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…
Running is a non-contact sport. In theory, at least. In truth, an occasional occupational hazard of having lots of people running in a big crowd is that sometimes two or more runners will end up in exactly the same place at exactly the same time.
Now, from having witnessed a few, mid-race running pile-ups are never malicious. It isn’t like motor racing categories such as touring cars or NASCAR, where rubbin’ is, of course, racin’. Contact is usually caused by one runner being surprised by another one in close proximity to them doing something unexpected.
Case in point: the worst mid-race pile-ups I’ve seen have usually involved one runner stumbling, tripping or completely falling over, and in the process collecting one or more runners following close behind.
Hopefully, this happens at slow enough speed that what follows is a very British sequence of profuse apologies, checking on the health of other runners, and trying to keep a stiff upper lip and just get on with the race. Thankfully, the biggest injuries sustained in the worst mid-race accidents I’ve seen have been nothing more than scraped skin and chastened egos.
Now, I’ve been close to a few pile-ups in my time, and had a couple of narrow escapes. Perhaps the biggest calamity I dodged was on a parkrun a few months back, and involved someone running ahead of me with a dog on an extendable lead.
The runner with the dog had set out at a rapid pace, but at just after half-distance another runner and me began to catch him. But we did so on a narrow part of the out-and-back course where runners were passing in both directions, so there was little chance to pass, and we both ended up close behind.
And then… his dog suddenly decided something on the other side of the path was more interesting than running straight ahead. He veered sharply to the right, across the path of runners coming in the other direction. Eager to avoid mayhem, the man was forced to pull up suddenly and tug sharply to retract the rapidly extending dog lead. The combined forces of this led to him being spun around, and very nearly getting bumped by the runner just behind him.
I was next up, and very surprised to find a runner facing the wrong way with a dog lead now tangled around his body. I had to ease up sharply, dart right and just made it through. Amazingly, while several runners heading in both directions had to ease up, nobody actually made full contact or fell over. Phew!
But last weekend (and yes, this is actually the tale I promised in my last post…) I was finally involved in a mid-race pile-up. It was early in the Kingston parkrun, and I was already feeling a little put out after realising I’d left my Garmin GPS watch in mile pacing and splits, instead of kilometres. As I was running, I was desperately trying to work out what my 5k run pace worked out into in mile splits.
Around a kilometre in, the Kingston parkrun runs on a relatively narrow Tarmac path alongside the River Thames. At this stage there are trees and bushes on both sides, with the bushes on the left on a short, sharp slope that goes down to a mudpath alongside the Thames itself. It’s a little narrow, especially early in a parkrun before the field spreads out.
At this stage, I was catching the runner ahead of me, and beginning to think of pulling out to move past – except there was another runner overtaking me to my right. So I was closer behind the runner ahead of me than I’d usually be, and a bit preoccupied with both my watch and waiting for the runner beside me to go past.
And then… an object came flying out of the pocket of the runner right ahead of me. It flipped in the air, and clattered onto the road right in front of me. I realised it was his phone, and instinctively focused on trying not to tread on it. And then I heard the runner ahead of me swear, and looked up to see him slow dramatically as he realised what he’d dropped.
What happened next was pure instinct – on both our parts. Seeing him slow, and with another runner to my right, I had two choices: run straight toward him, or veer left and try to avoid him. My survival instinct kicked in, and I veered left, into the bushes and right onto the edge of that steep muddy slope.
The runner who’d dropped his phone had two choices: stop in the middle of the road and turn around, or pull up and move to the left while he did so, trying to ensure the runners behind him could get past safely. His survival instinct kicked in, and he veered left, into the bushes and right onto the edge of that steep muddy slope.
Yup, our survival instincts had put us both onto a collision course. The contact, when it came, wasn’t exactly major. In fact, it was largely comical: we bumped slowly, which toppled both of us down the slope a bit. And, in even more comical fashion, both of us seemed more concerned with trying to stop the other from falling over completely. It ended with a slightly awkward half man-hug with a stranger halfway down a muddy slope.
We briefly exchanged words of ‘sorry’ and ‘you ok?’ as we untangled, and went our separate ways: me onwards, and him to pick up his phone and rejoin the race. The whole thing lasted little more than ten seconds, but the adrenaline kicked in and fired me up for the next chunk of the run.
At first, I was a little annoyed that another runner failing to properly secure his phone had cost me time, but by the time I reached the finish I’d calmed down. It wasn’t like he meant to drop his phone, after all.
And, hey, despite all that my time wasn’t bad: a 19m 52s. Okay, it didn’t match my entirely unexpected 19m 39s course PB from a week earlier… but, if anything, the incident took away any pressure to follow up that time with another PB. Having lost time – maybe ten seconds, maybe a bit less – through an event that wasn’t my fault, it suddenly wasn’t my responsibility that I wouldn’t match that PB. That might well have freed me up to run faster in the second half, shorn of pressure.
Who knows? I was just grateful that the pile-up wasn’t any worse – and both me and the other runner could have a laugh about it at the finish (his phone was surprisingly intact as well, for those who might care about such things).
Not the world’s most dramatic running pile-up then, but a brief reminder that even in a supposedly non-contact sport, they can happen…
It’s confession time. Actually, before I start confession time, it’s time for, erm, a confession. Here’s the thing. I started writing this last week, but then work, life and all that stuff took over, and I didn’t actually get round to finishing. Hence the delay between the events described here taking place and this post. Don’t think it really makes any difference but… well, thought it best to explain for anyone who really studies dates, or that sort of thing.
Okay then, on with that confession: I nearly didn’t do the Kingston parkrun
last weekend the weekend before last (that’s Saturday March 11, for those of you keeping count). Really, I didn’t. Which is odd, since a Saturday morning 5k had become a cornerstone of my weekend – and it’s not often I seriously contemplate sitting it out. I’m now very glad I didn’t.
Why was I pondering not running? Well, I’d had a busy week: my job had taken me to the Geneva Motor Show for a few days of long, manic hours, terrible motor show eating (think strangely flavourless cheese and cold meat baguettes, plentiful Haribo and other sugary sweets, pizzas and far, far too many deliciously unhealthy pastries, cakes and churros), and not any running at all. Were there Swiss chocolates eaten as well? Yes, there were Swiss chocolates eaten as well.
That combination of unhealthy living left me feeling all very worn down. I managed one relatively slow run on the Thursday evening after I’d returned from Switzerland, and had originally planned another on the Friday evening. But, by the time I finished work that day, I just felt drained.
I had a little more energy come the Saturday morning, but it still felt like the parkrun was going to be a slog. Especially since I’d arranged to meet some friends in central London by mid-morning. Making it to meet them involved a quick post-parkrun turnaround. So… perhaps it would just make sense to skip it. You know, just this once. Would that really hurt?
Eventually, I silenced the inner voice in my head. It was a nice morning, far milder than it had been lately. And since I’d had a week of eating terribly and doing little exercise, well, I decided I had to go and do the parkrun.
That said, I still lacked some enthusiasm. I left my house a bit late, and only just made it to the start of the Kingston course on time. I made it to the finish a little quicker… in 19m 39s. I’d only gone and set a new Kingston parkrun course PB.
That was… a surprise. And not just because I’d set a course PB on a day when I nearly didn’t do the course. It was a surprise because my previous Kingston parkrun PB, a 19m 41s, was set back in June 2015. I’d come close since then – there was a 19m 45s in mid-2016, but on most weeks I was 10-20s back from that. In fact, I hadn’t done a sub-20m run on the course so far in 2017.
Now, some of that was down to my recovery from the Houston Marathon. And some of it was down to the course: the Kingston park run’s out-and-back course features a nice stretch of Tarmac for the first and last 1.5km or so, but the bit in the middle is on a river towpath and field that can get treacherously slippery and muddy when wet. Which happens a lot in the winter in Britain, making it really very hard to set a time close to your best.
That’s borne out by my efforts on other parkrun courses this year: I set a 19m 45s on the Burnham and Highbridge parkrun, and a 19m 48s on the Tooting Common parkrun. Both those courses are smoother and, all-round, quicker than the Kingston one when conditions aren’t optimal.
Those two parkrun outings proved I could run faster than I had been on Kingston so far this year – and certainly, with my post-marathon conditioning, there have been a few times I felt I could have set a really good time, only to encounter far too much mud. So perhaps the course was just in better condition when I set my new PB. It was certainly in a better state than it had been for a few weeks, but it was still slippery and muddy in places – definitely not optimum conditions.
So… well, I can’t really explain it. Perhaps the week of very little running meant my legs were rested, and that overcame the impact of how badly I’d eaten in Geneva. Perhaps the fact I was so certain it was going to be a slow run meant I removed any pressure to perform and weight of expectation.
Or perhaps, the moral of this story is that running is voodoo. Perhaps how much training and preparation you do, how rested you are, how hard you try to eat the right things and all that other stuff doesn’t actually matter quite as much as you think it does.
Well, it’s possible. But it’s more likely this was just one of those weird freak things where everything mysteriously aligns in defiance of all running convention. I’m not convinced the long-term key to future success is less running and more unhealthy eating.
Although, reflecting on all those long training runs in the cold and rain, it’s a tempting thought…
Oh, and as a post-script, the fact that running is utterly unpredictable voodoo was borne out by my Kingston parkrun outing seven days later. I clocked a 19m 52s – a strong time despite being 13s down on my new course PB. But that time hides plenty of amusing drama behind it. But, well, that’s for another post. Promise I won’t leave this one so long.
Back in January, six days after completing the Chevron Houston Marathon (sorry, did I mention I did the Houston Marathon? Did I? What’s that, I did? Well, just once or twice…) I completed another running milestone: my 100th parkrun.
That means that, since my first tentative outing on my local Kingston parkrun on June 21 2014, I’d spent 100 Saturday morning lining up on a start line at 0900hrs to set off on a free, timed 5k run in the company of other enthusiasts.
My 100th parkrun wasn’t, in itself, particularly memorable: it was six days after I’d run a marathon, after all, so with aching legs I tootled round in 20m 52s – not exactly slow, but some way off my regular 5k pace. Still, it was a pleasing milestone to reach and I’ll get another lovely free T-shirt that will highlight my achievement to the world (although mostly to fellow parkrunners).
Last week, after notching up my 104th event with on the Burnham and Highbridge parkrun while down visiting my family in Somerset, I found myself idly looking at my Parkrun results profile. And something struck me: of those 104 parkruns, I’d done 92 of them on the Kingston parkrun.
The fact I’ve done Kingston so many times shouldn’t really be a surprise, what with the start little more than a kilometre from my front door. But it did stand out, particularly because I’d only tackled six different parkrun courses. Six – despite the fact there are more then 400 parkrun events in the UK. Oh, and international events in Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden and the USA.
I determined it was time to try and mix up my parkruns a bit more – to become a parkrun tourist. So yesterday I did something about it, got up early and for my 105th parkrun headed to… Tooting Common.
Yes, Tooting Common. Sorry to disappoint if you thought this was going to end with me jumping on a plane to tackle a parkrun in Singapore.
Why Tooting? Well, who doesn’t want to go to Tooting on a Saturday morning? I mean, seriously? If you’ve never sampled the delights of one of south London’s most comedically named districts, you’re actually missing out. Really.
More pertinently, Tooting was handily placed for my onwards travel plans post-run – and I used to live about five minutes from the start of the Tooting Common parkrun course. So it was an opportunity to run somewhere different, and revisit an old haunt.
It’s six years since I lived in Tooting, back when I was a generally unfit layabout who weighs a lot more than I do now. So doing the parkrun reminded me of the terrible, painful times I’d previously run on the common on previous – failed – attempts to get fit. Needless to say, I was a lot faster yesterday, and yet it hurt a lot less.
As for the Tooting parkrun, it was a pleasant change from Kingston – especially since the River Thames-hugging Kingston course can be treacherously muddy where it goes onto a dirt trail at this time of year. Tooting is fairly simple: after a short start (and finish) straight it’s basically a triangle you run round three times. But it’s wonderfully flat and run entirely on Tarmac or similarly solid surfaces.
That course meant some different techniques were needed. The fact it was flat with few turns meant that it was easy to meter out the pace easily. But doing three laps of one loop and a big field also meant that runners at my pace sent a good chunk of the event going past slower runners. That’s not showing off – I’m genuinely thrilled so many people are out there running at any speed – but it required careful forward planning to avoid inadvertently getting baulked.
Basically, it was a 5k run that started at 0900hrs on a Saturday morning – but in almost every other aspect it was a completely different experience from the Kingston parkrun. Which, in turn is a different experience from the Burnham and Highbridge parkrun, which takes in a park and a section of seawall on the occasionally windy Somerset coast. And, in turn, that’s a hugely different experience from the treacherously steep off-road downhill and tortuously painful gruelling uphill of the Lanhydrock parkrun in Cornwall. And so on.
It shouldn’t be news that every single parkrun course is different. Of course they are. It’s not like they can exactly replicate a traffic-free 5k run route in more than 400 different locations. And that variety is something to embrace. So it’s time I ventured to some new locations on Saturday mornings. I’ve not tackled seven different parkrun courses. I should increase that number a bit.
Now, that’s not to say I won’t do Kingston again, or that I won’t continue to do that one far more often than any other. But, well, there’s a wealth of free 5k events out there. It’s time to see a few more of them…
Saturday October 1.
07.00: Wake-up, clamber out of bed, pull back curtains.
Clear blue skies, sun shining. Beautiful morning for a parkrun. Roll on 09.00.
07.25: Finish first cup of tea of the day.
Blue skies now interspersed with small fluffy clouds. Still a lovely morning.
07.45: Breakfast time (porridge with sultana, blueberries and a light drizzle of agave nectar, plus a second cup of tea).
Skies now mostly cloudy. Doesn’t look that threatening though. Still a pleasant morning for a parkrun.
08.10: Finished breakfast. Pre-run banana and coffee.
Big grey clouds appearing in the distance. This looks… threatening.
08.30: Get changed into running kit.
Grey clouds quite close. Rain seems likely – but not imminent. Might get parkrun done in the dry.
08.45: Leave house to head to parkrun.
Grey clouds overhead, and dark clouds closing in. Yeah, it’s going to rain…
08.55: Arrived at parkrun start.
Slight drops of rain, rumble of thunder in the distance…
08.58: Pre-parkrun briefing begins
It’s raining. Quite hard. Joy!
09.00-ish: Parkrun starts.
It’s raining hard. I’m wet.
09.20-ish: Finish parkrun.
Properly pouring down. I’m soaked.
09.45: Arrive home. Wriggle my way out of soaking running kit. Have shower to warm up.
Still pouring down.
10.00: Finish shower in time to watch Malaysian Grand Prix qualifying.
Rain has stopped. Sun begins to break through clouds…
Here’s the thing with running when it’s rain: it’s not all that much of an issue. Sure, it’s not pleasant if it’s particularly heavy, especially when soaking running kit begins to cling to your skin. But, in truth, the reality in rain is rarely as bad as the thought of running in rain. A bit of rain can even help to keep you cool when you’re running.
Last weekend I did the Great Bristol Half-Marathon, and ran through several short, sharp, heavy showers. And they were good: they helped to keep me cool when otherwise I might have got hot and sweaty (a nod of respect at this point to the enthusiastic Bristol spectators, who kept cheering and clapping in the rain, when many would have been running for cover).
But the worst time for rain? Just before you start running, especially in a race. If you’re cold and wet before you start running, it dampens your motivation to actually go running. Once you start, there’s a certain perverse joy to conquering the conditions. And even a motivation: the quicker the run, the sooner you can get somewhere dry.
Still, if you can time your run to avoid the rain, it’s generally more fun. But if you’re taking part in a race or run that has a set start time, all you can do is keep your fingers crossed…
Saturday June 21, 2014 – that’s two years ago today, anniversary fans! – was a pretty significant day in my running progression. It was the day my running kick began to turn from merely a way of getting fit and losing weight into something bigger – something that would lead me to completing this year’s London Marathon.
Some brief background: I started running in March, 2014. Initially it was slow and painful (really it was, read my flashback account of my first run here). But within a few months I’d lost enough weight that I’d had to ‘admit’ to friends and family that I was going running.
A couple of my friends and work colleagues began to encourage me to do my local parkrun. Initially I was reluctant: I was trying to keep my running low-key, so was unsure about taking part in a sort-of-race with a group of other people. Plus, I’d never really measured how far I’d run. I didn’t know if I could actually run 5k…
Eventually my friends persuaded me to join them for an evening run on the Bushy Park parkrun course (that’s the original one, as parkrun fans will know). I survived, so I signed up for parkrun and printed out my barcode. And that takes me to Saturday June 21, 2014, and Kingston parkrun number 222.
Looking back, I was comedically over-prepared. I’d looked up the course on the internet and worked out roughly where the kilometre splits were so I’d know how far into the run I was (at that point I was timing myself with a £7.99 Casio, not my Garmin GPS watch). I carb-loaded on pasta the night before, and went to bed early so I was well-rested.
I woke up early – well before my seven am alarm early – due to nerves. I was amusingly nervous. I was also anxious not to be late. So I had breakfast early, and got changed early (this was the clearly the start of my obsession with a pre-race routine). Well, I didn’t want to be late, and I wanted time to recover from a gentle warm-up jog there. I double-checked I had my barcode and set off.
I reached the start at around 0830hrs. I was the first person there. By a big margin. Big enough to make me worry I was in the wrong place, and to feel very self-conscious standing there. Conversely, I was too worried I’d wear myself out to jog around in a bid to look less conspicuous.
Eventually other runners arrived. I was in the right place! The vibe was good. I kept myself to myself, but it was a nice vibe, with a bunch of generally friendly seeming people.
Next awkward social challenge for me: working out where to go at the start. I definitely didn’t want to be at the front, but I also knew I didn’t want to be too far back. So I stuck myself firmly, and hopefully anonymously, mid-pack.
The actual run? It was sort of uneventful. I spent much of it desperately confused as to how well I was pacing myself. I reckoned I could do it in sometime around 25 minutes, so tried to reach each of my approximated kilometre splits every five minutes or so.
The bit I remember best was the final half-kilometre or so. I’d been controlling myself quite well, and realised I still had plenty of energy. Confident I could make the finish, I sped up, overtaking several people in the final few hundred metres. I had way more energy than I should have – I already knew I’d been far too conservative.
I crossed the finish line after 24m 44s of running, in 48th place out of 87 entrants.
For the first time, I experienced the bizarrely conflicting, seemingly contradictory emotions that make races so addictive: a real sense of achievement of finishing within my target time, mixed with the realisation I could have gone faster if I’d just had the confidence to start out a bit faster.
So, of course, I returned the following week, determined to improve on my previous effort. I knocked 92 seconds off my time. I returned the week after that, and knocked another 25 seconds off my time. And so began the eternal, never-ending quest to chase a PB.
I’ve kept on returning. My Saturday mornings have been transformed. And my enjoyment of parkrun has directly led me to entering ‘proper’ races. Yup, my life has changed quite dramatically since that first uncertain parkrun.
In the two years since June 21, 2014, I’ve now completed 80 parkruns – a pretty good number given, by my reckoning, the Kingston parkrun has run 104 times in the same period. Those 80 runs have come on five different courses: 73 on Kingston, two on Richmond Park, two on Burnham and Highbridge, two on Panshanger and one at Basingstoke.
My fastest time on the Kingston course is now 19m 41s, while my fastest ever 5k time is now 19m 35s (set on the Burnham and Highbridge course on October 31, 2015). I’m now slightly disappointed if I don’t complete the run in around 20 minutes or under.
To date, 24m 44s remains my slowest-ever parkrun…