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!