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…
After weeks of anticipation – and with some dread – last weekend it was finally time to head back down to Cornwall to take part in the Treggy 7 for the second year in a row.
Now, the dread, it must be noted, was not caused by visiting Cornwall. It’s a lovely place, tempered only by being a flipping long way from where I live in London. But Cornwall is, as previously noted, also quite a hilly place. And those hills are big. And steep. And Cornish race organisers seem to delight in coming up with routes that go up them.
The weekend followed the pattern of my previous trip: it started with the Lanhydrock Parkrun on Saturday, followed by the Treggy 7 the next morning. The Lanhydrock Parkrun, which takes place on the grounds of a beautiful National Trust property near Bodmin, also features a course dominated by hills.
It begins with a fast downhill sweep past Lanhydrock House, a castle-like Victorian mansion, before a short, steep climb uphill into the woods. Then the fun begins: a frankly terrifying, dizzying, steep descent on a bumpy, rock-strewn, tree root-lined dirt track. There’s a brief bit of flat at mid-distance, before the climbing begins: a series of steep, steep, steep uphill slogs across uneven fields and lanes. Finally, the race finishes with a final bit of steep downhill on grass to the finish.
It packs a lot of elevation change into 5k: 122 metres of elevation gain and 143 metres of elevation loss – reflecting the fact the finish is just past the start line.
Still, on a fresh, clear, lovely Cornish morning it was worth the effort. When I first tackled Lanhydrock last year I stupidly forgot to take my Garmin, so perhaps mercifully I didn’t have any kilometre split times from then to try and compare my times to. But knowing the second half featured the bulk of the climbing, I realised the key to improving my form was to give myself plenty of wiggle room in the second half of the race. Having set a 22m 05s last year, I reckoned I needed to aim to complete the first 2.5k in 10m or so, giving me 12m to complete the second half.
Of course, the key to going fast in the first half was attacking that treacherous downhill, which was a big challenge in and of itself. I pushed as much as I dared, until I was at the limits of being in control. To paraphrase Buzz Lightyear, I wasn’t so much running as falling with style.
And, despite going as fast I dared – fearing that any quicker would likely pitch me rolling into the Cornish undergrowth – I was passed on all sides by fearsomely brave Cornish runners. I caught many of them on the flat bit – and then came the climbing.
It was tough. Seriously tough. Tougher than I remembered, in all honesty. It was a slog and I only just managed to run all of it. I say run, but on the steepest bit near the end it was more of a quick trudge.
Eventually, I crossed the line in 21m 55s, an improvement of 10 seconds on the previous year. A good result.
Now, my day of climbing hills wasn’t over. On a beautiful, clear day, my Cornish running buddy Matt decided we should do a spot of tourism and visit Rough Tor (pronounced like an internet router), which involved a somewhat hilly, but very pleasant walk.
It was hilly, but far more relaxed than the parkrun and offered some lovely views of Cornish countryside, the Davidstow Cheddar creamery and Brown Willy. Which, as you all know, is the highest point in Cornwall.
Stop sniggering at the back there. You wouldn’t catch me laughing at a hill with ‘Willy’ in its title.
Of course, the weather can change fast in Cornwall. And, sure enough, the clear skies clouded over late in the day and, late in the evening, it began to rain. A lot. And then it rained some more. A lot more.
It was still raining heavily on Sunday morning when it came time to leave for Launceston, the home of the Treggy 7. It was still raining when we got there. The rain eased up when we went to collect our race numbers an hour or so before the start. And then, when we returned to the car, it started to rain heavily again. And then it got heavier.
Around 15 minutes before the start it was raining faster than the drains could cope with. And harder than seemed at all sensible to go and do a seven-mile run in. But, displaying commitment that still seems questionable, we set off from the car and sprinted to the start. That involved descending a steep hill from Launceston’s car park to its town centre – and water was cascading down that hill at an alarming rate.
Mercifully, the rain actually eased up again as the runners assembled for the start – but it wasn’t long until it picked up again and, besides, by that point the roads were sodden. In places there were pools of water across the road; in others there were veritable streams running down the Tarmac. But it wasn’t cold and, in some ways, the conditions only added to the general merriment and challenge, even when the rain soon began to fall harder again.
It also took my mind off the mighty hill that comes almost halfway through the Treggy 7, a monster slog that lasts for around a kilometre and feature 85 metres of climbing. But, once on that hill, there wasn’t much that was going to take my mind off it.
Having tackled it last year, I knew what I was in for – but strangely, unlike the previous day’s Lanhydrock hills, it wasn’t actually as bad as anticipated. I don’t quite know what that was. It was probably because it wasn’t as out and out steep in places as I’d remembered – it’s a fairly consistent climb, which meant I could lock into a pace and stick to it.
Bizarrely, as with last year, I also drew strength by seeing other people struggle. That’s not meant to sound cruel, honest. It’s just that every time I did think about walking I found myself catching a runner ahead of me who was already doing so – and the fact I had more energy than them gave me the strength to keep on going.
Once I’d finally crested the top of the hill I was in fine spirits. The hardest part of the run was done, and now I could press on. Well, that was the theory. Turns out the weather had other ideas. For a start, the rain got heavier, and predictably the roads became wetter. There was a stretch of around 20 metres or so when the road was flooded with ankle-deep water. There was no way round, so runners just had to plough through it. Of course, doing so gets your trainers soaked, and horribly squidgy for the rest of the race.
At the top of the hill the wind picked up too – an occasionally fierce headwind that slowed my significantly. Visibility was also an issue as well, with all that water splashing and smudging my glasses. That made it difficult to really push on the wet roads on the downhill run back into the town.
In the end, I reached the finish in the grounds of Launceston Castle in 49m 22s. That was nine seconds slower than I managed last year, although my 61st place was 17 positions higher (and it’s worth noting that, despite the conditions, more runners took part in the event this year).
As previously noted, the Treggy 7 organisers like to give out slightly unusual prizes – this year there was a metal Treggy 7 water flask and a four-pack of Ambrosia Rice Pudding. I will savour that rice pudding, for I definitely felt I earned it.
There was a weird lesson too: having been dreading the hill on the Treggy 7 course, it turned out to be the rain I should have been worried about all that time. It’s a lesson that, even when you go back to a race, the challenge is never the same twice.
* * *
Tackling a race on a particularly wet Cornish September day might not be pleasant, but recent events in Texas do give a sense of perspective. However wet I got, my temporary discomfort was absolutely nothing compared to what thousands of people in Texas went through with Tropical Storm Harvey recently.
Thanks to visiting my brother and his family living there for years, I know Houston very well – not least from tackling this year’s Chevron Houston Marathon. Seeing pictures of roads I ran along for that event transformed into rivers of deep water has been a surreal experience.
Texans are a tough bunch though, and I have no doubt the people of Houston will recover. This British runner will be thinking of them while they do.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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…
Sometimes running is all about contrasts. Getting a bit of variety in the places and types of running you do is a great way to keep things interesting. Just as well, because after a few weeks running around Texas while on holiday, on my first weekend back in Britain I found myself heading for Cornwall.
When it comes to running (and, indeed, lots of other things), Texas – at least the area near Houston I visited – and Cornwall don’t have that much in common. Texas is hot and humid; Cornwall is prone to grey skies and rain (yes, even on the last weekend in August…). Houston is swampy; Cornwall is windswept. And, perhaps most significantly when it comes to running, Texas is largely flat; Cornwall is most definitely not.
The last two weekends provided a vivid illustration of that. As previously mentioned, on my final weekend in Texas I tackled the Run the Woodlands 5k. The course for that race was pretty much flat: over five kilometres there was ten metres of elevation. And most of that was due to the footpath dipping down to run over a footbridge. That’s basically flat.
I started last weekend by tackling the Lanhydrock Parkrun, which takes place in the grounds of a stunning National Trust-run 19th-century stately home near Bodmin. It was an absolutely beautiful place for a parkrun, with the course going past the imposing house, and along a variety of trails in the grounds. And the route was very definitely not flat.
How not flat? Well, I can’t tell you exactly for reasons I’ll get to in a bit, but over the five kilometre route there’s around 100 metres of elevation. And most of that was contained in a gruelling second half of the course.
I couldn’t tell you exactly how much elevation change was on the course because I forgot to wear my Garmin GPS watch on. This seemed like a major set-up error, but was probably a blessing: without a constant update on my pace, I couldn’t compare my efforts to any previous 5k run I’ve done. Which was probably just as well, because with the hills this was unlike any other 5k I’d done. So I just had to judge my pace to the hills.
My eventual time of 22m 05s was more than two minutes slower than I’d managed in Texas the previous week, but given the leg-burning climbs involved, it actually felt like more of an accomplishment.
And the Lanhydrock Parkrun was just a warm-up for a bigger, hillier challenge the following day. I was in Cornwall at the urging of my friend (and foolish fellow London Marathon finisher) Matt, who was proudly born and raised in Kernow. For several years, he’s been urging me to join him in tackling the Treggy 7, a run based in the town of Launceston.
It’s one of those truly brilliant and very British events, covering a slightly odd distance – seven miles – run by wonderfully enthusiastic organisers and volunteers. The route started from the centre of Launceston and took in some beautiful Cornish countryside. Oh, and a big hill. A very big hill. A massive, challenging, gruelling, painful hill.
The race route featured 135 metres of climbing. One hill, just before the halfway point of the race, accounted for around 85 metres of that elevation. All in the space of about a kilometre. And it was utterly brutal – a largely relentless grind up a tight country lane. It hurt. It really hurt.
It was the kind of hurt that briefly made me question why I was running up that hill, that made me question if I was actually taking any enjoyment out of it. The sort of hurt that made me want to stop and walk. Many did. Somehow, I kept going and ran the whole way up. Just. By the time I was approaching the top, I was running so slowly I might as well have been walking. That said, I counted that I overtook 11 runners going up the hill – and only one runner overtook me. That felt good.
The finish felt good too. It was in the grounds of Launceston castle, with an enthusiastic crowd cheering all the runners home. And that uphill struggle was rewarded with a bulging goody bag. Instead of a medal, there was a Treggy 7 thermal mug. And, thanks to Ambrosia sponsoring the race, the bag also included a pot of custard and a four-pack of rice pudding.
Granted, a travel mug and some rice pudding might not have eased my aching legs over the last few days, but as the pain slowly subsides the satisfaction of conquering serious elevation on two tough runs has kicked in. As has a realisation. I’d previous written about the challenge of running in Texas humidity. I now realise a spot of humidity is nothing compared to running up Cornish climbs…
Okay, normally I write about running. But today’s entry is technically about not running…
After a string of events in the past few weekends, I had the luxury of a quiet weekend largely to myself. A welcome chance to relax and kick back a bit. So, of course, as the weekend approach I started thinking to myself ‘hmmm, I wonder if there are any races on’.
I had a scout around various running websites, and found a number of possible events. That’s not all that difficult at this time of year: there are plenty of runs in June, and I live in a part of the world where it isn’t hard to find a huge variety of events without going far. Heck, there are plenty of runs that go past my house (such as the one I did last weekend).
Anyway, I searched through the list of events, and found myself sorely tempted by a ten-mile race. It was based on a route I knew well – a loop down the River Thames path between Hampton Court Palace and Kingston-upon-Thames. Tempting… very tempting.
Then again, a weekend off. I had plenty of things to do and sort. The weather forecast was mixed. In the end, I decided I’d rather have a free weekend without the commitment of having to be somewhere at a set time to run a set distance. It made the most sense.
Decision made. Great.
I still did the parkrun on Saturday morning (my 81st parkrun outing was rewarded with a strong 19m 56s), and got plenty of stuff sorted the rest of the day. My rough plan for today involved doing some shopping in the morning, having a lunch at home while I did a spot of work, and then going out for a late afternoon run up in Richmond Park.
So this morning I walked down the River Thames towpath to Kingston-upon-Thames. And then, the moment I reached the town centre I spotted… runners. With numbers pinned on. Doing a race. What race was this? And then I suddenly realised: it was the race I nearly entered.
I was instantly hugely jealous.
Yup, jealous. Of people doing an event I’d made a conscious decision not to enter. The moment I saw them, I really wished I’d entered that race. Which is pretty much what I do whenever I see people taking part in a race that I’m not doing.
That looks great. What am I missing out on?
It’s daft, really. I chose not to enter the race, yet now was full of regret I hadn’t done so, and was jealous of those who had. Entering the race would have required getting up early, trekking to the start (much further from my house than the part of the race I encountered), warming up, doing a ten-mile run, cooling down, recovering and getting home a bit achey – and having to fit everything else I needed to do today around that. In short, entering that race this weekend didn’t make sense for me… and yet I was still regretting the face I hadn’t!
What’s up with that? Is that fear of missing out? Or just a sign I’m slightly too addicted to running races than I should be?
Either way, I stuck to my original plans for the day, and had a lovely late afternoon run in Richmond Park, with several herds of deer for company. Beautiful.
And yet, in the back of my head, I can’t help but wonder what I missed out on by not doing that race…
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…