Sunday, 22 December 2013

The Oldest Roadrace in Britain

An early Christmas weekend with the family in Durham was the perfect excuse to run the Saltwell 10k which, at 102 years old, is the oldest road race in Britain. 

Luckily, I was just after a good hard run rather than it being a target race, as my sleep the night beforehand was rather interrupted, initially by Cecilia (my 3 yr old niece). She decided to wake me up at 1:30am by lying on my head and trying to remove my eyes from their sockets. Aleks (her 5 yr old brother) was then sent in to "chat to me" at 6:30am, but at least we managed to play a bit before I headed to Gateshead with my father. 

Trying to warm up at the start

There was an enormous interest in the race and so no entry was available on the day. Numbers and chips were allocated in alphabetical order, and as there were only 502 chips available, I did not get one. The organisers assured me that they would note my time at the finish, but suggested that I start at the front of the field. Unfortunately, I'm not a fast starter, and so thought that I'd get mown down in the rush if I went to the front. I tried to start a few rows back - over at one side - so that I wasn't too far away, but managed to trip over a bollard right on the start due to the sheer number of runners in such a small space. 

The wind had been gusting incredibly strongly all morning, and then, just after I registered, the heavens opened. My dad sensibly stayed in the car while I got soaked on a short warmup run, but luckily the skies cleared just as the race began (though unfortunately both runners and supporters had already got their shoes soaked). 

Alyson leading them off

The course is an undulating one, consisting of 3.5 laps round and through Saltwell Park. When it says " undulating", what it really means is that there are 2 tough hills to climb and descend in every lap, so the race is a tough workout. Alyson Dixon started off right at the front, and disappeared away into the distance, having a great run to finish 5th overall and take 50s off her own course record. 

A lull in the first hill

Three ladies running in Jarrow's club colours all started off pretty fast and so became my targets on the first lap. I passed a couple of them in the first mile, and then started to reel the third one in on the climbs. As usual, I was much stronger on the ascents (always gaining places) than the descents (as I was very worried about slipping on the steep wet paths, mud and leaves). 

Climbing right to the end of each lap

As we crossed the start line again after the first lap, I had managed to close the gap on the final Jarrow lady and so soon moved up into second place, while trying to manage a smile for my watching dad. There were many many marshals out on the course, and it was so nice to hear encouragement for "Dumfries" as I of the many benefits of having your club name written in large letters on your vest. My father had met a friend of his (who coaches at a club in Durham) and they were there at the top of the hill in the middle of the park every lap encouraging me on. Full marks to my dad for his sprinting ability through the park, as he made it between there and the start point to see me on every lap. 

Round the Lake to finish

On the last lap (and even more so on the final half lap) there was the added challenge of negotiating and encouraging other runners that were being lapped. Although I knew that I did not have a chip, and so I would not be recorded passing over the timing mats every lap, I resisted the temptation to finish a lap early, and was actually worried about missing the final turning away from the course and round the lake to the finish. 

It was lucky that there a sprint finish wasn't called for, as the final straight was on very boggy grass and marshals actually caught me twice to prevent me completely skidding over in the mud! 
It was nice to catch up with Alyson and the Jarrow ladies (who also won the team prize) for a cool down jog, before tucking into the cakes and cookies on offer back at registration. 

Run done and it was time to head back home for an early Wigilia.......though I think I wore my legs out more trying to act out "frog" and "rabbit" (don't ask how I acted out "hoover"!!) in Charades for Kids, than I did in the race!

Running Through the Field.....

Last weekend was the 29th edition of Dumfries Running Club's Christmas 5 mile handicap. I wasn't particularly up for it for several reasons - my legs were still tired from the weekend in Ireland and I had just been to see the physio, Chris Jerrett, who brought tears to my eyes with a v painful but necessary psoas release. Still, club events are always fun, and I'm never one to miss out on the chance of some mince pies.

Between myself and Jim, we might get our knees straight
Handicapped races are a good chance for everyone to pit themselves against each other, and there is usually a different winner everytime. I decided not to worry about it, but just to go down and run a sustained effort. 
I set off in penultimate position, along with Jim Buchanan. Jim is running really well, and so I thought there was a chance of him coming through the field to finish high up and also to run the fastest time of the day. We initially ran together swopping many pleasantries, but when he started moving away after the first mile, I knew I had to let him go. Backmarker Alan had started to close up on us (he started 15seconds after us) but surprisingly we had already caught and passed a couple of runners. 
It was nice to say "Hi" to others as I worked my way up the field, and is noticed that Jim didn't seem to be moving and further away from me. I actually narrowed the gap and caught him with a mile a go. Unfortunately, when I encouraged him to push the last mile to get a fast time, he replied that he'd just developed a stitch 😥 
Somehow I reeled in some more runners that initially appeared to be specs in the distance, and actually sprinted for the line to finally finish only 1 second behind the 2nd placed runner. 
Mo & Tubby with the best fancy dress!
A new club member, Nicola Allan was a very worthy winner (with a good margin), and what makes her win all the more impressive, was that she actually had to stop running mid race to let another club member drive down the course. 
It turns out that even though I didn't run particularly well, I recorded the fastest time of the day, probably because it was after the end of most people's racing season. I never expected to come through to finish near the front, when I'd started penultimate, but it turns out that I shouldn't have done so. A slight timing error of the starters meant that we 3 back runners were accidentally set off a minute too soon (which is why we caught people after a mile or two). Apart from this, most of the field finished very close together all sprinting for positions on the line, which shows what a good job the handicapper did. 

.......and yes, the warm mince pies were great.......

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Come in Number 4....

It seems that 2013 has been the year for the number "4".......well certainly with respect to my running. I started off with a 4th place in the Barcelona marathon, next a 4th place in Comrades, and guessed it....4th place in the World Trail Champs. Bearing this in mind, it seemed fitting to pop over to Cork for my 4th marathon of the year.

I was initially invited over by my friend John, who was hoping to run the Clonakilty Waterfront Marathon in about 4 hours. I thought it would be nice to run with him, and provide support/encouragement en route. Unfortunately John had some problems with injury, which significantly interrupted his training. Bearing this in mind, he had to re-evaluate his goal, so it seemed more sensible for me to use the race as a long fast-paced run and then be there for him at the finish.

As I generally run alone, I thought that if I aimed for a time of about 3:00-3:15, then I would have some company all the way round. I got a shock when I checked out the course profile a couple of days before heading over there. There was about 1300foot of height to be gained over the course of the race (with concomitant steep descents), and most of the hills were in the second half. Looking at previous year's results, people generally ran significant positive splits (ie the second half several minutes slower than the first half). In order to get the maximum personal benefit from the run, I needed to be sensible and hold back in the first half, and build at the end if I was feeling good.

John picked me up at Cork airport on Friday night and we headed down to Clonakilty to register. Registration was quite funny, as I was told varying start times, and also different positions (and contents) of the 3 feed stations. When I seemed surprised at this, John just answered "This is Ireland"!

In order not to miss the start (which turned out to be 9:08am) we got down there nice and early..... The weather seemed ideal as it was about 9 degrees, the sun was just coming out (after a shower of rain as we jogged down) and there was little wind. The full and mini-marathoners (I learnt that a mini marathon is a 10k)  mustered in a carpark while the half marathoners headed to their start line 800m down the road.

About 5 minutes after the half marathon started, we were off, winding out of the car park and down the road along the shoreline. I was trying to take it easy but found myself running alone about 10m behind a group of men, so I made the decision to catch them up for some company, as long as they weren't going too fast. 

We started catching the half marathon tailenders after about a mile (half a mile into their race) and so the next mile passed really quickly as there were lots of people about. When the routes divided we settled into a nice bunch and clipped along at a steady pace chatting as we ran. I found myself not thinking about my running as I was concentrating hard on deciphering some of the stronger accents. One man said he thought he was in 3 hr shape on a flat course, and another was aiming for 3:05-3:10 so the group seemed to be a good one to stick with. We chatted about marathons, track running (one of the men - Gary -said he was a 1500m runner as I had noticed his distinctive "up on his toes" running style) and various ultras (another man had plans for his first ultra in the spring of 2014). 

I was loving it, as the miles just seemed to tick by easily, with the company and the banter - it's just that I hadn't expected it to be at the head of the race. In fact, I actually led us up some of the inclines as I was trying to run a relatively constant pace. Although no cyclists were officially allowed on the course, the roads were open, and at least 2 of the men had their partners providing cycle-support. In a way, it was a relief when I realised this, as I had thought that the female voices I'd heard on my shoulder a few times were from other runners.

Not a flat profile then!
We crested a hill at about 12 miles, but must've looked quite funny going down the other side. It was a fairly steep descent and one of the guys just ran away from the group. I took it steadily (with my girlie arms) trying not to land too heavily on my right heel, as the fat pad is still not happy, and Gary also dropped back as he had a hamstring niggle. Soon afterwards we started a 2mile steady ascent, and we bunched back up again, passing through the halfway point in about 1:25. 

The second half of the course was much more testing but, as always, I preferred the ascents to the descents - and we were rewarded with amazing coastal views. Some small rain showers led to some amazing rainbows, and luckily the breeze wasn't strong enough to cause much of a chill factor (I'd even taken my gloves off by halfway). As one of the lads cheerily told me that we'd reached the highest point at the 17mile marker, another brought us back to earth by saying that we had the hill "from Lord of the Rings (the "hill to end all hills")" still to come........eeeeeek!

In fact, it wasn't that this hill was much steeper (though there was a kick-up at the end) or longer than any previous one, it's just that it came after you'd already run 20miles, and so it whittled away our group to just 4. We had now started to pass the back runners of the half marathon, but after we'd descended again, the Garda helped the marathoners cross the traffic round a sharp corner to the left, while the half runners headed straight on towards the finish.

2 miles to go - go on Rory!

With only 4 miles of relatively flat running left, the guys turned on the gas. The front two ran away at a fair lick, while myself and another guy (Rory) stayed together for another couple of miles. We started to increase the pace but were still able to converse. He had finished 7th the previous year, and told me that his aim was to finish in the top 5 in a sub 2:50 time. With two miles to go, the Garda helped us cross another main road and we were back overtaking the same half marathoner runners again. I urged Rory to push on ahead of me, as I felt I was probably slowing him down and didn't want him to miss out on his goals. The sun was shining as we wound along the coast road that we'd started on, and my last few miles were my quickest of the day.

With Gary at the finish!

I was over the moon to run the tougher second half in about 1:23 for a big negative split, finishing (yes, you guessed it) in 4th place overall in a time of 2:48:41. I was rewarded by a big hug from a friend from Kerry (who'd run the 10k with his daughter, had a second breakfast and then watched his partner finish the half), and then later on, saw John finish strongly with no recurrence of his injury. 

A great day all round - and for those of you wondering, Gary won in 2:46:06, Rory made the podium with 2:48:36 (just in front of me), the guy aiming for sub-3 was 5th man home in 2:52:37, and the man aiming for 3:05-3:10 finished in 3:08:57.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Not Racing....

It's always nice to win a race, but sometimes it is almost as hard to lose a title, especially when it is not due to an injury or a lack of fitness.
This past weekend featured 2 races for which I was the reigning champion - one a 5 mile road race, and the other a 10.5 mile "fell" race (lI remember last year's race as being part road, part trail, and lots of sheet ice) - both of which I have mentioned in previous posts. Although it was very tempting to go and defend my title on each day, I realised that I would not be doing myself any favours. With a rare use of my "sensible head", I realise that too much racing doesn't help you with your longterm goals, and indeed can leave you with injuries, both physical and mental. I am trying to make sure there is a reason for me entering races (and yes....because I want sometimes a valid reason) as you can only get yourself in the right mindset so often, and racing does interrupt training - unless you factor it in with a specific purpose. Last time the 5 mile race was at a perfect time in my pre-marathon taper, and the fell race was in a "fun running" spell and I had to drive past it on the way home from my parents' house. 
It was not a dull weekend even though I didn't race, as I did suffer from a nasty dog-related incident. An out of control dog was "just playing" a long way away from its owner, and managed to trip me up and wind me - how scary is it being curled up on a path unable to catch your breath, while people just walk by? I soon recovered from that, and found myself sneakily checking the winning times of the 2 races. The mens' times were quicker in both races - and hats off to Ricky Lightfoot for setting in a new course record at the "Hobble" - but just quietly, it was nice to see my times from the last events were not pipped!!!

Thursday, 21 November 2013


A week away with my mother was just what the doctor ordered after Frankfurt, especially as my heel had been playing up from the morning after the race, and even walking on it could be painful. But, true to my usual weather jinx, we had floods in a country that has had many years of drought (Tenerife)!
The last race in our club's Grand Prix was the day after I returned and although I knew that both the weather and the speed would be a shock to the system, it was billed as a trail 10k, so at least it would be softer underfoot to give my heel some cushioning.

The 10K route

The race was at Drumlanrig Country Estate (not too far from Dumfries), but in the drive up there, the car thermostat was barely above zero, and lots of snow could be seen on the hills.
The sun was out, and so the Estate was beautiful, as all the trees were glorious in their shades of gold, red, russet and brown set off by the frost on the ground (!).
After observing a respectful silence for Remembrance Sunday, we were off. Starting on the road outside the main building, everybody would have started relatively fast but their initial speed was moderated by the ice underfoot on the first corner. We then negotiated a cattle grid and a few speed bumps while descending on one of the tarred estate roads. After about a kilometre a marker directed us sharply left into the woods. I was relieved to think that we were now going to be running on a nice woodland trail, but unfortunately for me and my poor foot, it was very hard and rocky underfoot. The guys in front of me seemed to disappear in and out of the trees, though it was hard to see very far in front at times due to the position of the sun in the sky. After 3k on this trail, we turned onto another estate road (unfortunately, there was no more trail for the rest of the race) and started to pass runners who had started the alternative half marathon 15 minutes in front of us. I tried to focus on reeling in the men in my race, while avoiding those in the other race.

The Drumlanrig Podium

As I passed the 9k marker, I could see my clubmates Jim and Richard up ahead in 1st and 2nd positions and they seemed to be running strongly, though I did gain on them as we climbed back up the road we'd initially run down. The castle seemed to take a long time to come back into view (probably because the race start had been moved back without altering the rest of the course, so the race was closer to 10.5k) but after another safe navigation of the cattle grid, it was just a nice run round the corner and into the finish!
Not a bad result for the club, finishing 1st, 2nd and 3rd!

Taking part in the interclub masters crosscountry race in Cardiff wasn't a high priority for me this year, so instead I headed down to the Brampton-Carlisle race. This is used as the northern 10 mile championships so there is always a high quality field, and we had also decided to use it as our running club's roadrace champs.
Brampton-Carlisle is the oldest 10 mile road race in Britain, with this year's race being the 62nd edition. The race has been moved to the Sunday as the traffic has got busier and busier on Saturdays. Even so, as little of the route is closed to cars as possible, so the start is up a side road leading to a sharp downhill run, followed by a sharp hairpin bend onto the main road. Runners usually jostle at the front so that they can run off fast and get round the corner easily, but the start took me by surprise this year. My club mate Jacob and I were making our way to the start, waiting to hear a briefing and countdown, when we were warned to " watch out for the lorry in the road.......and GO!" It turns out that we were off, so we tried to ease our way down the side of the field past the masses as they shot down the hill.
By the time I reached the first mile marker, I had settled into my rhythm and caught up with a group of lads from the Border Harriers that I thought might be running a similar pace to me. My clubmate Steven was just ahead of me, and I could see a couple of ladies with blonde ponytails further up the field. For a net downhill course, there always seem to be a lot of climbing in the race, with the biggest incline to be found in the third mile. At this point, I followed Steven up the hill, having passed one of the ladies to move into second place, and the Harriers seemed to have dropped off the pace and were no longer with me.

DRC Teamwork

Turning off the main road, I was not far behind Holly (Rush). I had previously raced Holly at Comrades and knew there was no shame in finishing behind her, but as I was feeling good at the time, it seemed natural to pass her and move into the lead after the 3 mile marker. Steven and I spent the next few miles running at a very similar pace, sometimes side by side, and sometimes with one of us slightly ahead. I was surprised to be running with Steven as he's always faster than me but I seemed to be pushing him on, which gave me hope that I was going to run a fast time. I was shocked to realise that we'd passed the 5 mile sign in a faster time than I'd ever run that distance in a race (despite both of us taking turns to dodge cars that seemed to be desperate to mow us down). I thought that the end of the race might be a disaster with me suffering due to my early speed, but it was still going well as we rejoined the main road and pushed on into the last few miles. 

Top 5 DRC runners after the race

Another rise over the motorway and we could see the long stretch of road ahead towards Carlisle. Steven pushed on ahead, and so I had a quick glance at my watch. I knew this bit of the route fairly well, having lived in the vicinity a few years ago, so I made sure that I kept the focus all the way into town. A clubmate drove past me and told me I had a 14s lead on Holly, but then another passerby told me the gap was 100m so I tried not to think about it. Cresting the final hill  I knew I was going to run a PB and so I didn't mind if anyone flew past in the last stretch.

2013 Club Champions

Brampton-Carlisle is the only race I know that has difficult corners to negotiate at both the start and finish - as you cross the bridge over the River Eden, you can see a crowd gathered by some metal railings. Instead of being able to sprint for the line there, the railings actually mark another 90 degree corner into the final 20m. Luckily there was no one for me to chase down, so I was able to finish the race without any mishaps (knowing how accident-prone I am, that is quite a miracle). 
I was amazed to see the time on my watch (later confirmed in the official results) - 57:00. That's 80s off my PB and 158s off my course best, and my 7th club record of the year. To say I was happy with my run is an understatement!!! 

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

A free lunch?

As the saying goes......"there's no such thing as a free lunch"......


However, when I was offered a pair of Mizuno Wave Sayonaras to try and review, then it wasn't a difficult decision to make........

Friday, 1 November 2013

The "F-word".....

 ........and I mean "fantastic" "Frankfurt".......and nothing ruder!

The trip did not really get off to an auspicious start, as Lufthansa broke my suitcase on the outbound flight (though to be fair to them, they were great, and gave me a new case when we returned to the airport to fly home). We arrived fairly late, and the only place that still seemed to be serving food was a kebab restaurant at the edge of the red light district - not exactly a textbook pre-race meal but it was both tasty and filling. The next drama occurred whilst walking down the street back to the hotel. Crowds of football fans were spilling out of the pubs and underground station, as the Frankfurt evening game had just finished. Unfortunately I happened to pass between 2 lads (walking the opposite way) just as they started to throw playful punches at each thing I know is that I have watering eyes and a very sore nose!

I hoped that this meant I had finished with all the dramas on the first night, and that the rest of the trip would go to plan.
After the Pretzel Run!
Registration, visiting the expo and wandering around as a tourist was all done on Friday, so on Saturday morning Doug and I just headed up to the start to meet up with some friends from Carlisle and take part in the "pretzel run". This was a gentle sociable chatty run of 3-4miles to get rid of the kinks from flying, and earned me my first finisher's medal of the weekend (along with a pretzel and apple juice). 

The actual race started fairly late on the Sunday morning, which meant that I needed a second breakfast, but at least the hope was that it would give the overnight rain a chance to clear and the wind to drop. The rain had cleared (but was due back at lunchtime), but unfortunately it was still windy, with very strong gusts. Trying to think positively as we walked to the start, I knew that the conditions would be the same for everyone, and as Scottish Athletics had suggested the race to those of us aiming for the Glasgow 2014 standard, then we would still be able to compare our times on the day. I have found myself running alone in my last few races, so I hoped that the large mixed field (15,000 runners) would mean I would have others to near me for company and shelter.

Smiling….but I hadn't started yet!
I saw Hayley Haining heading off into the Elite start enclosure as I lined up with fellow Scots Ross Houston, John Newsom and Neil Renault (their target was <2:19) and we wished each other luck. I hadn't spotted Gemma Rankin but as we were both trying to run <2:40 (she is faster over the shorter distance, and had run faster marathons than me in 2012 and the first half of 2013, though I had a few seconds' edge when it came to marathon PBs) there was a good chance we'd be running near each other.

The start saw the usual melee of people sprinting off excessively fast, and it was all I could do to stay on my feet and run at my own pace. Some people can be unlucky (such as Ross on this occasion) and take a tumble, but although I was elbowed and had my heels clipped, I was able to find my own space and run (noticing after about a km that I was quite close behind Gemma). I wasn't running to my watch, but just seeing how I felt for the first few km, and it felt really comfortable. I know that Gemma usually runs a fast first half, and so I was surprised to overtake her after only a couple of kilometres. This might not have been so wise, as then I was out in front heading into the wind as it swirled round the tall buildings.

Looking at the clock as I crossed the 5k timing mat, I realised that I had been going slightly faster than planned, but I had wanted to catch up with the group of men running about 20m ahead of me so that I could have some shelter from the wind. However, as the gap never seemed to close, I realised that I would be better off settling in to my own race rather than using up too much energy too soon, and so I aimed to run the next 5k slightly slower. I admit it was still a bit faster than it should have been as I was under 37 minutes at the 10k mat, but we had some good support along the city streets, which unconsciously makes you run faster (and probably helps your running form too!).
I said he was tall....

We crossed over the river and started to head away from the city centre. This was mainly run into a headwind and so my pace dropped slightly as I was back to running mainly alone, though I tried to link in with a couple of guys running a similar speed. One of them (let me call him German 1) was so tall and thin that he was no good as a matter whether I was in front, behind or to the side of him, there seemed to be no shelter. German 2 must have been a local guy, as people kept appearing on bikes or at the side of the road to hand him gels and drinks. Fair play to him, this was a good move, as seeing Doug at the side of the road at 15k and grabbing a gel from him certainly helped push me on!

Unfortunately, however, the heavens opened at about the 17k mark! The rain did have a few benefits as the guys in front slowed down slightly so that I suddenly found myself running in a bit of a group for a km or two, and it seemed so much easier. I was then back on my own heading towards the halfway timing mat - impressively enough, there were still people scattered along the road cheering us on, even if they could hardly be seen underneath their big umbrellas. I was surprised to be a minute quicker at the halfway point than I had been at Barcelona, and was still feeling pretty comfortable.

Not long after that we wound round up an access ramp and onto one of the bridges over the river. The weather did cause a few problems here, as I couldn't take my preferred line (the inside of the bend as we circled up) due to a "river" running down it in the opposite direction. I realise that might sound odd as my shoes were already soaked through, but it's natural to try to avoid huge streams and puddles. There was a small loop on the far side of the river, but though I scanned runners coming the other way ahead of me, I couldn't see anyone I recognised.

Going through the 30k split, I knew I'd slowed a bit, but I was still well under 2:40 pace. Trying to picture a route map in my head, I thought we had a relatively straight run of about 5k along a motorway back towards town. The wind seemed to be helping us a bit here and I felt strong, so picked off several other runners on this stretch. German 1 had appeared back in front of me, seemingly moving at a similar pace to me, though I was about 10m behind him. Although trying to adopt a kind of tunnel vision about my race, it was nice to be able to focus on his back up ahead and then just switch off and run (whilst puddle-dodging the worst areas, as the rain had now stopped).

We returned to the city centre at about the 36k mark and I spotted Doug, who encouraged me to keep working saying that I was "on target", and then he headed off to the finish. About this point I passed a lady who had a number on her back (the rest of us all had numbers on our fronts), which confused me slightly. She was the first lady I'd overtaken since Gemma way back in the early part of the race, and suddenly I realised the significance of the number on her back. She had her name on her chest and hence I knew she was one of the elite runners (from Ethiopia).

The final few km through the city were tough - and I mean tough! I saw the leading women closing down on the 41k mark on the far side of the road and was surprised to see how closely they were bunched together. The wind had become really strong and was again swirling round the buildings. The route through the shopping and pedestrian areas did have uneven sections, and the odd tree to avoid, but there was lots of support to keep you going. Glancing at the clock at the 40k mat, I knew I would make it as long as my legs obeyed my brain which was just telling them to keep turning over. 

Much to my surprise, I was also gaining on another lady with a number on her back, which helped me to focus as the turn into the final straight seemed to be getting further away rather than closer. German 1 seemed to have also lengthened his stride and had moved away ahead of me up the road. I got my head down and fought the wind, passing said lady in that final straight up the road, but I did wonder if she'd come back to me, as I know that I'm no sprinter (though I did manage to dig a strong finish out of somewhere in both Comrades and the World Trail Champs this year).

The "garage door" finish
I caught up with German 2 as we finally turned off the main road. From there we just had to negotiate a pedestrianised area before turning into the finish hall. At this point I was not going to let anything stop me achieving my time and although there's a photo of German 2 and I leaving the road together, a photo taken 50m later shows that he was nowhere to be seen as I was certainly giving it some welly (or at least trying to).

The Frankfurt marathon finish is widely known as a unique indoor finish, but it seems very odd as a runner. You cross several chip mats in the pedestrian area and then turn in through what appears to be a garage door, duck under a low ceiling boom and then

The "indoor" finish

run down a gangway towards a clock. It is relatively dark, with disco lights, smoke and music playing (and I'm told this means that it is hard for spectators to actually see runners clearly). Whilst running, you are only vaguely aware of all this as you focus on the clock and go for it. The final chip mat is buried beneath the floor so I wasn't actually sure when to stop running, especially as there are barriers just a few metres beyond the clock. When I realised that I'd finished, earned myself a huge new PB of 2:39:15 and finished well under the Commonwealth Games qualification standard, tears sprang to my eyes. In order to avoid anyone seeing this, I did just lie down on the floor with my hands over my face.....which meant the medics came rushing over to ask if I was ok.

So happy to finish!

The lady I'd just passed landed on the floor next to me, desperate for some water, so I got up and asked if she was ok. It turned out that she was Emily Wicks (mentioned as the top British lady in the prerace buildup) and she'd finished in 2:39:35. Meanwhile I spotted Hayley Haining and congratulated her on her run, as she'd finished a place ahead of me in a fabulous time of 2:36:40. I wanted to wait with her for Gemma but unfortunately was whisked off for drug testing (and they wouldn't even let me stop for the free beer available for all runners)!

I'm not sure when the result will actually sink in, but it was a great result for Team Scotland with Hayley and I both running under the Glasgow 2014 standard, finishing in 14th and 15th places (1st and 2nd Brits), and Gemma not far behind in 17th place (2:42:34). Not to be outdone, Ross (despite his early tumble) finished as 3rd Brit in 25th place, also running a Glasgow 2014 qualifying time (2:18:28)!

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The 10K test.....

Although still having some recurrent pain due to my PF and inflamed heel fat pad, I have still been able to train, thanks to the aforementioned physio. A week after returning home (and back to work), I was keen to do a race to test my form and fitness.

Having agreed to run with a friend from Englandshire, I found a race midway between us. Things change and on Saturday morning I found myself on my own in the countryside near Preston, driving round some narrow, windy "undulating" roads of a 10k course trying to find registration. Luckily the rain that I had driven through on the way day was no longer in evidence, but it was still rather windy.

I had been feeling strong in recent runs and had hoped that, although I didn't think I'd get near my 10k PB (as it was set 2 years ago at the Abbey Dash- a very fast flat course with a huge field to pull you along), I might be able to break 36 minutes for the first time in over a year.......but having seen the course my heart sunk.

A narrow uphill start on a country lane
Running on quiet country lanes sounds idyllic, but in reality it can be a bit of a nightmare, as bridges cause bottle necks between runners and vehicles (despite a marshal asking them to stop, a man was not going to wait for me and some fellow competitors to pass before driving his trailer over a narrow humpbacked one) and you cannot see traffic until it is almost on you. We were all warned to hug tightly in to the left side of the road, which actually made sure that people did not cut corners, but some runners can become so focused on not letting anyone pass them that it can become dangerous, and still others ignore race directors and calmly plug earphones into both ears.

I knew from the route profile that the start was significantly lower than the finish, but as I made my way to the start, I seemed to be walking downhill for 5 minutes. The start was delayed slightly as a lady "needed" to drive her people carrier down the narrow lane just as the field was assembled and ready to go. Once everyone had scrambled back out of ditches, we had a short briefing re traffic and then were off.

Never one to start at the front...
Despite the uphill start, runners still set off at a fair old pace, including 2 ladies who had been standing at the front looking as if they meant business. I started a few rows back and eased my way up over the first half mile back into the village and past registration. I knew that although the whole route had looked rather twisty and undulating, the worst of the hills were in the first 3 miles so it was a case of settling in and then seeing how I felt for the second half of the race. Amanda (that I'd briefly spoken to before the start) settled in just behind me for the first couple of miles, which seemed a very sensible thing to do given the wind, so I figured that she must be quite an experienced runner. I tried to ignore this thought and just run my own race, and sure enough her breathing and footsteps dropped back.

It was a relief to see the 3 mile marker and still be feeling fairly fresh as it meant that I could put in a slight injection of pace to pass a Kendal runner who seemed to have been doing his best to destroy me so far......pushing me wide if I tried to pass him on the outside, cutting me up if I tried to go inside, elbowing me if we were alongside, and catching my feet if I did move ahead. Obviously, this may have all been subconscious, but I'm used to running alone and so was glad to get away from him and open up a little gap. The next few miles seem to pass by quickly, with me catching glimpses of those ahead depending on the nature of the road ahead. I made up a gap and moved into 4th place, expecting the guy to come with me, but he didn't latch on. By the time we got into the final mile, I was closing on the man in front (Steven) with every stride. 

Passing Steven at the 6mile mark

After drawing level with him and reassuring him that there was no man just behind, we spurred each other on for a few hundred metres before I moved ahead at the corner with the 6 mile sign on it. Knowing there was just a short way to go to the finish, I pushed again and surprised myself (and the others) with how strongly I finished, ending up just behind the second man and taking 10 seconds out of Steven.

Not knowing our exact times, I was just happy with a strong run on a not-so-quick course and so went for a cool down run and chat with Steven before tucking in to our "free brew and scone/bacon butty for all finishers"! He boosted my confidence still further by telling me that although he had run a half marathon the weekend before, he felt that he was in shape for a sub-35 10k given a faster course.

Results-time rounded off a perfect trip (well actually cake at Tebay services while icing my foot on the way home did that) as I discovered that I'd actually run a new PB of 35:15! Yeay!

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Joining the Mile High Club....

Altitude training was suggested to me earlier this year, but several things about the very idea scared me.

For starters, I didn't think I was a runner of a good enough standard that altitude training would benefit me. Secondly, I was training for a different marathon to the two girls already heading out to train, and so we would have been at different points in our training cycles. Thirdly, the thought of going to Boulder to stay at Steve Jones' place and run with Freya Murray and Susan Partridge was something way beyond any running dreams/ambitions I had ever had. Fourthly, I was running a marathon fairly early. The year, and so there would still be a lot of snow around at altitude. Lastly, and most importantly, I was told that I would need to go for 3 weeks minimum to make it worthwhile, and there was no way that I could take that much time away from my work.

The idea did niggle away at the back of my mind, along with my mantra "you don't regret what you do, just what you don't do", so when it was suggested again in the autumn marathon training cycle, I decided to do what I could to give it a try.

Easy to see in daylight
Luckily, I was able to discuss things in advance with my partners at work, and arranged to take some "leave without pay" in order to be able to go, so in September I headed off into the unknown for 3 weeks.

It really was the unknown, as I flew to Barcelona and then hired a car, which unfortunately didn't come with maps or satnav, and tried to find my way up to Font Romeu in the dark. I'm told that it's a beautiful drive, but I have to confess that it wasn't a highlight of my trip. Not only did I feel ill (lovely sinusitis - must've been a going away present from some patients), but I discovered that you have to ignore all of the signs to France and keep driving along the Spanish toll road towards Andorra. After driving for what seemed like hours, with the tollbooths that were manned claiming to have never heard of FR, I finally stopped at a roadside frankfurter bar to ask for help. I was so relieved to find out that I was still on the correct road, and just had to go through a 5km long tunnel before crossing the border and winding my way up tiny little roads into the Pyrenees. 

The "Grand Hotel"
I didn't fare much better when I actually got to FR either as, even though I can speak French fairly well, nobody could help me when I asked for directions to a named street. about midnight....I found the old "Grand Hotel" (now private appartments) and rang Fionnuala Britton who came down to let me in. 

I was sharing the apartment with Finn and another Irish athlete, Alan McCormack, while the rest of the Irish squad were due to come out for their training camp the following week. They were both brilliant at making me feel at ease and advising me how to settle in and acclimatise as both have trained at altitude before, with Finn being a full time athlete (and double not worthy.....and so nice and friendly too!).

Finn has been to FR on many occasions but neither Alan nor I knew anywhere to run she guided us on a gentle run in the morning to point out some of the trails, the track, a mile long "exercise loop".......and most importantly, to point out the bakery, where I finished every gentle morning run after that. As we wandered to the bakery......yummmmm......fresh French bread/croissants/pain an chocolat.......we found ourselves in the middle of a classic car rally through the Pyrenees - fascinating!

A friendly local...
Feeling ill isn't the best, and it's worse away from home at altitude, but luckily I had just planned to take it very easy for the first few days with some gentle runs and lots of relaxing. In fact, I think I did lots of relaxing for my whole time there - it's amazing how time passes when you're reading a book (or several) in the sun!

I managed to follow up the sinusitis with a thumb infection which, along with the altitude, did give me some amazing dreams, but despite this, I found myself sleeping better than I had in months, so there's definitely something to be said for taking a long break from work and getting away somewhere never mind actually getting some training in.

Naively, I hadn't realised that FR itself isn't on a plateau; it's situated on the side of a hill, and so every run involved some more hills. Combining this with unaccustomed altitude, I found that most people run according to time (or, later on, according to perceived effort) rather than going by pace or distance. 
Some flatter runs could be had at the "High Altitude Lycée" (round the pitches or the track) in FR or you could drive down about half an hour to Lake Matemale and run round it/through the woods there. Still, It was nice to have so many different trails to choose from when running straight from the door, whether you got lost winding your way back from the next village, avoided huge cows in the woods, played on the rollerblading/cross country skiing training tracks, or headed up to Paula's Loop around the highest point in the locality.

The highest point on Paula's Loop
In the first couple of days, I made a vague plan for my time there - nothing complicated, but incorporating a long run and a faster/effort session every week with some easy running in between (including a few trips up to run Paula's Loop as it was my favourite place to run - up high, great views, totally alone in the hills and usually only seeing horses and cows while out there).

I soon settled into a rhythm: working in the mornings on weekdays (I confess to having taken some work with me as I felt guilty at having more than a week away from work) after a bakery trip, and then spending the afternoons reading, going to the laundry or the supermarket, being a tourist, meeting others for coffee and Nutella crepes (more frequent after one of my friends arrived with the rest of the Irish squad), and just generally chilling. I got into the habit of going running at a similar time to Alan and Finn (in the early evening) which meant I got back to use the shower and start cooking my dinner first. Having no tv was no great loss as we resumed the lost art of conversation at/after mealtimes.....and if you really wanted to, you could take a cushion along the corridor and sit on the stairs where there was Internet and watch things there (as we did when following the Great North Run).
Not a bad view to wake up to every day….

Time passed by really quickly, with the weather being rather kind. I'd wake up to beautiful clear skies most mornings, and had hardly any use for the waterproofs I'd taken with me. I was nervous about any "proper athletes" seeing my attempts to run, but actually hardly saw anyone else when main companions were horses and cows (all wearing cowbells, and generally wandering around freely) with the odd deer thrown in. I occasionally overlapped with other people using the track, but apart from the time a couple of Kenyans passed me (they were running easy and I was doing an "effort"), it was actually rather interesting to watch people learn to high jump, or to see a racewalker do intervals.
A trail loop for intervals
Some people struggle when they go to altitude (and indeed on there return to sea level) as they try to do too much and simply exhaust themselves. It's easier to do that in a flatter place, as the fact that you have to run uphill whatever direction you go in, means that you do really "run easy" most of the time. Many people do their speed sessions more on time than distance, or do shorter intervals, to adjust for the altitude, as you cannot compare intervals run at home to those on a track at 1800m elevation. Unusually for me, I actually struggled more with longer runs....finding myself running out of energy and having to stopping and even being sick on one occasion. That'll teach me for not having enough respect for the strength of the sun at altitude, and underestimating all the ups and down when running "down to the lake"!
I ran down to the Lake to join the Irish girls!

When the rest of the Irish Squad came out, Chris Jones (the Irish endurance lead and Fionnuala's coach) kindly let me see their physio for some vital treatment to my plantar fasciitis and heel fat problems (see previous blog) and I also had a few blood tests done with the squad looking at adaptation to altitude. What was interesting for me to see, was that my iron level was dropping, despite taking my usual supplements, which didn't help my energy levels. It also meant that there were more people around for coffee and crepe trips in the afternoons!

All in all, I loved my time out there. A combination of being away from the stress of work, having beautiful places to run, amazing weather (it was either sunny, or there were dramatic storms), good sleep and lovely bakeries meant I returned home feeling strong as I entered my pre-marathon taper!

Let's just hope for some good race results now, but even if things don't go according to plan, I think the trip was definitely worth it!

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Lessons learnt while away

It's ok to eat your weight in Nutella!

Altitude  gives you weird dreams

Race walkers doing 400m track reps look odd
5mins after thunder and hail!

It's embarrassing to be overtaken by Kenyans running "easy" when you're doing "efforts"

It's scary to run past a big cow with huge horns when wearing red

The weather is very changeable....sun to lightning to hail within a few minutes

It's ok to eat your weight in Nutella!

Your running is very changeable.....even within a few's like having bipolar running disorder

There's no such thing as running too easy at altitude

The sun is much stronger when you're up higher - beware!

Even slight inclines must be respected

Friends are great, and keep you sane, even if they're far away

It's ok to eat your weight in Nutella!

Double Olympians are normal people - and so can be v friendly, helpful and down to earth

A small post-run snack!
The Irish do talk v fast, even if they don't believe it

Professionals are worth their weight in gold (see previous blog)

Altitude can make you lose weight, even if eating like a horse

Altitude can make your iron level drop, despite taking supplements

It's ok to eat your weight in Nutella!

Guys can even make a competition out of hydration tests

Mmmmmm.....French bakeries! 'nuff said

Being ill isn't good, being ill at altitude is less good, being sick at altitude is the worst yet!

You don't miss the TV when it's not there, but there's a lot to catch up on when you get back to it - bring on the taper!

Swimming pools close for the "winter" at the end of August - weird!

Driving on scenic winding mountain roads is fun....for the first 10k.... but the next 40k can be a bit of a drag…..though it does build up your arm strength!

And did I mention, it's OK to eat your weight in Nutella!!