Forgive me if I take a mild detour from running-based chat at the start of this post, but it’s necessary to welcome any Star Wars fans who might just be reading this. Star Wars fans? Yup.
You see, something a little strange happened the other day, and it seems to have resulted in a very slight spike in visitors to this website – and I’m guessing most of that extra traffic are Star Wars fans.
To explain… my job, you may or may not recall, involves writing about cars for a living. And so, on Friday May the 4th (spoiler alert: that date is significant…) I found myself flying from London to Dublin in order to collect a car, which I’d then take on a ferry to Holyhead on Anglesey in North Wales, before driving back to out office on the outskirts of London.
The flight was quite early in the morning, and having cleared security I was scouting around for some form of suitable breakfast and coffee when I spotted something a bit different on the Heathrow Airport information board: a list of flights which all related to Star Wars. Because, of course, it was the May the 4th. And, er, May the 4th be with you. Happy Star Wars day!
Amused by the sign, I snapped a picture on my phone, and while idly passing the time for my skimmed milk cappuccino to cool, decided to tweet it. Because many of my friends are of the age that great up with Star Wars, and I figured they’d find it funny.
The tweet had garnered a few retweets and likes from my friends by the time I boarded my flight to Dublin, but nothing too out of the ordinary. I didn’t think much more about it until I landed in Dublin and turned my phone back on. Then I looked at my Twitter and blinked. It had more than 500 retweets. Crazy.
And it didn’t stop. It’s calmed a bit now, but it’s actually still going up…
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) May 4, 2018
Turns out I was one of the first people to photograph the sign and tweet it – ahead of Heathrow’s own Twitter account – and it goes picked up and embedded in various websites. And retweeted by some notable accounts: Heart FM, X Games BMX legend Jamie Bestwick and even an expert from the Antiques Roadshow.
It was all very weird, especially since I can claim absolutely no credit for the genius of the Star Wars-themed display board – that was all the hard work of Heathrow’s PR and marketing team.
But, as noted, from Twitter’s analytics service it seems that tweet has caused a few people to click through to this site, so I wanted to use this opportunity to say hello to them, thank them for reading – and apologise profusely that you won’t find anything else as witty as that departure board here, just some inane rambling about things like sweets, what undulating means and whether you should eat bananas before or after a race from a bloke who used to be a bit fat, and now turns out to be not all that bad at running marathons and things…
Anyway, that said, there is a running aspect to my weekend tale – honest. Because I decided to take a bit of a detour on the way home from Dublin. The ferry was due into Holyhead just before 5pm on Friday evening, which meant if I’d driven straight home I wouldn’t have got there much before 10pm – probably later given that it was the Friday of a Bank Holiday weekend on the roads of Britain.
So I decided it made sense to break up the journey on the way. And that, brilliantly, also meant that I could take in a different parkrun on Saturday morning. But which to choose? I took far too long considering my options, working out how best to split my journey so that I didn’t have to drive too far on either Friday evening or Saturday morning.
That left me looking at Welsh/English border region and the West Midlands. Where there were still plenty of options. So then I scouted around for a parkrun that looked scenic, fun and worth doing, had easy parking and was quite close to a cheap hotel.
I also chickened out of a few. It’s not that I’m afraid of a hill challenge, but I didn’t want to push too hard. So while Wyre Forest parkrun appealed for the chance to take in a pleasant looking forest route, having looked at the elevation profile and discovered the final climb to the finish was nicknamed ‘cardiac hill’ I decided to look elsewhere.
In the end, I settled, rather randomly, on Shrewsbury, which had a parkrun that started in a park right next to the old town centre called The Quarry, and featured a loop that went down a tree-lined footpath along the banks of the River Severn.
From the website, it seemed all very pleasant – and with Britain basking in unseasonably pleasant Bank Holiday weather (although, it should be noted, that anything other than non-stop rain can be classed as unseasonably pleasant for a British Bank Holiday), it certainly was. The course was utterly beautiful, with the sunlight glinting off the river and dappling through the canopy of the trees, and Shrewbury’s historic building visible wherever you looked.
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) May 5, 2018
Most of my recent parkrun outings have been on my local Kingston course which, while flat, does include a fairly length bumpy and potentially muddy trail gravel section. So the fact Shrewsbury’s course was entirely on Tarmac park paths was hugely welcome – although the elevation was a bit more than expected.
The multi-lap course featured two trips up a short, steep hill in The Quarry park. The first time, right at the start, it was hard but achievable. But on the second time, just over 3km into the run, it felt a lot steeper and a lot tougher. In fact, it had 138 metres of elevation in, which seemed a surprisingly high amount.
But hey, you can’t be afraid of hills when running, and it was all part of the fun. Still, in hindsight, it made my sub-20 minute time seem even better.
And also made my think. That was my 154th parkrun, or which I’ve done 127 at Kingston. That’s not a surprise: it’s less than a kilometres from my house. But there are, at the moment, 529 parkruns in the UK alone. I’ve done 11 of them. That strikes me as a really very low percentage. Hmmm. Could be time to find myself more random excuses to make Friday night trips…
Here’s an oddity. I took up running four years or so back as part of a general kick to become fitter, less fat and all together healthier. It’s clearly worked too. Not only can I now do things like run marathons quite quickly, but I’ve transformed my diet, cutting out masses of chocolatey, biscuity things and adding in lots of fruit and veg and salads and stuff.
The odd bit? Well, as counterintuitive as it seems, taking up running has helped reintroduce me to many of the sugary sweets and snacks I remember from my childhood but had long since moved on from, even in the worst of my ‘Fatters’ days.
Of course, this time there is some purpose to the sugary sweet things: it’s all about energy. If you’re going to run, you need energy: before, during and after. The science bit is that you need energy in easy-to-digest carbohydrate form so it will start working faster (I should add here, as should be obvious, that I’m not a trained sports scientist, so if you want the proper science best go look elsewhere).
That’s why the shelves of running shops and the like are full of those carbohydrate and energy-filled gels, all scientifically designed to get you energy quickly during exercise. And, well, it turns out that sweets such as jelly babies or jelly beans actually actually have a very similar mix of sugary carbohydrates.
Add to that the fact that race organisers like to give out treats to runners who’ve just finished a race – because if you don’t deserve a treat after a race, when do you? – and runners get plenty of opportunity to relive their childhood sweet-eating days without the guilt (well, with only a bit of guilt).
In fact, along with the almost inevitable banana (which I rarely eat, since I’ve already eaten one…), most races end with me walking away with a small bag of sweets that double as some fine childhood memories.
Here are some of the childhood sweets I’d almost forgotten about – and how suited they are to running.
A classic, although quite odd when you look at them through grown-up eyes. I mean, whose idea was to make multi-coloured sweets shaped like, well, babies? And why didn’t I realise during my childhood that eating Jelly Babies by starting with the head was all a bit sinister?
Still, there are few better sweets to eat during a long run. They’re practically the same make-up as most energy gels, but are a little more solid to chew on, if you like that sort of thing. And you can still actually taste them at that strange part of a marathon when your exhausted body start playing weird tricks with your mind.
In this case, of the Haribo variety. Fizzy cola bottle sweets are really quite sharp and tangy, which can make them something of an acquired taste when running (or, indeed, at other times). I’ve always been confused why fizzy cola bottles don’t really taste that much like actual cola, at least to me.
Incidentally, Haribo’s most popular product is its gummi bears, which also make decent running energy snacks. I find them a slightly tough chew than Jelly Babies which, for me, means they’re not so suited to mid-run chomping. A small packet makes a fine post-race pick-me-up, though.
You can get these in Britain now, but they’re probably more of an American thing. They certainly weren’t as common growing up, which makes me somewhat less nostalgic for them.
The big difference between Jelly Beans and Jelly Babies – aside from the fact they’re less intrinsically sinister by design – is that they have a hard outer shell, so they take a lot more chewing. If you like to take your time with your energy snacks, that’s a good thing.
In America, you can now buy Sport Beans, which are designed as mid-exercise performance snacks. I’ve a deep suspicion they’re essentially exactly the same as regular ones, albeit in slightly plainer flavours (there are some odd flavours of Jelly Beans…), but even so, my Texan marathon experiences have made me a fan. Mixing energy gels with a pack or two of Sport Beans gives me a good variety of energy sources during a run. I think.
A variant of the above, really, and I’ve done a few events in the last few months that have given them out post-race. I’ve found they’re less than ideal for such a purpose, because they’re huge, so you can’t fit them into your mouth all at once. Trying to manage biting a chunk off a jelly snake in a dazed post-race aftermath is quite a challenge.
Another childhood classic. The sugar coating on the outside sets them apart from Wine Gums, and also reminds you they’re not intrinsically healthy. A little hard for chewing while running.
Love Hearts may be the oddest sweets of all. They’ve got a distinctive texture for one thing: they’re hard, and powdery or chalky in texture. But that means you can chew or suck them quite successfully. And they’re not quite as sugary sharp as other sweets, which is a bit of a benefit in the aftermath of a run. Which is good, because mini packs of Love Hearts seem to be a frequent sweet-based giveaway at the end of races.
But really, Love Hearts are odd. Odder than Jelly Babies, even. Who devised a tablet-shaped, slightly powdery sweet, looked at it and decided that a way to improve it was to inscribe love-related messages such as ‘Kiss Me’, ‘U Rock’ and ‘All Yours’ on them?
Of course, this is only scraping the surface of the large childhood sweet tin. I’ll probably think of more soon – likely the next time I’m at the end of a race and there’s a goodby bag handed out. I may write about some more soon. Anyone got any childhood sweets they’ve particularly enjoyed reuniting with through running?
Last Sunday, it felt like Spring had finally arrived. After what’s seemed like a particularly grey, drab and chilly Winter, last weekend the wind dropped, sun came out and it even felt vaguely warm.
After my Texan swing of marathons and 5k races, and then spending three weekends taking part in three 10k races (the Chichester 10k, Valentines 10k in Chessington and Chilly 10k at Castle Combe, of which I’ll write more in the near-future), I was taking a welcome break from organised events. That left me free for a lovely Sunday afternoon run, beneath largely blue skies and with the sun shining. It was beautiful: Britain at it’s February finest.
And then… well, it didn’t last long.
That won’t be a surprise if you live in Britain, and experienced vast chunks of the country coming to a standstill as bitter Siberian cold (aka the Beast from the East) met a storm coming from the south, resulting in a fair dumping of snow all over Britain. It closed schools, stopped trains, blocked roads and generally caused havoc. And, on an admittedly far more local and less important level, threatened to play havoc with my running.
My week actually started with a work trip to the Czech Republic (or Czechia, as it’s apparently been ‘rebranded’) on Monday and Tuesday. Quite often, if the schedule allows, I’ll take my kit and squeeze in a run when I’m away. Often my work trips involve a lot of sitting around and plentiful food, leaving me desperate for exercise to compensate. Having checked the schedule there would have been time – and having checked my hotel, I discovered it had a decent running/walking trail on the grounds. Promising… and then I checked the Czech weather.
Now, I’ve run in cold, but that just seemed a bit silly. So I decided not to pack any kit, so that I couldn’t be tempted when I woke up on Tuesday morning. And, sure enough, I woke up on Tuesday morning to beautiful sunshine and a pang of desire to get out there and go running. With no kit, I settled for a post-breakfast walk… which was quickly shortened as I set foot outside the hotel and realised that, sunny as it was, -14C is still flipping cold. It would have been a lovely morning to go running, but I would have needed to pack an extra suitcase to fit in enough running layers.
The snow arrived in Britain while I was in the Czech Republic on Tuesday, but wasn’t too bad around London, and my flight was thankfully my flight home that night was unaffected. But, by the time I woke up on Wednesday morning everything was covered in a layer of snow. Thing is, after two particularly lethargic days I was desperate for a run – and I had a commitment that meant I couldn’t go on Wednesday evening. Well then, only one thing for it: layer it, and head out into the snow for an early morning run.
When, later that day, I told my work colleagues I’d done so, most thought I was mad. They were wrong. It was a beautiful time to be out running. The snow was fresh, soft and not at all slippery, and while cold, it was a clear, bright, sunny morning. It was genuinely invigorating.
Thursday was a bit different: the sun had gone, replaced with leaden skies and an icily cold wind. Bracing, I believe they call it. I put off a run on Thursday morning, and then chickened out of one that evening. But the wind had eased by Friday morning, and I was still feeling like I needed more exercise.
So out I went running again.
This wasn’t so pleasant: the snow had melted in places and refrozen a bit, so it was hard to judge grip, and with no sun to lift my spirits and give the illusion of warmth, it was a bit of a slog. Still, even when it’s not fun, I usually feel better for having run than not having run. And it was good prep for Saturday morning’s parkrun.
Of course, it then started snowing again. In fact, there was probably more snow around where I live on Friday than there had been earlier in the week. And, on Friday evening, the Kingston Parkrun organisers tweeted they’d have to inspect the course on Saturday morning before deciding if it could run.
My little corner of south west London didn’t even have it that bad compared to the rest of the country, as the parkrun website cancellations page demonstrated. From Aberystwyth to Yeovil Montecue, a huge number of parkruns were canned due to the weather. I felt particularly bad for Whinlatter Forest parkrun, which had already been cancelled because the forest was due to be used for the Malcolm Wilson Rally – an event that was, in turn, cancelled due to the snow (and which, in my past life of motorsport journalism, I might well have going to cover).
Things looked good when I woke up on Saturday morning: the snow was already beginning to melt.
And, sure enough, this popped up on Twitter while I was eating breakfast:
The course and been checked and we are a GO. Be careful out there.
— Kingston parkrun (@kingstonparkrun) March 3, 2018
Given I only live a kilometre or so from the start, I had no excuse not to get there, and joined a reduced field of 116 other enthusiastic/bold/foolhardy runners on the Thames towpath for 9am. From my run down there I knew it wasn’t going to be a day for quick times, but thankfully while many paths were still snow-covered, there was little ice – and the melt hadn’t set in properly, so it wasn’t even that muddy.
It was, against all expectations, actually quite enjoyable – and not even that cold. And the reduced field had another bonus: I finished fourth overall, eclipsing my previous Kingston parkrun-best finish of fifth. Which was pleasing, even if the secret to my success was, quite literally, turning up and then not falling down.
Amazingly, by around lunchtime on Saturday the temperature had climbed further, and most of the snow near my house had melted away. The Beast from the East was gone. And, much as it was fun to do some stubborn snow-based running through it, I’m hopeful that Spring will now properly arrive…
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…
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) January 20, 2018
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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?
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…
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) January 14, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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…
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…
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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…
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.