Saturday, 29 January 2011

Old Year's Resolutions and the CTS Anglesey Marathon

The great thing about setting out my event schedule 6-10 months in advance is that I didn't have to worry about any resolutions in January.  My goals for this year were already pretty much laid out:  1) complete the Endurancelife 7x challenge, 2) still be able to run at the end of it, 3) enjoy a few shorter / faster races to keep some leg speed, 4) aim for that 3:15 again in October.  I spent an enjoyable few days putting together the new spreadsheets, working out the recovery timings, and buying the bits of kit that were a bit pricey to put onto the Christmas list.  Following the XC race, I managed to pick up a strange calf complaint that left me hobbling instead of running.  Once again, Sara came to the rescue and I spent two weeks in compression socks with tape in esthetically pleasing patterns on my right leg.  I managed one confidence-boosting hill run, but otherwise there was a lot of rest and TLC.  Then, Nic and I packed our bags for Anglesey and the 3rd installment of my multi-marathon challenge and the delayed 1st leg of Nic's 3x half marathon challenge.

I'd never been to North Wales before, so Nic decided we should take the scenic route and enjoy a nice day driving through Snowdonia.  Last-minute work commitments took away the morning, which meant we risked taking the twisty roads through the hills after sunset.  Driving through this "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty" in the dark would rather negate the point of the route, but the impact of getting stuck in Friday afternoon traffic near Manchester was even worse.  So we headed for the hills and hoped for good light.  With a combination of good traffic, well timed pit-stops, and incredible luck, we got more than good light - we caught a long, slow sunset over the mountains.  The clouds and mountainsides were transformed from beautiful to breathtaking as the sunlight reflected from one to the other.  Sadly, I have yet to overcome the genetic deficiency that prevents me from stopping by the roadside to take a picture.  A photo wouldn't capture the stunning scenery of the drive, but it might help the memory in a few years time...

Leaving Snowdonia and "mainland" Wales, we found Anglesey to be as flat as everyone had said it would be.  For a trail race, this one would surely rate as one of the flatest courses I could find.  Once we reached Holy Island, we could see a rather large mountain in the distance.  I was sure that the race profile had shown a maximum elevation of around 650 feet, so what was this massive thing in the distance?!  It's amazing just how big a hill can look when all about it is very flat indeed.  Holyhead Mountain is only around 700 feet high, but pretty much everything else nearby is not far off sea level, so it certainly towers above the surrounding land.  I had to remind myself that we were only going up the hill twice, so it was a lot less climbing than my usual weekend runs.

The imposing Holyhead Mountain.

We arrived in the great (empty) metropolis of Holyhead before 6, checked into our bargain motel, shook off any concern about the relative size of the hill, and headed out to a country hotel for dinner.  Fortunately, we had been pre-warned that there's not much in the way of dining-out in Holyhead, and had booked our table in advance.  Had we not, I'm pretty sure the place would not have woken the chef - it turned out that we were the only customers that night.  Our dinner at the Nant-Yr-Odyn hotel was very good, with plenty of potatoes in a variety of forms to cap the carbo-loading.  I finished with a large cup of ice cream (5 scoops!).  The portion was a bit over-generous for someone who doesn't do a lot of dairy, but the ice cream was so good I had to eat it all!

Well fed, watered, and rested, we arrived at Breakwater Country Park on Saturday to find the turf thawing to a pleasantly squelchy cushion.  The weather was cool and calm with low cloud.  In the race briefing, we heard about all of the slippery rocks, slippery boardwalks through bogs, icy patches, and cutoff to make sure nobody got lost on the hill in the dark.  We didn't, however, hear about the last-minute change of course that added some mileage and altered the race profile fairly dramatically.  That would have been nice, but wasn't essential.  After all, what's another half hour of plodding/straggling at the end of the afternoon?

Ready to go!

We eased away from the park HQ along the access road.  It was a nice gentle descent towards the coast to allow us a bit of a warm-up and to ease congestion before we turned around and headed up the hill.  Our ascent took us around the north side, with some nice coastal views, continuing past the North Stack weather station and then up the side of South Stack hill.

There's always one...

Holyhead Mountain off in the distance

Our first proper climb of the day

Looking back down the climb up South Stack
Within the first few miles, we had already taken in some breathtaking views and enjoyed what I thought was the highest point of the race.  Since I was enjoying myself as we gamboled over the slippery, rocky paths, I didn't check my Garmin for the elevation at the top.

Rocky paths along the cliffs

If I had, I'd have realized we were about 100 feet short of the official profile.  But, I continued on, blissful in my ignorance, content that my duff calf was keeping quiet.

The first half included many gentle stretchs of scenic clifftop trails.

The trip down the West coast took in a variety of little beaches, hidden coves, and some nice moorland.  Where the path joined the road, we unfortunately joined as well.  The increase in speed was nice, but I don't particularly enjoy road running in my trail shoes.  It's not uncomfortable, but it isn't great for the soft rubber studs that help me grip on slippery rocks.  The miles passed by without much excitement.

One of several hidden inlets.

The trail was gently undulating, but without many serious obstacles.  I was pleased to be looking down onto the beaches instead of running on them.  The mental scars of the Gower's long sandy sections aren't quite healed yet!

The Western coast of Holyhead Island
For one  short section we had the choice of gingerly picking our way over seaweed-covered rocks or running through the surf - the tide was in.  I seriously considered taking the wet option, but it looked to be about a foot deep, which would have been quite energy-sapping.  So, I picked my way along the rocks and then enjoyed the firm, wet sand of our only beach at Rhoscolyn Bay.  By this stage of the run, my stomach decided it was a bit annoyed about something.  Eating was uncomfortable, but drinking was OK.

I took the chance at the 14-mile check point on the beach to make an isotonic drink.  Because the long training runs have turned into races, I've had to break my golden rule of never trying anything new in a race.  Yes, I've run with this particular drink before - but never in conjunction with the various gels and energy bars that serve as my lunch on the move.  I downed about 200ml and then put the bottle back into my new backpack (excellent Christmas present from the in-laws).  In truth, I'd seriously broken the rule for this run.  The backpack had been with me on a few 10-15 mile runs, but nothing properly long.  I had a new jacket and a new merino wool base layer in the pack in case my leg gave out and meant I would need some warm layers for the long drag to a check point.  I also had on some new compression tights (thanks, Dad!) and a new light long-sleeved top (January sales).  Everything had been out at least once, but there were a lot of unknowns to consider.  So, as I bloated up like a blow fish over the second half of the race, I considered all of these novelties, the pre-race food, and let the analytical side of my brain mull over my ever-increasing waistband.

Lots of new kit!

While my mind wandered around all the potential causes for my discomfort (I narrowed it to too much ice cream or too much compression around my midriff), my legs wandered over boardwalks across a nicely thawing bog.  It's nice to enjoy the empty peace of the moors and wetlands without having to splash through them.  Of course, the boardwalks eventually ended at solid footing, and I continued along the path only to find that the thaw had turned it into an icy pond.  Still, as I've found before, it can be surprisingly pleasant to ice your feet mid-race.  At some point through this section, I decided that the half-way point had been passed, and I still felt OK.

There's something special about the second half of a marathon.  It's quite easy to think, "I've still got 13 miles to go!"  But, with a bit of mental training, it's also not too hard to tell yourself, "OK, the warm-up is over, but you have less than an easy Sunday run ahead of you!"  As with much in life, suspension of disbelief becomes the key to happiness.  The fatigue set in.  Each stile became harder to climb. The miles drifted past.  "Only around 10 to go!" became "it's down to single figures, now!" followed by "You can stay with him/her/them!" We started to climb again, as I knew we must.  Then, I could see Holyhead off to the right.  The hill loomed large in the distance, and we turned back towards the Western coastline.  Disbelief briefly dropped out of suspension.

Wait, why are we going left????

My map skills are often the source of humour, but even I know that going West when expecting to go North means something's not quite right.  I had spent a lot of time looking at the course map to make sure I understood what type of terrain we would encounter, and I knew that the course should start to head up the hill towards the finish.  But, sure enough, the markers clearly took us down the road (yes, road, again!) and away from our destination.  Apparently, there had been a course change, and I'd missed whatever notification there had been (if there had been one).

I trudged along the road at maximum speed (now very, very slow!), hoping to at least take advantage of the fast surface.  Finally, we turned back towards the hill and started the final ascent.  With nearly 26 miles done, I estimated another 28 miler and plodded upward.  When we moved off the road, the trail became a little steeper (1:5 increasing to 1:3).  At times, I had to use my hands to help haul myself over the rocks. 

26 miles down, but what a view!
On the way, I clocked 5:03 for the marathon distance, which wasn't too far away from my expectation at 13 miles. The final half mile of scrambling had taken 15 minutes, and I wasn't hopeful of picking up any pace on the descent, given the crumbly nature of the goat track we were following.  

The mist was settling in as we reached the top.

 The first half mile down still took 10 minutes.  My knees refused to work properly on the equally steep scramble to the final trail.  As the rough track evened out, I was able to move from a hobble to a fast plod.  My body had had enough, and I couldn't even break into a proper run as I approached the line. 

I had finished, I wasn't last, and my leg hadn't bothered me at all.  Considering the state I'd been in before the race, I chalked it up as a success and went hunting for Nic.  She'd finished well in her "half marathon" (15.5 miles for her), and was at the car about half a mile away getting warm gear together for me. 

How did the Travel Lodge know I'd need this to get in and out of the shower?
In a break with tradition, we had Chinese take-out for our celebratory dinner (Holyhead doesn't seem to do restaurants).  I found out later that there had been a last-minute problem with access rights to one of the paths, thereby causing the extra road sections to find our way to the trailhead up the hill.  I'm not sure I would rank this as one of the most spectacular of runs.  Some of the scenery was amazing, to be sure, but there was an awful lot of road on this course.  As courses go, I'd say it was the least challenging I've done yet.  As races go, it was easily the most difficult.  I spent most of the time feeling the extra recovery time and extra Christmas goodies.  Hopefully, I'll be able to get some more quality training in before the next one in February.  Oh, and another lesson learned: when Gary asks us if we have any questions at the briefing, always double-check to find out just how many last-minute deviations they've added!

Sunday night and Monday morning, we enjoyed the luxuries of a mini spa break!

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Worcestershire AAA Cross-Country County Championships 2011

I've always liked championship racing - either watching or participating.  The heady buzz of competitors as they strive for the line is more than just a little intoxicating.  Since there's approximately zero chance of me winning a championship any time soon, I appreciate the open nature of the county competitions.  I can experience the atmosphere, see the winners from close up, and challenge neighbouring clubs by picking up one or two places.  They're great events to bring local runners of all types together.  At the front, speedy waifs look ready to be blown away by a heavy gust of wind.  At the back, runners revel in their new or lasting ability to complete the course.  In the middle, the rest of us battle for age-group prizes, places to count toward the team award, or simply to be better than we were last year.

Last year's event was a frozen folly.  Ice and snow curtailed attendance and the course.  It was deeply unpleasant on so many levels, but I still loved the draw of the team event and the competition.  So, I bought some spikes in the end-of-season sales and planned to get organized for this year's season.  Of course, the marathon madness set in, so I've not had time or energy to join any of the local series.  The championships, however, called to me.  The date fit perfectly into my schedule, so I volunteered to organize the club's entries and put in a bit of practice in the unworn spikes.

The day dawned cloudy and miserable, as expected.  But, in a big improvement from last year, the temperature was above freezing, the snow had all melted, and only one of our team had to pull out due to fitness issues.  As the morning wore on, the temperature started to drop, and any hope I had of knowing in advance what I might wear went out the window. I packed my longs, long shorts, race shorts, club vest, club t-shirt, short-sleeve base layer, and long-sleeve base layer into my bag and hoped that I would be able to make a decision before the gun fired.

A fabulous early-January day.

We arrived in time to give the Ladies team an hour or so to reccie the course and prepare.  By this time, the sun was bright, the wind was cold, and our club committee members vowed that we would get a club tent to use as a base and a place to keep warm while others are racing (we're a bit new to this sort of thing).

Evesham Ladies get ready to rock

The Men's team and the support crew spread about the course to cheer on our Ladies.  Nic set herself in a top position for taking pictures (300 or so before the cull!).  The gun fired, and we all cheered the runners on their three-lap tour of Cofton Park, next to the old MG car plant. 

And they're off!

The park offers a great place to run, with a nice steep hill to keep competitors from getting bored.  With each lap, the field spread out.  The leaders began to catch the stragglers as the back of the field hit half-way.  Our Ladies team set us a hard task by racing well and taking 3rd in the team competition.  Two of our six qualified to run for Worcestershire in the Inter-Counties Championship later this year.

After a chat with some of the ladies about their run, I opted for long shorts, a short-sleeve base layer, club vest, and light gloves.  I'd probably spent 2-3 times the amount of running time trying to figure out what to wear... For about 2 minutes between warming up and the start of the race, I stood freezing in the sunshine.  Then, the horn sounded and we were on our way.

So many legs, so little tan...

A top-half team finish would be pretty impressive for our men. Our previous attempt left us at the bottom of the table.  Although we had picked up quite a few faster runners in the last year, competition was fierce. We really didn't know how it would go, so we just set out to run hard and see what happened.

The course was pretty simple.  I started in the back quarter, to make sure I didn't blow up on the first lap. Down a gentle slope, up a short 15% hill, zig-zag back down the hill into a gully, climb out and up a short slope, then carry on down the gentle descent to the start - repeat as needed.  The first ascent was tough.  I haven't raced up a hill for a few weeks, and I could tell that the Christmas chocolates had been opened a few too many times.  But, I enjoyed the steep descent.  Most of the runners in the back were taking it very gingerly.  All I saw was a soft, grassy slope with no evidence of skids, so I sprinted down with arms windmilling away and left many for dust.  Sadly, Nic wasn't near this part of the course to take photos of my Mr. Bean running style.  This pattern continued for the next 40 minutes or so.  I ran slowly up the hills, losing ground to a few people, and raced down them, resulting in a net improvement in my position throughout the race.  I finished, sprinting with every ounce of energy I could muster, to the sound of "he's on your shoulder!" being hurled at me.  I was pretty sure there was nobody there, but you can't be too sure in the final stretch. Thanks for the unnecessary boost, Tara!

A final sprint to beat the phantom on my shoulder.  We need to check Tara's eyesight!

All told, it was a fun day out.  Cheering on the Ladies and then being cheered in turn made for a nice change from the usual race day.  Our Men's team finished a solid 4th, which was a pleasant surprise.  Maybe next year, I'll be able to get my act in gear and organize a few lower-profile events earlier in the season so we all go in a little better prepared.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

2010 - a Year in Review

Having taken a week to contemplate the year that was, I've come to the conclusion that after 30-odd years of running, I have finally managed to do it properly.  I managed fewer weeks off than ever before (only 4 weeks < 10 miles, and 2 of those were planned recovery); no down-time due to injury for more than a few days; a new marathon PB; and 3 trail marathons.

2010 began with the farce of an icy 10k.  Most of the county was frozen, but we braved the snowy roads and icy field for my first ever official "cross-country" race.  Due to the conditions, some of the course was closed and we had several laps of some school fields.  Each lap made the track more slippery.  My trail shoes eventually compacted with frozen snow and I endured the final mile certain in the knowledge that I would have spikes for 2011.  I have, and they've been snow-tested and are great!

I moved through the next few months towards my first marathon in 11 years and my first trail marathon.  It went better than expected, so I lined up a schedule to attempt a big PB in the autumn.  The short races ticked by.  The holidays came and went with running and hiking built in to the relaxation time.  October arrived and the struggle through Amsterdam was slower than I wanted, but still resulted in a big improvement over 1999.

While I was working on my endurance, I got a bit silly and entered a 7 marathon trail race series.  Two of those are done now, and I'm looking forward to finding out just how much more I can do this year.  I'm loving the trail races, and if I get through to June in good shape, I may just have another go at Amsterdam.

In short, although I didn't always get the individual race performances I wanted, I broadly achieved everything I wanted from 2010.  That's much more satisfying than 2009, when I picked up PBs at 5k, 10k, and half marathon but spent the first quarter easing back from injury and the last month recovering from another.  So, I start 2011 a little slower than I would like, but uninjured and with more endurance than ever before. Now it's time to look at the schedule and see just what sort of silliness I can fit in for this year!