This is my first Rodeo Run – and my first race win too…

It turns out I’m quite good at running. Not going to the Olympics good, or being a top local athlete good, you understand. I’m not great, but I’m above average and pretty good. Run a marathon in 3h 10m 58s good. Run a 5k in just under 19m 30s good.

Which I struggle with a bit, because I’m not really a showy off person, but I’m proud of my achievements – especially given I only took up running four years ago, when my unexpected athletic prowess was hidden by years of sloth and torpor, and an excess of body fat.

I mention all this because I find it a challenge to share my running success with people without it sounding like I’m, well, showing off. So I prefer to be modest about things, but then worry more that it comes across as a deliberately coy form of #humblebrag. Which is definitely not the intent.

And so, with that highlighted, I can tell you about the Historic Fort Worth Inc Rodeo Run, a 5k race I took part in six days after the Houston Marathon. And it’s of note because of, well, this…

Yup, I won. Like, won overall. I won a race.

Now, let me get the caveats in first. The Rodeo Run was ‘only’ a 5k race, and it only had a field of around 160 runners. And the standard wasn’t exactly world class. Or international level. Or even Texan level. In fact, I ran at a pace that wouldn’t put me in the top ten of my local Parkrun most weekends.

So I’m honestly not #humblebragging when I say there was an odd feeling of slight embarrassment celebrating winning a race when I know it was largely down to quicker people not turning up. Which is silly because, after all, you can only beat the field you race, etc, etc.

Which was kind of my strategy. When I entered, I had a look at the results from the 2017 race and figured I could do well – my regular 5k pace would have put me in a solid (but distant) second. So I had a sneaky thought I could do well, but I was pondering a podium, or perhaps another Texan race age group win. The catch, of course, was that I’d run a marathon six days previously, so my legs weren’t exactly welcoming a quick 5k.

The race was held in the Fairmont/Magnolia district of Fort Worth, starting from the Thistle Hill mansion house before a loop around the area’s main drag, Magnolia Avenue, lined with restaurants, bars and coffee shops. The course was sort of closed-road: a path had been coned off from the traffic, and police officers stopped the cars (which weren’t many on a quiet Saturday morning) when the course crossed open roads. Oh, and there was a police motorcycle outrider ahead of the runners to keep an eye on things.

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I started near the front, and due to my fast start found myself leading exiting the mansion house grounds. I could feel the leg ache though, and wary of not pushing too hard early I tried to control my pace. Two runners went past me, one man and one woman, and I expected to watch them pull away. But they didn’t.

In fact, I held the gap to them, while running a consistent pace. And then, shortly before half-distance, I started to catch them. As the course turned off Magnolia Avenue onto a side road I went past the male runner. Second.

Just after the next turn, I caught the female runner. First. With half the race to go, I was leading. That was, indeed, a first. All I could see ahead of me was my own police motorcycle escort. That was cool. I felt like a Tour de France rider, or a VIP or something.

Of course, I could still feel me legs aching, and they were getting worse. And so, I began to control my pace a bit more. Instead of focusing on a time as I normally would, I was racing for position. But with just under 2km to go, I was worried I was pushing too hard.

After the Magnolia Avenue loop, the race went back up the road it came down to the finish. And as I turned onto that street I could hear another runner behind me. Convinced I was being caught, I decided not to look back, and just focused on my pace. I tried to put thoughts of winning out of my head: clearly, someone faster and more disciplined was catching me. Well, that’s how it seemed. But they didn’t actually catch me, which was confusing.

Also confusing: the distance left to run. As the race turned back onto the road with the mansion on, my Garmin reckoned I’d only done 4.5k or so. But, having run out that way, I knew the finish wasn’t half a km away. So was the route short, or was there a sneaky loop hidden away?

I wasn’t sure, making it even harder to work out what to ask of my weary legs. It was only when I was within sight of the house that I heard the commentator make mention of the first runners coming in – and the he said the leader was in the clear. In the clear?

He was right. I couldn’t hear he footsteps behind me, and I mustered as much of a sprint as I could to cross the line first. I’d won.

Turned out, according to my Garmin the course was about 180 metres short. Which almost made me feel a little cheated when I crossed the line – but also a bit relieved, since my efforts to save myself for another 180 metres or so of running where a struggle.

It also meant that my finish time of 19m 35s is massively flattering – by my reckoning I ran about a 4m 04s per km pace – about a 20m 20s 5k time. Again, not exactly slow, but certainly not challenging my PB as my official time suggests.

What followed was all very odd for someone who isn’t all that fond of attention. I got interviewed by a Texan race report writer – a bizarre role reversal for me – and had to pose for photos with the second overall/first-place female runner (who, in the end, finished about five seconds behind). I had to go up and collect my first-place medal, while a commentator made much fuss over my pace (and also seemed great amused I was from England…). It was… odd.

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Especially because, deep down, I didn’t know how happy to be. Sure, i’d won, and my finish time was mighty quick. But the latter was largely because the course was the best part of 200 metres short. Truthfully, I’d run as quick as post-Marathon legs would slow, and my pace was, for me, solid but not spectacular.

But hey, I’d won, and that will be preserved on the Rodeo Run results website. And, hey, I now own a race winners medal. Dammit, I’m a winner. I should show off. Look at me, I’m a winner!

Thankfully Isabella, my nine-year-old niece, was on hand to keep my rampant ego in check. Later that day, she picked up my medal for a closer look, starting at it intently as it twirled on its red ribbon, the gold reflecting the lights. Admiring it in quiet awe, no doubt.

And then… “Uncle Jimbo, you do realise this medal isn’t real but plastic, don’t you?”

Oof.

And then… “And you do know that where it says ‘first place’ is a sticker. And that it isn’t even stuck on straight?”

Humbled, I tucked my rampant ego back in its box…

Oh, and to answer the question you might not be wondering – the Rodeo Run is named because it takes place at the same time as the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. And so, fittingly, I celebrated my first win by going to watch my actual first rodeo.

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Houston Marathon reflections: why I’m a failure at running marathons (sort of)

True story: I’m a failure when it comes to running marathons. I’ve run three marathons, and completed them all in under three-and-a-half hours but, frankly, I’ve let myself down every time. Why? Simple: I’ve failed to meet my target in every single one of them. See? Ignoble failure.

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Except, of course, I don’t view any of them as a failure. Heck, just completing a marathon was an achievement I long thought was beyond me. Completing a marathon in under three-and-a-half hours? Wouldn’t have dared dream. Completing one in 3h 10m 58s? Never.

When it comes to my three marathons, I’ve matched or exceeded my goal in all three.
Hang on, how does that work? Allow me to explain. What running marathons has taught me is that there’s a difference – a small, subtle yet crucial difference – between what I consider goals and targets. You can still fail to hit a target, yet still succeed in achieving a brilliant goal.

I’m not sure the dictionary agrees, but I’ve developed my own definitions for what I view as goals and targets. For me, a goal is some form of broad challenge – for example, completing a marathon. I consider a target a more specific aim – such as trying to complete a marathon in a certain time. So you can achieve a goal, and yet still miss a target. Make sense?

It’s a concept I’ve developed to keep pushing myself when I entered my first marathon, the 2016 London Marathon. The goal – the only outcome I’d talk about in public – was simply to finish one. And that was a big challenge in itself: I didn’t know for sure I could.

Thing is, I didn’t want to sell myself short by running a marathon well within my capabilities just to say I could. So, privately, I set myself a target time. Working it out was complicated: I didn’t want to settle for a slow time I could hit easily, and then regret not pushing harder. But I was wary of failing to achieve my goal because I’d pushed too hard for an unachievable target.

Going completely against the advice of strong pre-planning, I didn’t decide my target time until I was minutes from the start. I took two pace bands to Greenwich with me, and at the last moment decided to target the ambitious one: 3h 20m.

Of course, I failed. I went too fast early on, felt the pain late on, and just held on to finish 80 seconds or so below 3h 30m. I’d failed to hit my target by more than eight minutes.
At the time, utterly exhausted, with my legs hurting like never before, it felt like a bit of a failure. By the time I’d recovered enough to limp out of the finish area and find my family, I was flush with achievement – and the joy – that came in having completed my goal: I’d run a marathon.

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For my second marathon, Houston in 2017, the goal changed: I wanted to run the marathon I tried to run in London. That meant following a pace plan better, being more disciplined and sticking to my target time.

The target changed as well: with experience, better preparation and a higher level of fitness, I decided to aim for 3h 15m, which meant knocking the best part of 15 minutes off my London finish time.

Of course, I failed. I stuck to my pace plan brilliantly for the vast chunk of the race, but had a very slight wobble with around five miles left, from which I recovered to cross the line in 3h 16m 40s. I’d failed to hit my target by 1m 40s.

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And yes, at the time it felt like a mild failure. But the realisation of how much stronger I felt at the finish, and how much better I’d run than I had in London, quickly ensured I was simply left thrilled at having succeeded – even exceeded – my goal.

Which brings us to this year’s Houston Marathon. Now this was a tough one to set both goal and target for. Honestly, with my busy build-up I knew I was, at best, in no better form than I had been the previous year, and most likely I wasn’t as well prepared.

Reflecting on my form, I simply came to the conclusion that matching my time from 2017 would be an achievement. So that’s what the goal became: to match my 2017 pace of 3h 16m 40s. And, for once, I thought my goal and target would be aligned.

But as the race grew closer, I began to question if that was enough. Would I really be happy treading water? Probably not. So should I set a target to run faster? Possibly, but wasn’t that crazy when I didn’t think I was in a state to improve on my pace?

I was still pondering that question in my Houston hotel on the night before the marathon, while digesting my pre-race chicken pasta (courtesy of Houston’s excellent Star Pizza), scribbling down the pace I’d need to average to achieve certain finish times.
My instinct was to run at the same pace I’d tried to do the previous year, and aim for the 3h 15m I’d set as a target. But, if I did that, my best-case scenario was essentially to nibble away at my previous time.

It was time to set a (relatively) bold target. I couldn’t settle for shaving a minute or so off my previous time. I owed it to myself to target more, even if I didn’t think I could achieve it. 3h 10m it was, then. That would knock more than six minutes off my time, quite a chunk given my pace. Yup, 3h 10m. Let’s push it. It was time to gamble.

Of course, I failed. By 58 seconds. But you know what? There was really no disappointment this time. Because I knew I’d pushed myself. At times, particularly early on, I was running faster than I was truly comfortable with, chasing that time. And while I failed to hit my target, my time of 3h 10m 58s was still nearly six minutes quicker than I’d achieved in 2017 – and I honestly wasn’t sure I could match that time.

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Yup, I was happy. I’d reached my goal. Except… well, here’s the frustratingly addictive thing about running. Given time to reflect, you don’t look back on a race and reflect on how well you’ve done enough. No, you look back and think of where you lost time, of how you can improve. 58 seconds? Yeah, I can find 58 seconds. Can I find more? Possibly? I mean, 3h 10m would be great, but would 3h 5m be possible? Should that be my next marathon target?

Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Perhaps I should find something else to do. After all, when it comes to running marathons I am, by the targets I set myself, a failure…

Spectators, signs, sounds and smells: memories from the 2018 Houston Marathon

Running the Chevron Houston Marathon for the second time did involve the occasional moment of déjà vu. The signing Elvis impersonators were at the same point on the course as last year – and, as in 2017, were breaking into their rendition of Suspicious Minds when I reached them.

The glorious smell of the smoked meats wafting from Goode Company BBQ on Kirby Drive was just as wonderfully, deliciously amazing as I remembered them last year.

The Rice Marching Band were not far from the university’s stadium. The person with a donut on a stick to tempt runners was in the same place as last year. The cowbells handed out by sponsor Chevron were as jingly and jaunty as in 2017. And yes, the bit of the course that traversed an interstate access road still smelt somewhat unpleasant.

But for all that familiarity, it’s amazing how different and fresh the experience of running the same marathon course in the same city on the same weekend of the year really is. So as I relax and admire my 2018 medal and T-shirt, what will I remember from the race?

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First, I was expecting to see a mix of encouraging, witty and vaguely insulting signs this time. But for every reprise of a sign saying ‘world’s worst parade’, or ‘hit me for power’ with a picture of the mushroom from Super Mario Kart, there was a fresh one – such as the sign saying ‘hit me for power’ with a picture of Donald Trump on it. Would be interested to know what condition that sign was in after the field had passed…

There were also a lot of signs – more than I remember – with variants of ‘run? I thought you said rum’ on. Is rum in fashion in Houston at the moment, or did I just miss that play on words in 2017? I’m not sure.

Another big change were the conditions. Last year’s run took place in hot, humid conditions – classic Houston weather, and hardly ideal for a Brit who’d done his training in Britain in winter. By contrast, this year it was… well, cold. And that’s cold by British standards, let alone Texan. The local news got quite excited…

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It was a beautifully clear, still day, which meant it barely above freezing at the 7am start. So instead of being able to saunter to the start in just my technical running T-shirt and a pair of shorts, this year I wore long- and short-sleeved running tops, and began with a hair and a pair of gloves. I also entered the start pen wearing a bright orange thin jumper I’d bought in Walmart for a bargain $3. I abandoned it just before the start, so it cost around $1 per ten minutes of wear I got from it – but that was money well spent to keep warm before the off. The other surreal moment was clocking someone else in the start corral with exactly the same top on. We both nodded sagely at each other, in sly acknowledgement of our bargain shopping.

That wasn’t the only clothing I discarded: my gloves and hat survived until just after half-distance, when they were tossed to the side of the road (should point out that the marathon round up all the discarded clothing and passes onto charity…). Don’t fret: it wasn’t the end of the Hat I Can’t Throw Away – I didn’t actually bring that one with me from Britain, so instead I dumped one of my brother’s old hats.

By the time I finished at just gone 10.15am, it was around 7C, gloriously sunny and with just the merest hint of wind. It was hard to imagine better conditions for running a marathon in: in fact, I’m not sure I’ll ever encounter such perfect weather for one again. And not just for the actual running bit: Houston is normally humid, muggy and sticky. But on this January weekend it was gloriously clear: the views of downtown Houston from various bits of the course were clearer than I’ve ever seen before, having regularly visited on and off since 2008. I’m lucky I don’t run with a phone, else I genuinely would have been tempted to slow down and take photos…

Returning to the crowds on the course, another memory that was similar to different than 2017 was having random spectators cheer me on by name. Which, of course, they could only do because you can choose a name to put on your Houston Marathon race numbers. Last year, I went by my first name: James. This year, I decided to stick with that, but in honour of my niece and nephew added on the name they call me: (Uncle) Jimbo. Why Jimbo? It’s a long story, but you can blame my brother and distant, long-held memories of the glorious, yet mostly forgotten kids cartoon Jimbo and the Jet Set, with its excellent theme tune…

Anyhow, as a result of appealing to two Texan-based little people, the name on my race number read: James / Jimbo. Which, frankly, confused the crowd a bit. A few people shouted James. A few people shouted Jimbo. A few people didn’t quite know what to shout.

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Early on, one spectator shouted: “Go James, er, Jimbo. Yeah, Jimbo. Go Jimbo!” Several seemed to find Jimbo suitably hilarious, likely because I didn’t really have time to stop and explain it (I was running a marathon, you know…).

But my favourite effort came from one of the enthusiastic volunteers at a drinks station late on who, at the top of his voice, yelled: “YEAH! GO ON JUMBO!” Jumbo? Now, four years ago, before I took up this daft thing called running and doing marathons, that would definitely have applied to 15-stone me (aka: Fatters). But surely not now? Perhaps he mis-read it and thought it deliberately ironic.

Still, I appreciated the support. As I did from all the people who shouted my name, or just yelled ‘go on’, or just clapped, or held up signs. You always hear sportspeople talk about feeding off the crowd, but I’m never sure I fully understood it until tackling a marathon or three. But it’s real: whether it was my family near the finish line or random strangers on the way, it’s amazing how much motivational support spectators – and, indeed, other runners – provide. So to anyone who was out on the streets of Houston a few weeks back, a very sincere thanks.

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But the most amusing marathon moment happened on a part of the course when the crowd was a little sparse. It was late in the race, somewhere around the 22nd mile when the course meandered through Houston’s Memorial Park. There’s a speaker system in there, and it was used to play music to entertain the runners. In between the music there were a few adverts and the like – including one that loudly and excitedly noted entry was now open for the 2019 Chevron Houston Marathon was now open.

It was likely useful public service, but that deep into a marathon the last thing you want to think about is entering another. Every runner around me shook their heads, laughed or both.

And, I must confess, it did get me thinking about the next one. Which was significant in itself: 22 miles or so into a marathon is normally the point I’m telling myself I’ll never run another…

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.

 

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…