Houston Marathon 2018: first impressions of my second 26.2 in Bayou City

You certainly couldn’t describe my preparation for the 2018 Chevron Houston Marathon as textbook. There was the late commitment to the race, for one thing, and a busy work schedule that meant while I completed the long-distance runs I wanted to, the rest of my training schedule was haphazard.

Then there was the immediate build-up in the week of the race, which began with a flight from London to Las Vegas, followed by three days spent charging around a number of packed convention centres finding car news at the world’s biggest consumer electronics show (cunningly titled the Consumer Electronics Show).

Upon reaching Texas, there was also the four hour or so car journey from Fort Worth to Houston late on Friday night to contend with. I’d also signed up to do the ABB 5K race that forms part of the Houston Marathon weekend on Saturday morning.

All told, by the time I’d worked by way into the A corral at 6.40am or so last Sunday morning it was a bit surreal, and hard to contemplate I was actually at the start – and about to run my third marathon. It was all a bit sudden, especially when the race began. A revised layout for the start this year featured the A corral in a side street round the corner and out of sight of the start, and the runners were only allowed to round the corner – where they could see the start line – at about the same time the gun went off.
I automatically picked up the pace, but it was only a few minutes later, as the race wound out of downtown Houston to cheers from the crowd that it really began to hit that I was running another marathon.

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As ever, running a marathon turns into a confusing mess of personal challenge, incredible experiences and all sorts of emotions, made particularly special by the sights and spectacle of both the runners around you and the crowd. Again, it will take some time to process and fillet out a lot of those experiences. Occasionally I’d see a brilliant sign – ‘run like United want your seat’ made me chuckle – and then struggle to recall it just minutes later.

Before the race, I was slightly worried about the mental challenge of running the same marathon for a second time – would I get bored with the course? I didn’t need to worry; the familiarity was more of a help than a hindrance, although it might have made the slightly lumpy final mile or two slightly tougher as my energy began to fade.

Still, by that point I’d already exceeded the expectations I’d set myself sometime during my crazy busy CES visit. I’d told myself that, in the circumstance, matching my 2017 time of 3h 16m 40s would be a fine achievement. Which, in a way, gave me a bit of freedom to attack. In the 2017 Houston Marathon I was trying to do the race I tried – and failed – to do in my first, London 2016. With that done, and my unusual build-up, the pressure was off.

So why not push harder than I knew I could manage? If I did, and it went wrong, what would it matter? And that’s what I did.

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Again, I’ll write more about my pacing and strategy later. I didn’t quite reach the ambitious target of 3h 10m I set myself, but in the circumstances I was thrilled to clock a 3h 10m 58s – a new marathon PB by 5m 42s.

I’ll run through some more highlights and experiences later, but the best moment was obvious: this year my mum, brother, niece and nephew were not far from the finish line to cheer me on. Having spotted them at the barriers standing exactly where we discussed, I was able to reach them for a series of high fives as I went past. My five-year-old nephew reckoned his high five gave me his “super quick running energy.” I think he was right.

I needed that energy too. For whatever reason, a few people further down saw me dishing out high fives to my family and decided they wanted in on the act. Which was fun, except for one enthusiastic Texas who dished out his high five with such enthusiasm and force that it genuinely nearly floored a near-exhausted pasty-faced Brit. Yup, 20 metres from the finish line of a marathon, I was nearly felled by enthusiasm…
More Houston memories to follow.

 

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Houston Marathon 2018 countdown: one week to go

One week today, then. As I write, it’s exactly one week until the 2018 Chevron Houston Marathon. In fact, I’m writing this at 8.30am on Sunday morning, so if you conveniently ignore the six hours time difference between London and Houston, this time next week I’ll hopefully be somewhere approaching the halfway point of the Houston Marathon.

Which is quite an odd thing to reflect on, because right now I’m sat in London Heathrow Terminal 5, eating porridge while trying to comprehend how really not very far away the marathon is.

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In part, that’s because it still seems some way off. As explained previously, I’m taking something of a circuitous route to Houston – flying to Las Vegas (via, of all places, Dallas Fort Worth) for a work trip to the Consumer Electronic Show, before flying across to Fort Worth to meet my brother and his family, then driving down to Houston.

Although that wasn’t actually the start of my unusual travel schedule. Because, after leaving work in Twickenham – a scant few miles from Heathrow – on Friday evening, I headed down to Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset. Why? Because that’s where my dad lives, and yesterday was his 70th birthday. And, since he still enjoys (and is very good at) running, what better way to celebrate than by joining him on the Burnham and Highbridge Parkrun?

It was, in many ways, a perfect British winter morning for a Parkrun. It was cold but clear, and with only a scant sea breeze on the bit of the course that runs along Burnham’s sea wall (I’m hoping you worked out from the on-Sea bit that Burnham is a coastal town…).

Perfect then. Except for the frost and ice on the course. Slippery frost and ice, at that.

Things that are not good to do eight days before a marathon: fall over and get hurt.

Things that make you fall over and get hurt eight days before a marathon: slippery frost and ice.

Eek.

At the start, I didn’t quite know how bad the frost and ice might be, so I set off at my normal pace, and found myself nearly sliding off at the first bend. In fact, fearing I might slip up, I actually ran wide off the park footpath and onto the grass, which turned out to be really very muddy.

And, after that nervous moment, I found myself with greatly reduced confidence. On my previous parkrun outings in Burnham, I’ve done the first kilometre in something approaching 3m 50s. Yesterday I was around the 4m mark.

The course was then quite grippy along the sea wall section, but the final 0.75km or so was back in the park. And, as I tried to speed up for a sprint finish, I found myself sliding a little bit again.

Eight days before a marathon. Don’t fall over.

And so, memories of pre-run paranoia coming back to haunt me, my sub-conscience slowed me down, and I found myself gingerly tiptoeing towards the line, rather than staging an epic sprint.

My final time was 20m 14s, which I know isn’t exactly slow. But it was still the slowest of my nine outings at Burnham – by a full 14s – and way off my course (and 5k) PB of 19m 24s. And the time wasn’t due to lacking fitness: it was instinctive survival.

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And so, as so many people say, yesterday Burnham-on-Sea, today Las Vegas. It’s been plenty cold enough in America lately, but Nevada and Texas look to be warming up, so hopefully I won’t have to worry about ice for the next week or so.

No, the next challenge will be trying to rest up, carb-load and do all the sort of things you’re supposed to do the week before a marathon while working at a huge trade show.

But first, a transatlantic plane flight. And, for once, I won’t feel guilty about reclining my seat, watching a film and dozing (well, aside from the work I have to do while flying). Not sure how textbook tapering on a plane is, but let’s give it a go…

 

Houston, we have a problem (again): returning to the Houston Marathon

When I finished the 2016 London Marathon, I never wanted to run 26.2 miles again. For a few hours, at least. I quickly realised I wanted another go, and it wasn’t long before a crazy plan developed to visit my brother in Texas and run the 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon.

That went quite well and so, of course, I started mulling what was next. And since I enjoyed the Houston Marathon, tackling it for a second time seemed like a good idea. There was a wider family plan too. And things were just coming together when it all got a bit complicated, for all sorts of logistical reasons – not least my brother moving from Houston to Fort Worth.

So, for several months, a return trip to the Houston Marathon seemed unlikely. Even so, there was a chance, so in the last few months I’ve been quietly preparing, just in case – at least as much as various work trips and events would allow. And then, in the last few weeks, the chance came up for a work trip to Las Vegas came up. In the week before the Houston Marathon. And, well, it’s not that much of a detour to return from Las Vegas to London via Fort Worth, is it? And, well, if I’m in Fort Worth it’s not that much of a detour to head down to Houston for a weekend, is it?

And, so, well, here we go again, then.

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It’s time for my Houston Marathon sequel. Or to complete my marathon trilogy. Whichever sounds better, really.

In some ways, I’m a bit relaxed about this one. Possibly a little too relaxed. Heading into my first marathon I didn’t know what to expect. With the second I did; effectively it was a chance to correct all the mistakes I made. This time I’ve got the confidence of having run a marathon entirely to plan, and the belief I can do it again.

Conversely, the slightly unsure build-up has also taken some of the pressure off. While I’ve mentioned I’ve been readying myself for a marathon quietly, I haven’t really had the time or ability to really dedicate myself to the build-up, like I did last year. And I’m not going to be able to: I’m flying to America a week before the marathon, then spending three days charging round the CES technology show in Vegas before flying to Fort Worth late on Wednesday evening. I’ll then have a brief respite (or, more likely, a chance to catch up on work I’m behind on from CES), before driving to Houston late on Friday evening in readiness for Sunday’s race. It’s hardly textbook marathon tapering…

I’m also a little worried about running the same marathon course for the second time. In both of my previous marathons, the fact I didn’t know the course effectively meant every mile was a fresh experience. Will knowing the course give me recognisable landmarks to pace myself off, or make the thing last longer because I won’t have anything ‘new’ to distract myself with?

Who knows? Still, I want to be there. And I’m excited to be there. Without trying to sound trite or twee, last August, Houston was hit hard by flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. From all the way over here in Britain, it was surreal to see parts of a city I know well underwater. Heck, I saw photos showing huge rivers where there should be roads – roads I ran down on the marathon.

Texans are tough, and Houston has rebounded despite continuing to deal with the impact of Harvey. Taking part in this year’s Houston Marathon seems like some small, minor show of support on my behalf.

But I’m not overthinking it. It’s just running. I like running. I apparently seem to quite like running marathons. I’m not sure why. They hurt, and they take effort. But I must quite like them, because I keep signing up for them. This will be my third.

So, the 2018 Chevron Houston Marathon it is. Here we go…

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The 2017 Atters Goes Running Awards, part two

Welcome to the second part of the 2017 Atters Goes Running Awards. Yes, I’ve split it into two parts because, like all award ceremonies, it’s all gone on a little bit too long. Don’t know why. I can’t even blame drunken guests making overly long acceptance speeches.

Anyway, enough of that. Let’s carry on with the awards. And, if you missed the first part, you can read it here.

Best opponents: Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth (Toro Dash 10k, Fort Worth, Texas, November 4)

Surreal moment: discovering, while queueing for a portable toilet, that I’m going to be racing against NASCAR drivers in a 10k race. Even more surreal moment: realising that I run a 10k at roughly their pace…

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Best start location: Oxford Street, Swansea (Swansea Half Marathon, June 25)

There’s always something cool about a city centre start, and the start line for the Swansea Half Marathon nailed it. It was held on Oxford Street, which might not rival the one in London for huge shops, but is one of the town’s main thoroughfares and is within a few hundred metres of Swansea Castle, which the route goes right past after a short loop through the streets.

It was also a boon for Swansea’s cafes and restaurants, which were doing a roaring trade at an unsociable hour of a Sunday morning (the McDonalds had to stop serving every other than simple black and white coffee, because their machines couldn’t cranky out frothy coffees fast enough…). Well, all except for Swansea’s Starbucks, which had an enviable location right next to the start arch, but seemed to be the only cafe that didn’t think to open early to cash in on the rush of runners to the area. Amusingly, the girl in Starbucks readying chairs for the normal opening hour looked very confused by the kerfuffle going on outside the front door…

Also nominated: Franklin St, Houston (Houston Marathon, Houston, Texas, January 15). This might well have won on downtown location, but it lost out since starting alongside the town’s courthouse also meant runners gathering beside the neon lights of various bail bond offices. How glam. Still, the downtown image would improve 26.2 miles later…

Best finish location: Discovery Green, Houston (Houston Marathon, Houston, Texas, January 15)

Utterly perfect. A scenic part of downtown Houston, with a green park able to provide some relief from the massive city skyscrapers. A street wide enough for two separates races (the marathon and half marathon) to finish alongside each other, and still leave room for plenty of crowds on both sides of the road. And a finish line within wobbly hobbling distance of the air-conditioned relief of the Houston Convention Centre. And a finish on a flat road with nothing but a mild kink as you approach the line.

Scenic, crowd-friendly, runner-friendly and flat. We like very much.

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Best finish location (non-Houston Marathon edition): Kingston-upon-Thames market square, Lidl Kingston Breakfast Run (March 26)

Like many runs based in Kingston-upon-Thames, the Lidl Kingston Breakfast Run starts early (there’s a clue in the title) largely to minimise the impact of having a major race take over a huge part of the town’s scenic market square. It’s worth the early start for the pleasure of finishing in such pleasant surrounding – and with so many cafes and restaurants nearby for the all-important post-run dining.

Strangest venue: The future site of Shinfield Meadows housing development, Shinfield 10k (Shinfield, Berkshire, May 1)

The Shinfield 10k is a long-established race in a town near Reading. And that town is going to get a lot bigger soon, with a huge housing development taking place nearby – right where the 10k route has long run. And still does, thanks to a fenced-in path that led through the bast expanse of cleared land which, one day, will quite literally all be houses.

The ‘So Near And Yet…’ award: Chichester 10k (Goodwood Racing Circuit, February 5)

The long-running Chichester 10k moved to nearby Goodwood Racing Circuit this year, giving me another excuse to run around a racing circuit. And, in theory, it was a brilliant move.

The event started just outside the racing circuit, with around 7k on nearby roads before finishing with a lap of the track. It was a great combination of road and race circuit running. With just one catch: the organisers, and the team from Goodwood Estate, seemed to underestimate how many people would turn up by car. And so, not long before the race was due to start, cars were still piling in the entrance. Which was a problem, because the start was located on the road at the circuit entrance.

Cue a lengthy delay, and much kerfuffle. Which was a real shame, because it should have been brilliant. And hopefully, with lessons learned, it will be in 2018. I’ll be back there. Just hope the traffic chaos won’t be…

Best post-race goody bag: Lidl Kingston Breakfast Run (Kingston-upon-Thames, March 26)

The folks at Lidl sure know how to pack a goody bag with, erm, goodies. From a big bag to muesli to all sorts of nuts and cleaning products, it was a wonderfully hefty haul.

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Best post-race non-goody bag: Royal Parks Half Marathon (London, October 8)

In a bid to cut down on wastage, the organisers of the Royal Parks Half Marathon didn’t give every runner a goody bag stuffed with, erm, goodies. Instead, every runner was given an empty plastic bag and then directed to a tent where they could, apparently, select their own goodies.

Great idea, except the wonderfully efficient and friendly staff basically encouraged everyone to hold their bags open while they put one of everything in…

Best finisher’s shirt: Simply Health Great Bristol Half Marathon (Bristol, September 17)

The Simply Health Great Bristol Half Marathon is run by Great Run, the company behind such events as the Great North Run and, er Great South Run. You get the idea: they organise runs. And they’re great (or grrrrr-eat, to quote Tony the Tiger).

Anyway, in 2016 the finisher’s shirts offered for Great Run events were largely standardised designs across all the events, with one basic design that only varied by shirt colour and event details. All a bit meh.

But this year, the Bristol Half Marathon shirts featured some gert lush local colour, with a proper job mint picture by a local Brizzle artist (if you have to ask…). The shirt, designed by Alex Lucas on behalf of Bristol’s Affordable Art Fair, feature a big bear jumping over the Bristol Suspension Bridge. As well as being a great design, it was packed with local meaning and landmarks. Great effort.

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Best medal: Houston Marathon (Houston, Texas, January 15)

Come on: it’s big, shiny, chunky and has the skyline of Houston carved out of it. It’s the sort of big hunk of metal you deserve to get after a 26.2-mile run…

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Best medal (non-Houston Marathon edition): Royal Parks Half Marathon (London, October 8)

Lots of contenders for this award. Tempting to give it to my class-winning medal from the Run Houston! Sam Houston Race Park 10k, but since this category is really designed purely to compare finishers’ medals I decided not to include it.

Still, that left plenty of shiny medal to pick from. There was a gratifyingly chunky medal for the Swansea Half Marathon (which is now the only medal I haven’t kept, since I gave it to my 90-year-old Nan who lives there). The Great Run Bristol Half Marathon medal was also nicely region-specific. Then there was the Captain America logo-inspired Thruxton 10k medal, which was designed to fit the event’s (odd) superhero theme.

But, ultimately, the most refreshing medal of the year was one not made from metal: it was the wooden leaf-shaped one for the Royal Parks Half Marathon. It’s partly a statement of the run’s green credentials, and it really works. It’s stylish and different, without feeling gimmicky.

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Best series of medals: Yateley 10k Series (Yateley, Hampshire, June-August)

This was genius stuff. The Yateley 10k Series features three mid-week evening races on the same course, held once a month. Previously, they’ve all featured the same medal each event. But this time, the three medals were all different. And, when you looked carefully, featured a variety of notches and holes that allowed them to be combined. A great reward for those who managed to do all three events – especially as this was the first year I managed to do all three events…

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Okay then, time for the big one. Well, big two. And, as with last year’s awards, I’ll do them in reverse order, even though it will destroy any doubt about the final winner.

Race of the year (non-Houston Marathon edition): Swansea Half Marathon (Swansea, June 25)

In truth, picking a race of the year in a near-impossible task. How do you compare a big city half-marathon with a small 10k organised by a tiny running club? I don’t know. And yet that’s the task I appear to have set myself. Clearly, I’m an idiot.

Ultimately, then, it comes down to enjoyment and fun factor. Certainly, the immense challenge of the steep hills and part-trail route of the Godalming Run made it stick in the memory, even if the sheer leg ache probably moved it a bit too far towards pain for it to win.

Then the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon was a memorable way to experience London, but lost a few points because the epic landmark-packed closed-road first half slightly overshadowed the second half that looped the footpaths of Hyde Park.

I considered the Toro Dash 10k, but ultimately realised that it was the novelty of racing NASCAR drivers that made that event special – the fact I overshot a turn because it wasn’t well marked definitely hurts. Then there was the Cabbage Patch 10, which took this award last year – and everything good about it in 2016 applied just as much in 2017.

Ultimately, though, the event that sticks in the memory most this year for me was the Swansea Half Marathon. It wasn’t perfect – the portaloo queues before the start were quite something – but it was definitely memorable for me, as a chance to see more of a city I have family roots in but hadn’t really visited for years. The course was good too, with some nice coastal views (and thankfully not to much coastal breeze on the day). And, overall, it was a good balance of big event vibe without too much logistical hassle.

Race of the year: Chevron Houston Marathon (Houston, Texas, January 15)

Oh, come on. As with the London Marathon in 2016, there’s just something intrinsically special about running a marathon, especially a big city one packed with amazing experiences.

Better still, unlike in London 2016, I was able to run Houston in the style I wanted, with nary a brief brush with The Wall and a much-improved time. Second time really is a charm, and all that.

Plus, in truth, I enjoyed Houston far more than London. The slightly smaller race, and the experience that comes with having done a marathon previously, meant I found it all more enjoyable and less overwhelming than London.

I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that before I’d crossed the finish line I’d decided I wanted to do it again. Hmmm, the 2018 Houston Marathon takes place on Sunday January 14. Now then…

Watch this space. Etc.

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The 2017 Atters Goes Running Awards, part one

It’s that weird post-Christmas period, and it’s nearly the end of the year. Which means that newspapers, magazines, TV schedules, websites and other such things are stuffed with end-of-year reviews and awards. So why be any different?

In other words, following the success of the inaugural Atters Goes Running Awards last year (by success, I mean I enjoyed writing them, and nobody complained bitterly), they’ve returned for a second year.

Naturally, being a hugely prestigious awards ceremony there are strict criteria that must be followed. Which, in this case, involves me thinking up all the categories and deciding all the winners from the somewhat random assortment of races I’ve taken part in this year.

Oh, and while this is an awards ceremony there are, of course, no actual real awards, trophies, trinkets, medals or the like. The warm glow of mild satisfaction that some bloke you don’t know who competed on your event enjoyed it is all the reward you need, surely.

Right, with all that said, let’s begin handing out (non-existent) trophies. Some now; more, including the hugely prestigious race of the year prize, later.

The big shiny medal result of the year: First in class, Run Houston! Sam Houston Race Park 10k (Harris County, Texas, January 1)

Yes, in terms of outright results I essentially peaked on the first day of this year. I entered the slightly awkwardly titled Run Houston! Sam Houston Race Park 10k as a) something to do on New Year’s Day and b) as part of my final warm-ups for the Houston Marathon. Getting a result was a bonus – and finishing eighth overall in 40m02s was certainly a moral boosting result for a final training run.

Except it turned out to be better than that: I also scored my first-ever class win, finishing 1m 12s clear of my nearest rivals in the Males 35-39 category. A win! A class win! I even got a chunkily massive class winners medal and everything.

Of course, my path to a class win was helped by the fact that US races feature a lot more age-based classes than most UK ones. But let’s not let faces get in the way of a big, shiny class winners medal. Honestly, I never thought I’d be capable of such things.

I did repeat my class-winning feat in another race in Texas, the Toro Dash 10k, later in the year. But it doesn’t score as highly since my run time was slower and the class-winning medal was smaller…

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Also nominated: First in class, Toro Dash 10k (Fort Worth, Texas, November 4); Second overall, Osterley Parkrun 205 (Osterley, London, August 26); Third in class, Trinity 5000 Summer Series Week Nine (Fort Worth, Texas, July 27)

Best-organised race: Chevron Houston Marathon (Houston, Texas, January 15)

Last year I gave my best-organised race award to the London Marathon, largely for how well they coped with the logistics of 40,000 or so runners and a start and finish in different locations. The Houston Marathon organisation impressed me just as much, but for almost entirely different reasons.

Houston can’t match London in terms of numbers, but does have the complexity of also having a half-marathon starting at the same time and following the same route for the five seven miles or so. How the organisers coped with the split was really clever, especially the brilliant finish that featured the two races run alongside each other on a divided street.

The Houston Marathon also featured the start and finish in virtually the same place, allowing the use of the Houston Convention Centre as a single race base. And they made brilliant use of it, from the well-organised expo to the busy but never overly crowded finish area.

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The organisers also did a good job of ensuring there was entertainment out on the course, and enthusiastic volunteers at any parts of the course where there wouldn’t be any spectators. Nice job.

Best-organised race (non-Houston Marathon edition): Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon (London, October 8)

The Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon might ‘only’ be a half marathon, but the organisation rivals any big-city marathon – which it kind of has to, given it involves closing a good bunch of roads in central London for a morning. As I noted after doing it, the clever course design means you arguably get to see more London landmarks than you do on the more famous race that’s twice the length…

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Also nominated (cliche alert…): the organisers of every race, parkrun and similar group event. Even when a race has frustrating organisational flaws (troubled car parking, not enough toilets, etc), it’s important to remember that most races are organised by volunteers. We couldn’t go running without them.

Toughest uphill: Pretty much any uphill stretch of the Godalming Run (Godalming, Surrey, May 14)

Competitive category, this. Last year’s winner, the big hill in the middle of the Treggy 7, put in a strong bid for back-to-back trophies, particularly with this year’s event taking place in heavy rain. And there were some nasty off-camber uphill hairpin turns on the Hogs Back Road Race. Oh, and it’s not eligible since it wasn’t actually a race, but I can’t forget the lunacy of the massive hill on the Lone Star Walking and Running shop’s group run route  (pictured below).

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But honours go to the Godalming Run, largely because it features both trail and on-road elements. And, whatever surface you’re running on, very little of it is flat. An early climb up to a private school on a rough, slippery, tree root-lined dirt trail was so tough you could only laugh. Yup, laugh – and if something is so tough it’s funny, it’s definitely worthy of an award.

Then, late in the race, there was a huge uphill on a road. The fact that you were running on Tarmac wasn’t really much of a help on a brutally short, sharp climb featuring around 40 metres of elevation.

Of course, what goes up…

Toughest downhill: Pretty much any downhill stretch of the Godalming Run (Godalming, Surrey, May 14)

The rollercoaster descent from the highest point of the Godalming Run took place on similar rough, slippery, tree root-lined dirt trails as the ascent. They definitely weren’t the sort of downhill when you can get your breath back and relax after a tough climb. You didn’t so much run downhill as try to keep your momentum in check and attempt to miss the tree roots.

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Quite proudly, the Godalming Run was the slowest 10k race I’ve ever done – but probably one of my best results given the effort involved.

That’s it for part one. Check back soon for more awards…

Water on a Hogs Back – battling the elements on the Hogs Back Road Race

The forecast for Sunday morning in Guildford didn’t look good on Friday evening. That it was going to be cold wasn’t really in question. Nor was the fact that a big weather front was going to be dumping moisture from the sky. The questions were whether that moisture was going to be falling as heavy rain or heavy snow – and whether there might be storm-force winds.

Normally, I’d only have a passing interest in Guildford’s weather, what with the Surrey town being about 25 miles south west of my house. But Guildford was also the location for the Hogs Back Road Race, an 11.7km run I’d signed up to run.

Of course, when I’d signed up, I had no idea what the weather would be like – aside from the general assumption that it might not be that pleasant, what with the race being held in Britain on the second week in December and all. But there’s not very pleasant, and there was the forecast for this weekend. With cold weather, heavy rain and/or snow, and potentially storm-force winds. Frankly, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it, especially given the course included 147 metres of climbing – the clue is in the title, since the Hog’s Back is an elongated ridge on the North Downs in Surrey.

Incidentally, I’m entirely blaming my mate and fellow runner Matt for my entry: he’d signed up first and encouraged me to join him. It was also his idea to do the ridiculously hilly Treggy 7 in Cornwall. He’s a glutton for punishment, or something.

It didn’t help that I wasn’t feeling quite at full strength. I’d been suffering from some form of mild illness, which left me a bit short of energy. I made it to yesterday’s Kingston Parkrun, but didn’t exactly set a quick time. After a restful Saturday, I felt much improved by yesterday evening, if not quite at full strength. Well enough, though, that I didn’t think I could justify sitting out the Hogs Back Road Race on account of illness – even I knew I wasn’t going to be setting a blazing pace on it.

The question about the weather hung around for most of Saturday. The confusion was that there was a big cold front over Britain, but a milder front sweeping in. What nobody quite knew is where the heavy clouds would meet the cold front.

When my alarm went off at six am on Sunday morning, the noise of rain pouring down outside gave me the answer. There was no snow. Just rain. This was probably good news, on balance, since a heavy dumping of snow could have led to the event being cancelled. When I’d gone to bed on Saturday night, I’d a quick glimpse at the Twitter feed of AAT Events, which organised the race, just in case they’d postponed it preemptively.

They hadn’t, and heavy rain on Sunday morning in Richmond-upon-Thames was a sign that there was very unlikely to be snow in Guildford, either. Again, this was, in theory, good news, since it meant the race going ahead. Yet as I contemplated leaving my house a good hour before daylight, in near-freezing conditions and with rain pouring down, this didn’t exactly seem like a good thing.

I did question my sanity for still going ahead with this when I wasn’t feeling at full strength, especially on the drive out of south London and down the A3, which involved dodging substantial patches of standing water on the road.

It was still miserably wet when I parked up on the grounds of Loseley Park, a 16th Century manor house set in what I think are lovely grounds – but which were mostly wet and bleak during my visit. Thankfully, the rain did ease off – as the forecast suggested – before the start, but it returned for much of the race.

Still, it had rained so heavily that much of the route was sodden, with standing water all over the place. The Hogs Back Road Race course, as described on the event website, is: “90% road and 10% gravel track.” This seemed roughly true. But that description was followed by the line “no mud”, which emphatically was not true. The heavy rain had washed muck all over the gravel paths. At times, the choice was to trudge through standing water or mud. Nice.

All that climbing didn’t help either. Most of the uphill was thankfully in the first half of the event, and wasn’t as bad as I feared: the climbs were mostly long but steady, rather than being brutally steep – although a few uphill hairpins didn’t help.

That said, about halfway up the first hill I realised how little energy I really had, probably a combination of illness and my relative lack of enthusiasm. I found myself ticking into some form of ‘survival mode’, and I trudged through the rest of the event at a pace that was some way from my potential – even accounting for the cold, mud, rain and hills.

I was genuinely glad to reach the finish. And I was utterly thrilled that I had a car for the weekend that featured both heated seats and a heated steering wheel.

As I drove out of Loseley Park, fingers just thawing on a warming wheel, I decided I perhaps should have trusted my instincts and sat out the race.

Of course, then the runner in me kicked in. By the time I was home, I was cheered from the feeling of having conquered such a challenge, and of having pushed myself to do something despite my instincts not to.

There was extra cheer, too, from downloading the data from my Garmin GPS running watch. I mentioned before the race was a very unusual 11.7km distance. Partly that’s because of finding a course that starts and finishes in the same place. But it also seems to be so the Hogs Back Road Race looks like this…

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Somehow, that made it all worthwhile.

 

Running range anxiety: will your running watch battery last as long as your run?

A short time back, on a cold but clear Sunday morning, I set out to do a long run. For all sorts of reasons, I’d decided I wanted to run for somewhere between two and two-and-a-half hours. I wasn’t overly concerned how fast I went, but I was interested to see what sort of pace I could sustain, and how long I could sustain it for.

I eventually settled on a route that followed the river path of the Thames from my home in Richmond-upon-Thames (well, technically I live in Ham, but Richmond-upon-Thames always sounds posher…) down through Kingston-upon-Thames to Hampton Court, where I’d cross the river, and headed up through Teddington and Twickenham to Richmond. At which point I’d cross back across the Thames and head back down the other side of it to my house.

About one hour and ten minutes into my run I was about halfway through my route, on the Thames path between Hampton Court Palace and Teddington, busily trying not to make a fool of myself downing an energy gel while running, when my Garmin GPS running watch beeped. And it wasn’t the good sort of beep, either – the beep that comes when you’ve reached whatever ‘lap’ you’ve set it to (normally one kilometre or mile, depending what sort of race/training I’m doing). No, this was the prolonged loud annoying beep that’s accompanied by a big box popping up on the display bearing the dreaded words: LOW BATTERY.

Oh dear.

Now, this certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve been out running when my Garmin has started beeping battery warnings. It’s happened a few time, and it’s always quite annoying. Firstly, because that big ‘LOW BATTERY’ box stays on your screen until you press a button to make it disappear – but when you’re running, it’s actually quite tricky making sure you press the right button, and not accidentally stop timing, turn the light on or make your watch do some other crazy thing you didn’t previously know it could do.

It’s also annoying because you never really know how long you’ve got until the low battery becomes no battery, and the watch just stops working. It’s like when the fuel light comes on in your car, and you have to sort of guesstimate how long you’ve got before you run out of petrol. But while running, obviously.

Previously, I’ve been fortunate enough that my watch has only ever started beeping low battery warnings on relatively short training runs – the sort where it doesn’t really matter if it stops working or not. But on this occasion I was just over halfway into a long training run, where I was absolutely interested in how long I’d run for and how far I’d travelled. If my watch battery completely ran out, I wouldn’t know for sure. And, worse, I’d probably lose the data for the run so far.

So what to do? Well, there were two options. I could have detoured from my route and headed home sooner, which would have ruined my running distance goal, but would have at least allowed me to pretty much guaranteed I could finish the run before the battery was finished.

That option didn’t really appeal though: so option two it was. And that meant gamely pressing on, keeping my fingers crossed that I’d make it to the end of my planned run with enough battery for my GPS watch to keep working.

So that’s what I did, although it was somewhat distracting – not only because the LOW BATTERY warning screen and accompanying beep kept popping up on the screen at regular intervals, but also because I found myself gazing at my watch more intently than usual, trying to remember the finer details of my time, distance and pace, just in case the screen suddenly went blank. Like searching for a petrol station when your fuel light has been on for a good 30 miles or so, it was genuinely quite nerve wrecking.

But I made it though: just. When I went to plug my Garmin in to charge after the run, the display said it had 1% battery remaining. Close!

Of course, there’s a third reason that being distracted by my GPS running watch being low on battery is really very annoying – and that’s because the only person I’ve got to blame is myself, for forgetting to charge the thing before setting out on a long run…

Part of the problem is that my Garmin is now three years old or so, and as with many electronic devices the battery life just isn’t as good as it used to be. But that’s no real excuse for just forgetting to charge the thing.

Still, it could be worse: I could have forgotten to put it on altogether. Which is exactly what happened to me for a 10k race recently. More of which soon…

Racing against racing drivers: how I accidentally took on NASCAR’s finest

The realisation the Toro Dash 10k wasn’t going to be an entirely normal morning run came about ten minutes before the start, when I was queueing for the ever-glamorous portable toilets in Fort Worth’s Panther Island Pavillion on the banks of the Trinity River. That’s when I looked up to see someone who looked remarkably like seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson emerge from one of the toilets.

With my mind focused on the race ahead (and steeling myself to cope with the less-than-fragrant whiff of chemicals cleaner and, erm, stuff that people deposit in portable toilets) it took me a moment to notice that said Jimmie Johnson lookalike was wearing an athletic top bearing the logo of the charitable Jimmie Johnson Foundation. And it also took me a moment to remember that, on the same weekend as the Tarrant County College’s Toro Dash 10k was being held in Fort Worth, the NASCAR Cup Series was in action at nearby Texas Motor Speedway.

As an aside, that latter realisation shouldn’t have taken that long. Part of the reason I found myself visiting Texas (yes, again) on that weekend was in part because it was close to my Fort Worth-residing brother’s 40th birthday, and in part because visiting at that time gave me a chance to catch up with family and attend a NASCAR race.

In short, it took me a few moments, and a furtive second glance or two, to realise that this wasn’t a Jimmie Johnson lookalike. It was actual Jimmie Johnson, seven-time NASCAR Cup champion and all-round stock car superstar. And he’d just emerged from a portable toilet with a number pinned to his top at the start of a 10k race I was entered in. After a few more moments, I realised what that meant: I was about to race the actual Jimmie Johnson. Oh my.

Things quickly became more surreal. Because, it turned out, Jimmie Johnson wasn’t alone. In fact, he stopped to chat to a few people just ahead of me in the portable toilet queue. Including someone who looked remarkably like 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray. Because, as you’ve doubtless worked out by now, it was 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray. And, as I’d later find out, he’d brought a good number of his Chip Ganassi Racing crew with him.

Well, this was going to be interesting: this was my two worlds colliding in a wholly unexpected fashion. As this blog will indicate, running is a passion of mine, but my day job involves working in journalism. I currently write for the world’s oldest road car magazine, but I spent 12 years working in motorsport titles – because I’m a huge motorsport fan. And, despite being British and stock car racing being a particularly American branch of the sport, I particularly enjoy a spot of NASCAR. So suddenly discovering that I was about to race a bunch of racing drivers was a little bit surreal. Still, I tried to convince myself that once the race started it wouldn’t make much difference. After all, it was a big field, and very unlikely I’d really see them in the race.

Having done my stuff in the portable toilet, I tried to focus on my warm-up routine, but my brain was still racing. So I found my brother (who was starting a little further back than me…) and told him, mostly because I was hoping the process of telling someone might convince me of the reality of the situation. And then I went to find my customary starting position.

Now, when picking where to line up for a race – especially one I haven’t done before – I tend to look at the previous year’s results, see what the pace is like, and then pick a spot accordingly. Based on the 2016 results and my expected pace, a top ten finish looked on the cards in the Toro Dash, although I would be some way back from the winner. So I figured second row would do it. Except, when I worked my way towards the start, I found the spot I was aiming for occupied by Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray and a host of their NASCAR buddies.

They weren’t exactly hiding, either. While they weren’t drawing attention to themselves, they were happy to pose for photos with a handful of people who recognised them. Meanwhile, I was too busy trying to work out what this meant for my pace and finishing predictions. After all, the current generation of NASCAR drivers aren’t at all like the old stereotypes: you have to be properly fit to hustle a heavy stock car around a race circuit, in incredible heat, for several hours at a time. so, for example, I knew that Johnson was a regular competitor – and a pretty competitive one – in triathlons. It seemed entirely possible that, even though they were clearly doing the 10k as a bit of exercise ahead of their weekend of racing, they might just clear off into the distance.

They didn’t. Well, they jumped ahead of me at the start, but not that far. And then I started to catch them up. And pretty soon I was alongside them. And, not long after that, I was past them. Yikes. I’d just overtaken a pack of NASCAR types (who, true to racing form, seemed to revel in running in a tight drafting pack).

I wasn’t clear though, and once I settled into my pace it became apparent that my 10k pace was very similar to that of McMurray and someone I later worked out to be Josh Wise, recently retired driver-turned-coach. We eventually settled into a small group of our own, without any local Texan runners around us. Spoiler alert: this would shortly become a problem.

The Toro Dash 10k course started on one side of the Trinity River, crossed a bridge, then followed the trail alongside the river for a few kilometres before an abrupt hairpin around a cone took it back up the river. It then went past the first crossing bridge, rejoining the route of the 5k race, crossing back over another bridge, with a few more wriggles before returning to Panther Island Pavilion.

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The slight problem was that, as well as having 5k and 10k versions of the Toro Dash, there was also some form of charity walk taking place on the Trinity River trails that day, which had their own signage. So I was a little confused about which signs to follow when I reached the water station and grabbed a drink.

I was then busy attempting to slurp the water from my cup when I nearly tripped over a cone in the middle of the path, with a big ‘turn around’ sign stuck on it. But with no marshals nearby shouting directions, it wasn’t where I’d expected the turn to be. So I instinctively ran on, since I could see some other runners ahead of me.

It didn’t take long to clock the runners ahead were going too slowly to be at my pace in the Toro Dash. And I couldn’t see any other signage. Had… had I missed the turn? I shouted the question to the two runners I could hear behind me.

Unfortunately, those two runners were McMurray and Wise, who both live in North Carolina and didn’t know the course at all. Worse, because I was short of breath and had my English accent, instead of hearing me shout ‘have we missed the turn?’, they thought I was asking how to dispose of my cup.

By the time we all figured our error and turned around, we’d added about 0.25km to the route – about a minute of extra running, at that pace. Hardly ideal. The slight detour also put us behind Johnson and a young local runner, who knew the course. And it meant all of us were frustrated, and I was particularly annoyed given I felt I’d led two other runners astray. They’d been following me, after all.

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As a result, I did the daft thing: rather than accepting the time was lost, I tried to up my pace and make it up. It took me a few minutes to catch back up to McMurray and Wise, at which I tried to offer some apologies.

“Sorry guys,” I yelled, while gasping for breath. “I was trying to ask if that was the turn.”

“We were following you,” responded McMurray. “I thought you were asking where to throw your cup.”

“I’m sorry,” was all I could respond. “You should never follow the British guy.”

At least Murray say the funny side of that.

Still, the frustration of having lost places from missing a turn was still getting at me, so I was determined to haul in both Johnson and the guy running near him.

By the time I did, with McMurray and Wise still close by, we’d reached the first bridge, where the course merged with that of the 5k. And so we found a vast number of slower runners from the 5k (which had started 15 minutes later) in our path. Trying to pick a path through the heavy traffic was genuinely difficult, so I took to following McMurray and Johnson for a while – after all, if you’ve ever seen a NASCAR race, they’re quite good at such things.

I eventually worked back ahead of Johnson but, as the Texan humidity began to build, I could feel myself paying for pushing too much after my extra 0.25k. Sure enough, with about two kilometres to go, my pace began to fall away – dropping from around 4m 04s kilometres to a 4m 27s in the ninth. McMurray and Wise both went past me, and with just under a kilometres to go I could see Johnson and the local kid were catching me too. That helped spur me to push on, and I eventually crossed the line in 42m 34.2s. A solid effort, especially if you knock off the minute or so of extra running I did.

That time was also good enough for 11th place: not the top ten I thought was possible before the start, but still a great result. And while I’d been beaten by one NASCAR racer, I’d still finished ahead of seven-time NASCAR title winner Johnson. Even better, a friend who looked at the results later spotted that the field also included 2003 NASCAR champ Matt Kenseth. So I can now officially say I’ve beaten two NASCAR Cup champions in a race. I just won’t mention that there were no cars or engines involved…

I hadn’t just notched up a top ten finish, either. I’d won my the male 35-39 year old division, picking up a bonus medal for my second class win (the first also came in a Texan 10k).

But, ultimately, the memory of the Toro Dash won’t be a bit of medal, but the surreal chance to race against a bunch of racing drivers I’ve regularly watched do battle on the track. That was brought home looking at the results later. There were 86 runners in the 10k, the vast majority residing in Texas. 14 of the runners lives in North Carolina or Virginia, marking them out as likely NASCAR personnel. There was only one person in the field who lived in Britain.

Which should be a lesson to Jamie McMurray, really. As I told him a second time when I went to further apologise to him after the race for leading him astray, if you’re doing a race in Texas, never follow the British guy…

Anyway, the Toro Dash turned out to be a day of NASCAR racing (with my niece’s ninth birthday tea party thrown in…). But while I enjoyed the evening Xfinity Series race at Texas Motor Speedway, it couldn’t match the morning for sheer fun.

 

The big banana question: before a race, or after?

Whenever I head off to a race, one of the essential things I’ll pack is a banana. Why? Because eating a banana around an hour before a race is an important part of my pre-race routine. Oddly though, I normally arrive home from a race with… a banana.

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Am I some form of banana magician, able to eat one and then conjure another up from thin air? Do I go banana shopping on the way home from a race? Is my house next door to a banana tree?

No. It’s just that an loads of races – I’d say the vast majority I’ve ever done – offer up a banana as one of your post-race treats. But, since I rarely feel like eating a banana after a race, I invariably end up taking my reward banana home, which I guess makes my running day out an essentially banana-neutral activity.

It’s only just struck me this might be a bit odd. I was resting up after finishing a race recently, and found myself admiring the huge stack of boxes at the finish, all full of bananas waiting to be handed out to race finishers. It made me ask myself whether I was having my banana at the wrong time. Am I supposed to have a banana after a race, and not before?

To try and discover the answer I turned, naturally, to the internet. Because I’m bound to find calm, reasoned and indisputable facts on the internet. After some searching, I actually think I did. And it turns out that bananas offer plentiful benefits when eaten both before and after a run.

Now, I’m not a nutritionist, fitness expert, doctor or, erm, Bananaman (though it was one of my favourite cartoons growing up…), but basically bananas are packed with carbs that are good to top up your pre-run energy reserves. And they also contain potassium and several other minerals that you sweat away during exercise.

So bananas are good for you before and after a run. Which leads to another question: should I follow up my pre-run banana by eating a post-race banana as well? Well no, I don’t think I should. Frankly that would, to use a tortuous play on words you can see coming (and for which I apologise in advance), quite literally be… bananas. (It’s funny, see, because there’d be two bananas. What’s that? You got the joke and still aren’t laughing? Oh. So my joke wasn’t funny? Erm, well, sorry then.)

Maybe one day I’ll try switching, foregoing my pre-run banana for a post-race one. But that feels wrong: after all, I eat a banana before a race. Even though, deep down, I know it doesn’t really convey any real performance benefits at my level, but because once you develop a pre-run routine it’s hard to shake off.

But that’s just me. Clearly, many people prefer their bananas after a run. So which is it: bananas – before a race or after?

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Racing again – back on my home (Cabbage) Patch

Having taken part in it for the first time last year, I’m a big fan of the Cabbage Patch 10. The award-winning Cabbage Patch 10, this is: it won the Race of the Year (non-London Marathon edition) price in last year’s, er, prestigious Atters Goes Running Awards. So, to put it in a far less pretentious way, the Cabbage Patch 10 is one of my favourite races.

Because of that, I was quick to sign up for this year’s event – I did so months ago, not long after entries had opened. After all, this is an event that starts next to my office and runs past my house. It really is my local run, and one I didn’t want to miss out on.

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That said, I didn’t actually know until quite recently that I’d actually be able to take part. In a classic case of ‘far worse problems to have’, I had to go to a work event in Shanghai, China last week (I’m not mentioning this just to show off, honest…), which involved flying on Sunday October 15 – the date of the 2017 Cabbage Patch 10.

In a classic case of good news/bad news, the company sorting the travel were unable to get us on the planned flight, a lunchtime British Airways departure that would have had me schlepping round Heathrow Terminal Five around the time I should have been pounding the streets of Twickenham, Kingston-upon-Thames and Richmond.

Instead, I ended up heading to Shanghai on a late evening Air France flight (with a quick stopover in Paris Charles de Galle). That meant I missed out on several hours of potential sightseeing time in Shanghai – but, brilliantly, meant I had plenty of time to take in the Cabbage Patch 10 before I’d have to leave for Heathrow.

So, at 10am last Sunday, I found myself in the huddle of runners massed on Church Street in Twickenham, waiting until being called onto the High Street for the 10am start. It was an utterly beautiful day for it, with weather than felt more like late summer than mid-October. If anything, it might have been a little too warm for the conditions – but complaining about the heat in October seems like an utterly, utterly churlish thing to do.

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As with last year, the race was brilliantly organisers, wonderfully well marshalled and superbly run. As with last year, my local knowledge seemed to help, complete with the novelty of running literally past my front door at the halfway point. And, as with last year, I probably got suckered into going a little bit fast in the early part of the race, paying for that slightly in the second half.

My least favourite part of the Cabbage Patch 10 – in fact, the only part I don’t like, really – is the artificially steep rise from Richmond riverside up to cross Richmond Bridge. It involves a short, sharp climb that just utterly breaks your rhythm and really makes your legs ache. As with last year, I made it up, but it broke my stride and I dropped a chunk of time over the next mile or so trying to regain my pacing.

That slight pace dip contributed to me feeling ‘happy-but-a-little-frustrated’ at the finish of a race, for the second week in a row. The weekend before this year’s Cabbage Patch 10, I’d come within seconds of breaking my half-marathon PB on the Royal Parks Half. On the Patch I was eight seconds slower than I’d been the previous year – when I’d set my ten-mile PB.

Two weeks. Two races. Two PBs missed by a combined total of 11 seconds or so. Boo.

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Still, it’s churlish to complain when the margins are that tight, and when the races are so fun and well organisers. And, heck, you can’t really complain about missing a PB by eight seconds when, for several weeks, I didn’t think I’d actually be able to take part.

Plus, it meant I slept extra-well on that overnight flight to Shanghai…

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