Gremlins from the Kremlin

Forgive me father, for I confess it has been more than six weeks since my last blogpost.

I have no compelling excuses; aside from indolence, being busy at work and some awful weather twisting my melons, man.

I’m pleased to report that training for the London Marathon and Comrades remains reasonably close to being on track. UK readers will know that we have been bedevilled by severe winter weather over the past few weeks, whisked in on icy winds blowing in from Russia, hence the title of this post (definitely not a reference to Mr Putin whom I am sure is a lovely kind and level headed gentleman).

I had planned to travel down to Bath again on March 4th to run the half marathon as my prime pre-London tune-up race.  The weather kyboshed that one. I was a bit frustrated, because not only was I missing a key build up race, but I had tapered for it, running a mere 20 miles that week.

On Friday when it was clear that Bath wasn’t going ahead, I remembered that the Yorkshire Veterans cross country championships were due to be held at Cleckheaton on the Sunday. A quick e-mail to the organiser informed me that I would be able to enter on the day, so as long as the race beat the weather, I decided to substitute this event for Bath.

I fantasized that the poor weather might deter the more rapid old lads from entering and I may have had a rare chance of sweeping to victory as Yorkshire over 50s cross country champion. Valley Striders had entered a very strong team of over 50s and we were hopeful of defending our team prize from 2017.

Soon after I arrived at the event I spotted Nick Charlesworth from Wharfedale and knew that my pipedreams were scuppered. He’s 50 and rocket fast and I knew he would be whupping me by several minutes.

The race was held on the same course as one of the pre-Christmas West Yorkshire Cross Country League races. It was a typical local XC course of a mile loop shoe-horned into a couple of undulating fields with a number of switchbacks.  The underfoot conditions were a mixture of solid frozen ground, virgin snow and deep gloopy thawed out mud.  It made the shoe choice difficult, but after a jog around the course, I opted for my spikes because of the course was either snow or bog.

My race comprised 5 laps, or just over 5 miles. Knowing that I have tended to be too timid at the start of cross country races, I resolved to go out hard and see what happened.  On the ‘B’ of the bang, I surged out and was on the tails of the leading group for the first half-lap.  Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t hang on to Nick Charlesworth and four or five other real speedies.

XC1

My heart rate was soon stratospheric and I was gurning and wheezing as if I had a 20 a day Capstan habit. By lap three the field had really thinned out and I was in group of three.  I tried to break free by surging on the downhills and managed to drop one of the group.  With a lap to go my opponent attacked and soon opened up a gap of several seconds and that was that.  What’s more, he was a V60 – fair play.

I finished 7th overall and 5th in my age category and Valley Striders retained the V50s team championship with good packing toward the top of the standings.

The poor weather continued in the first half of March. We had a few sudden accumulations of snow, making it impossible to run outside on icy pavements for a few days. I hunkered down at the gym, improvising half-hearted interval sessions on the treadmill.  Did I mention that I hate treadmills?

I had entered the 2018 season of the Even Splits 5K race series held at the Brownlee cycle track near to my home. Race one was snowed off and rescheduled for the Friday night of the following week (it must have been the only day they could book the track). So whilst normal people were out downing Friday night ales in their local boozer whilst ordering Dominos takeway pizza on their smartphones, I was thrashing my way around a cold windy cycling track.

I managed a time of 18:28, which was OK; hopefully I will build on these and improve my time to something closer to 18 minutes on a warmer and more hospitable night.

Even splits race 1

The following day we drove all the way to Glasgow, narrowly dodging another snow storm which closed the A66 just after we had made it through. We were in Glasgow for two great reasons – to catch up with Comrades buddies Jock and Karen and then Jock and I were running the Loch Katrine marathon on the Sunday morning as a Comrades training run cum back-up qualifier for me.

Jock has run Loch Katrine before and tipped me off as to what a great event it is. It is brilliantly staged by a quite remarkable lady called Audrey McIntosh – a famed ultra-runner and the first Scot to complete the Antarctic marathon and 100km double -all in 3 days.

Loch Katrine marathon is a bit different. Audrey stages a running festival comprising a marathon, a half marathon and a 10K event all aimed at raising as much money for Alzheimer’s charities. It is held on the very undulating quiet estate road around the beautiful serene loch and Audrey aims to make as little environmental impact as possible.  For example although there would be drinks stations, there would be no plastic cups – you either had to take your own or buy a commemorative collapsible cup for £2 and clip it to your kit.

It was a small event – limited to 100 in the marathon (quite a few didn’t make it to the start because of another snowstorm on the morning of the race).

I wanted to run for two reasons – as a good long training run and to bag a qualifying time for Comrades.  One must run a marathon in the nine months prior to Comrades in a time of five hours or better.  I have the London marathon in a month, however, I didn’t want to find myself stepping on a bottle and twisting my ankle after 6 miles in London, leaving me snookered for Comrades.  With a qualifying time safely in the bag, I could relax and seek a better time at London to improve my seeding.

Jock and I decided to run together. He is a remarkable wee fellow, a spritely 60 years old and the first man in the UK to complete the A-Z of marathons.  Although barely into March this was to be his third marathon of 2018, after Dubai and Tokyo (where he bagged the last of the Abbott marathon majors).

Although bone-chilling cold, it was a cracking event. On the start line, Audrey gave us a few words of advice and encouragement and I sensed that I was amongst a group of people who saw the World a little bit differently to most people.

One of them was dressed as a sheep, probably very sensible given the temperature and at the off, he bombed away in the lead.

Jock and I set off steadily – knocking off the first few miles between 8 and 9 minute pace and just enjoying being out in the gorgeous landscape.  The course was along one side of the  lozenge shaped loch, around the top, then about halfway along the other side to a turn point and we then retraced the route back to the boathouse and the start/finish.

The first ten miles were pleasant, if up and down, but when we changed direction at the top end of the loch we faced three pretty grim miles dead into a piercing wind with snow flurries whipping into our faces.

At the halfway turn we scoffed a few little flapjacks and super-sweet caramel blocks that the Scots apparently call ‘tablets’.

As it was an out and back course, the leaders ran past us as we jogged along the far side of the loch. Sheep boy had clearly suffered a little for his fast start and was a few places behind the leaders.

Jock loch Katrine

The second half felt tough, the last 10 miles were all back into the wind and the hills seemed much tougher the second time. It is never a good sign when they make the effort to put a sign at the bottom of a hill, and seeing “Graveyard Hill” with 8 miles to go, Jock and I thought it sensible to adopt a ‘run-walk strategy’ up the stiffest gradients.

We battled away grimly through the latter miles and with the boathouse in sight I was amazed to spy Sheep-boy up ahead. He had that weird gait of someone still trying to run, but barely moving at walking speed.  “Come on Jock, we can take him”, I said.

We caught Sheep-boy with maybe 800 metres left, he looked absolutely empty. Much to my astonishment, when there were about 200 metres left he came absolutely flying past, sprinting for all he was worth.

“F**k that” I said to Jock and raced after him. Although a desperate sprint finish was the last thing I wanted at the end of a hilly marathon, much to my chagrin, I could not catch him. Outsprinted by a man dressed as a sheep.

On the finish line, I was embraced by Audrey who lovingly embraced and kissed every single finisher.

Late last week, I got a message to ask if I would step in and run for Valley Striders in the Northern 12 Stage road relays, to be held at Birkenhead Park. I readily accepted, although I figured I would be the slowest in the team, but I was happy to turn out.

The captain allocated leg 12 to me – ostensibly the glory leg, but also a prime opportunity to *uck up and lose a few places. When I arrived, the event was well under away, though I had time for a couple of miles to warm up.  I soon found myself in the holding pen, waiting for my team mate Jon to loom into view.  I had one of the short legs – advertised as 4.5K, but in reality they were actually just 3.75K, one big lap of the park including a loop around the boating lakes.

The top 24 placed teams would qualify for the National Road Relays in Birmingham and I knew that we were in one of the last qualifying spots when I set off for my leg.

Unsurprisingly, after three hours of racing, the field was very spread out with runners all around the park, many on different legs.

I had nobody in sight in front of me, though I heard the starter release an Altrincham runner just a few seconds behind me.  I guessed they would be on the same leg as me. Running scared, I set off much too fast.  The course was fast and general flat, with the first half mile or so slightly downhill.

Running a solo time trial, it was difficult to pace myself.  I clocked the first mile in just outside 5:20…ouch, I’ll probably pay for that I thought. Thankfully I no longer sensed the Altrincham runner behind me and I could sense that I was catching two runners up ahead.

Deep in the pain cave, I focussed on reeling in the runners ahead and I managed to pass two guys in the section around the boating lake, later I found out that I was nabbing a place from Bolton; the other lad was on a different leg.

The second mile took me 6:12.   Clearly I didn’t pace my effort very well. However, all was forgiven because we secured our spot in the National relays by finishing in 21st place. I recorded the 21st fastest time (out of 56) for my leg, so basically I just about did my job.

Progress Report:

In general, I am reasonably satisfied with my training this year. As I get older (I’m in my 52nd year) I am definitely noticing that I cannot run hard on consecutive days.  The day after a race or a long training run my legs feel shot and I either have to rest or run very slowly.  I also feel that I have to manage my body – My right ankle and hip often feel sore, no doubt due to my poor bio-mechanics. I should go back and see my podiatrist.

However, I still love running, so I’ll keep doing it until forced to jack in, whenever that might be.

I ran my first Comrades in 2015. Between 1 January and the end of March that year I ran 713 miles. So far this year, I have covered 672 miles (with 3 days to go as I write this), so I am not too far behind.

If the volume has been OK, speed is lacking. You don’t need any speed for Comrades, but if I want to run well at London, and I guess I do, I think I should spend a week to ten days trying to sharpen up a bit.

I can only afford a short taper for London – maybe 10 days, until that starts, I’ll have to keep logging the miles, hopefully at least 45 per week.

There are seven weeks between London and Comrades. I will need at least a week to recover from London, so I’ll write that week off completely, but then I need to get four big weeks in to get me ready for the big one.

I want to run Comrades properly this year, to fully respect it and not completely fall apart and grovel to the end as I have in my previous attempts. That may well be beyond me, but the two things I need to improve are my pacing and nutrition. I must pack away my hubris and go very slowly during the first half with lots of walking.  I must also eat more during the race.  I need to practice that in training.

Have a lovely Easter everyone. Summer is coming.

Recent Training:

Feb 12-18 (CM-16 weeks): 60.4 miles, longest run 20 miles

Feb 19-25 (CM-15 weeks): 45 miles, longest run 12.3 miles

Feb 26-Mar 4 (CM-14 weeks): 25.8 miles, longest run 6.2 miles

Mar 5-11 (CM-13 weeks): 50 miles, longest run 22.2 miles

Mar 12-18 (CM-12 weeks): 42.6 miles, longest run 26.3 miles

Mar 19-25 (CM-11 weeks): 44.1 miles, longest run 17.3 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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