Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Learning from experience


I completed my first competitive race on my birthday weekend back in May 2012. Having spent a fair bit of time working up to a reasonable level of fitness on a treadmill, I moved to Hundon, near Haverhill, in March 2012. I began running outside for the first time in many years, and on the quiet country roads near my house I became seriously hooked. A local shop had an advert in the window for the Withersfield Half Marathon, and that gave me a target to train towards. 

I didn’t really know a great deal about running in those days – I just ran! However, looking back, my preparation actually wasn’t all that bad – my daily 5 mile route took in a couple of hills, and I also did a few training runs on the actual race route, so I knew what to expect.

I rather optimistically went for the small vest option, hence why I didn't join the front row for this photo

The race itself was very small – less than 70 runners. Despite this, a top ten finish was something of a surprise, and I was only 3 minutes outside the time I had set myself. However, whilst I was genuinely quite pleased, there was an element of disappointment because I had been bang on target right up until mile 10. A few days beforehand, I had overdone a training run and so went into the race with tired legs. The last 3 miles were hard.

Lesson one learnt: understand the importance of tapering before a race. Ideally, do not try out a new route the week of a race, get hopelessly lost, and end up running over 12miles before finally finding where you parked the car.

The most important consequence of that day, however, was my decision to join Haverhill Running Club, having seen a few members at the event. Whilst waiting for my application to go through, I ran my first ever parkrun (5km) in Cambridge, in a time of 21mins, and a 10km in Huntingdon, where I only just missed out on my 45mins target. So I joined the club with some half decent performances behind me, but with plenty of room for improvement.

First Club Race

Running is all about making the right choices
My first race for the club was the Kedington 5km, part of an inter-club series of races. This route actually ran right past where I lived, and I trained on these roads every day. I had already decided I was better suited to the shorter distance stuff, and was looking forward to putting in a good run. This was an evening fixture, and before the days when I understood the importance of not just what you eat before a race, but when you eat it. The route takes in a long, steep hill, which I had run many times in training, but on the night, it all but defeated me. My stomach was killing me throughout the run, and I was massively disappointed with my time. 

Lesson two learnt: do not eat a big dinner less than an hour before the start of a race. Particularly not a Zinger Tower meal. And whatever you do, don’t go large.

Are You Running or Training?

But despite this early set back, joining the club proved to be a good decision. I remember chatting to one experienced member who told me he only trained 3 times I week. I told him I trained 5 or 6 days a week – and he replied “train, or just run?” It remains the best bit of advice I have ever been given with my running, and from that day onwards I have tried hard to mix up my running sessions each week – ideally getting in a tempo run, a longer slower run, as well as (more recently) recovery runs if needed. I love to race and do so most weekends at parkrun, but Tuesday night speedwork sessions at running club provide me with that extra push that I can never quite replicate on my own.

Lesson three learnt: don’t just run. Think about what you hope to achieve each time you go out.

Entering Races

Not actually me, but you get the idea
I tried a lot more races throughout the rest of 2012, highlights being a 10km PB running alongside the Thames, and a couple of reasonable 10 milers too. I was again surprised and delighted to receive the “best new member” trophy at the annual club awards night, and my good start continued into the Spring of 2013, setting new PBs at all distances, including getting close to breaking the magic 70min barrier for 10 miles, and finally, after many many attempts, getting under 20mins for a 5km, which I then achieved a further couple of times. I also managed to finally record a half marathon time I could be pleased with, after a few attempts including a horrendous run round Grunty Fen on a ridiculously hot day where I barely made it home in under 2hrs.

Lesson four learnt: on a hot day, adjust your target. 

In the end, I finally conquered the distance simply by repeatedly entering half marathons until I got it right. At Cambridge, I got 1hr43, although found it tough – the following week, in my home town of Colchester, I almost hit my 1hr40 target, and finished strongly. This was a watershed race for me, the distance no longer bothered me, and a couple of weeks later I set what remains my Half PB – 1hr34m - at Stowmarket.

Lesson five learnt: if you find a particular distance psychologically difficult, keep doing it and you will eventually crack it.

Marathon: Too Soon?

These times all came about whilst I was training for my first ever marathon, in Edinburgh – again on my birthday weekend, so exactly a year after I had first begun competing. Unfortunately, this proved to be a complete disaster.

All my training pointed to 3hrs 30mins, and then about 4 weeks out, I developed a problem with my left knee. Physiotherapy and rest sorted this out, but I lost out of a fair bit of mileage, and was only fit to run again about a week before. Anxious to test out the knee, I made the decision to run the Soham half marathon, at marathon pace. All went well on the day, no reaction to the injury, and I had never felt so comfortable over the distance. But one week was simply not enough time to recover, and although the first 15 miles in Edinburgh were fine, and I was pretty much on target, running 8min miles comfortably, I soon began to run out of steam. At around 18 miles or so, already falling slightly behind schedule, I began to get cramp. First in my thighs, which was not good. Then in my calves, which was even worse. I was shuffling by this stage, and 8 more miles seemed impossible.

I stopped a few times, but had a determination not to walk, so simply stood at the side of the road until the pain went away, then carried on. But when the cramp spread to the soles of my feet, I knew I just had to give in and walk/shuffle/crawl my way to the finish. My time in the end was 4hr25, nearly an hour outside my target. I would imagine anyone watching me trying to change out of my sweaty clothes in the finish area would have found it highly amusing, but I couldn’t move any limb without it cramping up – even my arms – and for a couple of days afterwards I could barely walk. It took a few days too before I could take any sort of pride out of the fact that I had at least completed a marathon. And a few more before I decided I absolutely had to do another one, to put things right. I’m still not 100% sure why I cramped up, but I suspect a combination of getting my gel strategy wrong, possibly drinking too much on what was a very hot day, and perhaps general tiredness in the legs from the previous weekend, all played a part.

Lesson five learnt: get your nutrition/hydration strategy sorted out during your long training runs. And accept that, over the course of your 16 weeks of marathon training, there is a good chance you will pick up a niggle or two, and don’t try and compensate for lost mileage by ignoring the taper.

And whilst we’re at it: don’t then try and run a 5mile race PB the following Friday. In my defence, this was a part of the Suffolk Grand Prix series that I was doing well in, and races where you represent your club are always my priority. But whilst I ended up 2nd overall in the Male Senior Category (ages 18-39) for the series, Ipswich 5 was not my finest performance, and on reflection racing hard so soon after such a tough experience was not the brightest move.

Lesson six learnt: allow time to rest after a hard race.


Running with Discomfort

I still don’t know whether Edinburgh was the cause, or merely part of the cause, but I haven’t been right ever since, and that was over a year ago. What I first thought were medical problems were finally discovered to be running related, and despite regular physiotherapy and working hard on my core strength and my flexibility, every run comes with an element of discomfort, although some days are worse than others. For some time I was unable to get close to my usual times, so much so that I decided to stop racing shorter distances and train for an Ultra -- admittedly only a mini-ultra but 30 miles is still 30 miles! I needed something to focus my training on that would distract me from the fact that I was getting slower! This proved to be a good decision - I enjoyed the experience, and was quite pleased to get home in under 5 hours. I can't honestly say I have got the ultra bug - I have no desire to run anything further! - but suddenly a marathon doesn't seem quite so daunting, and most importantly, it helped me to enjoy my running again. And recently there has been some improvement – I’m sure partly because I have become better at dealing with it, but also through paying closer attention to diet, stretching, yogalates (I'll leave that to another thread,) regular physio and, of course, to training smarter. 

For almost a year, since I moved away from Haverhill, I have neglected my speedwork, primarily because they are very difficult sessions to do on your own. Since the start of 2014, with the London Marathon my big target, I have been making the effort to attend club training sessions most weeks, and I think a combination of this and a determination to do well in my club vest in London are finally paying dividends.

My 5km times are now back nearer to the 20min mark, and I have had two very encouraging 20 mile races as part of my build up, clocking 2hr45 for both, which points to a decent time come marathon day. I made the decision to “race” both of these 20 milers, and if I can replicate that pace over 26.2 miles in 3 weeks time I shall be pretty happy, with a time of around 3hrs 40mins on the cards.

I did have a bit of a blip after the Essex 20, feeling very tired for a few days, and then having a bit of a dip in motivation which I find hard to explain. Then a short training run ended in me limping back home after only 3 miles, convinced I had seriously damaged my left calf/ankle. A trip to Becky, my physio, reassured me that nothing was torn, and we put the problem down to the new shoes I have been running in, and a problem with the lacing of these which I have now sorted. 

Weekend Races

On Saturday I ran a decent parkrun, recording a time within 30 secs of my course PB, yet without feeling I had really worked hard.
I may be wearing my Stort 30 T-shirt, but still definitely prefer the shorter distance races. Parkun has become a regular weekly fixture for me, whether racing, pacing or volunteering. As a short fast hilly race, it is a great workout and as my marathon training has progressed, my Colchester Castle Parkrun times have come down accordingly.
And on Sunday, I ran the Stowmarket Half Marathon, my last race before I begin my taper. I set myself a target of 7m30pace per mile, equating to a finish time of 1hr38m15. All went well, except for a slightly poor 12th mile, but I found a bit at the end and finished only 3 seconds outside my target, making it my 2nd best Half time, and only the 2nd time I've come in under 1hr40. Exactly the nice confidence boost I needed ahead of the big day. This race is now without doubt my favourite of the racing calender - not just because I seem to run well there, but due to the excellent organisation of the event, put on by Stowmarket Striders, which just seems to tick every box for me.

London 2014

And so not long now until London. Hotel all booked: no race-morning travel other than a short train journey to Blackheath, therefore no ridiculously early alarm call. The day before I shall visit the expo to pick up my number, and then the focus will be on relaxing, finding somewhere nice for a pre-race meal, and getting a good night’s sleep. I was very lucky to get a club place for what is undoubtedly the biggest race of my running “career” to date, and feel a real responsibility to do the club proud. In a sense, everything so far has been leading up to this, and hopefully the mistakes I have made along the way will all have helped to prepare me better for this one big event.

My current thinking is that my “problems” may well be medical after all, so at some point I shall be trying a different doctor, to see if anything else can be checked out. However, I now feel confident that I am a much more intelligent runner than I was, going into races far better prepared, far stronger and more powerful, and if I can finally get pain free, I hope to be setting more PBs in the years to come, having learnt so much from all my experiences over the last couple of years.

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1 comment:

  1. Good luck with the Marathon, Ian. All the challenges in getting training, nutrition and mind set have been worked on and all that is left is to remember to enjoy all of the race taking in each moment. I can't wait to hear all about it. Some really good words of wisdom - I especially took in the bit about not just running (I could so just do that!). Also I'm afraid that, as young as you are, you have to come to terms with the fact that ageing does slow you down and that being aches and pain free gets harder but the good news is you are a richer runner in terms of appreciating how good it is to be running at any age. Thoroughly enjoyed this post.