Monday, 20 February 2012

CTS South Devon Marathon 2012

Before this week, I've never done a marathon course for a second time.  It didn't occur to me when I entered, but upon reflection, it brought a an unexpected significance to this latest foray onto the trails.  Why, you may ask, did I enter in the first place, given such an apparent wanderlust?  Yes, I loved my CTS series last year, but that wasn't the main draw.  The main reason is that I needed something to do on the day.  Crew-chief Nicola had decided that she enjoyed the location so much during last year that she wanted to make it her first marathon.  So, rather than sit on my backside and wait for her to finish, I decided that I might as well run it.  The Endurancelife team encourage the marathon runners who will be at or above 6 hours to start with the ultra runners, about 45 minutes ahead of the main marathon start.  This gives them a chance to run with people who, for the most part, aren't really in any hurry.  It also gave me a chance to cheer Nic on her way, hopefully pass her en route to offer some encouragement, and finish in time to cheer her into the finish.

For last year's race, the weather was unbelievably warm and sunny.  Although it was unlikely to be such amazing picnic weather again, I had hopes of a fair day for the run.  As the time came near, though, it was clear that Race Director Gary's sun-god mojo had clearly gone AWOL for 2012.  The week running into the race was sunny and fine.  The day after the race was due to be cold and sunny.  Saturday, from the 15-day forecast to all the way up to the Friday night was due to be wet and windy.  Not wanting to believe the forecast, I still packed a selection of gear that would work from below freezing to unseasonably toasty.  Nic packed one outfit.  So much for stereotypes.  As a result of my extreme flexibility, I changed kit selections three or four times on Friday night and another couple of times on Saturday morning.  The final selection became a light, long-sleeve Helly top, 2XU shorts, the usual shoes, socks, and calf guards, Montane Slipstream gilet for the windy start, light gloves and my usual red Buff and my OMM jacket in the pack for if/when the weather turned nasty.

The first bright start to the day was catching up with EL's James Heraty as we approached race HQ.  During the series last year, James seemed to be everywhere with a smile and cheery word or two.  The camaraderie of the CTS team and participants is one of the reasons we all keep coming back.  These folks had been up in the wee small hours after a late night and yet were all smiles (or was it just chattering teeth!?).

By the time we got to check-in the sun was up, but the clouds were keeping its warming rays at bay.  We were playing a fine game of keeping warm enough not to waste energy, but cool enough not to feel too much of a shock when peeling off for the race.  Luckily, the marquee was full of runners and offered enough shelter to see out the requisite worry-pee-fret-pee pre-race period.

Finally, the briefing for the early start happened, Nic peeled off her final layer of extra warmth, and I made a complete mess of taking pre-race pictures.  Normally, I take pretty bad people pictures, but I was combining my poor skill with some technology issues to do a spectacularly (and humorously) rubbish job of it.  Due to a little mix-up caused by a last-minute trip to the vet's on Friday, we'd had to re-arrange our weekend plans.  So, Nic put away the good camera that we would take on our Sunday recovery hike.  Unfortunately, we keep the little camera I normally use in the same bag.  A little fraught over the sickly cat, I forgot, so was left using the camera on my phone.  I like my phone, but the camera function is pretty useless, and every time I tried to take a picture of Nic running off, something else popped up to get in the way of my hitting the "take the bloody picture already" button.  So, I sprinted forward, stopped, and took a bad picture about four times before I had to give up.  Nic started her first ever marathon laughing.  At me.

I went back into the marquee, stowed the offending phone, did my warm-up, etc.  While sorting out my kit (for the final time), I ran into Ian Corless of TalkUltra.  The new podcast has informed and entertained on my recent commutes.  I also noticed in passing several participants that I remembered from last year's series (good with faces, mostly bad  with names).  Everyone looked much more trim and chiselled than I remembered - must be the compression gear!

Finally, if somewhat reluctantly, we headed back out into the strengthening wind and the race started.  The first time I ran this course, my goal was to enjoy it and survive for the next one.  The next one isn't for a few weeks, and survival wasn't really in question, barring an unfortunate incident.  This time, I wanted to drop one minute per mile (~28 minutes) from the 2011 time.  With that in mind, I set out a at a reasonable effort level, to avoid getting caught too far back at the first uphill track.  To say I carried on that way for the next 20-odd miles seems a bit strange, but that's basically the way it worked out.

The climb up to Start Point (~ 2 miles) was tough but somewhat sheltered by the hill, so the wind wasn't too bad.  Then we turned to the southwest, and the shelter was gone.  The wind whipped up the cliffs and the technical terrain that would dominate the next few miles became that little bit trickier.  When there are little sharp rocks everywhere, it's often easier to launch over them than to pick through them.  But, when the wind is fierce, it's not always wise to get too far off the ground - who knows where one might land!

At around four miles in, I joined up with my friend Rueben from the 2011 series.  The last time I'd seen Rueben as at the Endurancelife Festival last May.  Aside from whipping me in the marathon, he also helped to save a damsel in tent-building distressed and was a great drinking partner in that evening's Live More Lectures.  We had the chance over the next mile or so to exchange stories of the past few months and the coming races (he's got his 100 miler booked for June).  I often find myself running long stretches of these races alone, so it was nice to have a bit of a chat.  Eventually, though, I felt I had a bit more oomph to give, and eased away.  By now, the sun was shining bright and I was peeling off the various accessories.

I could definitely tell I was moving well, especially when at 10km, I looked off into the (far) distance and could see the leader approaching Prawle Point lighthouse.  It was the last time I saw the leaders, but it felt good to still be within a mile or so of them.  When it was my turn to clear the point, I turned directly into the wind.  The early layers came back on and I pushed on knowing that I was only a couple of miles from a tailwind.

At this stage, my goal was to hit the 11mi checkpoint in 1:50 or better.  I came through on target and alternated between hiking and jogging to climb back to the top of the hills.  Once up, I was on the road with a nice tailwind to speed my way through the third 10km section.  At around 13 miles, I caught up with Noel who is doing all of the CTS ultras this year.  We had a short chat about the MdS he was training for during last year's series, and then I carried on.  He was in no great hurry, with a plan to get to the finish area just before the cutoff.  It was really nice to see another familiar face, even if only briefly.  Next month, we may have a bit more time to chat, since I'll be doing the ultra as well.

Not more than half a mile later, I spotted the most familiar runner of all.  Nic was powering along the last coastal view for a while.  I caught her up, had a wee chat, checked that she was well, congratulated her for being exactly on target for 13-minute miles, gave her a kiss, and shot off with a big smile.  It was great to see her running so comfortably, and even better to know that we were both having a good race.  Most of the past six months has been a case of one happy runner and one grumpy runner, so the change was most welcome.

I was, by then, well into the "fast" part of the course, with flattish roads and tracks.  Until the approach to 18mi, where there is a 20-30% gradient.  On a steep camber.  Going down.  I remembered it from last year as I ran, thinking of the pain in my toes.  I'm pretty sure it was a bit more muddy then, and therefore more forgiving.  It certainly hurt this time!

The fourth 10km section begins with the fresh pain of the steep descent, and contains four steep rollers - approximately 300 feet of climb over half to three-quarters of a mile, then roughly the same back down again.  My uphill speed must have improved in the last 12 months, because I managed to only slow to an average of 11min/mi for this segment, balancing off the 9:30 pace I'd averaged through the fast segment.  When I reached the marathon distance at Torcross (only one nasty hill to come!) at just under 4:30, I was pretty happy - not just because I was still on schedule for my 4:45, but because I had spent the past mile and a half battling a stiff headwind that was actually strong enough to later pick Nic off the ground!

The climb up through Torcross is sheltered, and even though I would have to walk up the steps, I was glad of the respite.  The stairs back down were slippery and tricky while running, but I didn't care - it was nearly over.  Then, it was a short and brutal quarter mile of headwind and I was through the finish.  By then, the wind and rain were so foul I actually kept jogging the extra 50 yards to get back into the warmth of the marquee!

After around 20 minutes of putting on warm clothes, chatting with a few other wet and worn runners, stretching out (I'd had to sit on the floor to put on dry shoes anyway), and getting some recovery drink down my neck, I started to realize that I was actually getting quite cold.  The tea queue was still growing, so I joined in before the shivering got too bad.  While waiting, I got another chance to talk to Ian about some of the technical aspects of putting together a podcast.  As we waited for our tea by the rack of giant pasties also on offer, and started to talk about mid-race nutrition, I saw a pink and purple flash out in the rain.  Nic was about 20 minutes ahead of schedule!  She had managed to hold on to her 13min/mi pace through the second half and was nearing the finish tape.

Normally, I would be outside shouting Nic through the last few hundred yards, but I hadn't dared yet to go out in the foul weather without getting something warm into me.  I quickly asked the tea maker to hold my cuppa and "sprinted" (well, it felt like it) to the finish line calling out encouragement.  Nic hit the "Stop" button a few seconds under six hours, and we both had wide grins at her great achievement.  As it turns out, her timing was impeccable, because when we got back into the tent, the tea was ready for her to share.  I couldn't very well make her wait 10 minutes while I was drinking it, now could I?  She changed into a warm top and we walked the mile back to our B&B in animated and elated conversation.

So many people have asked me why I run these stupidly hard races in whatever weather, and it's because of days like this.  Every person I encountered, whether organizers, volunteers, supportive families, runners, or local residents, was incredibly positive.  Even those hobbling to their cars encouraged the runners still on the course.  So, I have to ask in return, "Why on Earth would I not want to be part of it?"

Monday, 13 February 2012

Everything takes longer in the cold

Running in the cold is as much an effort of mind and patience as of strength and endurance.  If you're lucky, your legs will go at or near normal pace, but all of the little things that run smoothly on a normal day seem to be a bit more fiddly and time-consuming.  The past two weekends of running were generally in sub-freezing and windy conditions.  Nothing seemed to flow, and some of the new kit I tried really required more brainpower than I could muster in the cold.

The first properly cold run of the year started in ~-5C and got colder before it got warmer.  I struggled to get warm enough to run when I got to my first uphill (normally mostly runnable, if slowly).  My calves just wouldn't stop burning.  So, I hiked.  As I hiked, I fiddled with my pack, my Buff, my top, my mittens, etc.  Mittens?  I got some very nice fleecy mittens for Christmas from my folks, who know my hands are usually cold and that I've never found a pair of gloves that work for a cold day out hiking or standing around pre-/post-race.  Since it was well below freezing and very windy, I thought I'd give them a go on the run.  So, while I struggled to run, I found I also struggled with my pack zips, my shirt zip, my Buff, etc.  I had warm hands, but not much coordination.  In fact, when the bite-valve froze, it took me a good 2 minutes to re-route it into my top for thawing, what with the taking off the mittens, re-arrange the pack, blah, blah, blah.  Would gloves have sped me up?  No, my brain was still mostly as useful as frozen porridge.

The following day, as the ice and snow started to melt, I took Nic out for a nice jaunt up the Avon Way.  We ran along the river out of Evesham, thoroughly enjoying the (very) occasionally milky sunlight trying to brighten the snow.  I was a little more together for this one, so I had enough coordination to enjoy a good ski down the one big hill on the route.  Running on the ever-moving slush above rutted and frozen mud did keep the pace down while we tried to avoid turning ankles/knees just as Nic started to taper before her first marathon.

This Saturday was another cold one.  I hoped to get out into the hills before the sun melted all of the snow, and just managed my goal.  Again, my calves struggled to loosen up (3 miles of up does that, I guess), but felt OK after I got in a good downhill to get it together.  This time, I took my new backpack out (review to come, once I've used it a bit).  I wore gloves so I could mess about with all of the straps to my heart's content - which I did. The best bit about the new pack is the handy waterproof pocket that gives me easy camera access without fear of dropping other stuff.


Following in the footsteps of the early birds.

I never tire of this view, and it certainly scrubs up nice in the snow!

 The snow didn't disappoint, and I finished my shortish run (14 miles) feeling far too tired, but happy for the sun & snow combination. All told, I finished the week and a half of cold running fairly wiped out but happy to have been out in such challenging and beautiful conditions.