Tagged: 10k

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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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Be quiet achey legs: the challenge of back-to-back races

Late Spring into early Summer is probably peak running season, in Britain at least. It’s when the nights are getting longer and conditions are, in theory at least, just about perfect for running: not too cold, not too hot, and relatively dry.

That’s the idea, anyway. Britain being Britain, nothing is certain. This year the weather has alternated between unusually warm and unusually cold with seemingly reckless abandon. And, Britain being Britain, it’s usually ended in a dreary grey halfway house.

But I digress. The point is that this time of year is just about the best time of the year for running. And that means there’s no shortage of races to choose from. The challenge is deciding which ones to do.

Do you do a handful of long races, or a lot of short ones? Do you return to events you’ve done before and really enjoyed, or pick ones you haven’t done before? It’s such idle consideration and searching of running event websites that often leads me to sign up to races without full consideration to my calendar. Which explains how, earlier this week, I ended up running two 10k races in two days.

Here’s my excuse. Last weekend was a Bank Holiday in the UK, and it seemed a good idea to spend my Monday off work contesting an event near Reading called the Shinfield 10k. Also last week was the Silverstone 10k, an enjoyable event that takes pace on a weekday evening and features two laps of the British Grand Prix circuit. As a big motorsport fan, it’s hard to resist – hence why this was the third year in a row I’d entered it.

I hadn’t fully looked at the dates before signing up, then realised they were in the same week. Not too much to worry about though, since the Shinfield 10k was on Monday morning, and the Silverstone 10k was on Wednesday evening. Plenty of time. Until, the night before the Shinfield 10k, I realised I was wrong about something: the Silverstone 10k was on the Tuesday evening…

So, inadvertently I faced the challenge of running two 10k races in two days. And once I realised I’d signed up to do it, it was an interesting challenge. I knew I could cope with the distance – after all, 20k is just short of a half-marathon distance, and I’ve proven that I can run a full marathon in one go.

Still, it was hard to know how my legs would react to being pushed twice in the space of 36 hours or so. And what tactic should I adopt? Run as fast as I can on both? Use the Monday morning 10k was a warm-up, and save myself for Tuesday night’s outing? Or push on Monday, and be prepared to coast on Tuesday night? Hmmmmm.

In the end, my plan was to set off on Monday morning’s Shinfield 10k at a decent pace, and see how I felt. I didn’t know the course, so I wasn’t sure what hills or challenges it might offer that could prevent a quick time.

It was certainly an interesting run. Because while Shinfield seems to be a relatively small town, it won’t be for long. There’s a massive housing development going on there, which forced organisers to revise the route for this year’s rate. Curiously, it went right through the development. Which meant that, as well as undulating country lanes, a few kilometres near the start and finished involved running on a semi-finished path in the middle of a massive, flattened space that will shortly become a huge building site.

Slightly odd then, but it was still an enjoyable semi-rural run. And in a field of pretty competitive club runners, I was happy to cross the line in 58th place, with a time of 40m 48s. That worked out at an average pace of 4m 03s per km. Decent.

The Silverstone 10k course could also be described as slightly odd, in that it takes place entirely on the racing circuit. As mentioned, I’m a huge motorsport fan, and jump at any chance to run on a race track: as well as Silverstone, I’ve also done runs that have taken in Castle Combe and Goodwood (and I’ve already signed up for a race at Thruxton later this year).

The Silverstone route starts on the old finish straight, and covers two laps of the old grand prix circuit (it skips out the new ‘Arena’ section). And it’s always good fun, even if the weather is somewhat unpredictable.

The first time I did the race, it absolutely poured down and I got completely soaked. Last year’s run, by contrast, was held on one of those absolutely beautiful English summer evenings. This year   was a bit more mixed: while there was no rain, the grey clouds suggested it wasn’t far away, and there was a fairly stiff chilling breeze (a common hazard on Britain’s race circuits, given many are ex-World World Two airfields).

Again, I set off without really decided on a pace strategy, figuring I’d just see how my legs reacted – which turned out to be fairly well. While a bit achey before the start, once I was running they loosened up quickly, and for most of the run any effects of the previous day’s exertions didn’t figure.

That was until I turned onto the International pit straight on the second lap, with about 2km left to run. The wind had picked up by this stage, and I was running straight into it. I could feel it slow me down, and that extra effort seemed to prompt my legs to remember I’d run hard on them the day before. They suddenly began to feel very heavy.

Still, I tempered that slightly wobble, and managed to finish strong. Against a huge field of competitive club runners, I was pleased to come home 160th, with a time of 41m 14s.

Now, the 26s gap between my two finish times would suggest I was slower on the second half of my accidental back-to-back… but there’s a twist. Every time I’ve run it the Silverstone 10k course has, by measure of my Garmin GPS, been around 180 metres long. Sure enough, comparing the results on my watch suggests that the 26s difference was largely down to a longer course. In fact, my average pace per km on the Silverstone 10k turned out to be… 4m 03s. Exactly the same as I managed on the Shinfield 10k.

Now, does that suggest I pushed to the max on both races, or that I could have gone really fast if I’d focused on one? Hmmmmmm…

Anyway, the moral of those story? Well, it doesn’t really have one, to be honest. Other than this: it is possible to run two competitive 10k races on back-to-back days. But maybe it’s best to spread these things out a bit…

Running jargon busting: race and course descriptions

When you’re trying to decide on a race to enter, you can spend ages comparing the various descriptions of them that organisers put up on their websites. Some are incredibly detailed, while some are unhelpfully brief. And often, they’re a little bit confusing.

You’ll often find that they’re peppered with odd phrases and bits of running shorthand that are, at times, a little ambiguous. One example of this is the term ‘undulating’, which crops up with unnatural frequency in race route descriptions. I explained the various meanings of undulating some time back, but there are plenty of other bits of jargon stuffed into race descriptions.

Here’s what some of them really mean…

Course profile descriptions

Flat: A bold statement, and reassurance that you can enjoy some hill-free running.

Pancake-flat: May actually be flatter than a flat course. Seriously, it’s likely to be flat.

PB friendly/PR friendly: Mostly flat, likely with a little bit of elevation change. You’ll find this phrase used quite a lot because, hey, who isn’t going to be tempted to enter a race on a course that’s easier to set a PB on. Because, let’s face it, finding a PB friendly course sounds a far easier of improving your time than training harder…

Undulating: a course that won’t be flat, but likely won’t be overly hilly. Or a somewhat hilly course that organisers don’t want to scare entrants off by describing as such. Read an expanded description of undulating here.

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Challenging: There will be hills, and they will be steep.

Tough: There will be lots of hills, and they will be very steep.

‘You’ll enjoy the views’/‘Worth it for the views’: The ‘it’ mentioned here is, of course, a relentless grind up one or more ridiculously steep hills.

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Brutal: Ye Gods.

Scenic: This sounds like it is a welcome description for a race, suggesting you’ll have nice things to look at. Usually it is, although beware: if this is the only descriptor used for a race, it might be because describing the course with any other terms would involve admitting it’s a grindingly difficult course that takes in hill after hill after hill.

Race course types

Out-and-back: This is a course that involves running somewhere, turning round and heading back. At it’s most extreme, the turning point is occasionally a traffic cone in the middle of the road.

Single lap: A course that starts and finishes in the same place, taking in one big loop. Always a good option if you like plentiful variety.

Multi-lap: A course that will take in two or more loops of a particular section of course. This is both good and bad. It’s good because you’ll know what you’re in for on the second lap, and can adjust your efforts to suit. It’s bad if the loop is particularly dull, or if it contains a tough hill – knowing you’ve got to run up a hill a second time can be a little demotivating…

Point-to-point: A course that stars somewhere, and finishes somewhere else. These offer maximum running variety pleasure, but can be a bit tough for logistics. Although when a point-to-point course is well organised – such as the London Marathon – you’d almost never know.

Surface types

All-asphalt/all-Tarmac: Yes, this will be a course that takes place entirely on a sealed surface course. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be as smooth as you’d think

Closed-road: The route will take place on roads closed to traffic so, in theory, only runners will be on them. This is good, as it removes the always unwelcome prospect of being squeezed to the side by over-aggressive drivers who don’t think they should have to account for people running on a road (because they’re far more important, obviously).

Open-road: This route will take place on roads which are open to traffic. Which raises the, erm, always unwelcome prospect of being squeezed to the side of the road by over-aggressive drivers who don’t think they should have to account for people running on a road (because they’re far more important, obviously). To be fair, most motorists are very decent people who won’t mind slowing down and giving you room. Sadly, there are always exceptions to the rule, etc…

Mostly smooth with some slippery bits: there’ll probably be grass or mud. Beware if it gets wet

Occasionally muddy in places: will almost certainly be muddy in places.

Muddy in places: Pack your wellies.

Mixed-surface: This means the race will take place on – shock! – a mixture of surfaces. Expect it to be mostly fairly smooth stuff, but be ready for a bit of on-grass action and the potential for some mud.

Trail course: An off-road course. Probably bumpy. Mud often involved.

Other terms

Race village/race festival: A selection of stands selling running products, offering massages and that sort of time. Sometimes these will be massive. Often they’ll be two stalls in the middle of a big field.

Club/county championship round: runs that are rounds of club championships will often attract higher numbers of runners than other events. And when you get to the start you’ll find most of them are wearing various brightly colours club running tops. But you don’t usually have to be a member of a club to do them.

Accurately measured: Some races really seem to push the fact that they’ve accurately measured the course to make sure it’s the distance that they’re advertising. Which seems an odd thing to advertise, because when you’re entering a 10k race, you’d basically expect the organisers would have checked the course was, you know, 10k long. Although a surprising amount aren’t. And yes, that includes many described as being ‘accurately measured’.

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Certified course: Usually followed by a bunch of initials that are the name of a national governing body. This means the course has been verified by some official types as being of the correct length, so any record times set on it can enter the history books. Which matters, because of course you’re going to be running at world record pace (alright, it has an impact on club points and the like too…)

Read more running jargon busting here.

Random running loves No. 3: unusual race distances

The first ‘proper’ race I ever entered was the Wedding Day 7k. As the name suggests, it takes place on a seven kilometre course. Even at the time, it seemed a slightly odd distance. But, as time passes, I’ve come to realise that it’s just downright unusual.

Years back, in the days before easy access to precise measurement equipment, online race comparison websites and the like, races were all sorts of strange distances. It largely depended on what course organisers could carve out of whatever roads, trails or paths they could get access to.

But, in the increasingly homogenised and standardised modern world, events have become far more standard in distance. Generally speaking, the vast majority of events are run over a handful of particular race lengths – 5k, 10k, 10-mile, half-marathons and marathons.

On, balance, that’s common sense. Those distances give people a good idea of the effort required to train for and complete in any given event, and it also makes it possible to compare progress on different races in different places at different times.

But that theory doesn’t entirely hold. No two race courses are the same: just think of the variation possible in both elevation changes and surface, for example. My best 10k race time was set on the virtually flat, wide Tarmac of Castle Combe Race Circuit. I can’t really compare the time I set there to my times on the Richmond Park 10k, which takes place on a hilly, mixed surface course.

But, most importantly, races of unusual distances are fun. They offer variety, something a bit different. And, frankly, the races I’ve competed in over unusual distances have been some of the most fun. I don’t think that’s coincidence: it seems the races organisers who persist with non-standard event distance races are the most proud of their events, and their history. The Wedding Day 7k is a great example. Another was the Treggy 7, a seven-mile trek in Cornwall featuring a great big, whopping hill.

Here’s another: last weekend I competed in the Lidl Kingston Breakfast Run. It features three different distances, and none of them are standard: you can take your pick from 8.2, 16.2 and 20.1 miles.

The distance stems from the course: it’s effectively a loop of the River Thames towpath and nearby roads from Kingston-upon-Thames down to Hampton Court Palace and back. The 8.2-milers do one loop, the 16.2 runners do two (a slight shortcut on lap two accounts for the fact it’s not quite double), while the 20.1-mile runners add an extra mini-loop early on.

Interestingly, the course is virtually the same one I’ve done several other runs on – the Hampton Court Palace Half-Marathon, and the Kingston 10 Miles. Those races add in extra loops and twists to make up standard distances, so the Kingston Breakfast Run organisers could do the same, but they choose not to. Excellent.

Now, the distances aren’t entirely random: the run is frequently used as a training effort for people tackling spring marathons such as London, with plentiful pacers to help people round in particular times.

Since I’m not doing this year’s London Marathon (boooo!), I just did it for fun. For fun? Yup. And on very little training too. Fun. Little training. So I did the 8.2-mile distance, right? Nah… I was planning to, but when I went to sign up, it was only a few pounds more to double my mileage… so the 16.2-miler it was.

Well, it’s only a few miles more than a half-marathon, right? Well, yes, except I’d only run further than 10k a few times since I finished the Houston Marathon back in January. And it was only a week or so before last weekend I really comprehended that, at 16.2-miles, the Kingston Breakfast Run would be the third-longest race I’d ever do.

KBR map

But, strangely, I didn’t feel all that much pressure. Because it’s not like I had anything to compare the race to. I didn’t have a 16.2-mile PB, and it’s not like I’m going to tackle many of them – unless I return to the Kingston Breakfast Run again (hint: I will). With the inability to compare my time to pretty much anything else, I found myself free to experiment a bit more.

As a result, I set out at something approaching my half-marathon PB pace, with the intention to see how long I could keep that pace up past 13.1 miles. It’s certainly not a tactic I’d use on a marathon, when I’d be determined to run at a pace I felt I could sustain. But on this event, I felt free.

So off I went at my half-marathon pace, and yes, I did predictably struggle in the final few miles when the pace, and my lack of training, began to tell. But I didn’t mind all that much, and I just concentrated on having fun.

If nothing else, doing a 16.2-mile race was a good challenge: it pushed me on from a half-marathon, but without the sheer pain and effort required to do a full marathon.

Which is why I love unusual race distances: they don’t just become another 10k, 10-miler or half-marathon. They’re challenges in their own right. They’re events you can do for the challenge and fun of doing them.

Oh, and in the case of the Kingston Breakfast Run, there was also an awesome goody bag, courtesy of Lidl. Among other things, it featured peanut butter, a bag of seeds, peppermint tea, and shower gel. What more could you want? (If the answer was muesli, then don’t worry: there was also muesli).

KBR Lidl

A mug. Yup, instead of a medal you get a mug.

As noted in the past, I’m a big fan of events that hand out non-medal-based finisher rewards. It’s a nice point of difference that makes them stand out. A bit like having a race that takes place over an unusual difference.

Rain, wind, hills and traffic – welcome to Wimbledon

Waking up and drawing the curtains to find light skies and benign weather is normally a pretty good start to a day when you’re doing a race. Not this morning – because today it meant the bad weather hadn’t arrived yet.

Sure enough, 20 minutes after I’d first looked out the window, it actually began to get darker, as the bank of heavy rain that had been assuredly forecast closed in. By the time I left my house an hour later, bound for Wimbledon Common to take part in the Wimbledon 10k, it was raining hard.

You can’t control the weather, of course, and bad weather is an occupational hazard any time you enter a race in Britain (even if, as the forecasters harked on about this week, meteorological Spring has, erm, sprung). Still, it’s always a little off-putting when, the night before a run, you know that a nasty weather front is likely to be right over your head right about the time the start gun goes off.

Twenty minutes after leaving home I parked up near Wimbledon Common, and set off to collect my number from the race start. Wimbledon Common is, as you might expect, a pretty beautiful and well-kept place, but it loses it’s appeal somewhat when there’s a heavy wind, squally rain and mud underfoot. Still, that bracing wind did make it easy to spot the flags fluttering near the race start, largely by keeping them at quite the angle.

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Wimbledon Common looking glam

Having picked up my number, and braved a wobbly portable toilet (the wobble seemed to be partly the wind, and partly the fact it didn’t seem to be fixed to the ground properly. Either way, I was very careful while going, to avoid some unthinkable and unpleasant toppling toilet incident…), I retreated to the safety of my car until as late as humanly possible before the start. Oh, and added an extra long-sleeved running top, having realised my optimistic T-shirt set-up would clearly offer inadequate warmth.

Amazingly, come the time to decamp from my car and head to the start, the rain was beginning to ease. It was relatively light for the first few kilometres, and had actually stopped before half-distance. The wind and cold were more persistent challenges, but with the weather less of an issue I could focus a bit on what I figured the main challenge of the event: the hills.

Wimbledon Common is at the top of a hill: the race started with a plunge downhill, before then working it’s way back up through the residential streets of the not-coincidentally named Wimbledon Hill. When I decided to enter the event, it was partly because of the hills. So far this year, I’ve mostly done races this year on relatively flat courses, and I wanted to take in some races that would be charitably described as ‘undulating’ in order to force myself to push more on hills.

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The challenge was pushing hard enough to make the most of the early downhill section, without using up all the energy for the subsequent uphill. I seemed to get my pacing sorted pretty well, although it was a bit humbling to watch some of the quick runners doing the simultaneously run Wimbledon Half Marathon pull away from me, despite knowing they’d have to do a second lap. But, once I’d completed most of the climbing, and was running along The Ridgway (so called, you’ll be amazed to know, because it’s a road that runs along a ridge), I discovered that the biggest challenge of the Wimbledon 10k wasn’t the weather, or the hills: it was the traffic.

Yes, the traffic – and both automotive and pedestrian. The Ridgway is a fairly major thoroughfare in South West London, and at just before 1000hrs on a Sunday morning plenty of people were setting off on Sunday morning jaunts. Which made it a bit of a challenge when the runners needed to cross from one side of the road to the other. The only tactic was to run along one pavement, trying to focus on your normal pace, while also keeping an eye out for a break in the traffic to make a crossing. It wasn’t easy, especially because some drivers – both on the main roads and those traversing the residential roads the event went down – seemed determined not to make any allowance for the runners.

It got more challenging too: the final kilometrres of the course ran directly up Wimbledon High Street, in the quite posh part of town known as Wimbledon Village. At one level, it’s a lovely place to run: there were lots of posh shops and cafes to admire, for one thing. Except, of course, those cafes were attracting plenty of people for a Sunday brunch, using the same pavements the runners were charging down. It wasn’t exactly an ideal combination, especially because a small minority of pedestrians strolling in Wimbledon Village seemed put out there was a run going on, and pointedly made no effort to create a bit of room.

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Now, they’re shared roads and pavements, and it’s not like the runners had any particular priority or right of way over cars or pedestrians – something that was made clear in the pre-race notes. But still, a little bit of courtesy wouldn’t go amiss at times.

Again, this was only a small minority of people; several others took the time to clap or shout encouragement, which is always hugely welcome.

Thankfully, since the race field was relatively small, it was pretty spaced out as I ran the High Street section – but I imagine things might have been interesting for the half-marathoners on their second lap, when the shops would have been open as well as the cafes.

Nothing cost me too much time either, and if 41m 21s was the slowest of the five 10k races I’ve done so far this year, in the circumstances it felt like one of my stronger efforts.

Even better, in a fit of great timing, the sun was almost peeking through the clouds by the time I finished. Which made it a pleasant day to walk back to Wimbledon for a post-run coffee. And don’t worry: I gave the runners still gamely plugging on plenty of space – and plenty of encouragement as well…

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Random running annoyances No. 11: distance marker boards

Knowledge is power. It’s an oft-repeated phrase, and that’s largely because it’s true. When you’re taking part in a race, knowing how far you’ve gone – and by extension how far you’ve got to go – is incredibly useful knowledge.

In the age of GPS watches (which are great, although they can also be randomly annoying), most runners can have that information, and lots more, strapped to their wrist. But not everyone runs with a GPS watch. And even those who do wear them don’t always look at them. And that’s where distance marker boards come in.

They are brilliantly simple. It’s a sign which says how far into the race you are – usually every mile of kilometre. They’re used on most races, and they take many forms. Sometimes it’s a simple bright yellow sign with a number on it. On a big event, such as the London Marathon, they can be full balloon arches that stretch across the road. On one run I did, the ‘boards’ were actually people wearing jackets with the distance marked on them.

Distance boards provide useful information, and they’re also reassuring that you’re actually still on the right route for the race. They’re simple, they’re unobtrusive and they’re brilliantly effective.

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So…. why have I included them in my ever-growing list of random running annoyances?

Because of this: they’re not always in exactly the right place.

Distance boards need to be put somewhere: maybe hung from a tree, attached to a fence or propped up by a post. And sometimes, there just isn’t somewhere to put them at the exact distance they’re indicating. Sometimes the people putting the distance boards up just don’t seem to have double-checked the measurements. Sometimes, they just seem to make a mistake. In other words, it’s not that uncommon to find the market board is, at least according to my Garmin, a couple of hundred metres early, or a couple of hundred metres late.

Is that a problem? Well, it’s certainly not an unsurmountable one, but it doesn’t really help. If you’re trying to pace yourself with a ‘normal’ watch not fitted with GPS, you’ll need to rely on the boards being in the right place to ensure you’re running the splits you want.

And if you’re running with a GPS watch, finding that it’s out of sync with a distance marker board can be disconcerting: is the board wrong? Is your watch wrong? How far have you gone?

Finding the distance marker boards are out of sync also creates other concerns. It’s not uncommon to find a race route is either a little short or long of the advertised distance. That can be reflected in the distance marker boards slowly slipping out of sync with your watch. But when that starts happening, it can be tough to know if they’re just errant boards, or if you’re going to discover that the course is too short or too long. Should you slow your pace in order to account for potentially running an extra few hundred metres? And if you do that, how daft are you going to feel when the finish is exactly where it should be, and it was just the boards being stuck in the wrong place?

Again, that’s not exactly a major problem, more a minor frustration – an annoyance, if you will. And given the brilliant job most race organisers do, I can forgive them for putting the odd distance marker board in the wrong place. Once again, this random running annoyance probably says more about my running psyche than anything else.

But that whole knowledge is power thing only really works if the knowledge you’re getting is accurate. And anything that causes you to doubt that isn’t welcome.

All that said, when I do a race, I’ll keep looking out for the marker boards. Why? Because each board is a quite literal milestone during a race, proof that you’re inching closer to the finish than you are to the start. Yup, even if they can be annoying, they’re always a welcome sight…

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Read more random running annoyances here.

Where’s the perfect place to host a race?

It was a study in contrasts. Three weeks after walking to the start of the Chevron Houston Marathon among the stately skyscrapers and brown-beaten bail bonds offices of downtown Houston, I was back in race action. Except this time, my journey to the start involving a pleasant Sunday morning drive through the rolling countryside of Surrey and West Sussex.

On a grey, occasionally misty morning, my 60-mile jaunt from Richmond-upon-Thames took me through small towns and villages with quaintly English country names such as Haslemere, Fernhurst, Crinkly Bottom, Midhurst and Cocking (Alright, one of those isn’t real, as those who grew up in the mid-Nineties watching British Saturday evening family TV fare may spot…).

My destination was another quintessentially English attraction: the Goodwood Estate. Depending on your interests, you might know Goodwood for its grand stately home, its ‘glorious’ race course, its small airfield or even it’s sculpture garden. If you’re a motorsport fan like me, you’ll better know it as the home of the Festival of Speed motorsport event, and a historic race circuit that still hosts occasional revival meetings.

My destination last weekend was the circuit, to take part in a race – but there were no engines involved in this one. The circuit was the new-for-2017 host venue of the Chichester Priory 10k. A long-established fixture on the West Sussex running calendar, the race had previously been based out of the nearby county town of Chichester. The move was made, according to organisers, for ‘organisational and practical reasons’ – in part involving the challenge of closing roads in a busy town on a Sunday morning. Moving to a race circuit that’s part of an event used to holding big events must have seemed an ideal solution.

Once some teething issues are sorted out, I don’t doubt it will be. But last weekend… not so much. The problem seemed to be that substantially more cars turned up to Goodwood than expected by the venue and organisers (about 500 more, according to a local newspaper report). And venue staff and organisers struggled to get all those cars into the circuit and parked quickly enough. As the 10am start time for the race approached, long queues began to develop on the roads around the circuit.

I was completely oblivious to this. I always prefer to get to a race early to ease any parking-related stress, and arrived about an hours before the start. There was a short wait to get in, but I parked up easily and then stayed warm in my car until it was time to commence my pre-race warm-up. It was only when heading to the start area that I heard the commentator mention a delay.

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The problem was exacerbated by the clever route the organisers had devised. The race started right outside the main gate of the circuit before taking in a six kilometre loop on closed-to-traffic roads in the local area. It then returned to the race circuit, finishing with a lap of the track. As a motorsport fan, I’m a bit of a sucker for runs that take place on race tracks, and this was a brilliant combination of a road run and a race track.

That said, having the start line on the road outside the circuit proved a problem: because it meant the traffic queueing to get into the circuit was stuck on the race route. There was nothing the organisers could do but delay the start until the road was clear.

The delay totally around 30 minutes in the end – hardly ideal on a cold day, but not enough to take the shine off an otherwise fun event with a great route. It did get me thinking though…

You see, a circuit such as Goodwood is, in theory, a genius place to use as the start venue for a running race. And I’m sure it will be in future, so long as the minor teething problems are addressed and organisers are ready for the right number of cars.

Why so genius? Well, think about the facilities needed to cope with a run that attracts nearly 2000 runners: you need somewhere for them to park (or, alternately, a viable way to get them to the start on public transport), and you need somewhere for them to warm-up and gather pre-race – such as a race track and big paddock area. You could do with some buildings for the race officials to base themselves in… just like the sort you’d find at, say, a race circuit. Oh, and it’d be great to have a really spectator friendly venue. And yes, you guessed it, a race track scores on that point too. The fact that race circuits offer several kilometres of smooth, traffic-free paved surface to run on is a massive bonus.

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As noted, I’ve also done races at Castle Combe and Silverstone circuits, and both work brilliantly for similar reasons. It’s not just race circuits either. I’ve done races that start at other large sporting venues (such as Sam Houston Race Park in Texas, where I started 2017 with a 10k), and which benefit from offering a similar infrastructure to base a race out of.

Other venues can work: there’s a half-marathon which is based out of Thorpe Park when the theme park is shut out-of-season – essentially giving organisers access to a massive, unused car park. The Valentines 10k in Chessington, which I’m competing on this weekend, has used a clever combination of a semi-industrial business park (good for weekend parking when nobody is working) and a nearby college (a big building with toilets and showers to base the race in).

Schools and colleges, in fact, are popular places for runs to be based out of: when they’re not being used on a weekend they tick the boxes of parking, facilities and space really well.

Obviously for atmosphere you can’t usually beat the vibe of starting a race in the middle of a town or city centre. But such races usually involve more pre-race hassle for runners: they might have to hunt around for parking, and then walk big distances to get to the race start. That’s fine on occasion, but it does add an extra level of pre-event stress to proceedings.

By contrast, having a race based at an out-of-town venue in return plentiful parking, loads of space and access to some wonderful places to run seems a perfect compromise. And, once the teething troubles are sorted, I’m sure that can be demonstrated with next year’s Chichester 10k.

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A New Year first – Texas marathon prep with a touch of class (win)

I’m not one for New Year’s Resolutions. I’ve always thought they’re kind of silly. But I’ve always thought it’s important to start off a New Year in a positive fashion. And I’ve managed to start 2017 in real style – with my first-ever running class win.

With the Houston Marathon fast approaching, and an understanding boss in work, I pieced together the time off to travel out to stay with my brother in Texas just after Christmas, giving me a few weeks to party on New Year’s Eve and fill up on smoked Texas brisket. No, hang on, let’s try that again… giving me a few weeks to adjust to the Texas climate and finish my marathon training. Yes, that’s better.

It was in that spirit that me and my brother decided to enter the first round of the 2017 Run Houston 10k race series – which was held on New Year’s Day at Sam Houston Race Park, a horse racing course about 30 minutes from my brother’s humble abode in The Woodlands.

Now, that did mean an early start on January 1 to get to the venue in time for the 9.30am start, but since I don’t drink and I’m not exactly a wild party animal, it wasn’t like I had to peg back my NYE partying too much. And the race start time was a full hour later than the 5k element of the race, so we got a positive lie-in compared to many.

Having studied the results of the 2016 event, I knew I had a reasonable chance of a relatively high overall finish if I could produce something approaching my best 10k race time – somewhere just over the 40-minute mark, depending on course. Although I wasn’t sure I’d be able to pull that off, given that I was a few days removed from a long flight, and in my short time in Texas I’d already chomped through some smoked beef brisket, pizza (topped with smoked sausage) and plenty of other meat-based delights…

Still, the flat, fast course was just about perfect for producing a good time, and despite my excess meat consumption I felt in good form. It began and finished in the race course car park, but was essentially two loops of an out and back course held along a nearby road. It pretty much comprised two long straights, with a hairpin at each end.

There wasn’t much in the way of scenery – think warehouses and corporate buildings rather than parkland or stunning views – but for a 10k run it was just about ideal.

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The Run Houston Sam Houston Race Park 10k route. Flat and fast, not exactly scenic…

I’d plotted myself a relatively conservative pace, but found myself with plenty in reserve and was able to run a bit faster than I’d intended – but still feeling very comfortable. With the course design I could see the people ahead of my, so I knew I was somewhere just outside the top ten after the first kilometre or so. And I thought I’d probably overtaken enough people to move into the top ten by the halfway point of the race.

One runner went past me with just over a kilometre to go, but I was able to up my pace and hold onto him for a while, before he pulled clear with a mega kick on the final straight. I held on to cross the line in 40m 03s, which is right up there with my best 10k race times.

So I knew I was pretty high up the field. So while waiting for my brother to finish I retrieved my phone from my hire car, found some free Wi-Fi (the better to avoid expensive roaming data charges…) and fired up the results (helpfully, I could scan a QR code on my race number). And there it was… eighth overall. But that wasn’t even the bit that caught my eye.It was the bit that read: Male 35 to 39: 1.

The number 1. That meant first. First. First! I was first. In my class. First in my class. That’s a win. A win. That’s never happened before. I’d won my class. I’d won. I’d only flippin’ won my class!

I’ve topped the male 35-39 year-old class on the odd Parkrun, but this was my first class win on a proper, paid-for race. A class win! Now, there is one caveat. Most races I’ve done in Britain don’t have that many classes. I’m usually in a ‘senior’ category that covers males from the ages of 18 to 39 or so. The Run Houston event has far more classes, and so I ‘only’ had to beat other runners aged 35-39.

Still, even as someone who isn’t a fan of boasting or self-promotion, it’s kinda a pretty decent achievement. I was eighth overall in a field of 616 runners, and topped 53 people in the male 35-39 class. Even if everyone else was simply off-form because it was New Year’s Day and they’d been out partying harder than I did, I’m pretty thrilled.

Winning my class on a Texas race also seemed to involve a bit more razzmatazz than on many British runs. I hung around for the awards, during which I got to stand on the top step of a podium showing off my bonus, super-shiny first place medal (with about as much enthusiasm as an introverted Brit could muster…). Yup, I got a second medal for the run. Both of which are so chunky and weighty I fear excess weight baggage issues when the time comes to fly home…

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One run, two medals. Both chunky. Oh so chunky…

All in all, a great way to start the year – and a great way to prepare for the Houston Marathon. Well, almost. There was one slight issue: the drinks stations.

There were four chances to grab a drink on the course, with the stations featuring the paper cups that are common in the USA – which, you may remember, I struggled somewhat to use effectively during the Houston Half Marathon.

In order to practice for the marathon, I’d planned to grab a few drinks on the course. But once the race started and I knew I was in with a shot at a decent finish, I sort of forgot that idea. I did grab one drink just after half-distance, and once again struggled to get even a half-decent percentage of the contents of the cup into my mouth.

And so, while I’ve got a shiny first-place medal to admire, I’ve still got a slight worry that keeping hydrated on the marathon could be a surprisingly big challenge…

Where’s next? Yes, Ware’s next…

Last weekend, I was in Madrid. So where to this weekend? That’s right, Ware. Confused? I shall explain…

Last year, I went with my chum (and fellow London Marathon runner) Matt to visit some friends in Hertford. Because it’s the sort of thing you do in Hertfordshire, we took a boat along the River Lea. Where did we go? That’s right, we went to Ware. Where? Yes, Ware. Etc.

Okay, I’ll stop that now. For a bit.

You see, we took the Hertfordshire town of Ware in Hertfordshire (apparently the town name derived from the weirs built on the river in the area). But it sparked one of those in-jokes that just keeps on going. And then we discovered that there’s a race in Ware.

Sorry, where is the race? Yes, it’s in Ware. But where? Yes, Ware.

Okay, I’ll stop that now. For a bit.

Frankly, it was worth signing up to the race purely for the comedic value. So, on pretty much that basis alone, both me and Matt entered the Ware 10. Well, part of the Ware 10 – it’s actually two races in one, with 10k and ten-mile sections. Since the entry fee was the same, we both plumped for the ten-miler. Maximum value for money!

Is it silly to sign up to a race purely because of a very silly running gag about the town name? Maybe. But there’s more to it than that: doing races somewhere I haven’t been before (or, in the case of Ware, have had a quick lunch in after a boat trip…) is a great way to see new places.

I likely wouldn’t have been to Wokingham if I hadn’t done the half-marathon there. I certainly wouldn’t have been to East Malling Research Station in Kent if I hadn’t gone there for a 10k. I wouldn’t have been to Hook in Hampshire two years in a row, or run around Eastleigh on the Wyvern 10k. That last one is a race I did in 2015 and really enjoyed, but couldn’t return to this year. Why? Because it’s this weekend when I’ll be elsewhere. Elsewhere? Yes, in Ware. Where? Yes, Ware. Etc.

Okay, I’ll stop that now. For a bit.

Essentially, doing races is a great chance to see places you might never otherwise head to. While I always like the ease of doing races that stick close to home (and there are several that literally run past my house), you can’t beat the chance to see some new places.

So this weekend’s trip isn’t just about an in-joke, but about the enjoyment of running here, there and, indeed, everywhere.

Sorry, where? Yes, Ware. That’s right, where? Exactly, Ware.

I’d promise to stop that now, but I won’t. There’s going to be a lot of that on the way to Ware…

What’s in a (race) number?

This weekend I’m sticking close to home, and competing in the Ranelagh Harriers Richmond 10k. It’s one of my favourite races, and handily local – the route goes past my house twice. Oh, and the reward for finishing is a mug, which I heartily approve of.

Today I received the traditional race information email, which contained what is (to me, at least) an interesting detail: my race number. And for this Sunday’s outing, I’ll be number 27.

Why so interesting? Well, a few reasons. As a motorsport fan, I’ve always been interested in the use of car numbers, especially in categories such as NASCAR. Certain race numbers become synonymous with certain drivers. I’m fascinated by the various ways different series assign race numbers.

My motorsport interest means the number 27 has a particular resonance: for most Formula One fans that number is inextricably linked to Ferrari – and in particular Gilles Villeneuve. So getting to run with a big 27 pinned on my chest (once I eventually stop faffing and get it on there…) is pretty cool.

It’s perhaps because the number 27 resonates with me as a motorsport fan that I realised another interesting details: Sunday’s event will be the third I’ve done in just over a year with 27 as my race number. Which seems pretty remarkable, really.

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After all, most of the races I’ve entered attract several hundred competitors – and often more. So what are the odds of being given the same number three times?

Well, it isn’t quite as utterly random as it seems. The results for the three events I’ve been given number 27 for (aside from Sunday’s race, the other two are the 2015 Fullers Thames Towpath Ten and the 2015 Kington Ten Miles) are all done by the same timing company. As best I can tell, that firm assigns race numbers in alphabetical order. My surname is Attwood, so I’m always likely to have a fairly low number.

Assuming those events attract a roughly similar amount of entries with a roughly even spread of surnames, it makes sense that my race numbers are always going to be pretty close to each other.

Still, with that said, having the same number three times on three different events? It still seems… unlikely. I’m sure I could do some great statistical analysis to work out exactly how likely or unlikely it was, but I’m really not very good at maths and statistical analysis and that sort of thing.

Anyway, whether it’s an amazing coincidence or not, I’ll continue to be fascinated by race numbers, and how they’re assigned. The most popular seem to be either alphabetical, or simply by order of entry. Some events also assign certain numbers to certain categories (for example, the Wokingham Half Marathon assigned 1-2999 for men, and 3001-4500 for ladies). The bigger event, the more complex it gets. Seriously, just look through the London Marathon race information and read the section on how numbers are assigned. Fascinating!

My interest in race numbers perhaps explains why I’ve kept all of the numbers from all the races I’ve done – except one (ironically, one of the three in which I was 27), which I posted to my niece in America for complex reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture.

So I can tell you that the number for my first race (the 2014 Wedding Day 7k in Bushy Park) was 20. I did the event again in 2015, and this time was number 19.

The lowest race number I’ve been given is 10 (on the 2014 Castle Combe Chilly 10k). Again, that event assigned number in alphabetical order. A year later they changed the system and used different groups of numbers for different parts of the event (it ran alongside a triathlon), so I was number 2010.

The highest race number I’ve been given is 47,812. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that was on the biggest race I’ve ever done, the London Marathon. Notably, there weren’t actually 47,812 runners taking part – it’s all to do with how they dish out their numbers.

Oh, and there’s another interesting coincidental oddity revealed in my stack of race numbers. I’ve done the Richmond Park 10k quite a few times. Numbers for that race, as best I can tell, are assigned in order of entry, rather than alphabetically. And somehow I’ve been given number 90 twice on that event. Perhaps I somehow just enter events at the same time before each race…

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What does any of this mean? No idea. Probably nothing. After all, they’re just race numbers. They’re only there to help identify you. They don’t actually mean anything. But I find it interesting.

Then again, that might well just be me…