Saturday, 31 March 2012

Hampton Ferry Charity Race - the pain that is a 5K

Around this time each year, some of our local runners put on a small race along the banks of the Avon in aid of Diabetes UK.  This year, I was actually both home and fit and so had the opportunity to join in the fun.  Nearly 20 EVRC runners took part, so it was a very sociable, if nervy, atmosphere as many muttered about how much it hurts to race a 5K.  My last 5K was in 2010, so I wasn't quite sure how it would go.  Add in the fatigue of last week's ultra, and my race would be a bit of a lottery.

I don't really have space for a 5K in my ultra training, so I decided to put in a nice long warm-up and then top up after the race to at least get 10 in for the day.  At least I started off as loose as my body felt likely to get.  The goal was to start off aiming for sub-19 and find out how long I could hold on.  The start was quite quick as we tried to cross a field and hit the trail in line to avoid a bottleneck.  I finished the first mile dead on pace at 6:06 and knew I wouldn't be holding it much longer.  I managed to keep going at 6:21 pace for the rest of the race, until the obligatory sprint finish.  The brain kept asking for faster, but the body just wasn't moving efficiently enough to increase the speed.  My lungs felt set to burst, and my abs felt like someone was standing on me.  Within a minute or so of finishing, I felt human, but like I'd been beaten.

Only when I'd cooled down a bit after the race did I remember that I still had another four miles to run.  Since home was only a mile and a half away, I added some warm layers and headed off in the opposite direction to begin my long, very slow cool-down.  It wasn't pretty, but it was good training to put in some miles on a very tired body.  In the end, my 19:35 gave me a new PB by 14 seconds, which is pretty satisfying considering that I'd just completed my longest ever run just a week ago.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Endurancelife CTS Sussex Ultra - Fun in the Sun

The Endurancelife sun-god mojo is back, and the weekend it was back with a vengeance!  Sun, sea, and trails make for an amazing combination, and Saturday's CTS Sussex ultra had it all.  I had been approaching the race with regular alternation between a nervous tick and smug calmness.  As the weather report continued to show sunshine and warmth, I couldn't wait to tackle the hills without needing to worry about staying warm.

Being me, though, I took three choices of top and two choices of long-sleeve windproof (mandatory kit), and mentally changed between short-sleeves and vest repeatedly in the pre-race lounging period.  In the end, Nic (in her 2nd marathon) and I both opted for to replace sleeves with sunscreen as the temperatures edged into the teens (>50F).  Thankfully, I was in the early start, so I didn't have time to vacillate further.  Unfortunately, I was still a bit vacant and neglected a few pre-race plans that would come back to get me a little later.

I lined up with the other ultra runners for the first time with a bit of trepidation and a clear race plan.  I'd only run over 30 miles once before, in last summer's Trailblaze on the Cotswold Way.  Then, it was a rather lonely start line.  This time, there were a few familiar faces from other CTS events, so it didn't feel too much like a new experience.  The only difference between this and the other races would be that, upon reaching the finish line of the marathon, I would keep going and take in the "10K" route (more like 8 miles than 6.2).  With an extra 7 miles and around 2000ft of extra ascent compared to last month's effort in Devon, I'd already decided to run the ultra at around 40 seconds per mile slower than I had the marathon.  I figured that would see me comfortably through the first 26 and leave me a fairly manageable task to get around again to the finish line.

Don't look back, those hills are for much later! (Pics by Nic)

We set off, dibbing in at the start rather than as a bunch.  This meant that we would be ranked in chip-time order. With a staggered start, there were no pinchpoints on the path and I started off fairly steadily, easing along the flattish start before the attack on the Seven Sisters.  As usual, my plan was to speed-hike the steep ascents (or slowly walk, depending on the distance into the race).  This tactic resulted in a fairly rhythmless first 10K as the course took us up and down the hills like some sort of demented fairground ride.  The highlight of this first section, aside from the excellent views, was when I cracked open the larder for my first bite of the run - a yummy, garlicky hummous (hummus to the North Americans) wrap.  I've grown tired of only sweet foods, and have been playing about with savouries for a little while.  It was quite pleasant to hike up a hill in the sunshine eating food that reminded me of the beaches of Zakynthos.

See hills, run hills.

With all the ups and downs, I managed to keep an average of around 10:40min/mi until we hit the largest climb of the day, starting just after 7 miles and climbing a mere 680 feet over the next three miles.  It wasn't the hardest climb, but it took us to the highest point.  It also provided me with a chance to open my first aid kit and get out some micropore to tape my nipples.  I generally do this as a matter of routine before the race, but somehow forgot.  Wearing a vest meant that I had a bit more flapping fabric on my chest than normal, and so I noticed at about 10K that I would have a problem in a few hours if I didn't protect myself.  That's the great thing about uphill hiking - your hands can work on running repairs if necessary.

The bad thing about going up hills is that your feet move slightly differently in your shoes to when you are running.  In my case, this exposed that I'd also forgotten to put a blister plaster on my heel.  I'd planned the prophylactic plaster to avoid any issues with the hole I'd put into the shoe liner a few weeks previously.  Oops.  It's not particularly efficient to make running repairs to your feet.  So, upon reaching the top of the hill I promptly sat on the grass to tape the vulnerable heel and just as promptly lost about eight places.  A couple of runners kindly offered help if needed, which eased the annoyance of dropping so many places.  Normally, I don't bother too much with placings in the early part of a race.  However, when you've been keeping people at bay for miles, only to see them trotting off in the distance ahead of you, it's pretty galling.

Over the next eight miles, which were mostly down even though they included five short, steep hills, I concentrated on keeping my pace up and trying not to get lost.  A few near misses where signs had kindly been "adjusted" by passers-by only added a few hundred yards. There were a couple of handy water stops that slowed me down as I re-filled but meant I never had to struggle to stay hydrated.  By now, it was lunch time and there were plenty of hikers and picnickers offering support as we passed.  Then came "the hard part".

The eighteen-mile point in a marathon is traditionally where things start to get properly hard.  At this stage, you've worked through the excitement of the start, the "easy" 2nd 10K where your body is flowing well and you (hopefully) feel like there's plenty in the tank to get you through.  The 3rd 10K is where you realize you are actually running quite a distance.  Typically, from around 18 miles, you're into the realms of your longer training runs and your mind and body are subconsciously preparing to wind down for a meal and celebratory beer.

Tired legs love this sort of stuff!

So, how better to celebrate reaching 19 miles than to climb some hills?  It's only 500 feet, and it's only half a mile.  What's the problem?  To be honest, not much.  The run down to the foot of Beachy Head was not unduly uncomfortable.  Then comes the 350ft climb over a mile up Beachy Head.  Again, it's not that bad. The half-marathoners were running up full of huff and puff.  But, with 19 miles in the legs and at least 15 to go, I just watched them speed away into the distance.  As I found last year in the marathon, this section just draws the life out of the legs.  Steeply up, steeply down.  Repeat.

Running in a rhythm didn't really happen again until around mile 22, when a nice long downhill gave me a chance to get the legs moving for a while in a normal running motion.  I carried on merrily towards the finish line, knowing that I had less than a half marathon left to go.  As I neared the finish line (first pass), I noticed I was still in the 11 minute/mile range I'd set myself as a target, and that I was also faster than when I only had the 26 to do the previous year.  I stopped to refill my water again, and then carried on past the finishers heading towards their cars.  The extra 10K loop was looking pretty lonely, with only 2 runners in view.

Once more into the breach!

Back onto the Sisters I went, struggling to gather myself into a good rhythm.  I kept the nearest runner in my sights, but couldn't seem to reel him in fast enough.  He provided a good target, but with the penultimate check point at 28 miles, I lost more time as I refilled again. In hindsight, I'm not entirely sure why I stopped here.  I'm pretty sure I had plenty of water.  I can only think that the closer I got to running further than I ever had before, the less sure I was about my decisions.  However, from this point, I was back into the course I'd already run, and immediately felt more confident about what lay ahead.  I started to get it back together and tried to steadily get back some time.

By now, I knew it really was only around 10K left to go, and all I had to do was get through it.  The downhills didn't feel great, but I was able to run them.  I pushed hard again to hike up the hills (only a few left now), and turned around quite happy at the final check point near the top of Beachy Head (again!).  From here it was basically down hill and with the breeze.  I also noted that my target had made one last bio break, which had him within catching distance.  So, I sped up to catch him.  After about a minute, my head went quite light and fuzzy and I realized that a full-speed 800 to finish and catch up would be more likely to result in a spectacular fall than gaining a place (due to the chip-timed placing system).  So, I eased back just enough to not feel like I would pass out and carried on to finish about 100 yards behind  him (1:37 in chip times, though) in a solid 17th place.

Oh, so very happy to get to stop at the finish line this time!

All told, it was a pretty good experience for my first time over 33 miles.  Certainly there were some good learning points for next month's Exmoor race.  Who knows, I might even keep it together long enough to do some racing after 18 miles.

Friday, 16 March 2012

The Blackminster Half "Scorpion Run"- and an "accidental" PB

My friend Linzi and her husband decided at some point last year that they would organize a race in aid of local charities.  As it happened I didn't have a race planned, so I decided that the best way to support would be to take part.  Falling three weeks after the first trail marathon of the year and two weeks before the first ultra, I figured it would be a great chance at a speed session to keep the "go far, go slow" mentality at bay.  In light of recent improved performances, I briefly thought about trying to break the 90-minute goal that's been toying with me for the past few years.  Luckily, Nic reminded me that I'm naturally an idiot and should probably not have two focus races in the same month (who's the coach, now?).  The weekend before I kept to my training plan and put in my toughest back-to-back (23.5 & 10) so far.  With those sessions, the exhaustion-laced mid-week runs, a light head cold, and feeling totally wrecked the day before, I was pretty circumspect about how the race could pan out.

EVRC turned out in numbers for this excellent local race

On Sunday, I woke up feeling pretty reasonable.  The cold was shifting and the sun was shining (well, once it rose high enough).  I'd settled on a half-way house of a race plan to run as a goal-marathon-pace session, and then speed up in the second half if I felt OK.  When people asked what I had planned, I kept saying "I'll go with 7:15s and then see how it goes", or "1:35ish".  I'm not sure I believed it, but it was the sensible approach.  My strategy was to only show the lap time on my watch, and concentrate on keeping each lap effort in the right zone.  When Race Director Colin (Mr. Linzi) called all runners planning for sub-1:30, about 10 people headed for the line.  So, when I lined up behind them, I was unnaturally close to the starting line.  But, I kept in my head "7:15 for the first mile".

Sunny, yes, but not quite warm enough for  standing around in a vest

Then, of course, the horn sounds and off we go.  I saw 6:45 on the lap time after a few hundred yards and immediately eased off a bit.  I didn't really want to knock myself out after 8 miles, and I also didn't want to overcook any of my club-mates who had said they'd try to hold my announced pace with me.  The first mile included some nice gentle downward slopes, so I ended up with a 6:52 - just a bit faster than planned!  With deceptive gentle upward slopes for the next four miles, I eased back a bit but was still running sub 7:10.  It certainly helped to have plenty of friends and club-mates along the route cheering us all on.  The Day family mobile cheering service was especially appreciated - for a while, every half mile or so Roger and Maz were stopped by their bikes cheering us on.

The course started to ease back "downhill" (well, it's all pretty flat, really), but I was now in the "windy" section of the course.  Luckily, race day was calm for the breezy aerodrome area.  I tried to tuck in behind the only nearby runner for some shelter, but he was struggling.  So, I pressed on at a steady pace and he clung in behind me.  As we eased up yet another gentle slope, I kept the effort consistent and my drafting partner retook the lead.  This time, I stayed tucked in and kept there for about half a mile before he tired again and finally dropped off the pace.

Around the village of Marcliff, club-mate Ben had enough of my steady-effort method and pulled away up a hill to the cheers of his family.  We were approaching 8 miles, and I was nearly content to let him go.  I wasn't about to ruin my race plan by running someone else's race with another 5 miles to go.  He was obviously feeling pretty good, and I still had no idea how I was feeling.  Nothing hurt too much, but I wasn't exactly "in the groove".

We carried on through a nice flat section for a couple of miles before we approached the advertised "sting in the tail" - a short, sharp up followed by a steep down and then another short ascent.  It's the sort of topography that makes you look up and notice, but is perfectly manageable when you're used to the hilly trails.  I knew as this section came closer, if I could see Ben, then I could catch him on the steep descent.  Sure enough, half-way down I flew past Ben, gave him a thumbs-up of encouragement (I fully expected to see him again soon), and carried on down the hill.

Finally, with only two miles to go, I allowed myself to "race".  I pushed up the pace to make sure that Ben would have a struggle to catch me.  I was happy if he did pull out all the stops and beat me, but I saw no reason to make it easy!  At last, I felt like I was really running strong.  On the final section of the "sting", Nic was enjoying her official photographer role, sitting in the sun taking pictures.  She shouted encouragement as I smiled for the camera. 

Still smiling with just over a mile to go.

Once at the top of this last little hill, it was a little over half a mile down the hill and along the road to the finish.  I had no idea how far back Ben was, but I knew he was close enough from the encouragement he was receiving.  I had plenty of strength left, and just kept pushing the speed up all the way to the finish line.  On the final approach around the school field, I saw the clock and realized I had a good PB on the way and sprinted for all I was worth to burn off those few extra seconds.  I planted both feet on the chip mat to be sure the time was registered and gave Linzi a big hug of thanks for the great race.  I'm not sure she appreciated the sweaty embrace, but I hope the sentiment was well received!

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The best speed session ever!?

What a difference a month makes.  It wasn't long ago that I was whining about how much I dislike speedwork, even though I am really starting to notice the benefits.  Then, last Saturday, I decided to grin and bear my way through the goal-marathon-pace run on my schedule.  I'd put it onto my schedule more in hope than in belief.  I mean, what kind of fool does a 14 mile speed session the week after a marathon?  Something clicked, and for once it wasn't a hip or ankle joint!

Not really feeling up for it, I dragged myself out with the target of getting at least 8 miles at pace and do whatever I could for the rest.  Two miles in, I started to feel like I could break into a proper run, and used a nice long downhill to get myself up to the target 7:30 pace. The second mile was also on a gentle descent, leaving me with a 7:00 mile and a decision to make.  Should I ease back to 7:30, or push that bit harder?  Since I'd really like to be racing the odd road marathon at closer to 7:00 some point in the next 14 months or so, I decided to try to hold on to 7:15 or better for as long as possible.  The first goal was to get through 10K, then holding on for 8 miles.  Coming in to the 8th mile, I felt like there was enough in the tank to keep going through 10 miles with a nice easy cool down as a reward.  Although it wasn't the most comfortable run, and I really enjoyed stopping, I finished off feeling pretty satisfied to have completed the session at a better pace than I've held for quite some time.

Wednesdays are club speed session nights, and last week I was being coached rather than doing the coaching.   The session was 4-7x1400m.  Nic, enjoying the combination of a day off and sunshine, decided to do her run during the day and did 5x1mi.  Being slightly competitive with each other, I knew I had to do at least 5 reps to avoid listening to "my session was harder than yours" when I got home.  The first 2 reps were pretty good.  My first recovery interval was a bit quick, but I got that sorted for the rest.  By the 4th rep, I felt tired, but, I decided that I would continue until I'd finished the session or dropped my pace.  All of the effort reps fell within a three second window.  In the end, I was running with a smile.  I couldn't remember ever having run such a hard session before, and was overjoyed that I finally had enough endurance do the workout.  It turns out I don't hate speedwork after all.