Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Moving in the Right Direction

Another month, another blog....

It has - yet again - been a while since I last blogged. This is frustrating since the aim has always been to provide a brief weekly round up of my running - more so for my own benefit, to allow me to look back and chart progress - but instead I seem to keep doing occasional long write-ups,
that take ages to write and presumably sap the will to live out of anybody daft enough to read them in their entirity. So, therefore, a promise both to myself and to any readers out there: this will be the last feature-length blog and will be followed by more regular, shorter efforts from now on.

What do I plan to write about?

There are a number of themes I hope to touch on in future, within the broader remit of a weekly round-up. I am particularly interested in the psychological factors affecting running, and also in the different benefits gained from different types of training run. Like many runners this time of year, I am following a training schedule for a spring marathon, and I hope to do short regular updates on my progress towards London 2015, hopefully touching on areas that may be of interest to those of you doing the same.

Additionally, in part prompted by my new job working for Natural England, I have become more aware of the possibilities of including another passion of mine - love of wildlife and the environment - into my weekly posts. If I can get my head around the logistics of carrying a camera with me on my long runs, I intend to include some photos of the routes I am discovering, since I am lucky to be living close to some beautiful landscapes.

More on this is subsequent weeks though - for now, a round-up of my races since October last year, coinciding with a a time when - finally - things are beginning to go very well. I will not include my most recent race at Great Bentley, since this will be the subject of my next blog, given that it was one of my "A" races for the year,

Reasons for Improvement?

A cadence of 180+ steps
per minute is proven to be
a more economic style of running
So whilst I have blogged separately about my ongoing injury, it's worth noting here that for a few months now I have not experienced very much discomfort at all. The problem remains more noticeable when spending a long time on feet, so it is beginning to reappear on my long slow runs now that I am embarking on marathon training. But, for most of the races covered in this particular post, it has not been much of a factor at all. Lack of discomfort has allowed me to put a greater level of intensity into my training, which has been a major factor in improved race times.

Another major factor that I believe has led to big improvements has been altering my running style, both in terms of trying to forefoot strike rather than heel strike (still ongoing this one but getting
better) and quickening my cadence, whilst paying more attention to where my feet land in relation to my body - underneath rather than out in front. I will blog more about running style in a future blog.

Promising results on the scales
So too has shedding a considerable amount of weight - almost one and a half stone since I changed my diet back in October. This has involved loosely following the weightwatchers programme - not going to meetings for group weigh-ins or anything but keeping within their points system (most days!) and paying more attention to the size of our meals - weighing rice/pasta, cereal in the morning, etc. I couldn't have done this without Charlotte's support. As I type this, I am sitting in a hotel waiting to attend an assessment centre for a graduate scheme I hope to get onto - and it's just possible that, without Charlotte watching over me, I may have overdone things at breakfast.  

And finally - and I suspect most importantly - I have rediscovered my confidence with running. Which means that one good race leads naturally on to another good race - and I find myself at the start line expecting to get a PB each time (hopefully not in an arrogant way, just in a good level of self-belief kind of way!)

Fenland 10 Mile (26th Oct '14)

Charlotte and I decided that with a rare free Sunday, we would try out this local (ish) and totally flat race. Training had been going well and I was determined not only to get a new PB but to achieve a long-held ambition of averaging sub 7min miles for a long race, with the result therefore being below the "magic" 70 mins barrier. Of course, theses magic barriers are constantly changing as I improve over time. When I first began running (and for a fair while after) a sub 20mins 5km was a key target for me, but now that I have  broken 19mins (more later on) then the new magic barrier for me is sub 18mins. I am yet to get my sub 40mins 10km, and this remains on the agenda, but with Great Bentley HM in the New Year offering a realistic chance of breaking the 1hr30 barrier (spoiler alert - I did it, more in my next blog!) then being able to go sub 70mins in a 10miler was going to be crucial in giving me the confidence I would need to hit 6m50 pace for 13.1miles in February. 

In the event, whilst I had 2 or 3 miles in this race where I went over 7mins, I was on or below pace for the majority of the race, and with a strong finish I got myself a new PB of 69mins19.  Charlotte, running her first ever 10mile, and off the back of not a great deal of training, got a very impressive 83m21, suggesting she could also smash her Half Marathon PB at some point in 2015, possibly also at Gt Bentley (spoiler alert - she did as well!)

Hadleigh 5 Mile (23rd Nov '14)

A typical example of an elevation map. It was tough
but to be fair, not this tough
I had long been looking forward to competing in the final race of the Suffolk Grand Prix series, at Hadleigh. On the day, the conditions were pretty grim - cold and very wet, with constant rain throughout and sizeable puddles to negotiate, but with little wind, there was no reason why this couldn't be a PB too -- and I had been structuring my training towards this event, regularly pushing hard on the 5mile loop around where I live, getting quicker each time and feeling full of confidence by race day. At the end a number of people mentioned how they'd been caught out by how hilly it was - but, having done the 10mile route a couple of years ago, I knew this and did my homework: as with a lot of races, the website showed an elevation map, and so I was able to calculate which miles were tougher, and whereabouts I could push (the final mile in particular was all either flat or downhill.)

In fact, I even went as far as to write time targets for each mile on my arm prior to the start, based on the amount of climb or descent for each part of the course.
Despite the heavy rain reducing this carefully worked out information tool to a smudged inky mess within the first few hundred yards, I remembered enough to run a well thought out race and was particularly pleased to catch a fair few runners in the last mile, which I managed in 5m45 (a mile PB!) I finished with a new 5mile PB of 32m10, good enough for a top ten place, and first in the MV40 category (males aged 40-44) - which earnt me a £10 sweatshop voucher. In the Grand Prix I was still competing in the Senior Divison, since I was 39 when it began earlier in the year. The placing secured me 97 points in the GP, unfortunately leaving me just one position off the "podium" in the final standings - but 4th overall in the senior men's division was pleasing enough. For the forthcoming season (1st event Tarpley 20 in a couple of weeks) I will be competing in the MV40 category, up against - amongst others - my club colleague Mark White, who won it this time around, We have over 50 club members taking part in the fixture, with a choice of 10mile or 20mile - and hopefully we'll get similarly good turnouts for all the Suffolk GP fixtures throughout 2015, looking to build on the 7th place team position we got for 2014.

I overtook a runner towards the end of the Hadleigh race who I recognised from Colchester Parkrun - he is always ahead of me! No doubt this played a big part in increasing my confidence as I prepared for my next races - I am now beginning to find myself competitive against runners I have always admired, which is a great feeling.

Time Trial (Nov '14)

And so next up, a couple of 5kms - as regular readers will know, my preferred distance. At the end of November, an all too rare opportunity to race the club time trial. I knew from treadmill work and some decent Tuesday night speedwork sessions that I really should be able to go sub 20mins again, and I even thought I had a chance to go under my previous PB time of 19m44. I decided to go off like an idiot and then see if I could hang on - and the tactic seemed to work, proof no doubt that I have gotten stronger, since I was able to maintain pace pretty consistently throughout, and finished with a big new PB of 19m03.

Colchester Parkrun (6th Dec '14)

Buoyed by this, I attempted the same tactic at Colchester the following Saturday - and whilst I didn't expect to improve my PB on the hills of castle park, I did feel I would probably go under 20mins for the first time on the course. In fact, I suprised myself by managing both - and getting just under 19mins in the process - and even more surprisingly, getting 3rd place overall. I made the most of the easier first half, pushing hard on the downhill, and found myself in 2nd place at the halfway point. Whilst I was a bit disappointed to be overtaken going up the hill for the first time, this probably helped my time since I determined to try to hang on to the tail of the young lad who'd gone past me, with the aim of reclaiming 2nd place in the sprint finish, where I am usually strong. This tactic worked perfectly, except that, when I went past him on the final bend, he had clearly been saving something, since he kicked and completely blew me away, suggesting he'd had plenty in reserve all along. No matter, what was important to me was my new PB and my equal best ever placing - and of course, the main reason for making the trip to Colchester early on a Saturday morning, which was to catch up with good friends and eat cake in the cafe afterwards. 

Race the day before a race?

Perceived wisdom in the running world suggests that racing the day before another race is probably not going to work. Particularly if you're planning to "go for it" in both. However, being on a runner's high can work wonders, and whilst I wouldn't have done this if either race was particularly important - eg a grand prix race or a league fixture - it seemed like a good idea to race both days this particular weekend, and so it was off to Peterborough for another 10mile effort.

Nene Valley 10 Mile (7th Dec '14)

I wasn't sure it was that funny
Not as scenic as Fenland - mainly through the decidedly unleafy suburbs of Peterborough, but flat as a pancake, which is a major bonus if you want to hit a consistent pace throughout. Which was my target - to keep EVERY mile under 7mins. I managed to achieve this with some pretty solid consistent running, but there were a couple of really tough miles - and given the flat nature of the course, they can only have been tough for psychological reasons. I would say mentally this was one of the hardest races I have ever done, because trying to maintain that pace with hardly any fluctuation took every ounce of determination and willpower I could muster. Consequently, the result - 66m38 - was one of the most pleasing I have ever achieved. At one point, a large gap opened up between me and the next runner behind, prompting one bystander (out walking his dog) to shout "come on mate, you're last!" I laughed politely, whilst silently calculating whether or not I had enough energy to respond abusively and then outrun his dog - but in fact, it was a really good race for me, with an average pace of 6m40 suggesting my sub 90mins Half Marathon target was a realistic one.

No medals, just a couple of mugs...
At the end of the race, there was a van set up with computers linked to the chip-timing system, allowing us to type in our race number and get an instant official time and placing. I was pleased with 86th place out of over 350 runners, and even more pleased to see Charlotte coming down the home straight with an impressive finish that saw her taking a further 1min39secs off her recently set Fenland time - she is edging ever closer to the magic 80mins barrier.

Parkrunning over the festive period

2 weeks later, we ran Cambridge Parkrun for the first time in a while - this race has become a victim of its own success, with about 400 runners and a fair bit of congestion to start with on the narrow paths around Milton Park. I was chuffed to bits to grab a top ten finish, something I never believed I would manage when I first began parkrunning here in 2012. The time was also pleasing - a slight PB of 18m57, but more importantly a 3rd 5km in a row around the 19mins mark, showing consistency and suggesting that 19mins rather than 20mins is my new benchmark for a decent run. Although my next parkrun - at Nowton Park, Bury - was a little slower, I was happy enough to go sub 20 for the first time on what I consider to be a really tough course: not particularly hilly but all off road, which I find hard. Incidentally, this run was an extra event put on for Christmas day, which we did with Charlotte's sister and her boyfriend who were staying over - a great way to start the best day of the year, and going some way towards justifying the amount of food and drink I then consumed.

Thetford - Our New Favourite Parkrun (Jan '14)

We didn't panic.
(Thetford was where they filmed Dad's Army)
We then decided we'd try out Thetford Parkrun - actually a little closer to us than either Cambridge or Colchester, and a combination of paths and grass, meaning it would be a little easier than the Nowton mudbath. Our first attempt went pretty well - having enjoyed a 3 way battle with another couple of runners for much of the race, I just pulled in front of them towards the end to claim my first ever 2nd place. I had been unable to go off as quickly as I would have liked, since I had no idea where we were going - and, being another special event (New Year's Day) there was only a skeleton volunteer staff, ie no marshalls out on route. I determined that the next time, I would try leading from the front, now that I knew the route, and see what happened.

There was only 2 days to wait to try this, with the NYD race being in addition to the usual Saturday event. Yes, we raced Christmas Day and New Year's Day. That's how obsessed we are! Charlotte very patiently talked me through the route as we drove over - I have a terrible memory for things like this and need to do a route a few times before it really sinks in, but she did manage to explain it in a clear enough way for me to feel confident I knew what to do. However, due to a fair amount of rain, they announced at the start that they were using their alternate route, to avoid a flooded meadow part - and so again I had to go off slightly slower than I would have liked so that I could tuck in behind the leaders and not get lost. In the end, I was 2nd again and this time only 1 second off first - although I suspect the eventual winner had enough left to kick on if I'd caught him earlier, since his PB is much quicker than mine.

My third trip to Thetford saw me claim 2nd place again - nothing if not consistent, although this time I was some way behind the eventual winner. However, each of the 3 runs has been in the low 19mins area, and I suspect that as I get to know the course better, I can set a new PB there, and hopefully begin to get under 19mins on a regular basis. Maybe even win it on occasion! If I can continue to post these encouraging times on these routes - some with hills, some off-road, some with numerous twists and turns - then there is every reason to believe I can get closer to 18mins on easier courses, for example on our own time trial route, which I shall next attempt at the end of this month (Feb 2015.)
What I have particularly enjoyed recently is that I have been able to race for position - a new experience for me, and one which I am loving. Getting involved in a battle for a top ten or even podium place has become just as important to me as getting a good time - which pretty much looks after itself anyway. Times are, after all, relative. Charlotte has been regularly getting into the top 3 ladies too, so it's a course we intend to keep visiting, although on our next occasion this will be as volunteers, since we're racing Tarpley 20 the next day.

Not the most competitive of races...
I'm not under any illusions - I know that Thetford is not a particularly competitive parkrun, and I haven't suddenly become a world beater overnight - but it's really nice going into an event knowing I have a good chance these days of being up near the front, and the confidence then flows through all my running, both in training sessions as well as in the next race.

National and Local Rankings

I want to blog separately about RunBritain, a fantastic website which allows you to chart your progress through use of a handicap score which you can lower as you improve, and which also offers ranking tables so you can see where you are in the country: you can filter these to look at your position within your particular region, and within your age category as well. I can see that my handicap is the lowest it's ever been, and that my recent results rank as my best ever - all further proof that everything is clicking into place nicely, with more to come.

Marathon training: a massive commitment
but worth doing right to get results
As promised/threatened before, I shall now be blogging more frequently. My next post will be concerned with the Half Marathon I ran last Sunday, and then after this I will turn to the next time trial, where I hope to PB again. London Marathon training continues in the meantime, so plenty to write about over the forthcoming weeks.

Many thanks as always for taking the time to read my ramblings; I hope somewhere in there you found something of interest!


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