Here’s an oddity. I took up running four years or so back as part of a general kick to become fitter, less fat and all together healthier. It’s clearly worked too. Not only can I now do things like run marathons quite quickly, but I’ve transformed my diet, cutting out masses of chocolatey, biscuity things and adding in lots of fruit and veg and salads and stuff.
The odd bit? Well, as counterintuitive as it seems, taking up running has helped reintroduce me to many of the sugary sweets and snacks I remember from my childhood but had long since moved on from, even in the worst of my ‘Fatters’ days.
Of course, this time there is some purpose to the sugary sweet things: it’s all about energy. If you’re going to run, you need energy: before, during and after. The science bit is that you need energy in easy-to-digest carbohydrate form so it will start working faster (I should add here, as should be obvious, that I’m not a trained sports scientist, so if you want the proper science best go look elsewhere).
That’s why the shelves of running shops and the like are full of those carbohydrate and energy-filled gels, all scientifically designed to get you energy quickly during exercise. And, well, it turns out that sweets such as jelly babies or jelly beans actually actually have a very similar mix of sugary carbohydrates.
Add to that the fact that race organisers like to give out treats to runners who’ve just finished a race – because if you don’t deserve a treat after a race, when do you? – and runners get plenty of opportunity to relive their childhood sweet-eating days without the guilt (well, with only a bit of guilt).
In fact, along with the almost inevitable banana (which I rarely eat, since I’ve already eaten one…), most races end with me walking away with a small bag of sweets that double as some fine childhood memories.
Here are some of the childhood sweets I’d almost forgotten about – and how suited they are to running.
A classic, although quite odd when you look at them through grown-up eyes. I mean, whose idea was to make multi-coloured sweets shaped like, well, babies? And why didn’t I realise during my childhood that eating Jelly Babies by starting with the head was all a bit sinister?
Still, there are few better sweets to eat during a long run. They’re practically the same make-up as most energy gels, but are a little more solid to chew on, if you like that sort of thing. And you can still actually taste them at that strange part of a marathon when your exhausted body start playing weird tricks with your mind.
In this case, of the Haribo variety. Fizzy cola bottle sweets are really quite sharp and tangy, which can make them something of an acquired taste when running (or, indeed, at other times). I’ve always been confused why fizzy cola bottles don’t really taste that much like actual cola, at least to me.
Incidentally, Haribo’s most popular product is its gummi bears, which also make decent running energy snacks. I find them a slightly tough chew than Jelly Babies which, for me, means they’re not so suited to mid-run chomping. A small packet makes a fine post-race pick-me-up, though.
You can get these in Britain now, but they’re probably more of an American thing. They certainly weren’t as common growing up, which makes me somewhat less nostalgic for them.
The big difference between Jelly Beans and Jelly Babies – aside from the fact they’re less intrinsically sinister by design – is that they have a hard outer shell, so they take a lot more chewing. If you like to take your time with your energy snacks, that’s a good thing.
In America, you can now buy Sport Beans, which are designed as mid-exercise performance snacks. I’ve a deep suspicion they’re essentially exactly the same as regular ones, albeit in slightly plainer flavours (there are some odd flavours of Jelly Beans…), but even so, my Texan marathon experiences have made me a fan. Mixing energy gels with a pack or two of Sport Beans gives me a good variety of energy sources during a run. I think.
A variant of the above, really, and I’ve done a few events in the last few months that have given them out post-race. I’ve found they’re less than ideal for such a purpose, because they’re huge, so you can’t fit them into your mouth all at once. Trying to manage biting a chunk off a jelly snake in a dazed post-race aftermath is quite a challenge.
Another childhood classic. The sugar coating on the outside sets them apart from Wine Gums, and also reminds you they’re not intrinsically healthy. A little hard for chewing while running.
Love Hearts may be the oddest sweets of all. They’ve got a distinctive texture for one thing: they’re hard, and powdery or chalky in texture. But that means you can chew or suck them quite successfully. And they’re not quite as sugary sharp as other sweets, which is a bit of a benefit in the aftermath of a run. Which is good, because mini packs of Love Hearts seem to be a frequent sweet-based giveaway at the end of races.
But really, Love Hearts are odd. Odder than Jelly Babies, even. Who devised a tablet-shaped, slightly powdery sweet, looked at it and decided that a way to improve it was to inscribe love-related messages such as ‘Kiss Me’, ‘U Rock’ and ‘All Yours’ on them?
Of course, this is only scraping the surface of the large childhood sweet tin. I’ll probably think of more soon – likely the next time I’m at the end of a race and there’s a goodby bag handed out. I may write about some more soon. Anyone got any childhood sweets they’ve particularly enjoyed reuniting with through running?
Running the Chevron Houston Marathon for the second time did involve the occasional moment of déjà vu. The signing Elvis impersonators were at the same point on the course as last year – and, as in 2017, were breaking into their rendition of Suspicious Minds when I reached them.
The glorious smell of the smoked meats wafting from Goode Company BBQ on Kirby Drive was just as wonderfully, deliciously amazing as I remembered them last year.
The Rice Marching Band were not far from the university’s stadium. The person with a donut on a stick to tempt runners was in the same place as last year. The cowbells handed out by sponsor Chevron were as jingly and jaunty as in 2017. And yes, the bit of the course that traversed an interstate access road still smelt somewhat unpleasant.
But for all that familiarity, it’s amazing how different and fresh the experience of running the same marathon course in the same city on the same weekend of the year really is. So as I relax and admire my 2018 medal and T-shirt, what will I remember from the race?
First, I was expecting to see a mix of encouraging, witty and vaguely insulting signs this time. But for every reprise of a sign saying ‘world’s worst parade’, or ‘hit me for power’ with a picture of the mushroom from Super Mario Kart, there was a fresh one – such as the sign saying ‘hit me for power’ with a picture of Donald Trump on it. Would be interested to know what condition that sign was in after the field had passed…
There were also a lot of signs – more than I remember – with variants of ‘run? I thought you said rum’ on. Is rum in fashion in Houston at the moment, or did I just miss that play on words in 2017? I’m not sure.
Another big change were the conditions. Last year’s run took place in hot, humid conditions – classic Houston weather, and hardly ideal for a Brit who’d done his training in Britain in winter. By contrast, this year it was… well, cold. And that’s cold by British standards, let alone Texan. The local news got quite excited…
It was a beautifully clear, still day, which meant it barely above freezing at the 7am start. So instead of being able to saunter to the start in just my technical running T-shirt and a pair of shorts, this year I wore long- and short-sleeved running tops, and began with a hair and a pair of gloves. I also entered the start pen wearing a bright orange thin jumper I’d bought in Walmart for a bargain $3. I abandoned it just before the start, so it cost around $1 per ten minutes of wear I got from it – but that was money well spent to keep warm before the off. The other surreal moment was clocking someone else in the start corral with exactly the same top on. We both nodded sagely at each other, in sly acknowledgement of our bargain shopping.
That wasn’t the only clothing I discarded: my gloves and hat survived until just after half-distance, when they were tossed to the side of the road (should point out that the marathon round up all the discarded clothing and passes onto charity…). Don’t fret: it wasn’t the end of the Hat I Can’t Throw Away – I didn’t actually bring that one with me from Britain, so instead I dumped one of my brother’s old hats.
By the time I finished at just gone 10.15am, it was around 7C, gloriously sunny and with just the merest hint of wind. It was hard to imagine better conditions for running a marathon in: in fact, I’m not sure I’ll ever encounter such perfect weather for one again. And not just for the actual running bit: Houston is normally humid, muggy and sticky. But on this January weekend it was gloriously clear: the views of downtown Houston from various bits of the course were clearer than I’ve ever seen before, having regularly visited on and off since 2008. I’m lucky I don’t run with a phone, else I genuinely would have been tempted to slow down and take photos…
Returning to the crowds on the course, another memory that was similar to different than 2017 was having random spectators cheer me on by name. Which, of course, they could only do because you can choose a name to put on your Houston Marathon race numbers. Last year, I went by my first name: James. This year, I decided to stick with that, but in honour of my niece and nephew added on the name they call me: (Uncle) Jimbo. Why Jimbo? It’s a long story, but you can blame my brother and distant, long-held memories of the glorious, yet mostly forgotten kids cartoon Jimbo and the Jet Set, with its excellent theme tune…
Anyhow, as a result of appealing to two Texan-based little people, the name on my race number read: James / Jimbo. Which, frankly, confused the crowd a bit. A few people shouted James. A few people shouted Jimbo. A few people didn’t quite know what to shout.
Early on, one spectator shouted: “Go James, er, Jimbo. Yeah, Jimbo. Go Jimbo!” Several seemed to find Jimbo suitably hilarious, likely because I didn’t really have time to stop and explain it (I was running a marathon, you know…).
But my favourite effort came from one of the enthusiastic volunteers at a drinks station late on who, at the top of his voice, yelled: “YEAH! GO ON JUMBO!” Jumbo? Now, four years ago, before I took up this daft thing called running and doing marathons, that would definitely have applied to 15-stone me (aka: Fatters). But surely not now? Perhaps he mis-read it and thought it deliberately ironic.
Still, I appreciated the support. As I did from all the people who shouted my name, or just yelled ‘go on’, or just clapped, or held up signs. You always hear sportspeople talk about feeding off the crowd, but I’m never sure I fully understood it until tackling a marathon or three. But it’s real: whether it was my family near the finish line or random strangers on the way, it’s amazing how much motivational support spectators – and, indeed, other runners – provide. So to anyone who was out on the streets of Houston a few weeks back, a very sincere thanks.
But the most amusing marathon moment happened on a part of the course when the crowd was a little sparse. It was late in the race, somewhere around the 22nd mile when the course meandered through Houston’s Memorial Park. There’s a speaker system in there, and it was used to play music to entertain the runners. In between the music there were a few adverts and the like – including one that loudly and excitedly noted entry was now open for the 2019 Chevron Houston Marathon was now open.
It was likely useful public service, but that deep into a marathon the last thing you want to think about is entering another. Every runner around me shook their heads, laughed or both.
And, I must confess, it did get me thinking about the next one. Which was significant in itself: 22 miles or so into a marathon is normally the point I’m telling myself I’ll never run another…
Welcome to the second part of the 2017 Atters Goes Running Awards. Yes, I’ve split it into two parts because, like all award ceremonies, it’s all gone on a little bit too long. Don’t know why. I can’t even blame drunken guests making overly long acceptance speeches.
Anyway, enough of that. Let’s carry on with the awards. And, if you missed the first part, you can read it here.
Best opponents: Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth (Toro Dash 10k, Fort Worth, Texas, November 4)
Surreal moment: discovering, while queueing for a portable toilet, that I’m going to be racing against NASCAR drivers in a 10k race. Even more surreal moment: realising that I run a 10k at roughly their pace…
Best start location: Oxford Street, Swansea (Swansea Half Marathon, June 25)
There’s always something cool about a city centre start, and the start line for the Swansea Half Marathon nailed it. It was held on Oxford Street, which might not rival the one in London for huge shops, but is one of the town’s main thoroughfares and is within a few hundred metres of Swansea Castle, which the route goes right past after a short loop through the streets.
It was also a boon for Swansea’s cafes and restaurants, which were doing a roaring trade at an unsociable hour of a Sunday morning (the McDonalds had to stop serving every other than simple black and white coffee, because their machines couldn’t cranky out frothy coffees fast enough…). Well, all except for Swansea’s Starbucks, which had an enviable location right next to the start arch, but seemed to be the only cafe that didn’t think to open early to cash in on the rush of runners to the area. Amusingly, the girl in Starbucks readying chairs for the normal opening hour looked very confused by the kerfuffle going on outside the front door…
Also nominated: Franklin St, Houston (Houston Marathon, Houston, Texas, January 15). This might well have won on downtown location, but it lost out since starting alongside the town’s courthouse also meant runners gathering beside the neon lights of various bail bond offices. How glam. Still, the downtown image would improve 26.2 miles later…
Best finish location: Discovery Green, Houston (Houston Marathon, Houston, Texas, January 15)
Utterly perfect. A scenic part of downtown Houston, with a green park able to provide some relief from the massive city skyscrapers. A street wide enough for two separates races (the marathon and half marathon) to finish alongside each other, and still leave room for plenty of crowds on both sides of the road. And a finish line within wobbly hobbling distance of the air-conditioned relief of the Houston Convention Centre. And a finish on a flat road with nothing but a mild kink as you approach the line.
Scenic, crowd-friendly, runner-friendly and flat. We like very much.
Best finish location (non-Houston Marathon edition): Kingston-upon-Thames market square, Lidl Kingston Breakfast Run (March 26)
Like many runs based in Kingston-upon-Thames, the Lidl Kingston Breakfast Run starts early (there’s a clue in the title) largely to minimise the impact of having a major race take over a huge part of the town’s scenic market square. It’s worth the early start for the pleasure of finishing in such pleasant surrounding – and with so many cafes and restaurants nearby for the all-important post-run dining.
Strangest venue: The future site of Shinfield Meadows housing development, Shinfield 10k (Shinfield, Berkshire, May 1)
The Shinfield 10k is a long-established race in a town near Reading. And that town is going to get a lot bigger soon, with a huge housing development taking place nearby – right where the 10k route has long run. And still does, thanks to a fenced-in path that led through the bast expanse of cleared land which, one day, will quite literally all be houses.
The ‘So Near And Yet…’ award: Chichester 10k (Goodwood Racing Circuit, February 5)
The long-running Chichester 10k moved to nearby Goodwood Racing Circuit this year, giving me another excuse to run around a racing circuit. And, in theory, it was a brilliant move.
The event started just outside the racing circuit, with around 7k on nearby roads before finishing with a lap of the track. It was a great combination of road and race circuit running. With just one catch: the organisers, and the team from Goodwood Estate, seemed to underestimate how many people would turn up by car. And so, not long before the race was due to start, cars were still piling in the entrance. Which was a problem, because the start was located on the road at the circuit entrance.
Cue a lengthy delay, and much kerfuffle. Which was a real shame, because it should have been brilliant. And hopefully, with lessons learned, it will be in 2018. I’ll be back there. Just hope the traffic chaos won’t be…
Best post-race goody bag: Lidl Kingston Breakfast Run (Kingston-upon-Thames, March 26)
The folks at Lidl sure know how to pack a goody bag with, erm, goodies. From a big bag to muesli to all sorts of nuts and cleaning products, it was a wonderfully hefty haul.
Best post-race non-goody bag: Royal Parks Half Marathon (London, October 8)
In a bid to cut down on wastage, the organisers of the Royal Parks Half Marathon didn’t give every runner a goody bag stuffed with, erm, goodies. Instead, every runner was given an empty plastic bag and then directed to a tent where they could, apparently, select their own goodies.
Great idea, except the wonderfully efficient and friendly staff basically encouraged everyone to hold their bags open while they put one of everything in…
Best finisher’s shirt: Simply Health Great Bristol Half Marathon (Bristol, September 17)
The Simply Health Great Bristol Half Marathon is run by Great Run, the company behind such events as the Great North Run and, er Great South Run. You get the idea: they organise runs. And they’re great (or grrrrr-eat, to quote Tony the Tiger).
Anyway, in 2016 the finisher’s shirts offered for Great Run events were largely standardised designs across all the events, with one basic design that only varied by shirt colour and event details. All a bit meh.
But this year, the Bristol Half Marathon shirts featured some gert lush local colour, with a proper job mint picture by a local Brizzle artist (if you have to ask…). The shirt, designed by Alex Lucas on behalf of Bristol’s Affordable Art Fair, feature a big bear jumping over the Bristol Suspension Bridge. As well as being a great design, it was packed with local meaning and landmarks. Great effort.
Best medal: Houston Marathon (Houston, Texas, January 15)
Come on: it’s big, shiny, chunky and has the skyline of Houston carved out of it. It’s the sort of big hunk of metal you deserve to get after a 26.2-mile run…
Best medal (non-Houston Marathon edition): Royal Parks Half Marathon (London, October 8)
Lots of contenders for this award. Tempting to give it to my class-winning medal from the Run Houston! Sam Houston Race Park 10k, but since this category is really designed purely to compare finishers’ medals I decided not to include it.
Still, that left plenty of shiny medal to pick from. There was a gratifyingly chunky medal for the Swansea Half Marathon (which is now the only medal I haven’t kept, since I gave it to my 90-year-old Nan who lives there). The Great Run Bristol Half Marathon medal was also nicely region-specific. Then there was the Captain America logo-inspired Thruxton 10k medal, which was designed to fit the event’s (odd) superhero theme.
But, ultimately, the most refreshing medal of the year was one not made from metal: it was the wooden leaf-shaped one for the Royal Parks Half Marathon. It’s partly a statement of the run’s green credentials, and it really works. It’s stylish and different, without feeling gimmicky.
Best series of medals: Yateley 10k Series (Yateley, Hampshire, June-August)
This was genius stuff. The Yateley 10k Series features three mid-week evening races on the same course, held once a month. Previously, they’ve all featured the same medal each event. But this time, the three medals were all different. And, when you looked carefully, featured a variety of notches and holes that allowed them to be combined. A great reward for those who managed to do all three events – especially as this was the first year I managed to do all three events…
Okay then, time for the big one. Well, big two. And, as with last year’s awards, I’ll do them in reverse order, even though it will destroy any doubt about the final winner.
Race of the year (non-Houston Marathon edition): Swansea Half Marathon (Swansea, June 25)
In truth, picking a race of the year in a near-impossible task. How do you compare a big city half-marathon with a small 10k organised by a tiny running club? I don’t know. And yet that’s the task I appear to have set myself. Clearly, I’m an idiot.
Ultimately, then, it comes down to enjoyment and fun factor. Certainly, the immense challenge of the steep hills and part-trail route of the Godalming Run made it stick in the memory, even if the sheer leg ache probably moved it a bit too far towards pain for it to win.
Then the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon was a memorable way to experience London, but lost a few points because the epic landmark-packed closed-road first half slightly overshadowed the second half that looped the footpaths of Hyde Park.
I considered the Toro Dash 10k, but ultimately realised that it was the novelty of racing NASCAR drivers that made that event special – the fact I overshot a turn because it wasn’t well marked definitely hurts. Then there was the Cabbage Patch 10, which took this award last year – and everything good about it in 2016 applied just as much in 2017.
Ultimately, though, the event that sticks in the memory most this year for me was the Swansea Half Marathon. It wasn’t perfect – the portaloo queues before the start were quite something – but it was definitely memorable for me, as a chance to see more of a city I have family roots in but hadn’t really visited for years. The course was good too, with some nice coastal views (and thankfully not to much coastal breeze on the day). And, overall, it was a good balance of big event vibe without too much logistical hassle.
Race of the year: Chevron Houston Marathon (Houston, Texas, January 15)
Oh, come on. As with the London Marathon in 2016, there’s just something intrinsically special about running a marathon, especially a big city one packed with amazing experiences.
Better still, unlike in London 2016, I was able to run Houston in the style I wanted, with nary a brief brush with The Wall and a much-improved time. Second time really is a charm, and all that.
Plus, in truth, I enjoyed Houston far more than London. The slightly smaller race, and the experience that comes with having done a marathon previously, meant I found it all more enjoyable and less overwhelming than London.
I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that before I’d crossed the finish line I’d decided I wanted to do it again. Hmmm, the 2018 Houston Marathon takes place on Sunday January 14. Now then…
Watch this space. Etc.
The forecast for Sunday morning in Guildford didn’t look good on Friday evening. That it was going to be cold wasn’t really in question. Nor was the fact that a big weather front was going to be dumping moisture from the sky. The questions were whether that moisture was going to be falling as heavy rain or heavy snow – and whether there might be storm-force winds.
Normally, I’d only have a passing interest in Guildford’s weather, what with the Surrey town being about 25 miles south west of my house. But Guildford was also the location for the Hogs Back Road Race, an 11.7km run I’d signed up to run.
Of course, when I’d signed up, I had no idea what the weather would be like – aside from the general assumption that it might not be that pleasant, what with the race being held in Britain on the second week in December and all. But there’s not very pleasant, and there was the forecast for this weekend. With cold weather, heavy rain and/or snow, and potentially storm-force winds. Frankly, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it, especially given the course included 147 metres of climbing – the clue is in the title, since the Hog’s Back is an elongated ridge on the North Downs in Surrey.
Incidentally, I’m entirely blaming my mate and fellow runner Matt for my entry: he’d signed up first and encouraged me to join him. It was also his idea to do the ridiculously hilly Treggy 7 in Cornwall. He’s a glutton for punishment, or something.
It didn’t help that I wasn’t feeling quite at full strength. I’d been suffering from some form of mild illness, which left me a bit short of energy. I made it to yesterday’s Kingston Parkrun, but didn’t exactly set a quick time. After a restful Saturday, I felt much improved by yesterday evening, if not quite at full strength. Well enough, though, that I didn’t think I could justify sitting out the Hogs Back Road Race on account of illness – even I knew I wasn’t going to be setting a blazing pace on it.
The question about the weather hung around for most of Saturday. The confusion was that there was a big cold front over Britain, but a milder front sweeping in. What nobody quite knew is where the heavy clouds would meet the cold front.
When my alarm went off at six am on Sunday morning, the noise of rain pouring down outside gave me the answer. There was no snow. Just rain. This was probably good news, on balance, since a heavy dumping of snow could have led to the event being cancelled. When I’d gone to bed on Saturday night, I’d a quick glimpse at the Twitter feed of AAT Events, which organised the race, just in case they’d postponed it preemptively.
— aat events (@allabouttri) December 9, 2017
They hadn’t, and heavy rain on Sunday morning in Richmond-upon-Thames was a sign that there was very unlikely to be snow in Guildford, either. Again, this was, in theory, good news, since it meant the race going ahead. Yet as I contemplated leaving my house a good hour before daylight, in near-freezing conditions and with rain pouring down, this didn’t exactly seem like a good thing.
I did question my sanity for still going ahead with this when I wasn’t feeling at full strength, especially on the drive out of south London and down the A3, which involved dodging substantial patches of standing water on the road.
It was still miserably wet when I parked up on the grounds of Loseley Park, a 16th Century manor house set in what I think are lovely grounds – but which were mostly wet and bleak during my visit. Thankfully, the rain did ease off – as the forecast suggested – before the start, but it returned for much of the race.
Still, it had rained so heavily that much of the route was sodden, with standing water all over the place. The Hogs Back Road Race course, as described on the event website, is: “90% road and 10% gravel track.” This seemed roughly true. But that description was followed by the line “no mud”, which emphatically was not true. The heavy rain had washed muck all over the gravel paths. At times, the choice was to trudge through standing water or mud. Nice.
All that climbing didn’t help either. Most of the uphill was thankfully in the first half of the event, and wasn’t as bad as I feared: the climbs were mostly long but steady, rather than being brutally steep – although a few uphill hairpins didn’t help.
That said, about halfway up the first hill I realised how little energy I really had, probably a combination of illness and my relative lack of enthusiasm. I found myself ticking into some form of ‘survival mode’, and I trudged through the rest of the event at a pace that was some way from my potential – even accounting for the cold, mud, rain and hills.
I was genuinely glad to reach the finish. And I was utterly thrilled that I had a car for the weekend that featured both heated seats and a heated steering wheel.
As I drove out of Loseley Park, fingers just thawing on a warming wheel, I decided I perhaps should have trusted my instincts and sat out the race.
Of course, then the runner in me kicked in. By the time I was home, I was cheered from the feeling of having conquered such a challenge, and of having pushed myself to do something despite my instincts not to.
There was extra cheer, too, from downloading the data from my Garmin GPS running watch. I mentioned before the race was a very unusual 11.7km distance. Partly that’s because of finding a course that starts and finishes in the same place. But it also seems to be so the Hogs Back Road Race looks like this…
Somehow, that made it all worthwhile.
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) December 10, 2017
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.
— TarrantCountyCollege (@TCCollege) November 4, 2017
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.
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.
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…
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) November 4, 2017
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.
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) November 5, 2017
Whenever I head off to a race, one of the essential things I’ll pack is a banana. Why? Because eating a banana around an hour before a race is an important part of my pre-race routine. Oddly though, I normally arrive home from a race with… a banana.
Am I some form of banana magician, able to eat one and then conjure another up from thin air? Do I go banana shopping on the way home from a race? Is my house next door to a banana tree?
No. It’s just that an loads of races – I’d say the vast majority I’ve ever done – offer up a banana as one of your post-race treats. But, since I rarely feel like eating a banana after a race, I invariably end up taking my reward banana home, which I guess makes my running day out an essentially banana-neutral activity.
It’s only just struck me this might be a bit odd. I was resting up after finishing a race recently, and found myself admiring the huge stack of boxes at the finish, all full of bananas waiting to be handed out to race finishers. It made me ask myself whether I was having my banana at the wrong time. Am I supposed to have a banana after a race, and not before?
To try and discover the answer I turned, naturally, to the internet. Because I’m bound to find calm, reasoned and indisputable facts on the internet. After some searching, I actually think I did. And it turns out that bananas offer plentiful benefits when eaten both before and after a run.
Now, I’m not a nutritionist, fitness expert, doctor or, erm, Bananaman (though it was one of my favourite cartoons growing up…), but basically bananas are packed with carbs that are good to top up your pre-run energy reserves. And they also contain potassium and several other minerals that you sweat away during exercise.
So bananas are good for you before and after a run. Which leads to another question: should I follow up my pre-run banana by eating a post-race banana as well? Well no, I don’t think I should. Frankly that would, to use a tortuous play on words you can see coming (and for which I apologise in advance), quite literally be… bananas. (It’s funny, see, because there’d be two bananas. What’s that? You got the joke and still aren’t laughing? Oh. So my joke wasn’t funny? Erm, well, sorry then.)
Maybe one day I’ll try switching, foregoing my pre-run banana for a post-race one. But that feels wrong: after all, I eat a banana before a race. Even though, deep down, I know it doesn’t really convey any real performance benefits at my level, but because once you develop a pre-run routine it’s hard to shake off.
But that’s just me. Clearly, many people prefer their bananas after a run. So which is it: bananas – before a race or after?
Having taken part in it for the first time last year, I’m a big fan of the Cabbage Patch 10. The award-winning Cabbage Patch 10, this is: it won the Race of the Year (non-London Marathon edition) price in last year’s, er, prestigious Atters Goes Running Awards. So, to put it in a far less pretentious way, the Cabbage Patch 10 is one of my favourite races.
Because of that, I was quick to sign up for this year’s event – I did so months ago, not long after entries had opened. After all, this is an event that starts next to my office and runs past my house. It really is my local run, and one I didn’t want to miss out on.
That said, I didn’t actually know until quite recently that I’d actually be able to take part. In a classic case of ‘far worse problems to have’, I had to go to a work event in Shanghai, China last week (I’m not mentioning this just to show off, honest…), which involved flying on Sunday October 15 – the date of the 2017 Cabbage Patch 10.
In a classic case of good news/bad news, the company sorting the travel were unable to get us on the planned flight, a lunchtime British Airways departure that would have had me schlepping round Heathrow Terminal Five around the time I should have been pounding the streets of Twickenham, Kingston-upon-Thames and Richmond.
Instead, I ended up heading to Shanghai on a late evening Air France flight (with a quick stopover in Paris Charles de Galle). That meant I missed out on several hours of potential sightseeing time in Shanghai – but, brilliantly, meant I had plenty of time to take in the Cabbage Patch 10 before I’d have to leave for Heathrow.
So, at 10am last Sunday, I found myself in the huddle of runners massed on Church Street in Twickenham, waiting until being called onto the High Street for the 10am start. It was an utterly beautiful day for it, with weather than felt more like late summer than mid-October. If anything, it might have been a little too warm for the conditions – but complaining about the heat in October seems like an utterly, utterly churlish thing to do.
As with last year, the race was brilliantly organisers, wonderfully well marshalled and superbly run. As with last year, my local knowledge seemed to help, complete with the novelty of running literally past my front door at the halfway point. And, as with last year, I probably got suckered into going a little bit fast in the early part of the race, paying for that slightly in the second half.
My least favourite part of the Cabbage Patch 10 – in fact, the only part I don’t like, really – is the artificially steep rise from Richmond riverside up to cross Richmond Bridge. It involves a short, sharp climb that just utterly breaks your rhythm and really makes your legs ache. As with last year, I made it up, but it broke my stride and I dropped a chunk of time over the next mile or so trying to regain my pacing.
That slight pace dip contributed to me feeling ‘happy-but-a-little-frustrated’ at the finish of a race, for the second week in a row. The weekend before this year’s Cabbage Patch 10, I’d come within seconds of breaking my half-marathon PB on the Royal Parks Half. On the Patch I was eight seconds slower than I’d been the previous year – when I’d set my ten-mile PB.
Two weeks. Two races. Two PBs missed by a combined total of 11 seconds or so. Boo.
Still, it’s churlish to complain when the margins are that tight, and when the races are so fun and well organisers. And, heck, you can’t really complain about missing a PB by eight seconds when, for several weeks, I didn’t think I’d actually be able to take part.
Plus, it meant I slept extra-well on that overnight flight to Shanghai…
Birdcage Walk runs along the south side of St James’s Park in the heart of central London, linking Buckingham Palace with Parliament Square. I’ve run along it twice, and both of those occasions have proven incredibly memorable.
The first was during the 2016 London Marathon – and it was not a pleasant experience. I arrived at Birdcage Walk roughly 25-and-a-half miles into my first marathon, utterly exhausted, emotionally drained and with my legs pleading with me to stop. Back in Greenwich, in the early stages of the race, I’d been averaging 7m 20s per mile or so. By the time I reached Birdcage Walk, I was trudging round in 9m 49s. I wasn’t enjoying myself. I just wanted it to be over.
It wasn’t the experience I’d expected. I’d always thought that Birdcage Walk would be a hugely enjoyable part of the marathon. After miles of meandering through south London suburbs and the cold skyscrapers of the Docklands, that was the stretch of the marathon course that really started ticking off the London landmarks. The Houses of Parliament. Parliament Square. Buckingham Palace. It was heavy landmark hit after heavy landmark hit.
Turns out sightseeing isn’t fun when you’ve pushed yourself far beyond the point of exhaustion.
The second time I ran down Birdcage Walk was a few weeks ago. And, once again, it was part of a big city race that in part wound its way through central London: the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon.
The difference when I reached Birdcage Walk is that I was just 1.5 miles into a 13.1-mile run, rather than 25.5 miles into a 26.2-mile race. Basically, I was fresh, and able to truly take in – and enjoy – my surroundings. And, on an early October Sunday with unseasonably bright weather, I could truly appreciate the majesty of London’s landmarks, and I could truly appreciate how lucky I was to get the chance to run through the streets of one of the world’s great cities.
And Birdcage Walk wasn’t the only scenic part of the Royal Parks Half course – the route was designed to offer a really effective trip round London’s sights. After starting on the edge of Hyde Park, the course passed through Wellington Arch, down Constitution Avenue, and past Buckingham Palace onto Birdcage Walk. It then skirts the edge of Parliament Square before turning up past Horseguards Parade, turning onto The Mall before passing through Admiralty Arch, turning right at Trafalgar Square before a quick loop down past Downing Street and the Cenotaph, then going back up through Trafalgar Square before winding down The Strand past Charing Cross, Somerset House and Fleet Street. After that, it returns to Trafalgar Square, with another quick detour before it goes back through Admiralty Arch, down the length of The Mall, past Buckingham Palace again and back up Constitution Avenue before turning into Hyde Park.
It’s an incredible assortment of London sights – they just keep on coming. It’s a major contrast to the London Marathon, which only reaches central London late in the race, and where one of my abiding memories was how much of the course I didn’t know. So, when it comes to London landmarks, there is no doubt: the Royal Parks Half is better than the London Marathon. There. I said it.
Oh, and here’s the thing about the Royal Parks Half: all those landmarks come in the first six miles.
Which is both a good and bad thing. It’s good, because it means the first half is an ultra-enjoyable jaunt through London’s streets. But it’s bad, because it means the second half of the race simply can’t compete.
That’s because the entire second half of the event takes place within the vast confines of Hyde Park. And while it’s an incredibly pleasant place to run, it simply can’t match the first half for interest, especially since the course is made up of lots of long straights punctuated by tight turns. It’s not helped by the fact Hyde Park is surprisingly hilly – nothing steep, obviously, but a series of long, gentle climbs does sap your power a bit late on.
Those long straights certainly hit me a bit, especially as temperatures rose and I paid the price for messing up my pacing early on – ironically, because my Garmin’s pacing seemed to get a bit messed up all the historic central London buildings I was admiring. And that probably cost me a change to set a new my half-marathon PB – I fell around three seconds short. Which was… annoying.
But still, the Royal Parks Half proved a great event. With 16,000 runners – many of them taking part for charity – and a great location, it had a proper big event feel. Plus, there were plenty of nice touches, such as the novel wooden medal (for environmental reasons – pictured below during inevitable post-race Wahaca meal), a vivid yellow event T-shirt, and a fine assortment of post-race treats.
In fact, I’d say this: if you want to do a big-city race in central London, for the sake of doing a big-city race in central London, the Royal Parks Half should be your first choice. It hits more of London’s central landmarks than the marathon and, by doing them earlier in the route, you can actually take them in. Plus, because it’s ‘only’ a half-marathon, chances are you’ll be able to enjoy an afternoon in London afterwards, rather than simply being in pain.
So, from that perspective, the Royal Parks Half is better than the London Marathon.
Except it’s not. Of course it’s not.
Because the London Marathon is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a marathon, for one thing, and inherently the challenge of doing a full 26.2 miles makes it harder and more memorable than a half. And it’s the London Marathon, for another. It’s one of the world’s most famous races. Even if other races pass more landmarks, the London Marathon is just plain special.
Of course, it’s not really fair to compare the two events. They’re both runs, and they’re both based in the same city. But there’s room for both. If you want to a massive challenge, do the London Marathon (if you can succeed in the massive challenge that is getting a place). But if you want a really fun, big event to do that runs past the Queen’s house twice, I’d thoroughly recommend the Royal Parks Half.
Okay, to be clear: this will be one of the more random entries on this blog, largely because it essentially consists of lots of photos of a water bottle with London landmarks in the background. There is a sort of good reason for this, honest. Well, sort of.
A few months back, when visiting my brother in Fort Worth, Texas, I took part in a few communal events organised by the Lone Star Walking and Running shop – and just about survived the ridiculous heat and even more ridiculous hills.
Anyway, as a souvenir, I decided to see if the shop had any branded merchandise before heading home and, while buying a drinks bottle had a long chat with Wayne, the store owner. He was pretty pleased by my promise to showcase his shop through my branded bottle on events in Britain, even if it seemed unlikely to result in my increased trade for him.
Still, he asked me if I might take some photos of the water bottle next to some London landmarks. Of course, this was a bit of a challenge for me: despite living within the M25 I don’t venture into central London – you know, where all the famous landmarks are – to run that often. But a month or so back I was looking for a race to do on an otherwise quiet Sunday morning, and couldn’t find anything that close to my Richmond-upon-Thames home. But I could find a 10k race in Regents Park. And so, on a glorious, fresh English summer morning I got up early and commuted into London on the tube to take in a run in the beautiful – and wonderfully flat – royal park.
And, of course, I took my Lone Star Walking and Running water bottle with me. And I took some photos. And, well, I’d taken the photos, so it seems daft not to share them here. So, well, here you go.
For the uninitiated, Regents Park is right next to London Zoo – in fact, the event was the first I’ve ever done in which I’ve been able to spot a camel while running. And my pre-race warm-up took me past the exterior fence of the giraffe enclosure. So, well, I took a photo of a water bottle with some giraffe.
I also snapped the photo on a bridge while crossing one of the park’s beautiful ponds.
But it was after the race that I had the most fun. Having taken the trouble to head into central London I decided to head to a few other places post-run, and while doing so took a few detours to get some photos of the bottle with some ‘proper’ London sights in. Like, for example, a double-decker New Routemaster bus.
Or a bright red letterbox on Regent St – with another bus in as a bonus.
My meandering London route also took me past Broadcasting House, the home of the BBC. So, of course, I took a photo there.
Then I remembered that the paving stones outside of Broadcasting House all feature the names of cities, states and countries around the world. So I did a bit of hunting and, well howdy and how y’all doing, there was the Great State of Texas.
But I figured there was still something missing: one of the really big, key London landmarks. Like, say, Buckingham Palace. So I took the Lone Star Walking and Running sports bottle to meet the Queen.
And… there you have it. Photos of a Texan water bottle with London landmarks in the background. For no reason other than it amused me, keep a promise I made to Wayne, and show how running is something that can be celebrated around the world.
Also, it’s a reminder that hydration is important. So if you’re going running, invest in a good sports bottle. I know a good shop in Texas that sells them. Although other, closer, shops may be available.
Last weekend I tackled the Simplyhealth Great Bristol Half Marathon. I’m not a stranger to 13.1-mile runs now: it was my sixth half marathon. But there was an interesting twist: it was the first time I’ve run a half marathon for a second time.
I’m surprised it’s taken so long, to be honest. But, in some ways, it’s a product of the fact my first four half marathons were all preparation for my two marathons, so the choice of race was down to all sorts of factors. But, having done halves in Wokingham, Hampton Court, Bristol, Houston and Swansea, this year I decided to head back to visit my family in Somerset for a weekend and take on the Bristol half for the second time.
Being utterly honest, I wasn’t sure how much I was looking forward to it. Sure, I always enjoy the challenge of running, but the 2016 Bristol half wasn’t my favourite half marathon course by some way. It starts with a long run up and back a fairly wide straight road alongside the River Avon, and then finishes with several miles of fiddly twisting and turning through the city centre. Last year, I found the first bit a little quiet and dull, and the last bit quite painful – especially given heavy showers and wind that affected last year’s race.
So while I quite enjoyed the fun of running in the closest city to my hometown, I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy doing the course a second time. And I wasn’t quite sure what form I was in: my new job has been keeping me plenty busy, and lots of trips away meant I hadn’t done the sort of training I’d like to do. Not that I’m complaining: the weekend before the Bristol half, I was on a rather nice but busy work trip to Italy. It wasn’t exactly great for final preparation, although I did get to carb load on lots and lots of fantastically fresh Italian pasta (don’t mention the hefty amounts of cheese it was served with…).
Still, the good news was that the weather this year proved to be far more conducive to running than 2016’s wind and rain. It was a chilly day, but once I was up to speed it was almost perfect running conditions.
I also made sure I started a bit further forward this year: last year I got caught out by a pre-start surge to the front, and ended up spending the first half-mile or so stuck behind groups of people going slower than I wanted. Trying to get back on pace probably hurt me a bit later on.
And, you know what? I enjoyed it. A lot. More than last year, which I wasn’t expecting. Perhaps that was because my expectations weren’t so high, but I settled in, took in the sites and kept up a good pace. The out-and-back section didn’t seem quite so long, and the final twists and turns through the city hurt a lot less when the cobblestones weren’t sodden and the wind wasn’t funnelling through the buildings.
I was quicker too: crossing the finish in 1h 28m 10s meant I went 31 seconds faster than my 2016 time. Which was pretty gratifying, especially since I hadn’t done as much preparation as I’d intended. So I was happy then, right? Well…
It’s one of the annoyances of running that, no matter how well you do, you always start to wonder how you might have done better. And so it was with last weekend. If I was 31 seconds quicker than in 2016 when I arguably wasn’t as well prepared, how much faster could I have gone had I really trained for it?
Which then prompted me to go and look up my half marathon PB – a 1h 27m 52s, set on the Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon in 2016. So on a course that probably isn’t quite as conducive to a quick time due to those late wiggles, and without being in absolutely top shape, I set a time only 18s down on my half marathon PB…
Like I said: runners. Never happy.
Luckily, I’ve got another half marathon coming up in a few weeks to try and improve on my time. My seventh half will be a new race to me, although in a familiar location: I’ve got a spot on the Royal Parks Half Marathon in central London. The last time I ran the streets of London, of course, was the London Marathon in 2016…
Before I finish, I should mention two more elements of the Bristol Half that added to my enjoyment of it. One was a very definite change from last year: the finisher’s shirt. Last year’s design was a fairly anonymous ‘Great Run’ template effort. Pleasant, but not exactly memorable. This year, the organisers tasked a local artist with doing a local design – and the result was a much improved offering.
The second enjoyable element was something that remained the same: my choice of post-race dining. Keeping with a tradition that started with the London Marathon, I celebrated my success in Wahaca because, well, because tacos are good.
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) September 17, 2017