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.

 

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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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The Royal Parks Half: better than the London Marathon?

Birdcage Walk runs along the south side of St James’s Park in the heart of central London, linking Buckingham Palace with Parliament Square. I’ve run along it twice, and both of those occasions have proven incredibly memorable.

The first was during the 2016 London Marathon – and it was not a pleasant experience. I arrived at Birdcage Walk roughly 25-and-a-half miles into my first marathon, utterly exhausted, emotionally drained and with my legs pleading with me to stop. Back in Greenwich, in the early stages of the race, I’d been averaging 7m 20s per mile or so. By the time I reached Birdcage Walk, I was trudging round in 9m 49s. I wasn’t enjoying myself. I just wanted it to be over.

It wasn’t the experience I’d expected. I’d always thought that Birdcage Walk would be a hugely enjoyable part of the marathon. After miles of meandering through south London suburbs and the cold skyscrapers of the Docklands, that was the stretch of the marathon course that really started ticking off the London landmarks. The Houses of Parliament. Parliament Square. Buckingham Palace. It was heavy landmark hit after heavy landmark hit.

Turns out sightseeing isn’t fun when you’ve pushed yourself far beyond the point of exhaustion.

The second time I ran down Birdcage Walk was a few weeks ago. And, once again, it was part of a big city race that in part wound its way through central London: the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon.

The difference when I reached Birdcage Walk is that I was just 1.5 miles into a 13.1-mile run, rather than 25.5 miles into a 26.2-mile race. Basically, I was fresh, and able to truly take in – and enjoy – my surroundings. And, on an early October Sunday with unseasonably bright weather, I could truly appreciate the majesty of London’s landmarks, and I could truly appreciate how lucky I was to get the chance to run through the streets of one of the world’s great cities.

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And Birdcage Walk wasn’t the only scenic part of the Royal Parks Half course – the route was designed to offer a really effective trip round London’s sights. After starting on the edge of Hyde Park, the course passed through Wellington Arch, down Constitution Avenue, and past Buckingham Palace onto Birdcage Walk. It then skirts the edge of Parliament Square before turning up past Horseguards Parade, turning onto The Mall before passing through Admiralty Arch, turning right at Trafalgar Square before a quick loop down past Downing Street and the Cenotaph, then going back up through Trafalgar Square before winding down The Strand past Charing Cross, Somerset House and Fleet Street. After that, it returns to Trafalgar Square, with another quick detour before it goes back through Admiralty Arch, down the length of The Mall, past Buckingham Palace again and back up Constitution Avenue before turning into Hyde Park.

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It’s an incredible assortment of London sights – they just keep on coming. It’s a major contrast to the London Marathon, which only reaches central London late in the race, and where one of my abiding memories was how much of the course I didn’t know. So, when it comes to London landmarks, there is no doubt: the Royal Parks Half is better than the London Marathon. There. I said it.

Oh, and here’s the thing about the Royal Parks Half: all those landmarks come in the first six miles.

Which is both a good and bad thing. It’s good, because it means the first half is an ultra-enjoyable jaunt through London’s streets. But it’s bad, because it means the second half of the race simply can’t compete.

That’s because the entire second half of the event takes place within the vast confines of Hyde Park. And while it’s an incredibly pleasant place to run, it simply can’t match the first half for interest, especially since the course is made up of lots of long straights punctuated by tight turns. It’s not helped by the fact Hyde Park is surprisingly hilly – nothing steep, obviously, but a series of long, gentle climbs does sap your power a bit late on.

Those long straights certainly hit me a bit, especially as temperatures rose and I paid the price for messing up my pacing early on – ironically, because my Garmin’s pacing seemed to get a bit messed up all the historic central London buildings I was admiring. And that probably cost me a change to set a new my half-marathon PB – I fell around three seconds short. Which was… annoying.

But still, the Royal Parks Half proved a great event. With 16,000 runners – many of them taking part for charity – and a great location, it had a proper big event feel. Plus, there were plenty of nice touches, such as the novel wooden medal (for environmental reasons – pictured below during inevitable post-race Wahaca meal), a vivid yellow event T-shirt, and a fine assortment of post-race treats.

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In fact, I’d say this: if you want to do a big-city race in central London, for the sake of doing a big-city race in central London, the Royal Parks Half should be your first choice. It hits more of London’s central landmarks than the marathon and, by doing them earlier in the route, you can actually take them in. Plus, because it’s ‘only’ a half-marathon, chances are you’ll be able to enjoy an afternoon in London afterwards, rather than simply being in pain.

So, from that perspective, the Royal Parks Half is better than the London Marathon.

Except it’s not. Of course it’s not.

Because the London Marathon is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a marathon, for one thing, and inherently the challenge of doing a full 26.2 miles makes it harder and more memorable than a half. And it’s the London Marathon, for another. It’s one of the world’s most famous races. Even if other races pass more landmarks, the London Marathon is just plain special.

Of course, it’s not really fair to compare the two events. They’re both runs, and they’re both based in the same city. But there’s room for both. If you want to a massive challenge, do the London Marathon (if you can succeed in the massive challenge that is getting a place). But if you want a really fun, big event to do that runs past the Queen’s house twice, I’d thoroughly recommend the Royal Parks Half.

A lot of bottle photos: taking a Texas sports bottle on a tour of London

Okay, to be clear: this will be one of the more random entries on this blog, largely because it essentially consists of lots of photos of a water bottle with London landmarks in the background. There is a sort of good reason for this, honest. Well, sort of.

A few months back, when visiting my brother in Fort Worth, Texas, I took part in a few communal events organised by the Lone Star Walking and Running shop – and just about survived the ridiculous heat and even more ridiculous hills.

Anyway, as a souvenir, I decided to see if the shop had any branded merchandise before heading home and, while buying a drinks bottle had a long chat with Wayne, the store owner. He was pretty pleased by my promise to showcase his shop through my branded bottle on events in Britain, even if it seemed unlikely to result in my increased trade for him.

Still, he asked me if I might take some photos of the water bottle next to some London landmarks. Of course, this was a bit of a challenge for me: despite living within the M25 I don’t venture into central London – you know, where all the famous landmarks are – to run that often. But a month or so back I was looking for a race to do on an otherwise quiet Sunday morning, and couldn’t find anything that close to my Richmond-upon-Thames home. But I could find a 10k race in Regents Park. And so, on a glorious, fresh English summer morning I got up early and commuted into London on the tube to take in a run in the beautiful – and wonderfully flat – royal park.

And, of course, I took my Lone Star Walking and Running water bottle with me. And I took some photos. And, well, I’d taken the photos, so it seems daft not to share them here. So, well, here you go.

For the uninitiated, Regents Park is right next to London Zoo – in fact, the event was the first I’ve ever done in which I’ve been able to spot a camel while running. And my pre-race warm-up took me past the exterior fence of the giraffe enclosure. So, well, I took a photo of a water bottle with some giraffe.

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I also snapped the photo on a bridge while crossing one of the park’s beautiful ponds.

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But it was after the race that I had the most fun. Having taken the trouble to head into central London I decided to head to a few other places post-run, and while doing so took a few detours to get some photos of the bottle with some ‘proper’ London sights in. Like, for example, a double-decker New Routemaster bus.

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Or a bright red letterbox on Regent St – with another bus in as a bonus.

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My meandering London route also took me past Broadcasting House, the home of the BBC. So, of course, I took a photo there.

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Then I remembered that the paving stones outside of Broadcasting House all feature the names of cities, states and countries around the world. So I did a bit of hunting and, well howdy and how y’all doing, there was the Great State of Texas.

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But I figured there was still something missing: one of the really big, key London landmarks. Like, say, Buckingham Palace. So I took the Lone Star Walking and Running sports bottle to meet the Queen.

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And… there you have it. Photos of a Texan water bottle with London landmarks in the background. For no reason other than it amused me, keep a promise I made to Wayne, and show how running is something that can be celebrated around the world.

Also, it’s a reminder that hydration is important. So if you’re going running, invest in a good sports bottle. I know a good shop in Texas that sells them. Although other, closer, shops may be available.

Back to Bristol: running a second half (marathon) for the first time

Last weekend I tackled the Simplyhealth Great Bristol Half Marathon. I’m not a stranger to 13.1-mile runs now: it was my sixth half marathon. But there was an interesting twist: it was the first time I’ve run a half marathon for a second time.

I’m surprised it’s taken so long, to be honest. But, in some ways, it’s a product of the fact my first four half marathons were all preparation for my two marathons, so the choice of race was down to all sorts of factors. But, having done halves in Wokingham, Hampton Court, Bristol, Houston and Swansea, this year I decided to head back to visit my family in Somerset for a weekend and take on the Bristol half for the second time.

Being utterly honest, I wasn’t sure how much I was looking forward to it. Sure, I always enjoy the challenge of running, but the 2016 Bristol half wasn’t my favourite half marathon course by some way. It starts with a long run up and back a fairly wide straight road alongside the River Avon, and then finishes with several miles of fiddly twisting and turning through the city centre. Last year, I found the first bit a little quiet and dull, and the last bit quite painful – especially given heavy showers and wind that affected last year’s race.

So while I quite enjoyed the fun of running in the closest city to my hometown, I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy doing the course a second time. And I wasn’t quite sure what form I was in: my new job has been keeping me plenty busy, and lots of trips away meant I hadn’t done the sort of training I’d like to do. Not that I’m complaining: the weekend before the Bristol half, I was on a rather nice but busy work trip to Italy. It wasn’t exactly great for final preparation, although I did get to carb load on lots and lots of fantastically fresh Italian pasta (don’t mention the hefty amounts of cheese it was served with…).

Still, the good news was that the weather this year proved to be far more conducive to running than 2016’s wind and rain. It was a chilly day, but once I was up to speed it was almost perfect running conditions.

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I also made sure I started a bit further forward this year: last year I got caught out by a pre-start surge to the front, and ended up spending the first half-mile or so stuck behind groups of people going slower than I wanted. Trying to get back on pace probably hurt me a bit later on.

And, you know what? I enjoyed it. A lot. More than last year, which I wasn’t expecting. Perhaps that was because my expectations weren’t so high, but I settled in, took in the sites and kept up a good pace. The out-and-back section didn’t seem quite so long, and the final twists and turns through the city hurt a lot less when the cobblestones weren’t sodden and the wind wasn’t funnelling through the buildings.

I was quicker too: crossing the finish in 1h 28m 10s meant I went 31 seconds faster than my 2016 time. Which was pretty gratifying, especially since I hadn’t done as much preparation as I’d intended. So I was happy then, right? Well…

It’s one of the annoyances of running that, no matter how well you do, you always start to wonder how you might have done better. And so it was with last weekend. If I was 31 seconds quicker than in 2016 when I arguably wasn’t as well prepared, how much faster could I have gone had I really trained for it?

Which then prompted me to go and look up my half marathon PB – a 1h 27m 52s, set on the Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon in 2016. So on a course that probably isn’t quite as conducive to a quick time due to those late wiggles, and without being in absolutely top shape, I set a time only 18s down on my half marathon PB…

Like I said: runners. Never happy.

Luckily, I’ve got another half marathon coming up in a few weeks to try and improve on my time. My seventh half will be a new race to me, although in a familiar location: I’ve got a spot on the Royal Parks Half Marathon in central London. The last time I ran the streets of London, of course, was the London Marathon in 2016

Before I finish, I should mention two more elements of the Bristol Half that added to my enjoyment of it. One was a very definite change from last year: the finisher’s shirt. Last year’s design was a fairly anonymous ‘Great Run’ template effort. Pleasant, but not exactly memorable. This year, the organisers tasked a local artist with doing a local design – and the result was a much improved offering.

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The second enjoyable element was something that remained the same: my choice of post-race dining. Keeping with a tradition that started with the London Marathon, I celebrated my success in Wahaca because, well, because tacos are good.

 

Return to Cornwall: running up hills while water pours down them

After weeks of anticipation – and with some dread – last weekend it was finally time to head back down to Cornwall to take part in the Treggy 7 for the second year in a row.

Now, the dread, it must be noted, was not caused by visiting Cornwall. It’s a lovely place, tempered only by being a flipping long way from where I live in London. But Cornwall is, as previously noted, also quite a hilly place. And those hills are big. And steep. And Cornish race organisers seem to delight in coming up with routes that go up them.

The weekend followed the pattern of my previous trip: it started with the Lanhydrock Parkrun on Saturday, followed by the Treggy 7 the next morning. The Lanhydrock Parkrun, which takes place on the grounds of a beautiful National Trust property near Bodmin, also features a course dominated by hills.

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It begins with a fast downhill sweep past Lanhydrock House, a castle-like Victorian mansion, before a short, steep climb uphill into the woods. Then the fun begins: a frankly terrifying, dizzying, steep descent on a bumpy, rock-strewn, tree root-lined dirt track. There’s a brief bit of flat at mid-distance, before the climbing begins: a series of steep, steep, steep uphill slogs across uneven fields and lanes. Finally, the race finishes with a final bit of steep downhill on grass to the finish.

It packs a lot of elevation change into 5k: 122 metres of elevation gain and 143 metres of elevation loss – reflecting the fact the finish is just past the start line.

Lanhydrock elevation

Still, on a fresh, clear, lovely Cornish morning it was worth the effort. When I first tackled Lanhydrock last year I stupidly forgot to take my Garmin, so perhaps mercifully I didn’t have any kilometre split times from then to try and compare my times to. But knowing the second half featured the bulk of the climbing, I realised the key to improving my form was to give myself plenty of wiggle room in the second half of the race. Having set a 22m 05s last year, I reckoned I needed to aim to complete the first 2.5k in 10m or so, giving me 12m to complete the second half.

Of course, the key to going fast in the first half was attacking that treacherous downhill, which was a big challenge in and of itself. I pushed as much as I dared, until I was at the limits of being in control. To paraphrase Buzz Lightyear, I wasn’t so much running as falling with style.

And, despite going as fast I dared – fearing that any quicker would likely pitch me rolling into the Cornish undergrowth – I was passed on all sides by fearsomely brave Cornish runners. I caught many of them on the flat bit – and then came the climbing.

It was tough. Seriously tough. Tougher than I remembered, in all honesty. It was a slog and I only just managed to run all of it. I say run, but on the steepest bit near the end it was more of a quick trudge.

Eventually, I crossed the line in 21m 55s, an improvement of 10 seconds on the previous year. A good result.

Now, my day of climbing hills wasn’t over. On a beautiful, clear day, my Cornish running buddy Matt decided we should do a spot of tourism and visit Rough Tor (pronounced like an internet router), which involved a somewhat hilly, but very pleasant walk.

Roughtor1

It was hilly, but far more relaxed than the parkrun and offered some lovely views of Cornish countryside, the Davidstow Cheddar creamery and Brown Willy. Which, as you all know, is the highest point in Cornwall.

Stop sniggering at the back there. You wouldn’t catch me laughing at a hill with ‘Willy’ in its title.

Roughtor2

Of course, the weather can change fast in Cornwall. And, sure enough, the clear skies clouded over late in the day and, late in the evening, it began to rain. A lot. And then it rained some more. A lot more.

It was still raining heavily on Sunday morning when it came time to leave for Launceston, the home of the Treggy 7. It was still raining when we got there. The rain eased up when we went to collect our race numbers an hour or so before the start. And then, when we returned to the car, it started to rain heavily again. And then it got heavier.

Rain Treggy

Around 15 minutes before the start it was raining faster than the drains could cope with. And harder than seemed at all sensible to go and do a seven-mile run in. But, displaying commitment that still seems questionable, we set off from the car and sprinted to the start. That involved descending a steep hill from Launceston’s car park to its town centre – and water was cascading down that hill at an alarming rate.

Mercifully, the rain actually eased up again as the runners assembled for the start – but it wasn’t long until it picked up again and, besides, by that point the roads were sodden. In places there were pools of water across the road; in others there were veritable streams running down the Tarmac. But it wasn’t cold and, in some ways, the conditions only added to the general merriment and challenge, even when the rain soon began to fall harder again.

Cornish rain

It also took my mind off the mighty hill that comes almost halfway through the Treggy 7, a monster slog that lasts for around a kilometre and feature 85 metres of climbing. But, once on that hill, there wasn’t much that was going to take my mind off it.

Having tackled it last year, I knew what I was in for – but strangely, unlike the previous day’s Lanhydrock hills, it wasn’t actually as bad as anticipated. I don’t quite know what that was. It was probably because it wasn’t as out and out steep in places as I’d remembered – it’s a fairly consistent climb, which meant I could lock into a pace and stick to it.

Bizarrely, as with last year, I also drew strength by seeing other people struggle. That’s not meant to sound cruel, honest. It’s just that every time I did think about walking I found myself catching a runner ahead of me who was already doing so – and the fact I had more energy than them gave me the strength to keep on going.

Once I’d finally crested the top of the hill I was in fine spirits. The hardest part of the run was done, and now I could press on. Well, that was the theory. Turns out the weather had other ideas. For a start, the rain got heavier, and predictably the roads became wetter. There was a stretch of around 20 metres or so when the road was flooded with ankle-deep water. There was no way round, so runners just had to plough through it. Of course, doing so gets your trainers soaked, and horribly squidgy for the rest of the race.

At the top of the hill the wind picked up too – an occasionally fierce headwind that slowed my significantly. Visibility was also an issue as well, with all that water splashing and smudging my glasses. That made it difficult to really push on the wet roads on the downhill run back into the town.

In the end, I reached the finish in the grounds of Launceston Castle in 49m 22s. That was nine seconds slower than I managed last year, although my 61st place was 17 positions higher (and it’s worth noting that, despite the conditions, more runners took part in the event this year).

As previously noted, the Treggy 7 organisers like to give out slightly unusual prizes – this year there was a metal Treggy 7 water flask and a four-pack of Ambrosia Rice Pudding. I will savour that rice pudding, for I definitely felt I earned it.

treggy prize

There was a weird lesson too: having been dreading the hill on the Treggy 7 course, it turned out to be the rain I should have been worried about all that time. It’s a lesson that, even when you go back to a race, the challenge is never the same twice.

* * *

Tackling a race on a particularly wet Cornish September day might not be pleasant, but recent events in Texas do give a sense of perspective. However wet I got, my temporary discomfort was absolutely nothing compared to what thousands of people in Texas went through with Tropical Storm Harvey recently.

Thanks to visiting my brother and his family living there for years, I know Houston very well – not least from tackling this year’s Chevron Houston Marathon. Seeing pictures of roads I ran along for that event transformed into rivers of deep water has been a surreal experience.

Texans are a tough bunch though, and I have no doubt the people of Houston will recover. This British runner will be thinking of them while they do.

Hills in races: up then down, or down then up?

Spent a lot of my time recently thinking about hills. As you do. Running on hills, to be more specific.

There are several reasons for this. The biggest – in both a figurative and literal sense – is the fact that in a few weeks I’m due to head back to Cornwall to tackle the Treggy 7, a seven-mile race that includes a mighty, monstrous, massive, painful and intimidating hill. I competed in the event last year, and that hill remains perhaps the toughest I’ve faced while out on a run. I’m somehow both excited about and dreading the prospect of tackling it again.

treggy7elevation

Spot the Treggy 7 hill…

Of course, another reason for thinking about hills is that it’s only a few weeks since I tackled another contender for the toughest hill I’ve had to run up – while tackling a few of the Lone Star Running and Walking shop events in Fort Worth, Texas. And then this weekend I decided to forego my regular flat Kingston Parkrun in favour of contesting the far hillier Richmond Parkrun which takes place, funnily enough, in Richmond Park.

With a few minor differences, the Richmond Parkrun takes place over essentially the same course as the various Richmond Park 10k races I’ve done (the 10ks do two laps, obviously) – a route that runs on the parks’ trails up and down Sawyers Hill. But there’s one big difference: the Richmond Parkrun starts near the top of the hill, while the 10k races begin at the bottom.

Now, in theory, when a race takes place over a loop course it shouldn’t really matter where you start: the course remains the same wherever you do. But it does.

Richmond Parkrun

On the Richmond Parkrun course the first half of the race is, generally speaking, downhill, including one long, gentle stretch where, if you’re confident at descending, you can really relax into your stride and push a bit. The payoff, of course, is that the second half of the course involves running uphill. And if you push too hard and fast on the downhill section, those uphill bits can be a real struggle.

Richmond Parkrun elevation

Start at the bottom of the hill, and that course takes on a different character: you’re straight into the leg-hurting climbs for the first half of the race, with the descent coming in the second half. By tackling the hill at the start you’re fresher, but that also makes it easy to take too much out of yourself so that, by the time you get to the downhill you’re unable to get your legs working well enough to push to make up time.

And that’s a running dilemma I’m still trying to work out. If you’ve got a course with a big hill in, is it better to do the downhill or the uphill first? I honestly can’t decide…

On the one hand, doing the downhill first allows you to attack the fast bit while fresh, so when you get to the uphill you know how you’re feeling, what sort of shape you’re in and how much time you’ve got to play with if you’re aiming for a specific target.

But tackle the hill first, and you can attack the tough bit first, giving you a chance to recover a bit on the subsequent downhill. You’ll also know what time you’ve got to make up.

There’s another factor as well. Running up hills is, generally, harder than running down them. It can be a little intimidating. And if you know there’s a great big hill still to come in the run, it’s easy to get intimidated by the effort it’s going to take and back off a bit too much to save your energy in anticipation of the challenge.

For example, on my second week in Fort Worth I went back and took part in the Lone Star fun run for a second time. That course starts with a steep downhill, with the horrible uphill at the end. And, on the second occasion, by knowing that hill was coming I somehow found myself unable to push as much on the downhill bit at the start. So instead of going fast downhill to make up the time I was going to lose running uphill, I eased up a bit – and then found the uphill was just as tough, anyway.

So let’s get the hill out of the way first then, right? Get it done with, and then the mental elation will lift you through the rest of the race?

Well, maybe not. Because running up hills is tough, and it hurts your legs. And, sometimes, during a race your brain probably makes you think you’re hurting more than you really are. So you get tired and worn out running up the hill, and then you just can’t find the effort to push once you’re onto the flat and/or downhill section.

In other words, when it comes to the question of uphill then downhill, or downhill then uphill, I still don’t know the answer.

Which could mean one of a things. First – and this one is almost certainly true – I’m overthinking this massively. But, hey, overthinking things massively is what I do!

The fact I can’t decide could also mean that it actually isn’t that important which order the up and down bits come in: you’re going to have to run it all anyway.

Alternately, perhaps it signifies that I’d be better off sticking to nice, flat courses that don’t feature hills at all…

Taking medals on merit: on the podium in Texas (despite the heat)

Ac occupational hazard of taking part in lots of races is that you’ll inevitably collect a lot of medals. While a handful of races offer the likes of T-shirts, mugs or glasses as prizes for finishers, most still hand out a pleasing lump of metal attached to a ribbon.

The trouble with collecting loads of medals is trying to work out what to do with them. I’ve got a handful on display – both my London and Houston Marathon medals are framed with my race numbers, and a handful of the more distinctive or memorable ones are on show around my desk – but the bulk of them are shoved somewhat unglamorously into a pot.

IMG_4822

The vast majority of my medal collection are finisher’s medals – you get them, fairly obviously, for finishing a race. Now, that’s all very nice, but if I get the medal regardless of whether I set a PB or do my slowest race ever, the sense of accomplishment is separated from the lump of metal. It’s certainly not in keeping with how medals are dished out at top-level sporting events.

Now, of my not inconsiderable pile of bling (as I believe the kids call it), two of my medals were actually earned for performance reasons. And, curiously, I earned both of them in Texas.

The first came on New Year’s Day this year, when as part of my build-up to the Houston Marathon I competed in the Run Houston Race Series 10k event at Sam Houston Park – and promptly won the male 35-39 category.

The second came during my recent trip to Fort Worth. I was visiting in July, when the Texan weather is predictably hot – sorry, darn hot – and, as a result, not that many races take place. But after some web scouring I happened upon the Trinity 5000 Summer Series – a weekly series of 5k races held on 12 Thursday evenings during the summer.

It seemed perfect: the 7.30pm start time meant that, in theory, the intense heat should have subsided a bit, and the course was on the footpaths by the Trinity River – which meant it was pretty much flat. Having experienced Fort Worth’s surprisingly steep hills, this was a very good thing. So I signed up for one.

Now, the course was everything I’d hoped for: Fort Worth’s Trinity River trails system is utterly brilliant, creating a wonderful network of pleasant walking/running/cycling paths through the heart of the city. The section used by the Trinity 5000 events reminded me an awful lot of the paths that run alongside the River Thames near my house – albeit with a brilliant view of Fort Worth’s downtown.

The event was everything I’d hoped for too: it felt very much like a parkrun. Lots of the runners knew each other, and the organisers, and it was all very friendly and relaxed.

The weather, on the other hand, didn’t quite do what I expected. On the day of the race, the temperature in Fort Worth really built up – going some way past 100F (37.7C). And it kept on building, even into the late afternoon and early evening. According to my Garmin, which somehow keeps track of such things, it was 95F (35C) when the race started – although the heat index apparently took it over 100. At 7.30pm! It was ridiculous. Most of the Texans were struck by the evening heat – and if the locals reckon it was hot, imagine how it felt for the random British guy entered.

Trinity5000

The organisers went out of their way to help though. There was water available before the start, and they laid out an extra water station. That meant there were two on the out-and-back course, which meant there were four opportunities to grab water in a 5k race. Now, I wouldn’t normally dream of taking a drink on a 5k race usually. On this occasion, I grabbed water on three occasions – partly to drink, and partly to throw over myself in a desperate bid to limit the heat build-up.

The problem with running in such heat is that there’s just no way to cool down. There was only the merest of breezes and even the air was just plain hot, so even aiming for shade to get out of the sun didn’t really help.

Normally, a 5k wouldn’t really faze me at all – thanks to parkrun, I do one pretty much every weekend, and it’s the minimum distance I’d class as a good training run. But in such heat, working out how best to run 5k was a really tough challenge.

For one thing, I was sweating standing around before the start, let alone when I started running. Then, once I’d started, the challenge was trying to keep up a decent pace without overheating. Because once you got too hot to function, there was basically no way back. That meant I had to apply a much greater discipline than usual, trying to control my pace to ensure I didn’t just collapse into a red-faced, sweat-covered, pasty-faced British heap in the second half of the run.

That said, the usual excitement of taking part in a race, and the desire to find a bit of clear space, meant that my first kilometre was a 3m 57s – not quite on my 5k best pace, but definitely not steady by my standards. I calmed down a bit in the second k, running a more controlled 4m 10s, and pretty much settled into that pace for the rest of the run.

The plan was to stay at that relatively steady pace (compared to my 5k PB of 19m 26s), and then try and pick up the pace in the final kilometre, if I could.

Spoiler alert: I couldn’t.

Really, I couldn’t. As the heat built up, the challenge was just to maintain my pace. I was actually surprised when, looking at my split times later, I realised I hadn’t actually slowed dramatically in the final stages.

My eventual time was 20m 51s. Not slow, but nearly 90s down on my fastest-ever 5k – and yet, it felt like a major achievement in the circumstances. Then came the bonus surprise. I hung around at the finish for a while, mostly because I was too busy sweating to do much else, and was still there when the provisional results were posted. I’d finished 12th, which was a solid effort. And I’d also finished third in the male 35-39 class. I was on the class podium.

tinity5000medal

There wasn’t actually a podium to stand on, but there were medals for the top three in each class. Which meant, for the second time, I earned a medal on merit (let’s not mention the class winner doing an incredible job to finish more than three minutes ahead of me…). And, for the second time, it came in Texas. What are the odds?

Well, actually, there’s likely a fairly simple reason – classes. Most British runs I’ve done have a very limited number of classes, and I’m usually grouped into the ‘senior’ category which spans everyone between the ages of 18 and 39. The two Texas races I’ve taken class podiums in divide the classes into five-year age groups, making my route to the podium substantially easier. Yes, I’m a sort-of Texan running pothunter.

But, well, it would be churlish to hang on that technicality too much, because, well, medals! Shiny medals!

Of course, that still doesn’t quite answer the question of where to stash the things…

PerformanceMedals

Guess how fast you run: taking on an unusual (and hilly) Texan challenge

I’ve just returned from a holiday in Texas. The Lone Star State isn’t exactly a new destination for me – my brother and his family live there, and as a result I’ve spent plenty of time doing runs, races and marathons there.

But this year’s trip took me in a different direction: my brother has moved from The Woodlands, a slightly surreal town not far from Houston, to Forth Worth. And while I’ve passed through Cowtown before, spending some extended time there gave me a chance to really explore the city – both as a tourist and a runner.

First thing to note: Fort Worth is hot. Actually, that undersells it a bit.

Let’s try again. Fort Worth is hot. Actually, that still undersells it.

Let’s try again. Fort Worth is darn hot. There. There’s better.

For a good chunk of the time I was there, there were daytime highs above 100F (that’s 38 and up, Celsius fans). But it was the nature of the heat that struck: it built up and just stayed around – it could still be above 100F at 7pm or so, and would stay in the 80s well past 10pm. See, darn hot.

That said, it is, as the saying goes, a dry heat. The humidity is far lower than the Houston area. And, frankly, I’ll happily take 100F of dry heat in Fort Worth ahead of 90F of stick, sweaty, humid filled Houston heat.

Still, in such heat the trick to running was to go early, or go late. Especially when you’re a pasty-faced Brit who’s just arrived in the country. So on my first morning there, I went out for an early-ish run, and in doing so accidentally stumbled across a rather fantastic running store – which, in turn, led to one of the most interesting challenges I’ve encountered as a runner.

My brother lives close to Camp Bowie Boulevard, and it was running down there early on that Sunday morning that I passed the Lone Star Walking and Running Store. I can’t remember the exact time, but it was early enough that none of the shops were open. So it was with some confusion that I noticed a group of people – runners, clearly – outside the shop. There was a tin bath full of cold-looking water, too. Oh, and some of them were drinking beer, despite it being the hour of the day when coffee would be a more common drink.

Brilliantly, a few of the people milling around actually cheered me on as I ran past, looking all very confused. What was going on?

It took a quick search on Google to unearth the store’s website, and to determine that I’d accidentally stumbled across its ‘Sunday Funday’ event – a two-part group fun run that starts and finishes at the store. Finishers could enjoy free beer at the finish, along with an ice bath, if the mood took them.

It was also clear that, even by the high standards of many independent running stores, Lone Star Running was a little different. It offered free beer to shoppers every Friday, for one thing. And it also has a ‘City Titty Club’, where people who bring in dislodged examples of what I’d known until then as Cat’s Eyes get free energy gels.

As well as the Sunday Funday, there was another event: a weekly Wednesday evening ‘Running Man’, which took place on a 3.8-mile loop from the store. So, to reward them for cheering me on during my jetlag-shaking effort, I figured I’d go along that week, dragging my brother with me.

It turned out I picked a good week, because the Running Man event featured an innovative competition element. Anyone who ran the course was given the chance to guess their finishing time. The person who finished the run closest to their time would win a pair of New Balance shoes. Simple, right?

running-man-fort-worth

Actually, it was pretty difficult. For a start, a condition of entry meant running without my Garmin satnav – which would, fairly obviously, have made the whole thing a bit easy. The biggest challenge was trying to work out a tactic. Did I try and work out the fastest time I thought you could do on the course, and really attack it? Or should I pick a time well within my capability, and attempt to measure my pace?

Adding to the difficulty in predicting a time was the unusual distance – 3.8 miles is around 6k, not a distance I run with regularity – and a complete lack of course knowledge. There was a map, but that wasn’t much help since I’d only been in the city a few days. And there was talk of a steep downhill section at the start, and an even steeper uphill kick near the end.

Now, for the most part Texas is pretty flat. So, to try and glean some knowledge I asked Wayne, who owns the shop, whether ‘steep uphill’ meant steep by Texas standards, or just plain steep. He told me it was pretty steep by any standard. Followed by a laugh that suggested I was in for something tougher than I could imagine.

In the end, I stopped trying to overthink it and just plucked a time off the top of my head. I roughly worked out my max pace over 6k, then added in a bit of extra time to account for the hill and the darn hot Texan heat. I think I went for 26m 30s or so.

I encountered another challenge fairly early in proceedings: trying to work out where I was going. The course was unmarked, and I found my natural pace carried me into the front group – maybe because runners who would be quicker than me were trying to run at a steady, measured pace. But, unsure where to go and with the route taking in a maze of residential streets and river trails, I was sort of forced to back off and let someone who did know where they were going lead the way.

That meant I probably took things easier than I’d have chosen to on the downhill stretch, and that may have been a bit of a blessing. After all, Forth Worth is darn hot, and with little cooling breeze going too fast, too soon could easily have led to overheating.

Still, my natural pace did eventually take me to the front just past the halfway point, when the route was running along one of the many Trinity River trails in Fort Worth. Just before the climbing began.

Now, remember that mention of a steep uphill? Well, it definitely wasn’t just steep by Texan standards. It was steep. Really, it was steep. It was darn steep. It will definitely be a contender for the ‘Toughest Uphill’ prize should I reprise my 2016 Running Awards this year.

It started with a long, steady uphill stretch that was tough enough in the heat. Then there was a sharp left turn before the road suddenly ramped up with a brutally steep incline on a sharp right-hander. I just about reached the top of that and enjoyed a brief moment of gentle downhill before the road suddenly turned and rose up sharply again.

I just about reached the top still running, although such was the severity of the climb walking the last bit may have been easier and quicker. After that came the final flat run back to the running store, with the biggest challenge trying to find a clear moment to cross Camp Bowie Boulevard.

Another runner went past me on that final stretch, so I was the second to arrive back at the running shop, with absolutely no real idea how long I’d been running for. In between trying to stop myself sweating (a process that took the best part of an hour), I learned I’d completed the course 23 seconds slower than my predicted time. Which was… close. Impressively close.

Not prize-winningly close, however. Someone managed to complete the course within ten seconds of their estimated time. But, frankly, I really didn’t mind about missing out on the prize. I simply enjoyed the challenge of the competition: running without a Garmin and trying to work out my pace from pure gut feel. It was a fresh challenge, and a pleasant change from a straightforward race.

And, well, conquering that hill was reward enough. I returned to Lone Star’s Running Man the following Wednesday, even though the temperature had risen substantially and it was above 100F when the run started – yes, at 6.30pm. That’s darn hot. Why? Well, without a prize on offer I was able to run with my Garmin, and I wanted to do that simply so I could find out exactly how tough that hill had been.

The answer: 44 metres of uphill in the space of 0.56km. Ouch.

Running Man Course

And I ran that in 100F+ heat. I’m not ashamed to admit that I walked the last little bit of the hill on that second week…