Monday, 4 April 2016

Catching Up - Part One (Fowlmead Challenge and Gt Bentley Half Marathon)

No running for a while, which
gives me a chance to catch up
on my blog. Sorry about that....
A number of people have asked me recently why I haven't written a blog post for while. Three people, to be precise. But that is a number, albeit a small one. So, back by (not particuarly) popular demand....

A fair bit to catch up on, since my last post was just before Christmas. Reading through it to refresh my memory, I see that I was preparing for an off-road endurance event in Kent, with my operation having been postponed until some unknown point in the future. In the event, the first date I could take for the op, to fit around work and study, was 24th March. So, 10 days later, I'm sitting in bed, propped up with a couple of pillows, unable to run - but with plenty of time on my hands. (All went well with the op - more in my next post.)

I'll split the last three months into a couple of posts, otherwise this will turn into something akin to War and Peace (in terms of length, not literary quality, obviously.) So back to Christmas last year, and my determination to do as much running as I could before operation number two.

First up parkrun - as it so often is. One of the many things I love about parkrun is that you don't need to sign up in advance for any particular event - just decide as late as you like. But the knowledge I would otherwise be spending Christmas morning on my own made it a pretty straightforward decision to run at Colchester and take the opportunity to catch up with one or two friends at the same time - even if it did mean a 6am alarm call.

Colchester Castle parkrun - 25th December 2015

Now that I knew the operation wouldn't be for a while, I had recommenced training - but with a combination of a bit of a break and also because I was training for a longer distance event (ie at a slower pace), it was perhaps not surprising that I would struggle a bit. In fact, with the easier downhill section of the course falling in the first mile or so, I went off way too quick, and for a time it was a bit like the old days, keeping pace with the leaders -- but I soon got found out, and the end time was only just under 22mins. No matter, I saw a few people I hadn't for a while, and it was a really nice way to start the day - as parkrun always is.
Photo credit: Will Chaney

I spent the rest of Christmas Day with Harry, his sisters and his mum's family - very kind of them to include me - before Harry and I drove up to Coventry to spend a couple of days with my wider family, hosted by my brother and his wife Susan -- who is also a keen runner, although had never done a parkrun before. Clearly this could not be ignored, so I spent the rest of the evening persuading her to sort out a registration (I doubt I'll be invited next year.....) And so, on Boxing Day morning, we went to the War Memorial Park - literally at the end of their road - to try out the Coventry parkrun.

Coventry parkrun - 26th December 2015

I love being a parkrun tourist - I've done a few now, but there are loads more to try, and I always enjoy discovering a nice flat one! Coventry really could not be easier - hardly any inclines at all, on nice surface - a PB course for certain. Not for me this time though - nowhere near - in fact, 20 seconds slower than the day before. But it was just good to try a new venue, and to get Susan involved in this fantastic organisation.

And then it was all about focusing on training, to try to get into some kind of shape for Fowlmead.

I began to keep a running log again, and I was enjoying gradually building up the miles, with some promising training runs, although there wasn't really quite enough time to get properly ready before race-day arrived.

Fowlmead Challenge - 10th January 2016

The day started off with a long-ish drive down to Kent, and the nearer I got to the race venue, the worse the weather became. On arrival, it was easy to find the start/finish area, which had a checkpoint-style food and drink area, but unfortunately the toilets and main changing area were a bit of a walk away, and by the time I'd reached them I was totally soaked through. I changed into shorts and t-shirt, and soon realised I was totally under-prepared for the nature of this event, with everyone else around me wearing multiple layers, most wearing leggings, and everyone in trail shoes (I just had my regular road shoes with me.)  The only comforting thought was that they were all probably in it for the long-haul - the race had a 6 hour time limit, and the idea was to complete as many laps as possible in that time, whereas I had no intention of going longer than a couple of hours at best. with the aim to get to half marathon distance before retiring gracefully (or not gracefully, depending on how it went.) This would be my longest run for some time, and I was looking forward to seeing how I got on.

Some parts of the course were worse than others
Originally, each lap was to be just under 3.3 miles long, meaning 4 laps gave you half marathon distance, 8 was a full marathon, and any more would be an ultra. My intention then had been to complete 4 laps to give me my half marathon, but I was holding out a faint hope I may then be able to manage just one more, taking me up to around 16 miles. By race morning, they had altered the course so each lap was slightly longer - just under 4.4 miles - this was due to adverse conditions on the course due to the large amount of rainfall there had been. It meant that I would now need to complete 3 longer laps to get half marathon distance, and it also meant that I would probably not be attempting to go further, since this would take me into the realms of 17.5 miles or so, which I really didn't think
I'd be capable of.

The way the organisers worked it was simple but effective. At the end of each lap, you passed over the start/finish line, and were given a hairband to go around your wrist, to signify a lap completed. You could either turn around and go straight back out again, as I did after lap one, or you could stop at the checkpoint and refuel, which most competitors did each lap, and which I did after lap two. When you'd had enough, you picked up a handbell placed by the finish line, and gave it a ring, at which point they would record your time and count your hairbands to give you a time and distance. Everyone got the same medal irrespective of the number of laps, although most there also wanted the special marathon badge that came with it if you completed 6 laps or more. The race itself was officially recognised by the 100-marathon club, was run on both days of the weekend, and unbelievably there were runners there on the Sunday who had done marathon distance (or further) the day before, and were back doing the same again! A different breed!

For me though, just reaching half marathon distance was proving tough. I'm not a massive fan of off-road racing, even in favourable weather conditions, and the course had a couple of really nasty climbs in addition to a difficult surface. We were warned there were a fair few puddles out on the course - but as far as I'm concerned, a puddle that stretches the whole way across a path is not really a puddle. It's a flooded path. There were a few sections like this, and you had no option but to plough through the water, hoping it wasn't too deep - which was fine unless you put your foot in a pothole, at which point your shoes and socks filled up with freezing cold water. On a couple of occasions I did seriously begin to question why on earth I was doing this - but I have to say the atmosphere of the event was fantastic. Every competitor seemed friendly, people were helping each other throughout, lots of the runners had clearly met before at similar events and the organisers seemed well known, and it felt like a real family of like-minded ultra runners all enjoying themselves immensely. Plus me, hopelessly out of my depth but determined to complete the third lap - which I did, albeit with a half-marathon time that I would ordinarily be hugely disappointed with.

If Carlsberg did goody bags.....and yes,  I did finish most of it on the drive home
Although not the beer, obviously. 
And then something a bit weird happened. I crossed the line, got my 3rd hairband, was totally fine with what I'd achieved, but for some reason didn't ring the bell, and instead went over to grab some cake at the checkpoint (ok, so that bit's not weird, but I really don't know why I didn't ring the bell first.) I then got chatting to a couple of guys who completed their lap just behind me. It was clear they were going for marathon distance at the very least, but somehow they persuaded me to run one more lap with them before I called it a day. I guess part of me must have wanted to keep going, otherwise I'd have rung the bell immediately - but I really wasn't sure I'd manage a fourth lap, and I know I wouldn't have without their support and encouragement. These guys didn't know me, but they made it their mission to get me round that last lap - at one point, they even said they'd carry me if they had to, which I politely declined, not least because I'm fairly sure that would go down as cheating - but the offer was nice. I began to cramp up around half a mile out from the finish line - my muscles clearly suggesting to me I was not really fit enough to do this - but there wasn't long to go, and a bit of willpower was all it took to get back and complete that 4th lap.

So in the end then, 17.59 miles completed, a huge medal, the best goody bag EVER -  I didn't break any PBs, my overall pace was only just under 9m30 pace I think, but in terms of willpower, it felt like a pretty big achievement.

Choosing an A-race

I'm not sure how soon it was after this event that I got confirmation of the date for the next operation - late March - and a plan began to hatch. Rather than bemoan the longer than expected wait, I should view this positively, because it meant I could select an "A" race for early Spring, get in a couple of months of serious training, and go into my next period of enforced rest not only with a good level of fitness, but hopefully off the back of a strong performance, both factors that would keep me in a positive frame of mind as I began my recovery.

I've mentioned in blog posts before how I'm guilty of racing far too often - it's often a better plan to select one particular event, and make that the focus of your training. Sure, you can put in other races as part of your schedule - and if you enjoy racing, as I do, there's no harm in that - but if every race is as important as the next, you're in danger of losing track of what you're actually trying to achieve. For me this year, I really benefited from picking one particular race, and tailoring everything I did towards that main goal. And the race I chose, primarily because it takes place in my home town, was the Colchester Half Marathon.

The build-up races

A frosty morning at Great Cornard, where somehow I've still never
finished outside the top ten, despite some below par performances
I took a week off running after Fowlmead, but then it was full-steam ahead with the training, and I began to train almost every day, often late in the evening after work, running under street-lamps either in Newmarket or Haverhill, and consciously pushing myself a bit more each time. I set myself pace targets, often choosing progression runs - where you start off at a certain pace and look to increase gradually throughout the run - and also ensuring I added in a fair few hills into my running, something I always have to force myself to do, but which has obvious benefits in terms of adding physical and mental strength.

I refused to let another slightly disappointing parkrun at Great Cornard put me off - I knew I was working hard, and the times would come back eventually. Thanks to the power of facebook, I managed to get a last minute place at the Great Bentley Half Marathon in early February, and I was looking forward to finding out what kind of shape I was in over the longer distance.

Great Notley parkrun - 6th February 2016

Despite racing the next day, I really wanted to make the most of a free weekend, and so made the short trip to Great Notley, just outside Braintree, where a group of friends are heavily involved in the smooth running of the parkrun there. This week was Nicki's turn to be race director, and it was great to catch up with her and her sister Michelle, along with Richard, and to meet some other newer friends that I've got to know through another facebook running group that I was invited to join a little while back. As with all parkruns, there's a great community spirit at Notley, and I enjoyed the course - with the exception of a nasty steep hill that could so easily be avoided!
We were told in the pre-run briefing to make sure we touched the bird statue to ensure we ran the full 5km.
 I wasn't sure if this was a wind-up or not, and when the runners ahead of me all cut the corner I decided it probably was, and so began running past too.
At this point, the runner just behind started screaming "touch the bird, touch the bird!!" I duly changed course to do so, which allowed him to close the gap and consequently overtake me.
I got him back in a sprint finish at the end. Of course, parkrun is not a race.
The hill has a statue of a bird at the top - and so #touchthebird has become the hashtag associated with this particular event. Nicki ran a charity event a while back that involved her running up and down this hill continuously for hours on end - yet more proof that her nickname "Bonkers" really is apt.

Once was more than enough for me, and it knackered my time completely. If I were to run here again, I think I'd take the hill slower, because it took ages for me to regain my pace once I'd got to the top - but I really enjoyed the morning, and was so glad I went. Better still, everyone I met there seemed to be due to race the next day at the Half, which gave me even more reason to look forward to one of my favourite events of the year.

Great Bentley Half Marathon - 7th February 2016

So I found myself on the start line for the fourth year in succession - a race where I've achieved mixed results over the previous 3 years. My first attempt in 2013 was scuppered by illness on the day, and it became a real battle just to complete the distance. Second attempt in 2014 was at a time when my ongoing injury had been hampering my times so I was happy to get a time around the 1hr40 mark, particularly since it was an incredibly windy day. Most recently in 2015, coming at the end of a real purple patch of running, I had smashed my half marathon PB with a time of 1hr26, and my build up to the London Marathon seemed to be well on track before a calf injury and my ongoing groin issues later forced me to pull out.

I love the race because it's so flat - so you can set a target pace and just stick with it throughout. It's on quiet country roads, not too big - my ideal half marathon. The weather was perfect - a bit cold perhaps, but no rain and very little wind. I wasn't sure I was quite ready for the distance, and this proved to be the case as I laboured a bit in the last 3 or 4 miles, but I was very happy to record a time of 1hr37, meaning an average pace of just under 7m30 per mile - a nice marker to give me an idea of where I was at, with still another month of training left before my A race in Colchester.

That's probably more than enough for this post - well done, if you've made it this far! In my next post, I'll cover a successful Colchester HM run, and my recent operation, together with my plans for the future.

Until then, good luck to all readers with races coming up - Spring is always a busy time of year, with some great events on the horizon, and I'm looking forward to seeing how everyone gets on.

1 comment:

  1. That was quite a bit of running Ian! Like you I've had a problem that has prevented me from running as usual so this has inspired me to use the time for a blog catch up too, thanks. Glad to hear the op went well and hope you are back on track (the running one obviously) soon.