Running like a Kenyan…

I’m reading a good book at the moment – “Running with the Kenyans” by Adharanand Finn. It’s an enthralling account of an English journalist’s six month immersion with Kenyan athletes training in and around Iten. He wanted to find out why Kenyans have been so spectacularly successful at winning medals for middle and long distance running events at World Championships and Olympics for over a generation.

If you haven’t read the book, I won’t spoil it here, save to say that the assumption that many people have that Kenyans have some form of latent genetic superiority is largely dispelled.

Indeed, I remember a former girlfriend who was from Nairobi telling me that most Kenyans are terrible runners, and just like Europeans, most Kenyans never go running.  The largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu, make up about half the population and dominate the population of Nairobi, but few great Kenyan runners have been Kikuyu.

The majority of the exceptional runners in Kenya hail from a small population of just a few thousand Kalenjin people living around Iten and Eldoret.

An exception to this is my favourite runner of all time – the 800m World record holder David Rudisha. He is not Kalenjin, but Maasai and comes from Kilgoris near the border with Tanzania. However, he was sent to study and train in Iten with Brother Colm at St Patrick’s when he was a teenager.  Brother Colm is a Irish missionary and a self-taught athletics coach, whom has mentored literally hundreds of world class Kenyan runners, including dozens of world record breakers and gold medal winners.

I’m not really a believer in hero worship, but I make an exception for David Rudisha. I think he is a magnificent athlete, so elegant yet powerful, the absolute zenith of human athleticism.  He is also an extraordinarily humble, modest and peaceful man.

I have a 49 year record of unbroken heterosexuality, but without shame, I confess that I think David Rudisha is a beautiful human being.  Let’s just watch his 800m world record again, in the final of the 2012 London Olympics, it is breath-taking:

Rudisha WR video

Apparently he told his Kenyan team-mate before the race that he must not try to follow him, because he was going to break the World Record (in the Olympic final – how cool is that?).

As I write, I haven’t quite finished the book, but I soon will – I read the first half in a single sitting as the rain hammered down over Yorkshire on Boxing Day. I was particularly interested in Finn’s obsession with his own running form.

The author would be considered a decent club runner in the UK – he was a talented junior cross country runner, but his running lapsed when he discovered booze and girls at University.  Like many, he returned to running in later life.  He had a 10K PB of about 38:30 when he left for Kenya.

He was aware that he was a distinctive heel striker and felt that he needed to transition to forefoot striking (or even barefoot running), after reading ‘Born to Run’ by Christopher McDougall.

Since I resumed serious running training in 2008, my 5K time has improved from around 22 minutes to 17:35. When I was a slower runner, I was a clumsy heavy heel-striker. I wore big stability trainers because I believed that I was a hopeless over-pronator. I used to get knee pain and wore jumper’s knee bands to alleviate the pain and to allow me to continue running.

It took me a few years of consistent running before I saw any significant progress – I got stuck for about three years with a 5k PB of just over 19 minutes, I thought that I would never be able to beat that time and even if I did it would be the best time I could ever achieve. Of course, I was getting fitter, but I didn’t seem to be able to go faster. Clearly, big heavy shoes and heel striking weren’t helping my speed.

I think I had an epiphany one day watching the triathlete and fellow Bramhope resident Alistair Brownlee on television.  Alistair runs right up on his toes, his feet springing him along to win so many top class triathlons with searing 10K runs at the end of the competitions.

I watched other great runners – they all run on their toes. That must be it I thought – maybe I should try it.  Of course it is not easy to change one’s running style, but I think that over a number of years, I have achieved at least a partial change.  In shorter races, say up to 10K, I think that I normally contact the ground with my forefoot or midfoot, though I am sure that when fatigued or when shuffling in longer races or long training runs I lapse back into heel striking.

I have given up on the big stability and motion control shoes to a large degree. I wear neutral shoes most of the time and wear racing flats for target 5ks and 10Ks.  In marathon races I wear a fairly minimal racer-trainer.

Running on my toes has caused some problems, the primary one being tenderness in my achilles tendons – usually on my left leg.  I think most runners have an innate weakness, a part of their body that is the first to exhibit pain whenever they increase the mileage or the pace of their running.

Having written in last week’s blog that I have had a few months of training without injury, my achilles started grumbling again this week. This was frustrating because I had two races planned for Christmas week – the Chevin Chase on Boxing Day and the Ribble Valley 10K on Sunday 27th.

I did Roundhay parkrun on Christmas Day morning, starting steadily and running each mile progressively faster. Afterwards, we enjoyed the traditional Valley Striders Christmas Morning drinks and mince pies round at one of my team-mate’s house.

As I got out of bed on Boxing Day morning, I winced as I put my foot down and felt the dreaded pain shooting up my achilles.  It felt very sore and straight away I knew that I probably shouldn’t run the Chevin Chase.  As it happens, conditions were terrible – a deluge of torrential rain.  I am sure that my team-mates thought that I had wimped out when I didn’t make the start line. I hadn’t – I actually quite enjoy running in heavy rain, but I wanted to rest my achilles in the hope that I could still try to run a fast time in Clitheroe at the Ribble Valley race.

In the end, it didn’t matter because the awful floods in Lancashire and Yorkshire meant that the Ribble Valley race was cancelled. This may be a blessing as I doubt that running a flat-out 10K with a dodgy achilles is a good idea.

Because of the horrendous weather, I didn’t even leave the house on Boxing Day. I just mooched about all day, splitting my time between reading the book, watching the cricket on TV and trying to teach myself how to play the theme from ’The Detectorists’ on guitar (I failed miserably). It was thoroughly depressing.

Angry with myself at my sloth, at 6.00pm I changed into sportswear and jumped on the rowing machine, chastening myself to row 10 kilometres in 45 minutes.  Ten kilometres on a rowing machine is a bloody long way I can tell you.  I helped pass the time by listening to the ‘Infinite Monkey Cage’ podcast, which was conveniently 45 minutes long.

With no race to do on Sunday, I turned up for the club’s long run. The  achilles was tight at first, but felt OK once I was warmed up. Although only ten miles were planned, the miles flew by and I ended up running an extra 8 miles at the end with Sam. It was a very enjoyable run and felt great to run 18 miles at 7:45 pace without it feeling tough.

CM – 23 weeks. 35.2 miles
Weight 11st 3 lbs
parkrun (Roundhay) 20:42
Longest run 18.3 miles

 

 

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Once more unto the breach…

Here we are again…

I should say at the outset, if you have just stumbled across this blog but you are not interested in running then I’d click away now if I were you. There won’t be much of interest for you.  As my Uncle said after reading my report about my Comrades exploits, “Bloody hell, I went for a run once, but I don’t keep going on about it”.

When I crossed the finishing line of Comrades in Pietermaritzburg on May 31st my first thought was, “well I’ll never put myself through that again”.  It was easily the hardest thing I have ever done.

Guess what?  As soon as the entries for Comrades 2016 opened, I had logged on and fired off my entry.

If you’ve read my Comrades race report, you’ll know that I had a very tough day, eventually managing to haul my ass over the line just before the nine hour cut-off for the Bill Rowan medal.  It took a massive effort in the latter part of the race and it resulted in 90 minutes recovering on a drip in the medical tent.

By the way, on re-reading my race report recently I was horrified by how little thanks I expressed to the medical team looking after injured runners.  They were absolutely brilliant.  I did send a message to the Comrades organisers, but I should have relayed my thanks in this blog as well. My bad.

After the pain of the effort subsided, I realised what an overwhelming experience I had endured enjoyed.  I’ve heard it called ‘secondary pleasure’ – something that is physically very challenging whilst you are actually doing it, but the pleasure comes from achieving your goals and looking back with satisfaction and reflecting.

Having done the up run, I’m intrigued to see if I can do better on a down run.  As an added bonus, I’ll have a back-to back medal to aim for (you only ever get one chance for the back-to-back).  Generally I’m a much better downhill runner than uphill.  In races, I love to attack on the downhill sections and I am aware that I often lose ground on uphill inclines.  However, after running virtually non-stop downhill for 23 miles at the end of the Comrades down run, I may think differently.  I am sure I will have to do some specific training for all that downhill running.

After I decided to enter Comrades again, I texted my mate and fellow Comrades first timer Craig to ask him if he wanted to do it again. I doubted that he would.  The reply pinged back about 30 seconds later: “I can’t believe that you’ve just talked me into doing that again!”

Writing the blog for the past couple of years has helped me to keep focus and discipline in my training, so I’m reviving it for another season.

 

2015 Recap

I recovered from Comrades (on May 31st) reasonably quickly.  On the way home from South Africa, I dossed around and roasted in Dubai for a couple of days (50 degrees!).  It was lovely meeting up with friends there, but it’s not a place that am keen to return to soon.

Once back in blighty, I took a few days off running and then fell back into normal training.  I ran a hilly 10 mile race – the Otley 10 – just 10 days after Comrades, felt good and achieved a course PB time of 64:28

I had a wee injury setback midsummer when I twisted my ankle quite badly at a parkrun and had to take a few weeks off running.   I had an entry for the Berlin marathon at the end of September and I was only fit enough to resume proper training about 7 weeks before the race, so certainly not long enough for a full marathon build up.

I muddled together a compressed programme, but thankfully remained fit. I arrived at Berlin feeling in reasonable shape, but probably ‘underdone’. I thought that I hadn’t done enough long runs. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I decided to run it on feel, trusting to my experience and assess during the race. Deep down, I really wanted to try to bag a sub three hour time which would take care of my Comrades qualifier and secure another spot in the A start pen for 2016. Luckily, it was a beautiful day, perfect for marathon running in the German capital.

It was a good run, I came home in 2:56:43.  Because of the crowds, I ran about an extra quarter of a mile (its impossible to run the blue line at Berlin at my level and the drinks stations were carnage), so in my view this was my best ever marathon performance.  I ran the first half conservatively and I remember feeling incredibly strong at about 19 miles, so much so that my 20th mile was a 6:15.

Thinking that I was on for a PB, I pressed on really hard during the final 10K.  I blew up a little in the final  couple of miles – but I was delighted with the result.

***

Since Berlin, I have been lucky to stay fit and healthy and I’ve enjoyed a really good block of training.  To prepare for the cross country season, I’ve done much more quality work than previously. A typical week has been around 50 miles, including the club session on Tuesday evening and then a track session with a small group of club mates on Thursdays.

I’ve had my best and most enjoyable cross country season up to date. My club competes in two Cross Country leagues – the West Yorkshire and the Peco. I’m a pretty poor cross country runner, but I have improved my performances a bit this year.  This is partly through being fitter, but also by adopting more aggressive tactics.

I have realised that in cross country races you just have to go out hard from the start in order to secure a position in the field.  You then battle and race your competitors to try to defend or improve your position.  It’s all about racing, with times being irrelevant.  It’s really hard, but good fun.

I’ve also run at a parkrun most weeks and in October I did my 250th parkrun.

Parkrun is the reason I got back into running in 2008 and after my 250th, I put a short post on Facebook to say thanks to Paul Sinton-Hewitt and all the parkrun volunteers. It got a great response.  I’m so pleased that parkrun is thriving, it’s one of few things that I know of that is a genuine force for good with absolutely no agenda. Long may it grow and prosper.

In November, I was hoping to have a tip at my 10K PB (36:06) at the Abbey Dash in Leeds.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t a great day, a bit breezy and I faded near the end to come in with a time of 36:37. I just didn’t quite have it on the day. I’ve got one last try to improve my 10K PB this year – at the Ribble Valley 10K on December 27th.

 

Plans for Comrades 2016

The 2015 Comrades marathon was a steep learning experience for me.  Lesson number one was that it is not the distance that makes Comrades really tough, but the hills. I intend to follow a similar training plan in 2016 to this year, except I will run hillier routes. I’ll also try to run more miles, but more slow (i.e. 8 mins/mile+) long runs.

I can’t help but set targets for running. Based on my marathon time, the online predictors put me on the cusp of a Silver Medal (that’s sub 7:30).  Without sandbagging, I genuinely doubt that I can do that, after all I missed it by nearly 90 minutes this year. A silver medal requires 8 minute per mile average pace for the whole route. On a flat course that would be tough.  At Comrades, I don’t think that’s on for me…but…

As I have already bagged my qualifier and an A pen start, I don’t need to run another marathon before Comrades.  However, having achieved a London GFA (Good for Age) standard, I decided to take up my place at London.  Unfortunately, London is just too close to Comrades (5 weeks) for me to run a hard race, so I will use it as a training run, maybe running round with a mate who is doing his first marathon, assuming he wants the company.

 

CM 2016 – 24 weeks. 58.8 miles
Weight 11st 1.8lb
Parkrun – York 17:48 (8th)
Longest run 16 miles

 

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