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!