosting the cyclists for the start and finish.  So, every morning the normally empty streets (it's August in Paris, so most people have been enjoying a holiday anywhere else!) were clogged with the few commuters as we eased around the road closures and bottlenecks put in place to protect the cyclists.  I expect they needed the protection, based on the one cyclist I saw gingerly approaching the finish with a neck brace on (either from an accident  or to keep his head up without using the tired neck muscles).

Crew / support vehicles covered every available part of the business park.

The PBP is 1200km long, and most riders finish in 3-4 days.  The riders ride all day, with their crew (volunteering friends or guilt-ridden family?) driving along in something suitable for providing a comfortable rest or at least carrying the tents.  I had the chance to talk to a couple of riders about their experience, and the overwhelming impression was "good right, thank goodness the weather was better than last year".  Apparently 4 days of wind and rain are enough to make these guys want to come back again.  This year, they were rewarded with a few sunny days to show off the northern French scenery.

It's great to see other endurance-junkies enjoying their sport.  They all looked shattered at the end, but the air of satisfaction provided a reminder that perseverance gets results.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Bugatti 2011 - Yet again, a great evening!

Another August, another Bugatti 10K.  I wouldn't want it any other way.

This race is easily my favourite 10K road race ever.  For a start, it's in August, so the chances are pretty good that the evening will be warm.  Add to that a beer at the finish line (an excellent choice from Prescott Brewery this year), a great selection of small hills to sort out all those flat-track bullies, and a fun atmosphere with plenty of familiar faces, and the result is a cracking local race.

The 2011 edition brought a few changes from the past.  It seems there's a new publican at the Bugatti Inn, and he's not too keen on a load of smelly, sweaty runners mucking up his pub.  I can't imagine why, but there you go.  So, instead of finishing outside the pub and filling its beer garden with runners and supporters, we finished by the Village Hall.  There were still plenty of supporters grabbing a drink while we ran, so the pub probably had a pretty good time of it.

On the way down to the race, Nic and I enjoyed the warm weather (28C!) and wondered what we had left in the legs for the race.  We'd both put in quite a few trail miles in the previous few days, and it felt like the heat would play a big part in the race.  But, along the course there was just enough of a breeze, and our fortnight in sweaty Georgia had us ready for the heat.

We joined in the crowd for the start, with fewer EVRC runners than usual.  I looked around for someone to use as a pacer, and was very disappointed to find that I'd have to figure it out for myself.  I wasn't feeling particularly coordinated (again - what's the deal with evening races?!), so really didn't know how I'd run.  When the horn sounded, I just eased off and tried to keep at a 7/10 perceived effort.  The crowd surged forward, and runners shot off down the gently descending road.  It's an easy start to get carried away on, and I started to recognize a few faces that would normally be running a bit slower than the 7min/mi my watch was showing.  As usual, I enjoyed the first two miles of essentially flat running, holding back a little for the hills and concentrating on technique and turnover (speed had gone AWOL, so didn't really warrant any attention).

Mile four on this course is the one that causes mayhem.  The road starts to gently rise, and then the course turns and the rise becomes a proper small hill.  It's easy enough to power up if you shorten your stride, keep a high turnover, and breathe through it.  If you hit it at full speed and run like you're on the flat, then you're going to go backwards pretty fast.  Once the course tops out, there's a nice long and fast downhill to use to get the speed back up.  The rest of the course is nicely undulating, so any loss on the up can be more than recovered on the down.

This year, due to the change in venue, we were treated to a downhill finish.  The final 50-60 yards heads down from the main road to allow a nice "sprint" finish.  I had a few targets to aim for, and put on a fair burst of speed to catch them.  When I crossed the line, I realised that I should have sped up earlier, because I still had plenty of energy left.  Oh, well, at least I enjoyed it and ended up having a nice tempo run.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Coniston Marathon

The Coniston Marathon entered my race diary as a way to ensure I didn't sacrifice my endurance as I try to improve my speed-endurance.  With a long, but not unduly arduous race in the offing, I had to keep at least half an eye on training time in spite of the shorter races dotted through the Summer.  So, having found a new marathon in a new, scenic location, I duly signed up and talked Nic into doing the 10mi race.

One of the nice things about a Sunday race is that you can drive out on the Saturday.  The 3-day weekends I'd been taking for the 7x Challenge were great, but they use up a lot of holiday allowance!  We took our time getting up to Coniston, enjoying the scenery once we'd escaped the M6.  We pitched our tent in the official campsite, and headed for registration.  The site wasn't the most peaceful, but we at least had a deal which meant the tent didn't have to come down until after the race - a real bonus!

Saturday had been quite warm, but the night was rather chilly.  We're going to have to invest in better sleeping bags if we don't want to be in our thermals during the British Summer!  Sunday morning was sunny and cool.  But, it was set to get relatively toasty in the afternoon.  I faced the difficult question of "to hat, or not to hat?"  The benefit of a hat is it keeps the sun off my head (especially where the hair has unkindly decided to stop offering protection).  The drawback is that I find hats add warmth on a hot day.  With plenty more hot running and hiking planned for my trip to Georgia the next week, I opted to experiment with a hatless run.

Nic enjoys the sunshine.

Warm & sunny, but why's the hat back in the tent?

The race eased its way out of Coniston and fairly quickly entered some narrow woodland trails.  I'd opted to start about 2/3 of the way back, to ease into the run.  I was warmed up, but didn't want to leave too much energy on the first 5k, knowing that the real uphill section started about four miles in.  For this early section, I was very happy with my hat choice - I'd have been wearing it backwards through he woods anyway to give maximum visibility, so it would have offered no benefit.

With the first few miles out of the way, I decided I was feeling good and would push on just a touch faster than an "I can do this all day" pace.  Another experiment for the day was to go without my HRM.  I managed to power my way up almost all of the inclines without walking and sped down the drops as normal. The trails and fire roads were in good condition, so I managed a steady 8 minute mile pace on the flattish sections.  There were also plenty of good views to be had along the way to keep things interesting.

One of many nice views along the early miles

By half way, I was in good spirits and feeling fairly strong - if somewhat perplexed by the course markings.  My Garmin was running about a mile behind, so either the course was short or we would have some very long breaks between markers later on.

Blue skies & green grass - wonderful surroundings for a day out.

The accidental result of fighting with the camera, but pretty cool anyway!

The course crested out at around 14 miles with some great views over Coniston Water.  We then began the long and reasonably technical descent towards mile 18 and the final climb of the day.  By now, the sun was beating down onto my shiny pate and I was thinking that the hat might have been a good bet.  I briefly considered using the buff in my emergency kit, but decided would be too warm and probably too itchy.  So, I put it out of my head and kept plowing down the tricky little rocky paths.

Fabulous view of Coniston Water.

That's how we get to earn the great views!

I'm certain that many found these trails to be pretty unpleasant, but I really enjoyed the mental challenge of finding a good line.  The reward was to quickly reach the bottom and ford a river due to a downed bridge.  The water was a bit more than knee deep (so the camera stayed in its dry pouch!), was clear, cold, and wonderful. I cupped water up onto my chest to help cool off and proceeded to smile my way to the penultimate water station.

The final climb of the day took us into a more "fell-running" style of path.  The fire roads disappeared as we headed away from the river.  By the time we peaked, I knew that my strategy of pushing to 20 and then picking up the pace down the long hill to build up for the flat final few miles was going to fail. There was no real trail now, just less boggy bits in between more boggy bits.  The more solid footing had a variety of large loose stones to add to the fun.  With fatigue increasing, heat and sun taking their toll, and no fast descent to put me back on track, I basically just tried to survive this section and hope I could get it back together for the flat finish.

Tempting to stop for a swim, but I decided to plod on.

The final water stop arrived, signalling a return to more straight-forward footing. I checked my pack and determined that I had enough water to continue (mistake!).  So, I took a couple of cups of energy drink and didn't re-fill my bladder.  I ran out of water about a mile later, with the heat continuing to grow (oh, to have worn a hat!).  I ran well for a while, but finally tripped over enough tree roots to decide to ease off rather than risk a nasty fall.  A combination of jogging and walking got me back to our campsite (nice of the organizers to route through it!), where I found a tap and enjoyed a cool drink before continuing on for the final mile.

The approach to the line was again on nice tracks.  Combined with my unofficial waterstop and the good footing, I was able to get back up to a fast plod to cross the line.  The announcer was doing a great job of mentioning everyone's name as they approached.  I heard him talk about another runner far too soon after my "shout out", so I put in a last burst for the line to avoid being overtaken.

Once finished, I was finished.  Nic led me to the picnic blanket she'd laid out while she's waited, and I duly flopped onto it while she got me some water.  finally I remembered my buff, soaked it in water and put it on my head.  that and a light fresh top to keep the sun off helped me cool down enough to enjoy the undoubted highlight of the event:  the most delicious falafel pita I've ever eaten.  The race had been marked short, probably by the amount caused by the last-minute bridge closure by the local council.  But, even with that factored in, I managed to have a wretched last 10k due to some poor heat management decisions and still come out with a new trail marathon best time.  Another day, another challenging marathon, another great way to spend a day out!

(Pictures now added 31-July-2011)

Saturday, 25 June 2011

2010 Race Mileage Surpassed Already?

It's nearly the end of June, so a good time to take stock of where the year has gone and where it needs to go next.  Last week, I went back to Texas to help celebrate my grandmother's 90th birthday.  The jetlag wasn't great fun, but I got the chance to do a bit of "warm-weather training".  With temperatures in the 100s every day, and blistering southerly winds, I took the opportunity to wake up early (helped by jetlag) and go for a run before it got above 85 - it's still much warmer than most days have been here in the UK. 

This week was planned to be a nice return to trail racing after the holiday:  land Tuesday, the EVRC invitational "Bredon Bash" on Thursday, and a relaxed approach to leg 2 of the Cotswold Way Relay on Saturday. 

As it happened, a few extra hours in the office and a last-minute trip for Friday meant I went into the "Bash" feeling very tired (jetlag + too much time in front of the PC).  The race is 5.8 miles, roughly 2 of which are up the hill and 2 are down.  I ran/hiked at full effort, but clearly didn't have "it".  Nothing felt smooth or co-ordinated until the downhill section.  Even that section, which I love to run all-out, was laboured and tight. 

With my body clock, and more importantly, my meal clock, completely confused, I had been a little low on energy by the time I got home from work, and grabbed a chocolate chip Clif Bar on the way to the race.  Half of it would have been OK, but I was hungry and ate it all - very yummy.  I've felt worse after a race, but not for a while.  That said, the course, runners, and atmosphere were excellent.  Nic even won a prize (we're not quite sure what for, but she was very happy)!

Then, off to bed, up at 4am to catch an early flight, and back home for 10pm to crawl into bed in time to get some rest before the early race this morning.  Between the two races I probably managed around 11 hours of sleep.  Good prep for multi-day racing, but not the original plan.  Surprisingly, I felt considerably better today than I had on Thursday night!

The Cotswold  Way Relay is a fun concept.  Unlike a traditional relay, where you have to wait for the previous runner to reach you before you start your leg, each leg starts at approximately the time a course-record breaker would finish the previous leg.  For a 100+ mile trail race, this means nobody has to do an entire leg without someone nearby to run with / against, and it means the race finishes a lot earlier!

Today, the morning dawned wet and blustery, but the overnight rain had at stopped.  The blustery southerly wind had not.  What you don't want to see, when you look outside on the day of a North-South run, is a southerly wind.  Oh well, at least I don't have to trot out the old "up hill and against the wind in both directions" line!

I had planned to kick back and enjoy the race as a fastish training run prior to next week's Coniston marathon.  Fat chance.  I took the first mile slowly from the back of the pack.  Then, once we hit the hills I slipped into race mode and ran myself to "empty".  It felt pretty good. 

Following this week's races, I've now amassed 210 race miles for 2011 (200 of them from trail or multi-terrain races).  So, in the first half of this year, I've surpassed the 205 race miles from 2010.  I'm going to have to get some road racing in if I want to pick up a new marathon PB in October!

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Cleeve Cloud Cuckoo - an evening well spent

Each year, as Summer beckons, I look forward to the series of mid-week races put on by Cheltenham Harriers.  For the first time, I've been both healthy and home for the run up and around "Cleeve Cloud" - one of the higher parts of the Cotswolds - so I put up a notice on the EVRC website and rescheduled my week to make sure I could race. 

The 5.5 mile course wends a figure of 8 around the hill and into the associated disused quarry.  At around half past seven on a warm sunny evening, 123 runners set off along the hillside - no doubt disturbing a few nearby golfers as we went.  The first mile essentially kept to the countour on the Western face of the hill, with the odd sharp hill.  Then we looped around to head down into the quarry.  A few steepish hills provided for some entertainment before the steep hike back onto the hilltop.  The third quarter of the race gave a bit of time for recovery before the final steep climb to the five-mile mark.  Finally, with a couple of target runners in front of me, I ran at top speed for the last half mile down a steady descent,  leaving me prostrate and gasping for breath once I'd crossed the line.

The race was pretty fantastic.  No single thing stands out about it, but from the moment I managed to get back on my feet, I have only been able to think "what a great evening out!".  I'll have to plan this one in for next year.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Malvern Half Marathon - the perfect birthday present?

Today was the Malvern Half Marathon, in aid of the Acorns Trust.  It is also my lovely wife's birthday.  So, as any good husband would, I offered to pace her to a PB.  The Malvern course is gently undulating, but stays away from the famous Malvern Hills.  With the knowledge that she is in the best shape of her life (this is her 5th half in as many months), I figured it would be easy.  I had forgotten that, no matter what is going on elsewhere, Malvern is always windy.

The Birthday Girl!

 Nic's previous half marathon PB of 2:05:35 came towards the end of 2009.  She would have managed around 2:03 or so, but got a bit excited at the start and ran out of steam with a few miles remaining.  So, my main job was to keep everything under control in the first half so she would have something left in the tank for the final miles.

The race went off easily, and we managed to keep on plan for a sub 2:00 without much effort.  I had the watch, and Nic's job was to enjoy the run and let me know how much it was hurting on a scale of 1-10.  It made for a few strange conversations that went along the lines of "6 or 7?", "6", "Ok, we're well on target." or "Still 8?", ", , yes", "OK, you're doing great, the hill is almost over".  I'm sure the runners around us thought we were ever-so-slightly mad.

Nic easily managing the first few miles.

The first half of the race is pretty quiet, allowing some nice views of the surrounding hills (and rain clouds looming).  We reached Upton-upon-Severn with time to spare.  I allowed Nic to run freely on the downhills at a "6", which gained her the minute or so that she would need later in the race to get that Sub-2:00.  Then, we turned to the North and managed to keep with a quartering tail wind.  We reached the 8 mile marker with Nic spending more time in the "7" range than "6", a few uphills negotiated, and still holding onto that minute and a bit of spare time.  Everything was looking good for her target finish.

Then, we turned to the West and lost any advantage that the upcoming downhill section was going to offer.  Nic was still feeling well enough to keep an eye on her surroundings, and picked out Lucy (of the very wet tent at The Edge) cheering on her fellow Malvern Joggers.  I waved and said "hello".  Nic tried to engage in conversation and almost ran off the road...  The wind picked up, was mostly directly opposing our progress, and started to drag the remaining energy out of Nic's legs.  We dropped about 15 seconds of our buffer over the next two miles before climbing the course's steepest hill and then turning South.  One of Nic's colleagues was waiting to cheer us on (Thanks, Lynn!).  The encouragement broke through the mask of pain developing on Nic's face (we were now creeping into the 8-9 level of discomfort) and helped her get her pace back up. 

The strong gusts made it hard to keep a rhythm.  In spite of passing many tiring runners, we continued to lose our buffer.  By the end of mile 12, the 2 Garmins I was wearing agreed that we would have to push on with the pace, but were still on target to dip just under 2:00.  The road began to drop back down the hill, and a hedge appeared to offer some shelter from the wind. 

By now, Nic was digging deep within herself to hold her pace.  I'd been offering a mix of encouragement and exhortation for a few miles, and now resorted to running backwards a few yards in front and cheering her on face-to-face.  She kept her pace, and we hit the 13 mile mark with a slim chance of hitting that target time.  Then, I looked at my watch, looked at the distance left to the line, and realized that the Garmins and the course markings disagreed by more than 100 yards.  I shouted to Nic to sprint the final .3 miles with everything she had.  It was going to be touch-and-go.  I could see the effort going in, but the open, windy finish straight was going to take around a minute.  Then, my Garmin claimed that we'd finished the race (1:59:47 - right on target).  Unfortunately, we still had about 150 yards to go. 

In the end, Nic finished with 2:00:30 - a 5-minute PB and a huge achievement.  She confirmed that there was nothing left in the tank by eventually lying down in the grass to have a rest while I picked up some warm clothes and recovery shakes from the car.  I don't often run as a pace-maker - it's a difficult job to do.  Today, I was very happy with my race plan, and overjoyed at being able to help Nic to knock an average of 23 seconds per mile off her previous best.  Now, I guess it's time to get some speedwork into her schedule!

Saturday, 28 May 2011

2011 Hilly Hundred Relay

Last weekend saw the Evesham Vale Running Club's (unlikelly) attempt to retain our Hilly Hundred "B-Race" trophy.  The Hilly Hundred is a 10x~10mile relay race around the Northern Cotswolds.  Unlike 2010, we managed to get enough volunteers to field two teams.  The "A" team's goal was to achieve a credible top-5 challenge, and the "B" team's goal was to run hard and enjoy the fun of a really enjoyable event.

After the 2010 event, Nic and I decided we would give our team's captain a break and organize the club's entry.  As a bonus, Robert Hale (the captain for the previous two years) was freed up to race in the B team.  Well, I call it a bonus, because he had claimed that it looked like fun.  So, with Nic acting as crew chief for the A team, and Mitch - the club's most experienced ultra man - crewing the B team, we gathered in Stratford-upon-Avon at 4:45AM for the start of a long day.

4:59AM, and raring to go!

It felt quite surreal getting to the line for the 5AM start, knowing I wouldn't be taking the baton until a little after noon.  The race was about to start, and I didn't even have my running shoes on!  It just didn't feel quite right.

The morning was dry (heavy rain stopped at around 3AM), cool, and fairly calm, although by 6:00, the wind became pretty fierce.  We cheered the runners out of Stratford and drove down the course, stopping periodically to encourage our runners.  After most hand-overs, we returned to drop the finisher to the start of their leg where their car was parked.  Then, Nic zipped along the country lanes to catch the next runner so we could cheer them on and do it all over again.  We didn't manage to catch up to everyone before they finished, but Nic certainly enjoyed the challenge!

Early sunshine over the lavender fields at Snowshill

As my leg approached, we took a break from crewing, spelled by the Day family (the two sisters ran in succession, supported by their parents).  It was great to have a break from the car to get warmed up and ready to run.  By the time I started, we were 60 miles into the race, about 6 minutes ahead of the host club, and well in the lead of those teams starting at 5:00.  Because there are two starts for the B-Race (5:00 & 6:00), we had no idea how we were doing against the later starters.  But, I knew that we would be fighting for third or fourth overall unless something dramatic happened again this year.  So, ignoring the comfort of the lead, I ran at what seemed an unsustainable effort level compared to the past few months of racing. 

What is it about competition that makes a slow trail runner want to take the baton on the run?

I tried to keep my heart rate at around 165 (below 90%).  But, I felt I was going too slowly, so went with by "feel" and kept it at around 170, until I took off the strap at 7 miles and passed it to Nic - I was breathing too hard to put up with the constriction.  I finished my leg barely able to stand, as had all the others, and was happy that I'd left everything on the road. 

Luckily, there were some bollards at the end to help keep me upright!
While Nic popped off to buy some chocolate, I took what felt like hours to take off my shoes and put on some warm clothes.  Then we popped back out onto the course to continue our duties as crew and cheerleaders.

The sun came out in force to warm things up, which was very convenient as I ducked behind a hedge to put on my compression tights - not really the sort of activity to be done on the main road!  Nic put the top down on the car and we continued to shout encouragement, provide drinks, and generally keep our runners buoyed up as the fatigue set in. 

A sunny day in paradise - if you're not running into the wind!

Our final racer crossed the line in second, having been caught in the end by the A-Race winners from Kenilworth AC (who set out 2 hours after us!).  Amazingly, he finished exactly on the estimated finish time of 17:30.  All of the runners who had either exceeded or trailed the guestimate I made to help everyone get to their leg on time had somehow balanced out within less than 60 seconds over the 12.5 hours.  We then began the agonizing wait to see how many B-Race teams from the 6AM start finished before 18:30.  If it was fewer than three, we would have our "podium" place. 

All the while, I was getting updates of our B team, who were struggling a bit with the conditions.  Because they would be taking more time anyway, more of the runners were having to face the ever-increasing wind and sunshine.  Although they were a little behind schedule, they were managing very well.  Only Robert managed to miss a turn (there were also a few lost runners from other teams, so we may stop making fun of him by January).

The wait for the other teams to finish was a lot of fun.  The atmosphere at the finish line, as more competitors arrived to cheer in their runner, was lively and excited.  We made sure that our hosts had good takings from the bar, and I checked and rechecked until 18:30 to see where things lay. 

In the end, the A team came in a very respectable third, and the B team finished without serious incident and with a few smiles amongst the grimaces of pain.  I vowed never to be in charge of getting 20 runners through this race again.  It was an exhausting day.  The problem is that I spent most of the day full of pride and admiration in all of the competitors - and it's a pretty tough feeling to beat.  It was one of the most enjoyable days out I've had in a long time.  So, I'm fairly certain that my vow won't last for very long at all.