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.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Endurancelife CTS Final - "The Edge"

At last, the final marathon of my eight-month challenge has come and gone.  Endurancelife called their final race of the series "The Edge".  Did it takes us to the edge of a cliff, the edge of our wits, or perhaps just the edge of reason?  I'm not sure, but it certainly took me to the edge of my limits.

The location for this grand final was the Flete Estate in South Devon.  The estate takes in the entire Erme Estuary, and is an all-round beautiful area.  It's also quite hilly (no surprise, really).  Not big, long, eye-watering hills.  Just short, very steep, break your rhythm and leave you a bit wobbly hills.  When we arrived at race HQ on Friday to set up our tent, James Heraty from Endurancelife greeted us with, "I've only got two words for you: Beacon Hill!".  Of course, the route map was being held back in surprise until race day, so I had no idea what to expect.  Once the tent was up, though, we pulled out the OS map and found it.  It looked manageable at 100m of climb, except that it was in less than 200m of distance.  Still, it was only one hill, and short enough to grunt your way up.

With the knowledge that James's famous hill was nothing worse than some of my normal training runs (turns out it was a bit tougher than that), I waited impatiently for the unveiling of the route.  We went for a short walk, found the finish route straight up the hill from the Erme, and sat to watch our fellow campers put up their tents.  Our new tent-neighbour Lucy provided a bit of entertainment with an enormous tent by arriving just as the rain started.  Eventually, a few of us realized that she was never going to put it up with the increasing deluge and helped to make it as water-tight as possible (turns out we failed and she had to bail out parts of it in the morning).

Following a wet Friday night's camping, Saturday dawned sunny-ish and warm and great for trail racing.  Due to the tides, we had a late start.  For the first time in a while, I had a leisurely start to race day.  With plenty of time due to the late start and overnight within 100m of the start, I was feeling relatively chilled.  Finally, the route map was revealed, and I saw the maximum height of 350m and relaxed.  As CTS races go, this one was going to be reasonably flat.

Off and running for the last time this series.

A downhill start got things off at a good pace, and I was ticking along very nicely.  I knew my heart rate was too high, and tried to ease back to let it drop.  But, with little rolling hills to keep the rate up, it was a few miles before I managed to keep consistently in the mid-to-low 150s.

Nice scenery to help the early miles tick over.
A nice jaunt along the beach to help get the blood moving.

Beacon Hill turned out to be steeper than I'd expected, but a fast hike got it out of the way without too much fuss.  Of course, when I tried to run again at the top, my legs were like jelly - perhaps I hiked up it a bit too fast!

Is that Beacon Hill?
Here comes Beacon Hill
See, it's not that big!

At this stage, I realized from chatting with the runners around me that I might be in for a tough race.  With a smaller field than usual, I had fewer slower runners in front of me to block me on the narrow bits and help me keep from going out too fast.  At 5 miles, I was running with the women's leaders.  I normally come in a bit behind the 3rd woman, but I was up with the winner of the last race.  Still, with the steep downhills from 5-9 miles, I managed to keep in touch even though I was consciously easing back away from such exhalted company.  I know my place (and pace), and it should have been further back in the field!

Hmm. Those ladies are a bit too fast for me.  How'd that happen?
Efford House in the backdrop at the checkpoint

From 9-14 miles the course was essentially flat through the Estate's woodland paths.  I tried to get some pictures of the rhododendrons and bluebells, but only got green blur as I passed.  I gently eased back away from the sharp end of the race and made a serious effort to allow some recovery before the hilly second half came upon me.  The effort wasn't enough.  At 14 miles, I trudged up the hill from the estuary and woodlands and just kept feeling less energetic with each step.  All of the niggles I'd picked up in Sussex and Exmoor started to show up.  I could tell that the legs were willing, but not at a particularly challenging pace.  By 15 miles, at the course high point, I had to have a long walk to eat and wait for the energy to rebuild.

At least when you're walking you can take pictures of the pretty flowers...

Some downhills helped get my legs moving again until we reached the beach at Bigbury-on-Sea.  With the tides out, we were able to run the beach around the point instead of up and over it.

I wasn't particularly relishing more sandy beach after the early races, but the sand was generally firm and good for running.  I started to feel a bit more energetic again and got back down to 8-minute miling along the beach. 

Hurrah, firm sand and fast (or less slow) running!

Then came the nasty five miles of short-sharp hills to the finish.  Each hill was only 70-100m high, but they were on 1:4 to 1:8 gradients - not what you need to climb after 21 miles.  Fortunately, the downhills were similarly graded, so I was able to keep up a reasonable average pace.

Now that is a hill.  The path zig-zags up it, because it's just too steep for a straight-on assault.

Eventually, I got to the "One mile to go!" sign (lying by about .7 miles) and knew there was only the river crossing and short hill up from the bank left between me and a well-earned beer.  The river crossing was energizing - the tide was out, so the water that remained was only about a foot deep, and a few steps wide in three or four channels.  Splashing through the cold, clear water felt wonderful on my tired feet.  Then I climbed up the road and prepared for one last push to the finish.  Then the marshal said "turn right".  At some point between the start and reaching this point, the course had been re-routed off this little section of road and back up the path we started on - that nice long downhill start.  With an extra half mile of technical trail before the interminable hill to the finish (well, that's how it felt, in spite of being entirely runnable without 27 miles in the legs), my remaining energy dropped away like a stone and I plodded away until the final trot to the line.

All in all, the race itself was very hard.  I spent the last half of it feeling like I was dragging myself along, even though I was keeping on roughly the same average speed as the previous race.  My poor pace control at the start meant I suffered for longer than usual - entirely my own fault.  But, as long as there were hills around, I knew I wasn't going to struggle any more than anyone else - a strange comfort.  It was probably one more marathon than was sensible, so now it's time to relax and recover.

The CTS series was a fantastic challenge, and I hope I can get my head around it as a whole event.  Having made it to the end, I'm actually tired enough to have found myself happy today that I've got a 9-day no-run period in my training schedule.  It's been a while since I last looked at a rest period with anything other than frustration, so I guess I'd better enjoy it!

Support crew Nic, who did 4 of the halfs this series.  Thank you!

Monday, 2 May 2011

How much training is really necessary?

I was having a short chat on tonight's club run that got me thinking - how much training is really necessary to enjoy running a marathon?  From the short review of those around, it's not that much at all.

For my first marathon, I had a pretty solid training schedule for the first few months.  I don't have a log of it, but I'm pretty sure I was out 4-5 days per week, with long runs into the high teens.  Then I pulled a muscle walking into town and was out for a few months, strapped up my leg, and ran it anyway.  More than just a little stupid, but before the injury I figure I was clocking 30-40 miles per week.  (The scar tissue is still a bit of a problem now, due to the moronic need to complete the race)

The second time around, I was very conscious of the pain of the first time.  So, I picked up a Runner's World plan and was up to 40-50 miles per week, enjoyed the race (still the only marathon I've ever run all the way), and was forced to promise never to run another marathon again because I was spending so much time and energy in training.

In the past 12 months, I've run 9 marathons - 1 road and 8 trail, with less training than I ever thought possible.  Most of the success is down to reading that 1) 3 days per week is enough if you plan well; 2) making good use of recovery aids like massage, targeted nutrition, and compression; and 3) plenty of good luck. 

I remember a teacher from High School constantly pushed us to "work smarter, not harder", and have taken that concept on board in the past two years. Primarily, I've done this because I only get away with all of my running fun because I allow social activities and family time to interact with my training schedule.  The early forays into marathon training were more about running and sleeping than about fitting running into my life.  But, a secondary reason to spend less time on the run is that I just kept injuring myself.  The more time I spent running, the more frequently I seemed to need to spend waiting for something to heal.

So, what's my weekly schedule like?  1 long run, 1 medium run, 1 short run.  If I'm not preparing for a road marathon, then all of the long runs are on the trails.  If I've got a fast time in my sights, then half of them are on the road.  The other two are either tempo or the occasional long reps (away from races), social (most Monday nights), or  psychological refreshment (run whatever pace, anywhere, but just get out).  Most weekdays, I spend 15-20 minutes doing some core work and general body-weight strengthening.  That's it.  I like to think that the other 4 days are scheduled as "recovery".

Stats-wise, that equates to an average weekly mileage of fewer than 25 since January 2010. Over that time, only 1 in 4 weeks has been 30+ miles, and only 1 week over 40.  I regularly preach that recovery is a key part of training, but hadn't quite realized how much I had taken it to heart.  It will be interesting to see what I can do to squeeze in some extra miles once I've finished the constant cycle of marathon, recover, rebuild.