Tagged: race

Racing against racing drivers: how I accidentally took on NASCAR’s finest

The realisation the Toro Dash 10k wasn’t going to be an entirely normal morning run came about ten minutes before the start, when I was queueing for the ever-glamorous portable toilets in Fort Worth’s Panther Island Pavillion on the banks of the Trinity River. That’s when I looked up to see someone who looked remarkably like seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson emerge from one of the toilets.

With my mind focused on the race ahead (and steeling myself to cope with the less-than-fragrant whiff of chemicals cleaner and, erm, stuff that people deposit in portable toilets) it took me a moment to notice that said Jimmie Johnson lookalike was wearing an athletic top bearing the logo of the charitable Jimmie Johnson Foundation. And it also took me a moment to remember that, on the same weekend as the Tarrant County College’s Toro Dash 10k was being held in Fort Worth, the NASCAR Cup Series was in action at nearby Texas Motor Speedway.

As an aside, that latter realisation shouldn’t have taken that long. Part of the reason I found myself visiting Texas (yes, again) on that weekend was in part because it was close to my Fort Worth-residing brother’s 40th birthday, and in part because visiting at that time gave me a chance to catch up with family and attend a NASCAR race.

In short, it took me a few moments, and a furtive second glance or two, to realise that this wasn’t a Jimmie Johnson lookalike. It was actual Jimmie Johnson, seven-time NASCAR Cup champion and all-round stock car superstar. And he’d just emerged from a portable toilet with a number pinned to his top at the start of a 10k race I was entered in. After a few more moments, I realised what that meant: I was about to race the actual Jimmie Johnson. Oh my.

Things quickly became more surreal. Because, it turned out, Jimmie Johnson wasn’t alone. In fact, he stopped to chat to a few people just ahead of me in the portable toilet queue. Including someone who looked remarkably like 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray. Because, as you’ve doubtless worked out by now, it was 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray. And, as I’d later find out, he’d brought a good number of his Chip Ganassi Racing crew with him.

Well, this was going to be interesting: this was my two worlds colliding in a wholly unexpected fashion. As this blog will indicate, running is a passion of mine, but my day job involves working in journalism. I currently write for the world’s oldest road car magazine, but I spent 12 years working in motorsport titles – because I’m a huge motorsport fan. And, despite being British and stock car racing being a particularly American branch of the sport, I particularly enjoy a spot of NASCAR. So suddenly discovering that I was about to race a bunch of racing drivers was a little bit surreal. Still, I tried to convince myself that once the race started it wouldn’t make much difference. After all, it was a big field, and very unlikely I’d really see them in the race.

Having done my stuff in the portable toilet, I tried to focus on my warm-up routine, but my brain was still racing. So I found my brother (who was starting a little further back than me…) and told him, mostly because I was hoping the process of telling someone might convince me of the reality of the situation. And then I went to find my customary starting position.

Now, when picking where to line up for a race – especially one I haven’t done before – I tend to look at the previous year’s results, see what the pace is like, and then pick a spot accordingly. Based on the 2016 results and my expected pace, a top ten finish looked on the cards in the Toro Dash, although I would be some way back from the winner. So I figured second row would do it. Except, when I worked my way towards the start, I found the spot I was aiming for occupied by Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray and a host of their NASCAR buddies.

They weren’t exactly hiding, either. While they weren’t drawing attention to themselves, they were happy to pose for photos with a handful of people who recognised them. Meanwhile, I was too busy trying to work out what this meant for my pace and finishing predictions. After all, the current generation of NASCAR drivers aren’t at all like the old stereotypes: you have to be properly fit to hustle a heavy stock car around a race circuit, in incredible heat, for several hours at a time. so, for example, I knew that Johnson was a regular competitor – and a pretty competitive one – in triathlons. It seemed entirely possible that, even though they were clearly doing the 10k as a bit of exercise ahead of their weekend of racing, they might just clear off into the distance.

They didn’t. Well, they jumped ahead of me at the start, but not that far. And then I started to catch them up. And pretty soon I was alongside them. And, not long after that, I was past them. Yikes. I’d just overtaken a pack of NASCAR types (who, true to racing form, seemed to revel in running in a tight drafting pack).

I wasn’t clear though, and once I settled into my pace it became apparent that my 10k pace was very similar to that of McMurray and someone I later worked out to be Josh Wise, recently retired driver-turned-coach. We eventually settled into a small group of our own, without any local Texan runners around us. Spoiler alert: this would shortly become a problem.

The Toro Dash 10k course started on one side of the Trinity River, crossed a bridge, then followed the trail alongside the river for a few kilometres before an abrupt hairpin around a cone took it back up the river. It then went past the first crossing bridge, rejoining the route of the 5k race, crossing back over another bridge, with a few more wriggles before returning to Panther Island Pavilion.

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The slight problem was that, as well as having 5k and 10k versions of the Toro Dash, there was also some form of charity walk taking place on the Trinity River trails that day, which had their own signage. So I was a little confused about which signs to follow when I reached the water station and grabbed a drink.

I was then busy attempting to slurp the water from my cup when I nearly tripped over a cone in the middle of the path, with a big ‘turn around’ sign stuck on it. But with no marshals nearby shouting directions, it wasn’t where I’d expected the turn to be. So I instinctively ran on, since I could see some other runners ahead of me.

It didn’t take long to clock the runners ahead were going too slowly to be at my pace in the Toro Dash. And I couldn’t see any other signage. Had… had I missed the turn? I shouted the question to the two runners I could hear behind me.

Unfortunately, those two runners were McMurray and Wise, who both live in North Carolina and didn’t know the course at all. Worse, because I was short of breath and had my English accent, instead of hearing me shout ‘have we missed the turn?’, they thought I was asking how to dispose of my cup.

By the time we all figured our error and turned around, we’d added about 0.25km to the route – about a minute of extra running, at that pace. Hardly ideal. The slight detour also put us behind Johnson and a young local runner, who knew the course. And it meant all of us were frustrated, and I was particularly annoyed given I felt I’d led two other runners astray. They’d been following me, after all.

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As a result, I did the daft thing: rather than accepting the time was lost, I tried to up my pace and make it up. It took me a few minutes to catch back up to McMurray and Wise, at which I tried to offer some apologies.

“Sorry guys,” I yelled, while gasping for breath. “I was trying to ask if that was the turn.”

“We were following you,” responded McMurray. “I thought you were asking where to throw your cup.”

“I’m sorry,” was all I could respond. “You should never follow the British guy.”

At least Murray say the funny side of that.

Still, the frustration of having lost places from missing a turn was still getting at me, so I was determined to haul in both Johnson and the guy running near him.

By the time I did, with McMurray and Wise still close by, we’d reached the first bridge, where the course merged with that of the 5k. And so we found a vast number of slower runners from the 5k (which had started 15 minutes later) in our path. Trying to pick a path through the heavy traffic was genuinely difficult, so I took to following McMurray and Johnson for a while – after all, if you’ve ever seen a NASCAR race, they’re quite good at such things.

I eventually worked back ahead of Johnson but, as the Texan humidity began to build, I could feel myself paying for pushing too much after my extra 0.25k. Sure enough, with about two kilometres to go, my pace began to fall away – dropping from around 4m 04s kilometres to a 4m 27s in the ninth. McMurray and Wise both went past me, and with just under a kilometres to go I could see Johnson and the local kid were catching me too. That helped spur me to push on, and I eventually crossed the line in 42m 34.2s. A solid effort, especially if you knock off the minute or so of extra running I did.

That time was also good enough for 11th place: not the top ten I thought was possible before the start, but still a great result. And while I’d been beaten by one NASCAR racer, I’d still finished ahead of seven-time NASCAR title winner Johnson. Even better, a friend who looked at the results later spotted that the field also included 2003 NASCAR champ Matt Kenseth. So I can now officially say I’ve beaten two NASCAR Cup champions in a race. I just won’t mention that there were no cars or engines involved…

I hadn’t just notched up a top ten finish, either. I’d won my the male 35-39 year old division, picking up a bonus medal for my second class win (the first also came in a Texan 10k).

But, ultimately, the memory of the Toro Dash won’t be a bit of medal, but the surreal chance to race against a bunch of racing drivers I’ve regularly watched do battle on the track. That was brought home looking at the results later. There were 86 runners in the 10k, the vast majority residing in Texas. 14 of the runners lives in North Carolina or Virginia, marking them out as likely NASCAR personnel. There was only one person in the field who lived in Britain.

Which should be a lesson to Jamie McMurray, really. As I told him a second time when I went to further apologise to him after the race for leading him astray, if you’re doing a race in Texas, never follow the British guy…

Anyway, the Toro Dash turned out to be a day of NASCAR racing (with my niece’s ninth birthday tea party thrown in…). But while I enjoyed the evening Xfinity Series race at Texas Motor Speedway, it couldn’t match the morning for sheer fun.

 

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An open letter to anyone running the London Marathon

Dear runner,

So you’re running the London Marathon. Good for you.

You’re about to do something incredible. Incredible, and painful. But mostly incredible. Although don’t forget painful.

Anyway, forget the pain for a moment. Really, forget the pain. Because you’re in for an utterly unforgettable experience. And I’m a little jealous. Okay, I’m a lot jealous.

I ran the London Marathon last year, raising money for the South West Children’s Heart Circle (a very worthy cause, which, if so minded, you could support by donating here). It was intense, exhilarating, exhausting, incredible, overwhelming, exciting, incomprehensible, enjoyable, unenjoyable, and a whole lot of other adjectives. But, above all else, it was brilliant.

And also painful. Let’s not forget the pain. I’m sorry to confirm this to you but, yes, running a marathon is going to hurt.

But let’s not dwell on the bad stuff. That whole thing about pain being temporary, and all that? It’s true. Honest. In the closing stages of last year’s London Marathon I was in pain. Serious pain. So much pain. I ached so much I swore I’d never run a marathon again. And I meant it.

I meant it when I crossed the finish line, more mentally and physically exhausted than I’d ever been. I meant it that evening, when my legs barely walked. I meant it in the following days, when I couldn’t walk in a straight line, or without feeling the dull ache in my legs. I was never, I told myself repeatedly, running a marathon again.

I lied to myself. Less than two weeks later, I’d entered the ballot to run this year’s London Marathon.

I didn’t get in. And while I’ve since run the Houston Marathon, I’m still gutted that I won’t be out on the streets of London on April 23. Which is why I’m jealous of you. Not in a bad way, you understand. I’m genuinely happy for you. I’d just love to be there with you. Because, genuinely, running the London Marathon is everything that you dream and hope it will be.

Here’s the thing: I could offer you some sage advice and marathon tips right now. But I’m not going to. If you’re like me, you’ll be sick of hearing advice about pacing, timing, running technique, hydration strategies and all that sort of stuff. And, if you’re not, you can easily find advice from plenty of people far more qualified than me to offer it.

So I want to say a few things to reassure you. Because, if you’re anything like me, right now you’re probably thinking of little else other than the London Marathon. It will be consuming your every thought, at the back of your mind no matter what you’re doing. You’ll be nervous. You’ll be excited. You’ll probably be a little bit scared.

That’s all okay. Keep this in mind: you got this.

Seriously, you’ve got this. You. Have. Got. This. Really, you have. Just keep those conflicting emotions in balance and you’ll be fine. Be excited, but don’t get carried away. And be nervous, but don’t let it scare you.

Plus, it might not seem like it with the race yet to be run, but you’ve already done the hard bit.

All those months of training? All those long, long runs on freezing cold mornings, with nothing but your own thoughts and a clutch of energy gels for company? That’s the hard stuff. You’ve done that now. You’ve only got 26.2 miles left to run. And it’s the fun 26.2 miles. Enjoy it.

It will be a lot of fun. Remember that when the nerves start to take over. Take a deep breath, forget the nerves and enjoy it. Enjoy going to the Expo to pick up your number. Enjoy the nervous trip to the start in Greenwich on an early morning train full of equally nervous fellow runners. Enjoy heading into the start zone, and realising just how big the London Marathon really is. Enjoy dropping off your bag, enjoy your final pre-race pee (actually, here’s my one bit of sage advice: don’t forget your final pre-race pee).

Enjoy lining up in the start zone. Enjoy trying to fathom how big the race is, and how many runners are ahead or behind of you. Enjoy the nervous anticipation before the start. Enjoy the moment when you cross that start line and realise, at the same time as everyone around you, that you’re actually running the London Marathon.

After that? Well, there are a whole host of things to enjoy. 26.2 miles worth, stretching out over the course of the next several hours. I won’t spoil all the surprises. There’ll be things you’ll expect – running over Tower Bridge really is as exciting as you’d anticipated – and things you won’t. The wafting smell from a nearby KFC, anyone?

Most of all, no matter how prepared you are, no matter how big a race you’ve done before, you’ll struggle to comprehend the scale of the marathon. It’s huge. There are so many runners. There’s so much organisation.

And then there the spectators. Lots of spectators. So many spectators. They form a virtually never-ending wall of noise, cheering, motions and support. Enjoy the spectators. Enjoy the support. It’s amazing. It’s inspiring. It’s, well, a little overwhelming. Sometimes, you’ll wish there were fewer spectators and fewer runners, a little more space so you could get away from the constant noise, and get back to running by yourself, just like you did on those long, cold training runs.

But try not to be overwhelmed by the spectators. Let them carry you along, but don’t let them push you into going too fast. High five kids when you want a distraction, read the signs people are holding up when you want to stop thinking about your pacing. Even chat to them if you want. But stick to your plan. When you need to, just focus on your running, your time, your pace plan, yourself. Head down, and picture what it will be like when you cross that finish line on The Mall. Picture being given that medal (actually, one other bit of sage advice: when they put the medal round your neck, be careful you don’t topple over with the extra weight when you’re in a post-marathon exhausted state. It’s a really heavy medal…).

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And remember, that’s what you’re aiming for: reaching the finish. Sure, set yourself a timing goal. I did. And push yourself to meet it. I did. I pushed myself harder than I thought possible. And, in doing so, I learned new things about myself.

Crucially, though, don’t let your target time consume you. If you miss it, you’ll be a bit disappointed. That’s natural. But don’t be upset: it’s okay. You’ll come to realise finishing is success in a marathon. The simple fact you’ll have done one is what will impress your friends and family.

And hey, if you really want to meet that target time, that can wait until the next marathon. Because, no matter how painful it is, no matter how much your legs hurt, no matter how much you doubt whether you’ll actually reach that finish, eventually you’ll want to do another one.

Honestly, you will. Running – well, limping, really – through the last few miles of last year’s London Marathon was the most painful, difficult, intense thing I’ve ever done. I still wince thinking of it now. It hurt. Lordy, it hurt.

But that hurt fades. Your legs will recover. You won’t forget the pain, but it will become part of the massive mix of emotions, feeling and experiences that make up the marathon experience. And you’ll look back at the whole event, on all those sensations, as one of the great experiences of your life.

That’s why I’m gutted I’m not running it again this weekend, and why I’m jealous that you are.

But I’m really happy for you. Your experience will be very different from mine, because every person’s marathon experience is different. A weird truth about a marathon is that, for such a big, communal event, it’s also an incredibly individual challenge. No two people will ever have the same experience. So go out there, and enjoy yours.

I’ll be cheering every single one of you on. Where I’ll be cheering from, I don’t know. I’m tempted to head into London, to join the crowds and cheers you on. But I’m not sure if I can. I’m not sure I could face being so close to it all, without getting really jealous that I wasn’t out there running myself.

But I’m happy you will be. Honest. So I’ll end with this: good luck. Enjoy it. Embrace it. Live it.

You’re about to run the London Marathon. The London Marathon! It’s going to be incredible.

And, yes, it’s going to hurt.

But it will be incredible.

And painful.

But mostly incredible.

Honest.

James

London Marathon 2016 runner 47812

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Running techniques No. 2: the high five

One of the best bits about taking part in races is the crowd. Whether it’s the millions who turn out to spectate on a big city event such as the London Marathon, or the small smattering of friends and family that show up for a Saturday morning parkrun, crowd support is always uplifting, motivating and welcome.

But race crowds don’t stop at just cheering you on: some of the most enthusiastic spectators you’ll find in events are the kids, and they’re particularly keen on offering up some high fives.

I’ll be honest: I didn’t think I’d enjoy randomly high fiving strangers while I was running. It seemed a bit daft, possibly a bit indulgent and, well, a little odd. I started running for myself, and didn’t really feel I needed the support of a crowd.

That changed on last year’s London Marathon. In the early stages, I found myself running at the side of the road in a bid to escape the masses of runners packing the middle. And that put me within near-touching distance of masses of outstreched hands. And, well, I got caught up in the moment, and started joining in the high five action.

And you know what? It’s great fun, and gives you a tremendous amount of energy. But there’s a catch. Because you need to do it right. And so, in the spirit of my running technique thread of breaking down seemingly simple things with an excessive amount of detail, here’s my guide.

The objectives

To understand how to do something, you need to understand why you’re doing something. Here are the main objectives for the in-race high five:

  • To successfully pull off one, or more, high fives with one or more spectators during a race
  • To help make running a fun, vibrant spectator event by engaging with the crowd that are cheering you on
  • To temporarily distract yourself from the pain and effort of tackling a race with a spot of crowd interaction
  • To ensure every attempted high five is a success so you don’t look stupid
  • To avoid accidentally hitting, striking or otherwise swatting a spectator with a badly timed high five attempt
  • Got that? Right, let’s get into the how then…

The technique

1. Pick your target

Offering an unreciprocated high five is a little embarrassing at the best of times, but when it happens mid-run you’ll just end up looking utterly stupid.

The first step is to identify willing high five participants. This is, as you’d expect, fairly straightforward. Look for someone at the side of the road with their arms outstretched. These will usually, but not always, be kids. Try and pick the ones who look eager.

2. The approach

Next step: get into position. You’ll want to do this early: you don’t want to be swerving across the course in the path of your fellow runners and having to slow dramatically, just for the sake of a high five. So work your way to the side of the course, so you’re in close proximity to the crowd.

The next bit is to make sure your intended high five targets know you’re coming. Try for eye contact, since you don’t want to surprise anyone. And, when you’re closing in, extend your arm into the high five offering position.

Now, the accepted running high five arm position is a little different from usual. Raise your armco about mid-chest level, elbow-bent, and then extend your arm with palm facing forward. Remember, most of the in-race high fiving action will come from junior spectators, so you don’t actually want to make your high five that high. They won’t reach, and you’ll look stupid.

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3. It’s high five time

Okay, arm extended, eye contact hopefully established. The rest is fairly simple. Keep running towards then, without adjusting your pace, and when you’re close adjust the height of your hand to match theirs. Then you may proceed with the high five.

Another pro tip though: don’t put any extra effort into your high five gesture. Remember, you’re running relatively quickly, so your arm already has plenty of latent momentum. If you adapt the traditional arm thrust that you would with a traditional, non-running high five, you’ll hit your high five target with a fair degree of momentum. Frankly, you don’t want to be that guy who bowls a kid over during a run. Nobody wants to be that guy.

Instead, let your running momentum propel the high five. Keep your hand flat and relaxed.

4. Never look back

Now, this bit sounds harsh, but it’s a necessary evil. If you realise you’re going to miss a high five, just miss it. Sometimes kids move their hands inadvertently, sometimes you get your angle wrong. But while a missed high five is always disappointing, it’s going to happen. But if you ease up and try to correct the error, you’ll only slow your pace and cause problems. Try to forget it and move on.

 

Advanced high fiving: The next level

Okay, that’s the basics covered. You can now proceed with mid-race high five action. And, frankly, it’s quite fun. It really can give you a motivational boost, if only because it’s something to distract you from the pain and grind of a particularly long race.

But if you want to take your mid-race high fiving to the next level, here are some advanced high five techniques to work on.

The high five chain

This is when you approach a line of people, all holding out their hands to offer high fives. The basics apply, but you’ll need to make sure you keep adjusting the height of your hand as you work through the group. Unfortunately, kids and other high five fans don’t tend to be the same height, and they don’t tend to hold their hands out at the same point. It’ll be up to you to adjust as you go. It takes effort, but it’s better than the alternative: missing out the smallest kid in the group. They’ll only get upset.

The ‘hit for power’ board

This seems to be a somewhat American running thing: there were a lot of people on the Houston Marathon holding out boards with messages such as ‘hit for power’ – frequently adorned with pics by Super Mario World mushrooms and the like.

Again, it seems a simple proposition, possibly even a bit easier than your standard high five. After all, a big bit of cardboard is a far larger target area than a hand. But beware!

For starters, it’s hard to tell exactly what the signs are made out of. You don’t want to smack a poster hard and then discover it’s actually thin paper that you’ve just ripped through. Conversely, it can genuinely hurt if you put too much momentum behind hitting a board that’s made of seemingly indestructible cardboard.

The tactic is to make sure you don’t punch it, but tap it with your palm, before swinging your hand out the way to ensure you don’t accidentally knock the board out of the holder’s hands.

The five-to-wave

This technique is difficult to master, but is a huge tool to stop yourself looking daft if you miss a high five, or realise you’re offering one that’s going to be unreciprocated.

If you spot that happening, you’ll have a few precious moments to adjust your gaze from the first line of spectators by the road to those a little further away. Be quick. What you’re looking for is someone waving. Then, raise your outstretched high five arm and quickly convert it into a wave. Pull it off, and you’ll be able to maintain your styling as an enthused runner grateful for the crowd, rather than looking like a numpty who just plain missed…

 

Conclusion

So that’s what you need to know about mid-race high fives. Get it right, and it’s a fun bit of crowd interaction. It’ll keep the spectators happy and, if done well, will distract you from the pain and slog of a long race without slowing you down at all. Frankly, it’s worth doing just for that…

The curious case of the unexpected PB

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.

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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…

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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.

 

Rain, wind, hills and traffic – welcome to Wimbledon

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

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

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

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

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Wimbledon Common looking glam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Where’s the perfect place to host a race?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Houston Marathon reflections, part four: Atters 3:16 says I planned my pacing well

This is the fourth in a series reflecting on my 2017 Houston Marathon experience. You can read my first reactions here, the about the sights and signs here,  and about the sounds and smells here.

When I made my way through through the start arch of the Chevron Houston Marathon course at just gone 0700hrs on a humid, misty Texan morning on Sunday January 15, it was just gone 1300hrs in Britain. And while I was beginning to run my dad, and several of my friends, were settling down after a spot of lunch to follow my progress.

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Runners prepare to start the Houston Marathon (photo taken by my half marathon-running brother)

While I was the one who actually had to run 26.2 miles, I think I had the easy job. I was responsible for my race; my friends and family could only watch the split times unfold. And while I was utterly aware of how well I was feeling (or otherwise), they were left to guess from the times.

That could be why, when I finished my second marathon in 3h 16m 40s, and 266th out of 7132 finishers, I was perhaps the person who was least impressed. That’s not a #humblebrag – I’m fully aware that’s a pretty handy marathon time, especially for someone who hadn’t taken up running three years ago. And I’m also aware it was nearly 12 minutes quicker than the 3h 28m 17s I set in last year’s London Marathon. It’s just that I set out with a plan and a target time, and I executed it. The only real surprise for me was that everything went so well.

My finish time was pretty much exactly what I was aiming for. Of course, one reason my friends and family might have been surprised was because I didn’t actually tell anyone else my pacing strategy or target time before the event. That was partly because I don’t like adding to the pressure I put on myself by creating expectations – and partly because I didn’t really decide on my target time and pacing strategy until the night before the event. No, really, I was scribbling out different pacing strategies on the free notepad provided in my hotel room at 2200hrs on Saturday evening…

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Spit paces and target times, scribbled on a Hampton Inn note pad (other mid-range hotels are available…)

That scrappy bit of paper ultimately provided my strategy. I worked out the average minutes per mile pace I’d need to hit my target time, and tried to run each mile close to that: I had the first date screen of my Garmin watch set to show the distance travelled, my total time and my average lap pace (with my auto lap set to one mile, obviously). I had my second data set to show the overall average pace, and at various points I’d check to see I was within that.

There are, admittedly, more precise ways of doing pacing, but I was wary of them. At last year’s London Marathon expo there were ‘pacing bands’ you could pick up, paper bracelets that told you how long you should take to hit each mile market to run a marathon in a certain time. I picked up five different versions, and only decided which to use when I was in the Greenwich Park start area.

I didn’t actually refer to it much during the race. Worse, when my pace started to falter late on, and I knew my (admittedly optimistic) target time was slipping away, it became painful and frustrating to even look at it – it was a reminder of my over-optimistic folly. I ripped it off somewhere around 22 miles in.

To give me options, I did pick up what I thought were some pace bands, courtesy of Dick’s Sporting Goods, at the Houston expo. But I abandoned any vague thoughts I had of putting one on just in case when I discovered they were actually temporary tattoo transfers. Yeah, couldn’t tip those off during a marathon… they would remain firmly unused.

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These are temporary tattoos. Stylish, eh?

Instead, I just tried to run to an average pace, a task made easier by Houston’s flat course. Seriously, it was flat. Just look at how flat it was!

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This is what 39m of total elevation gain and 37m of elevation loss in 26.2 miles looks like 

A flat course made my planning much easier. I could essentially divide the race into 26 (and a bit) parts, and know that each mile was effectively going to be the same. All I had to do was leave something in hand for the latter portions of the race when my legs were likely to be sore. That was a lesson I learned hard from London, when I set out a little bit faster than I meant to, and – possibly due to a recent illness, possibly due to a lack of marathon experience – really, really struggled in the final few miles. Like, really struggled. Really, I struggled.

In Houston, I was more disciplined. I avoided getting sucked into the atmosphere and speeding up. I tried not to get pulled along faster than I wanted by quicker runners. I just tired to make sure that, near the end of every mile split, I tried to make sure my pace for that mile was somewhere around 7m 25s.

Another factor that helped my discipline was the weather. There were some pretty serious pre-event warnings about the energy-sapping humidity forecast for race day, and I was particularly cautious to ensure I was running with a bit of reserve. I also really planned out my mid-race refuelling and hydration strategy – I drank early and often from the Gatorade and water stations, and also started out with a bottle to guarantee I could get decent fluid on board. And after my previous struggles I finally cracked how to drink out of paper cups while running – a subject I’ll return to in the near-future.

During the race, I tried to stick to my plan and focus on enjoying the experience. I tried not to worry about how far I had left, or what my legs felt like. I just tried to take in all the sights and experiences, letting them distract me from the task at hand. Of course, people tracking me online didn’t have the luxury of being distracted by the awesome spectators.

After last year’s London Marathon, I wrote about the slightly surreal realisation, every time I approached a timing mat (which were placed at 5k intervals, plus half-distance) that friends and family were charting my progress, and studying my splits and times. I had exactly the same feeling during the Houston Marathon, with the added amusement of a six-hour time difference to consider. Even in this connected age, the ability of people to track my progress on a marathon amazes me.

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In Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, my dad was hitting refresh on his computer, flicking between the split times for me and my brother (who did the half marathon) and the live feed of the finish line. In various other parts of the UK, friends and colleagues (some known to me, others I’ve only found out about since) were routinely clicking on the website to see how I was faring.

Back in Texas, in the Hampton Inn Houston Downtown, my mum was tracking my split times on her mobile phone to work out when to leave her hotel room to find a spot at the finish.

And, in perhaps the most surreal example of all, while running the Aramco Houston Half Marathon, my brother was able to keep track of my progress through push notification splits sent to his watch by the Houston Marathon app.

Knowing people are tracking your split times creates a strange form of pressure: I couldn’t help but think about what conclusions they might be drawing. Would they think I was going too fast? Or too slow? Would they think I had adopted a good pacing strategy?

In the end, I tried to put such thoughts out of my mind, and focused on my own race. I’d find out after the marathon what they all thought.

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In brief: my mum thought I was going a bit too fast. My dad thought I was pacing it superbly. My brother found motivation in his running from my split times. And, back in the UK, one of my friends later confessed to amazement by the fact I ran the first 5k of a marathon quicker than he’d ever run a 5k…

As an uptight Brit, such compliments are pretty hard to receive. Honest. I tried not to think about where my time would sit among other marathon runners, or in terms of how fast other people can or can’t run. I just wanted to run the marathon to the best of my ability.

I had a plan. A last-minute, relatively loose plan scribbled out on a scrap of paper, but it was a plan. And I stuck to it, and delivered. And that’s what I’m most happy about…

Houston Marathon reflections, part one: first impressions

The intersection of Congress Avenue and Austin Street isn’t exactly the most salubrious part of downtown Houston, especially at just after six am on a Sunday morning.

On one side of the street is the Harris County Civil Courthouse; every other business on the block feeds off it. There are car parks offering discount parking to jurors, the sort of small law firm offices you imagine seeing in noir detective films, and all manner of bail bond firms. The brightest light at this intersection is bright, red and spells out ‘BAIL BONDS’. It glows in the window of Action Bail Bonds, just underneath a big red banner standing in for proper signage. In short, they’re the sort of businesses you hope you’re never going to need.

Staring at that stark red light in the early morning twilight, it was hard not to contrast the scene with the space and splendour of Greenwich Park in south London. A strange comparison, no doubt, but it came to mind as I questioned whether the 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon I was about to embark on could possibly match the splendour, majesty and experience of running the 2016 Virgin Money London Marathon.

I shouldn’t have worried. The line of businesses that lined the A Corral might have played to the stereotype of Houston as a vast, sprawling, dirty, automobile-filled city built on the back of Big Oil money, but it simply created a false impression.

The 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon was a slickly organised, well-run affair on a course lined with friendly and cheerful volunteers and spectators. The crowd wasn’t as large as London, but they made up for that with enthusiastic and vocal support that showcased the very best of Texan hospitality. And while the course could never hope to match the iconic locations and landmarks that dotted the London course, it firmly showcased that Houston is a vast, varied and vibrant city.

Even the bail bond-lined start corral made perfect sense, in the context of making life easy for the runners. The start line was a block further up Congress Avenue, beside the lovely Court of Appeals building. The A Corral fed back down Congress towards Minute Maid Park – home of the Houston Astros – with the B, C, D and E corrals stretching down consecutive cross streets. When the A Corral cleared, the B runners were fed into the start zone, and so on.

The corrals were placed so the entrance to all five was within a short walk of the George R Brown Convention Center, which doubled as the race HQ and housed the pre-race meeting area and post-race recovery zone.

The start was placed to take runners out of the downtown area on Washington Avenue, which is now home to the sort of fun-looking bars and restaurants that I’m not sure I’m trendy enough to visit. Even at just after seven am, this part of the course was lined with cheering spectators, who waved banners, jiggled cow bells and wore fancy dress. Across the course of 26.2 miles, I reckon I saw more spectators in fancy dress than I did runners. They cheered for friends, family and strangers. Most runners had their names on their race bibs, and the spectators weren’t shy at shouting them.

“Come on James!”

“You got this, James! You can do this!”

“Looking strong, James!”

I’m not sure I was looking strong – my head-wobbling, lolloping running-style rarely looks strong – but it was a huge boost to have so much support. As with the London Marathon, I found myself almost compelled to interact with the spectators: waving or shouting thanks, detouring to the road side to dispense high fives to kids, trying to remember all the signs people were waving. And I found it more fun: unlike the wall of noise and people on the London course, I could pick out the signs, and hear individual people shouting. It somehow felt more human. It was smaller… and in a very good way.

That said, smaller doesn’t necessarily make it easier to remember everything. As with London, my memories of the Houston Marathon are still a mess of little details and moments. So, rather than ramble uncontrollably for another 26 miles or so – especially since I’m writing this in the hours after getting off an overnight transatlantic flight – I’m going to stop here for now. I’ll write more about the moments and memories, and how my race went (spoiler alert: quite well!), in the coming days. In other words…

Read part two of my Houston Marathon reflections, on the sights and signs from the race, here.

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Houston Marathon countdown: final training run done (with extra bracing sea breeze)

With three days to go until the Chevron Houston Marathon, I did my final proper training run this morning (I’ll likely have a ‘shakedown’ outing the day before the race, but that’s purely to get my legs moving).

So far, my marathon training programme has taken me to some varied locations. I’ve tackled busy city half-marathons on the streets of Bristol, in the south west of England, and Houston, Texas. I’ve set a new 10k PB around Castle Combe Race Circuit in Wiltshire, and scored a first class win on the roads near Sam Houston Race Park in Texas. I’ve done long training runs on the seafront and country lanes of my hometown of Clevedon in Somerset, and also while dodging deer around Richmond Park near my home in greater London.

So it almost seemed fitting to do my final training run in a new location: along the seawall of Galveston, Texas. Well, why not?

The opportunity arose to spend a few days away from my brother’s place during my extended holiday/family visit/marathon-running trip to Texas, and hitting the coast seemed a great plan. So we decamped for a night to a seafront hotel on Galveston, the historic island and city on the Gulf Coast south of Houston.

That meant I could go for a morning run along the seawall, which is pretty much the perfect place for a final marathon training run. Why? Because it’s flat, wide and straight. In other words, as long as you can trust yourself not to run in a straight line, there’s very little risk of hitting, tripping or injuring yourself. And that’s what you want in a final training run, really.

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The weather (yes, I’m already writing about the weather again…) helped: it was a beautiful warm morning, with clear blue skies. Well, apart from one thing: there was quite the sea breeze coming in from the Gulf of Mexico. It wasn’t the sort of crosswind that really causes problems while running – in fact, it helped keep me cool in the Texan warmth – but it did hamper long-range visibility a bit, with a haze of sea water being blown across the seawall.

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Still, it was a lovely place for a run – and definitely warmer than the last time I ran along a seawall, when I went for a short run in the days after Christmas while visiting my dad in Burnham-on-Sea. There’s plenty to recommend the Somerset coast as a tourist destination, but I can attest that the Gulf of Mexico in mid-January is far more pleasant than the Bristol Channel in late December…

After a morning and lunch in Galveston (I opted for a turkey chilli with corn cake and rice, which ticked a lot of pre-run marathon dining boxes), we headed back inland to Houston for one more night away from the family. So now I’m staying downtown, within walking distance of the Convention Centre that will host the Houston Marathon expo tomorrow.

A late afternoon walk was a great chance for an early sample of the build-up for the big race. And the drive in even featured a course preview – the road to our hotel took us along the final stretch of the marathon route. There was even a late detour because the road we tried to drive along was actually shut due to the finish arch being built on it…

 

While that caused an unplanned detour, at least it means I’ve seen the finish line now. It’s going to be a lot harder to get to on Sunday when I won’t see it until I’ve done 26.2 miles of running…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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