Tagged: racing

It’s the Beast from the East – run!

Last Sunday, it felt like Spring had finally arrived. After what’s seemed like a particularly grey, drab and chilly Winter, last weekend the wind dropped, sun came out and it even felt vaguely warm.

After my Texan swing of marathons and 5k races, and then spending three weekends taking part in three 10k races (the Chichester 10k, Valentines 10k in Chessington and Chilly 10k at Castle Combe, of which I’ll write more in the near-future), I was taking a welcome break from organised events. That left me free for a lovely Sunday afternoon run, beneath largely blue skies and with the sun shining. It was beautiful: Britain at it’s February finest.

And then… well, it didn’t last long.

That won’t be a surprise if you live in Britain, and experienced vast chunks of the country coming to a standstill as bitter Siberian cold (aka the Beast from the East) met a storm coming from the south, resulting in a fair dumping of snow all over Britain. It closed schools, stopped trains, blocked roads and generally caused havoc. And, on an admittedly far more local and less important level, threatened to play havoc with my running.

My week actually started with a work trip to the Czech Republic (or Czechia, as it’s apparently been ‘rebranded’) on Monday and Tuesday. Quite often, if the schedule allows, I’ll take my kit and squeeze in a run when I’m away. Often my work trips involve a lot of sitting around and plentiful food, leaving me desperate for exercise to compensate. Having checked the schedule there would have been time – and having checked my hotel, I discovered it had a decent running/walking trail on the grounds. Promising… and then I checked the Czech weather.

Now, I’ve run in cold, but that just seemed a bit silly. So I decided not to pack any kit, so that I couldn’t be tempted when I woke up on Tuesday morning. And, sure enough, I woke up on Tuesday morning to beautiful sunshine and a pang of desire to get out there and go running. With no kit, I settled for a post-breakfast walk… which was quickly shortened as I set foot outside the hotel and realised that, sunny as it was, -14C is still flipping cold. It would have been a lovely morning to go running, but I would have needed to pack an extra suitcase to fit in enough running layers.

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The snow arrived in Britain while I was in the Czech Republic on Tuesday, but wasn’t too bad around London, and my flight was thankfully my flight home that night was unaffected. But, by the time I woke up on Wednesday morning everything was covered in a layer of snow. Thing is, after two particularly lethargic days I was desperate for a run – and I had a commitment that meant I couldn’t go on Wednesday evening. Well then, only one thing for it: layer it, and head out into the snow for an early morning run.

When, later that day, I told my work colleagues I’d done so, most thought I was mad. They were wrong. It was a beautiful time to be out running. The snow was fresh, soft and not at all slippery, and while cold, it was a clear, bright, sunny morning. It was genuinely invigorating.

Thursday was a bit different: the sun had gone, replaced with leaden skies and an icily cold wind. Bracing, I believe they call it. I put off a run on Thursday morning, and then chickened out of one that evening. But the wind had eased by Friday morning, and I was still feeling like I needed more exercise.

So out I went running again.

This wasn’t so pleasant: the snow had melted in places and refrozen a bit, so it was hard to judge grip, and with no sun to lift my spirits and give the illusion of warmth, it was a bit of a slog. Still, even when it’s not fun, I usually feel better for having run than not having run. And it was good prep for Saturday morning’s parkrun.

Of course, it then started snowing again. In fact, there was probably more snow around where I live on Friday than there had been earlier in the week. And, on Friday evening, the Kingston Parkrun organisers tweeted they’d have to inspect the course on Saturday morning before deciding if it could run.

My little corner of south west London didn’t even have it that bad compared to the rest of the country, as the parkrun website cancellations page demonstrated. From Aberystwyth to Yeovil Montecue, a huge number of parkruns were canned due to the weather. I felt particularly bad for Whinlatter Forest parkrun, which had already been cancelled because the forest was due to be used for the Malcolm Wilson Rally – an event that was, in turn, cancelled due to the snow (and which, in my past life of motorsport journalism, I might well have going to cover).

Things looked good when I woke up on Saturday morning: the snow was already beginning to melt.

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And, sure enough, this popped up on Twitter while I was eating breakfast:

Given I only live a kilometre or so from the start, I had no excuse not to get there, and joined a reduced field of 116 other enthusiastic/bold/foolhardy runners on the Thames towpath for 9am. From my run down there I knew it wasn’t going to be a day for quick times, but thankfully while many paths were still snow-covered, there was little ice – and the melt hadn’t set in properly, so it wasn’t even that muddy.

It was, against all expectations, actually quite enjoyable – and not even that cold. And the reduced field had another bonus: I finished fourth overall, eclipsing my previous Kingston parkrun-best finish of fifth. Which was pleasing, even if the secret to my success was, quite literally, turning up and then not falling down.

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Amazingly, by around lunchtime on Saturday the temperature had climbed further, and most of the snow near my house had melted away. The Beast from the East was gone. And, much as it was fun to do some stubborn snow-based running through it, I’m hopeful that Spring will now properly arrive…

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This is my first Rodeo Run – and my first race win too…

It turns out I’m quite good at running. Not going to the Olympics good, or being a top local athlete good, you understand. I’m not great, but I’m above average and pretty good. Run a marathon in 3h 10m 58s good. Run a 5k in just under 19m 30s good.

Which I struggle with a bit, because I’m not really a showy off person, but I’m proud of my achievements – especially given I only took up running four years ago, when my unexpected athletic prowess was hidden by years of sloth and torpor, and an excess of body fat.

I mention all this because I find it a challenge to share my running success with people without it sounding like I’m, well, showing off. So I prefer to be modest about things, but then worry more that it comes across as a deliberately coy form of #humblebrag. Which is definitely not the intent.

And so, with that highlighted, I can tell you about the Historic Fort Worth Inc Rodeo Run, a 5k race I took part in six days after the Houston Marathon. And it’s of note because of, well, this…

Yup, I won. Like, won overall. I won a race.

Now, let me get the caveats in first. The Rodeo Run was ‘only’ a 5k race, and it only had a field of around 160 runners. And the standard wasn’t exactly world class. Or international level. Or even Texan level. In fact, I ran at a pace that wouldn’t put me in the top ten of my local Parkrun most weekends.

So I’m honestly not #humblebragging when I say there was an odd feeling of slight embarrassment celebrating winning a race when I know it was largely down to quicker people not turning up. Which is silly because, after all, you can only beat the field you race, etc, etc.

Which was kind of my strategy. When I entered, I had a look at the results from the 2017 race and figured I could do well – my regular 5k pace would have put me in a solid (but distant) second. So I had a sneaky thought I could do well, but I was pondering a podium, or perhaps another Texan race age group win. The catch, of course, was that I’d run a marathon six days previously, so my legs weren’t exactly welcoming a quick 5k.

The race was held in the Fairmont/Magnolia district of Fort Worth, starting from the Thistle Hill mansion house before a loop around the area’s main drag, Magnolia Avenue, lined with restaurants, bars and coffee shops. The course was sort of closed-road: a path had been coned off from the traffic, and police officers stopped the cars (which weren’t many on a quiet Saturday morning) when the course crossed open roads. Oh, and there was a police motorcycle outrider ahead of the runners to keep an eye on things.

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I started near the front, and due to my fast start found myself leading exiting the mansion house grounds. I could feel the leg ache though, and wary of not pushing too hard early I tried to control my pace. Two runners went past me, one man and one woman, and I expected to watch them pull away. But they didn’t.

In fact, I held the gap to them, while running a consistent pace. And then, shortly before half-distance, I started to catch them. As the course turned off Magnolia Avenue onto a side road I went past the male runner. Second.

Just after the next turn, I caught the female runner. First. With half the race to go, I was leading. That was, indeed, a first. All I could see ahead of me was my own police motorcycle escort. That was cool. I felt like a Tour de France rider, or a VIP or something.

Of course, I could still feel me legs aching, and they were getting worse. And so, I began to control my pace a bit more. Instead of focusing on a time as I normally would, I was racing for position. But with just under 2km to go, I was worried I was pushing too hard.

After the Magnolia Avenue loop, the race went back up the road it came down to the finish. And as I turned onto that street I could hear another runner behind me. Convinced I was being caught, I decided not to look back, and just focused on my pace. I tried to put thoughts of winning out of my head: clearly, someone faster and more disciplined was catching me. Well, that’s how it seemed. But they didn’t actually catch me, which was confusing.

Also confusing: the distance left to run. As the race turned back onto the road with the mansion on, my Garmin reckoned I’d only done 4.5k or so. But, having run out that way, I knew the finish wasn’t half a km away. So was the route short, or was there a sneaky loop hidden away?

I wasn’t sure, making it even harder to work out what to ask of my weary legs. It was only when I was within sight of the house that I heard the commentator make mention of the first runners coming in – and the he said the leader was in the clear. In the clear?

He was right. I couldn’t hear he footsteps behind me, and I mustered as much of a sprint as I could to cross the line first. I’d won.

Turned out, according to my Garmin the course was about 180 metres short. Which almost made me feel a little cheated when I crossed the line – but also a bit relieved, since my efforts to save myself for another 180 metres or so of running where a struggle.

It also meant that my finish time of 19m 35s is massively flattering – by my reckoning I ran about a 4m 04s per km pace – about a 20m 20s 5k time. Again, not exactly slow, but certainly not challenging my PB as my official time suggests.

What followed was all very odd for someone who isn’t all that fond of attention. I got interviewed by a Texan race report writer – a bizarre role reversal for me – and had to pose for photos with the second overall/first-place female runner (who, in the end, finished about five seconds behind). I had to go up and collect my first-place medal, while a commentator made much fuss over my pace (and also seemed great amused I was from England…). It was… odd.

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Especially because, deep down, I didn’t know how happy to be. Sure, i’d won, and my finish time was mighty quick. But the latter was largely because the course was the best part of 200 metres short. Truthfully, I’d run as quick as post-Marathon legs would slow, and my pace was, for me, solid but not spectacular.

But hey, I’d won, and that will be preserved on the Rodeo Run results website. And, hey, I now own a race winners medal. Dammit, I’m a winner. I should show off. Look at me, I’m a winner!

Thankfully Isabella, my nine-year-old niece, was on hand to keep my rampant ego in check. Later that day, she picked up my medal for a closer look, starting at it intently as it twirled on its red ribbon, the gold reflecting the lights. Admiring it in quiet awe, no doubt.

And then… “Uncle Jimbo, you do realise this medal isn’t real but plastic, don’t you?”

Oof.

And then… “And you do know that where it says ‘first place’ is a sticker. And that it isn’t even stuck on straight?”

Humbled, I tucked my rampant ego back in its box…

Oh, and to answer the question you might not be wondering – the Rodeo Run is named because it takes place at the same time as the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. And so, fittingly, I celebrated my first win by going to watch my actual first rodeo.

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Spectators, signs, sounds and smells: memories from the 2018 Houston Marathon

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?

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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…

Houston Marathon 2018: first impressions of my second 26.2 in Bayou City

You certainly couldn’t describe my preparation for the 2018 Chevron Houston Marathon as textbook. There was the late commitment to the race, for one thing, and a busy work schedule that meant while I completed the long-distance runs I wanted to, the rest of my training schedule was haphazard.

Then there was the immediate build-up in the week of the race, which began with a flight from London to Las Vegas, followed by three days spent charging around a number of packed convention centres finding car news at the world’s biggest consumer electronics show (cunningly titled the Consumer Electronics Show).

Upon reaching Texas, there was also the four hour or so car journey from Fort Worth to Houston late on Friday night to contend with. I’d also signed up to do the ABB 5K race that forms part of the Houston Marathon weekend on Saturday morning.

All told, by the time I’d worked by way into the A corral at 6.40am or so last Sunday morning it was a bit surreal, and hard to contemplate I was actually at the start – and about to run my third marathon. It was all a bit sudden, especially when the race began. A revised layout for the start this year featured the A corral in a side street round the corner and out of sight of the start, and the runners were only allowed to round the corner – where they could see the start line – at about the same time the gun went off.
I automatically picked up the pace, but it was only a few minutes later, as the race wound out of downtown Houston to cheers from the crowd that it really began to hit that I was running another marathon.

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As ever, running a marathon turns into a confusing mess of personal challenge, incredible experiences and all sorts of emotions, made particularly special by the sights and spectacle of both the runners around you and the crowd. Again, it will take some time to process and fillet out a lot of those experiences. Occasionally I’d see a brilliant sign – ‘run like United want your seat’ made me chuckle – and then struggle to recall it just minutes later.

Before the race, I was slightly worried about the mental challenge of running the same marathon for a second time – would I get bored with the course? I didn’t need to worry; the familiarity was more of a help than a hindrance, although it might have made the slightly lumpy final mile or two slightly tougher as my energy began to fade.

Still, by that point I’d already exceeded the expectations I’d set myself sometime during my crazy busy CES visit. I’d told myself that, in the circumstance, matching my 2017 time of 3h 16m 40s would be a fine achievement. Which, in a way, gave me a bit of freedom to attack. In the 2017 Houston Marathon I was trying to do the race I tried – and failed – to do in my first, London 2016. With that done, and my unusual build-up, the pressure was off.

So why not push harder than I knew I could manage? If I did, and it went wrong, what would it matter? And that’s what I did.

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Again, I’ll write more about my pacing and strategy later. I didn’t quite reach the ambitious target of 3h 10m I set myself, but in the circumstances I was thrilled to clock a 3h 10m 58s – a new marathon PB by 5m 42s.

I’ll run through some more highlights and experiences later, but the best moment was obvious: this year my mum, brother, niece and nephew were not far from the finish line to cheer me on. Having spotted them at the barriers standing exactly where we discussed, I was able to reach them for a series of high fives as I went past. My five-year-old nephew reckoned his high five gave me his “super quick running energy.” I think he was right.

I needed that energy too. For whatever reason, a few people further down saw me dishing out high fives to my family and decided they wanted in on the act. Which was fun, except for one enthusiastic Texas who dished out his high five with such enthusiasm and force that it genuinely nearly floored a near-exhausted pasty-faced Brit. Yup, 20 metres from the finish line of a marathon, I was nearly felled by enthusiasm…
More Houston memories to follow.

 

Houston, we have a problem (again): returning to the Houston Marathon

When I finished the 2016 London Marathon, I never wanted to run 26.2 miles again. For a few hours, at least. I quickly realised I wanted another go, and it wasn’t long before a crazy plan developed to visit my brother in Texas and run the 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon.

That went quite well and so, of course, I started mulling what was next. And since I enjoyed the Houston Marathon, tackling it for a second time seemed like a good idea. There was a wider family plan too. And things were just coming together when it all got a bit complicated, for all sorts of logistical reasons – not least my brother moving from Houston to Fort Worth.

So, for several months, a return trip to the Houston Marathon seemed unlikely. Even so, there was a chance, so in the last few months I’ve been quietly preparing, just in case – at least as much as various work trips and events would allow. And then, in the last few weeks, the chance came up for a work trip to Las Vegas came up. In the week before the Houston Marathon. And, well, it’s not that much of a detour to return from Las Vegas to London via Fort Worth, is it? And, well, if I’m in Fort Worth it’s not that much of a detour to head down to Houston for a weekend, is it?

And, so, well, here we go again, then.

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It’s time for my Houston Marathon sequel. Or to complete my marathon trilogy. Whichever sounds better, really.

In some ways, I’m a bit relaxed about this one. Possibly a little too relaxed. Heading into my first marathon I didn’t know what to expect. With the second I did; effectively it was a chance to correct all the mistakes I made. This time I’ve got the confidence of having run a marathon entirely to plan, and the belief I can do it again.

Conversely, the slightly unsure build-up has also taken some of the pressure off. While I’ve mentioned I’ve been readying myself for a marathon quietly, I haven’t really had the time or ability to really dedicate myself to the build-up, like I did last year. And I’m not going to be able to: I’m flying to America a week before the marathon, then spending three days charging round the CES technology show in Vegas before flying to Fort Worth late on Wednesday evening. I’ll then have a brief respite (or, more likely, a chance to catch up on work I’m behind on from CES), before driving to Houston late on Friday evening in readiness for Sunday’s race. It’s hardly textbook marathon tapering…

I’m also a little worried about running the same marathon course for the second time. In both of my previous marathons, the fact I didn’t know the course effectively meant every mile was a fresh experience. Will knowing the course give me recognisable landmarks to pace myself off, or make the thing last longer because I won’t have anything ‘new’ to distract myself with?

Who knows? Still, I want to be there. And I’m excited to be there. Without trying to sound trite or twee, last August, Houston was hit hard by flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. From all the way over here in Britain, it was surreal to see parts of a city I know well underwater. Heck, I saw photos showing huge rivers where there should be roads – roads I ran down on the marathon.

Texans are tough, and Houston has rebounded despite continuing to deal with the impact of Harvey. Taking part in this year’s Houston Marathon seems like some small, minor show of support on my behalf.

But I’m not overthinking it. It’s just running. I like running. I apparently seem to quite like running marathons. I’m not sure why. They hurt, and they take effort. But I must quite like them, because I keep signing up for them. This will be my third.

So, the 2018 Chevron Houston Marathon it is. Here we go…

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The 2017 Atters Goes Running Awards, part one

It’s that weird post-Christmas period, and it’s nearly the end of the year. Which means that newspapers, magazines, TV schedules, websites and other such things are stuffed with end-of-year reviews and awards. So why be any different?

In other words, following the success of the inaugural Atters Goes Running Awards last year (by success, I mean I enjoyed writing them, and nobody complained bitterly), they’ve returned for a second year.

Naturally, being a hugely prestigious awards ceremony there are strict criteria that must be followed. Which, in this case, involves me thinking up all the categories and deciding all the winners from the somewhat random assortment of races I’ve taken part in this year.

Oh, and while this is an awards ceremony there are, of course, no actual real awards, trophies, trinkets, medals or the like. The warm glow of mild satisfaction that some bloke you don’t know who competed on your event enjoyed it is all the reward you need, surely.

Right, with all that said, let’s begin handing out (non-existent) trophies. Some now; more, including the hugely prestigious race of the year prize, later.

The big shiny medal result of the year: First in class, Run Houston! Sam Houston Race Park 10k (Harris County, Texas, January 1)

Yes, in terms of outright results I essentially peaked on the first day of this year. I entered the slightly awkwardly titled Run Houston! Sam Houston Race Park 10k as a) something to do on New Year’s Day and b) as part of my final warm-ups for the Houston Marathon. Getting a result was a bonus – and finishing eighth overall in 40m02s was certainly a moral boosting result for a final training run.

Except it turned out to be better than that: I also scored my first-ever class win, finishing 1m 12s clear of my nearest rivals in the Males 35-39 category. A win! A class win! I even got a chunkily massive class winners medal and everything.

Of course, my path to a class win was helped by the fact that US races feature a lot more age-based classes than most UK ones. But let’s not let faces get in the way of a big, shiny class winners medal. Honestly, I never thought I’d be capable of such things.

I did repeat my class-winning feat in another race in Texas, the Toro Dash 10k, later in the year. But it doesn’t score as highly since my run time was slower and the class-winning medal was smaller…

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Also nominated: First in class, Toro Dash 10k (Fort Worth, Texas, November 4); Second overall, Osterley Parkrun 205 (Osterley, London, August 26); Third in class, Trinity 5000 Summer Series Week Nine (Fort Worth, Texas, July 27)

Best-organised race: Chevron Houston Marathon (Houston, Texas, January 15)

Last year I gave my best-organised race award to the London Marathon, largely for how well they coped with the logistics of 40,000 or so runners and a start and finish in different locations. The Houston Marathon organisation impressed me just as much, but for almost entirely different reasons.

Houston can’t match London in terms of numbers, but does have the complexity of also having a half-marathon starting at the same time and following the same route for the five seven miles or so. How the organisers coped with the split was really clever, especially the brilliant finish that featured the two races run alongside each other on a divided street.

The Houston Marathon also featured the start and finish in virtually the same place, allowing the use of the Houston Convention Centre as a single race base. And they made brilliant use of it, from the well-organised expo to the busy but never overly crowded finish area.

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The organisers also did a good job of ensuring there was entertainment out on the course, and enthusiastic volunteers at any parts of the course where there wouldn’t be any spectators. Nice job.

Best-organised race (non-Houston Marathon edition): Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon (London, October 8)

The Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon might ‘only’ be a half marathon, but the organisation rivals any big-city marathon – which it kind of has to, given it involves closing a good bunch of roads in central London for a morning. As I noted after doing it, the clever course design means you arguably get to see more London landmarks than you do on the more famous race that’s twice the length…

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Also nominated (cliche alert…): the organisers of every race, parkrun and similar group event. Even when a race has frustrating organisational flaws (troubled car parking, not enough toilets, etc), it’s important to remember that most races are organised by volunteers. We couldn’t go running without them.

Toughest uphill: Pretty much any uphill stretch of the Godalming Run (Godalming, Surrey, May 14)

Competitive category, this. Last year’s winner, the big hill in the middle of the Treggy 7, put in a strong bid for back-to-back trophies, particularly with this year’s event taking place in heavy rain. And there were some nasty off-camber uphill hairpin turns on the Hogs Back Road Race. Oh, and it’s not eligible since it wasn’t actually a race, but I can’t forget the lunacy of the massive hill on the Lone Star Walking and Running shop’s group run route  (pictured below).

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But honours go to the Godalming Run, largely because it features both trail and on-road elements. And, whatever surface you’re running on, very little of it is flat. An early climb up to a private school on a rough, slippery, tree root-lined dirt trail was so tough you could only laugh. Yup, laugh – and if something is so tough it’s funny, it’s definitely worthy of an award.

Then, late in the race, there was a huge uphill on a road. The fact that you were running on Tarmac wasn’t really much of a help on a brutally short, sharp climb featuring around 40 metres of elevation.

Of course, what goes up…

Toughest downhill: Pretty much any downhill stretch of the Godalming Run (Godalming, Surrey, May 14)

The rollercoaster descent from the highest point of the Godalming Run took place on similar rough, slippery, tree root-lined dirt trails as the ascent. They definitely weren’t the sort of downhill when you can get your breath back and relax after a tough climb. You didn’t so much run downhill as try to keep your momentum in check and attempt to miss the tree roots.

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Quite proudly, the Godalming Run was the slowest 10k race I’ve ever done – but probably one of my best results given the effort involved.

That’s it for part one. Check back soon for more awards…

Water on a Hogs Back – battling the elements on the Hogs Back Road Race

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.

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…

HogsBack

Somehow, that made it all worthwhile.

 

Running range anxiety: will your running watch battery last as long as your run?

A short time back, on a cold but clear Sunday morning, I set out to do a long run. For all sorts of reasons, I’d decided I wanted to run for somewhere between two and two-and-a-half hours. I wasn’t overly concerned how fast I went, but I was interested to see what sort of pace I could sustain, and how long I could sustain it for.

I eventually settled on a route that followed the river path of the Thames from my home in Richmond-upon-Thames (well, technically I live in Ham, but Richmond-upon-Thames always sounds posher…) down through Kingston-upon-Thames to Hampton Court, where I’d cross the river, and headed up through Teddington and Twickenham to Richmond. At which point I’d cross back across the Thames and head back down the other side of it to my house.

About one hour and ten minutes into my run I was about halfway through my route, on the Thames path between Hampton Court Palace and Teddington, busily trying not to make a fool of myself downing an energy gel while running, when my Garmin GPS running watch beeped. And it wasn’t the good sort of beep, either – the beep that comes when you’ve reached whatever ‘lap’ you’ve set it to (normally one kilometre or mile, depending what sort of race/training I’m doing). No, this was the prolonged loud annoying beep that’s accompanied by a big box popping up on the display bearing the dreaded words: LOW BATTERY.

Oh dear.

Now, this certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve been out running when my Garmin has started beeping battery warnings. It’s happened a few time, and it’s always quite annoying. Firstly, because that big ‘LOW BATTERY’ box stays on your screen until you press a button to make it disappear – but when you’re running, it’s actually quite tricky making sure you press the right button, and not accidentally stop timing, turn the light on or make your watch do some other crazy thing you didn’t previously know it could do.

It’s also annoying because you never really know how long you’ve got until the low battery becomes no battery, and the watch just stops working. It’s like when the fuel light comes on in your car, and you have to sort of guesstimate how long you’ve got before you run out of petrol. But while running, obviously.

Previously, I’ve been fortunate enough that my watch has only ever started beeping low battery warnings on relatively short training runs – the sort where it doesn’t really matter if it stops working or not. But on this occasion I was just over halfway into a long training run, where I was absolutely interested in how long I’d run for and how far I’d travelled. If my watch battery completely ran out, I wouldn’t know for sure. And, worse, I’d probably lose the data for the run so far.

So what to do? Well, there were two options. I could have detoured from my route and headed home sooner, which would have ruined my running distance goal, but would have at least allowed me to pretty much guaranteed I could finish the run before the battery was finished.

That option didn’t really appeal though: so option two it was. And that meant gamely pressing on, keeping my fingers crossed that I’d make it to the end of my planned run with enough battery for my GPS watch to keep working.

So that’s what I did, although it was somewhat distracting – not only because the LOW BATTERY warning screen and accompanying beep kept popping up on the screen at regular intervals, but also because I found myself gazing at my watch more intently than usual, trying to remember the finer details of my time, distance and pace, just in case the screen suddenly went blank. Like searching for a petrol station when your fuel light has been on for a good 30 miles or so, it was genuinely quite nerve wrecking.

But I made it though: just. When I went to plug my Garmin in to charge after the run, the display said it had 1% battery remaining. Close!

Of course, there’s a third reason that being distracted by my GPS running watch being low on battery is really very annoying – and that’s because the only person I’ve got to blame is myself, for forgetting to charge the thing before setting out on a long run…

Part of the problem is that my Garmin is now three years old or so, and as with many electronic devices the battery life just isn’t as good as it used to be. But that’s no real excuse for just forgetting to charge the thing.

Still, it could be worse: I could have forgotten to put it on altogether. Which is exactly what happened to me for a 10k race recently. More of which soon…

The big banana question: before a race, or after?

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.

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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?

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A lot of bottle photos: taking a Texas sports bottle on a tour of London

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.

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I also snapped the photo on a bridge while crossing one of the park’s beautiful ponds.

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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.

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Or a bright red letterbox on Regent St – with another bus in as a bonus.

Regent St letterbox1

My meandering London route also took me past Broadcasting House, the home of the BBC. So, of course, I took a photo there.

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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.

BBC Texas tile1

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.

Buckingham Palace1

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.