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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
A short update this. Basically, just to say that it’s all over. Marathon number two: done. And the 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon went about as well as I could have hoped.
If you read any of my previous posts, you’ll know that the weather was my biggest concern in the lead-up to the race. And while it wasn’t out and out hot, Houston was shrouded under a murky fog that trapped in high levels of humidity. It was the sort of sticky, warm and humid weather that even had some Texans I talked to concerned about running – so as a Brit who’d done most of my long-distance training in somewhat colder conditions it was a major worry.
But I kept in control, stuck to my pace plan and took advantage of the plentiful drink stations, and the occasional wet towels and sponges being handed out. I did fade a bit towards the end, but that was as much to do with fatigue in my legs as it was the heat – and I didn’t fade anywhere near as dramatically as I did on last year’s London Marathon.
The end result was a finish time of 3h 16m 40s – enough for 265th out of 7109 finishers and, more importantly, a good chunk faster than my 3h 28m 17s time on last year’s London Marathon. Unfortunately, I failed to find the DICK’S Sporting Goods PR Bell in the post-race zone, so I was unable to ring it.
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) January 15, 2017
Perhaps more important than the time was the fact that, apart from a very slight wobble when the legs really began to ache with just under three miles to go, I enjoyed myself throughout. That was a different experience from London, when I spent much of the latter part of the event genuinely not really enjoying myself (until the glow of post-race satisfaction arrived).
The two events were very different events, of course but, as it was after the London Marathon, my mind is currently a blur of sights, sounds, smells and sensations from my 26.2-mile jaunt around the streets of Houston.
That’s why this is a short update: it’s going to take a bit of time for me to process the memories into coherent word-based form. But I will say this: it was a great event – slickly organised and well-run, with the course lined with enthusiastic spectators, volunteers, police and support staff. If you’ve ever had a hankering to do a marathon in Texas, I’d thoroughly recommend it.
And, coincidentally, early entries for 2018 have already opened. I’m tempted – and it’s scary to think that on the day of marathon number two I’m even contemplating the prospect of doing a third…
My first paid-for race of 2016 was the Richmond Park 10k, way back on January 10. So it was kind of fitting that today I completed my 19th and final race of the year… on the Richmond Park 10k.
In January, I completed the hilly course in 41m 55s. Today my time was… 41m 59s. Four seconds different. Over ten kilometres. Actually, the difference came over less distance than that: according to my Garmin, I set identical times of 21m 01s over the first 5k of each run.
I can’t even blame the conditions for my disgraceful collapse in pace by four whole seconds. The weather records on my Garmin data showed the temperature on both days was an identical 6.1 Celsius.
The course was the same. The weather was the same. And my time was, give or take four seconds, the same. So… have I made any running progress at all this year?
Well yes. Of course I have. It’s been quite a year, in fact.
I’ve competed in 19 paid-for races – 20 if you could the Run the Woodlands 5k (which I tend to leave out because it only costs a dollar to enter…) – in two countries.
At the start of this year I’d never run a half marathon. Now I’ve done four.
So those 19 races included four half marathons, ten 10ks, three ten-milers and one random seven-miler.
I ran my first sub-40 minute 10k race (just: it was a 39m 58s on the flat, fast Chilly 10k at Castle Combe race circuit).
I also set a new ten-mile race PB.
I tackled my first big overseas race, the Houston Half Marathon.
That’s a pretty good list. Anything else? Oh yes, almost forgot…
I ran the London Marathon. I ran a marathon! The London Marathon. The actual London Marathon! In 3h 28m 17s.
I still sometimes can’t quite believe I did that…
In other words, I’ve done quite a lot when it comes to running this year. And this post isn’t an excuse so I can show off my achievements in a #humblebrag sense or anything. Honest.
No, I merely list my 2016 progress as a way of illustrating one of the strange contradictions of running. Running a race is a battle between you and the clock. The clock doesn’t lie. Your finish time is the ultimate record of how well you’ve run, and finish times are the easiest way to chart progress and form.
So being able to compare two race times set on the same course in the same conditions 11 months apart should give me a sense of my running progress, form and achievements. But… it really doesn’t. My running efforts in 2016 really shouldn’t be judged on dropping four seconds on a 10k course around Richmond Park.
In other words… the clock does lie, after all. Well, that’s my excuse anyway, and I’m sticking to it…