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.
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…
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…
I signed up for two races this week. Now, that’s nothing too unusual in itself: I take part in quite a lot of races. But there was something that was quite odd about the two races I signed up for: they’re both in October. It’s February. October is, like, eight months away.
Now, I’m rarely the most organised person. I’m not much of a forward planner; it takes me some work to map out a three-month marathon training plan, for example. So it’s a little out of character for me to be plotting out my running eight months ahead.
It also strikes me as slightly odd. Eight months is some time away. Lots of things can change between now and then. It’s quite possible that other commitments – work, family, that sort of thing – might arise for the two weekends in October I’ve just shelled out money to enter races on. So why have I signed up so early?
Because, if I want the chance of taking part in those races, I have to.
Here’s the thing. Running is a popular activity. Lots of people run. And lots of people who run like to take part in races. Some races are particularly well-regarded and popular. But any race can only accept a certain number of entries. If more people want to take part in the race than there are places in that race, you have a classic case of supply and demand economics.
This isn’t a problem with most races. There are lots of races, and the bulk of the them don’t fill up their places: many offer on-the-day entries, if you’re so inclined. The trouble is that, without a lot of research, you often never know which will sell out and which won’t.
Finding out a race you want to do is sold out can be incredibly disappointing. Last year, I ran the Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon in March, and very much enjoyed it. Having survived this year’s Houston Marathon, I figured I’d tackle it again this year. But, by the time I decided I’d actually be up for a mid-March half, it had sold out. Rats.
If you’re a race organiser, having more people want to do your event than can actually start it is a lovely problem to have. And those race organisers have found different ways to cope.
One of the races I signed up for this week is the Cabbage Patch 10, a very enjoyable ten-mile race based in Twickenham (and, of course, the winner of my award for the best race I did in 2016 that wasn’t the London Marathon). It’s a popular event: its been going for 35 years, Mo Farah is a previous winner and, in my experience, extremely well-organised. Plus, the course is a flat, fast and fun loop around the River Thames, heading from Twickenham down to Kingston and back via Richmond.
The event didn’t run in 2015 because it’s regular date clashed with the Rugby World Cup, which used nearby Twickenham Stadium heavily. And when it returned last year, demand was such that it sold out months before the start.
Doubtless aware of such demand, organisers opened the entries on February 14 – eight months before the October 15 race date. It’s a first come, first served entry system: entries will stay open until all the places are filled.
Organisers advertised the date entries opened at last year’s event, and have plugged it multiple times on their social media feeds. Which means that people who did the race last year, or are interested in it, will likely be made aware entries are on sale. People like me. And those people then have the chance to enter early, when they know they can get a place.
There’s clearly demand, too: there have been almost 400 entries in the first two days. And, again, this is for a race in October!
The other race I’ve signed up for this week is a bit more complicated. That would be the Royal Parks Half Marathon, which takes place in central London in mid-October. This is the tenth year the race has been held, and it’s predictably popular, since it offers a very rare chance to run through the streets of London on closed roads (there’s another way to do that but, well, it involves running a marathon…).
With demand greatly outstripping supply, the Royal Parks Half uses an online ballot system. The ballot is open to entries for a week or so, and then about a week later people are told if they got in or not. People who secure a place then have a week or so to pay up. If they don’t, they lose their place, which gets redistributed in a second ballot.
Reading about the event, it seemed a fun race and a good chance for a second run round the streets of London. I was tempted, but unsure: did I really want to commit to a half-marathon in October already? What if I found some other running challenge for that time that seemed more fun?
With the ballot about to close, I made the decision to put an entry in. After all, the odds were likely against me getting a place, and not having to pay up to enter the ballot (that was an option, giving slightly better odds to get a place through dint of being entered into the second ballot) meant that it didn’t cost me anything to try. And it was probably academic. After all, the odds were likely against me.
And guess what?
I got in.
Suddenly, my hypothetical musings about whether I wanted to commit to a relatively expensive half-marathon in London in October wasn’t so hypothetical. I had a week to either pay up, or lose my chance. And the race is a week before the Cabbage Patch 10, which I really wanted to do again. That’s quite a lot of race mileage in the space of seven days. Perhaps I should pick one. But… both are tempting. What to do, what to do…
As my credit card bill will tell you, I paid up for both.
So now, it’s a bit weird. I have no real idea what I’m doing for much of the rest of the year. I haven’t planned my holidays, breaks, work events, family gatherings much beyond the next few weeks. And yet I know that, health permitting, I’ll likely be tackling two races on back-to-back weekends in mid-October. You know, in eight months time.
And given that most races don’t offer refunds or deferrals if you can’t run, it’s a bit of a gamble. I’m paying up now, and just having to hope that, come October, I’ll actually be able to take part in both events. If not, I’ll be out of pocket.
Frankly, it seems a bit daft. But, as my Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon experience showed me, it’s the sort of thing you have to do if you want to be sure of a place in a popular race you really want to do.
And, well, it’s hard to think of a better solution. And, hey, if nothing else I can now tell you what I’m likely to be doing on two weekends in mid-October…
Oh, and I’ll just add this: you’ve missed the ballot for the Royal Parks Half but, as I write, entries are still available for the Cabbage Patch 10. So, if you think you possibly, definitely, absolutely might just be free on October 15, I’ll suggest you head here and enter. You know, while there are still places available…
With three days to go until the Chevron Houston Marathon, I did my final proper training run this morning (I’ll likely have a ‘shakedown’ outing the day before the race, but that’s purely to get my legs moving).
So far, my marathon training programme has taken me to some varied locations. I’ve tackled busy city half-marathons on the streets of Bristol, in the south west of England, and Houston, Texas. I’ve set a new 10k PB around Castle Combe Race Circuit in Wiltshire, and scored a first class win on the roads near Sam Houston Race Park in Texas. I’ve done long training runs on the seafront and country lanes of my hometown of Clevedon in Somerset, and also while dodging deer around Richmond Park near my home in greater London.
So it almost seemed fitting to do my final training run in a new location: along the seawall of Galveston, Texas. Well, why not?
The opportunity arose to spend a few days away from my brother’s place during my extended holiday/family visit/marathon-running trip to Texas, and hitting the coast seemed a great plan. So we decamped for a night to a seafront hotel on Galveston, the historic island and city on the Gulf Coast south of Houston.
That meant I could go for a morning run along the seawall, which is pretty much the perfect place for a final marathon training run. Why? Because it’s flat, wide and straight. In other words, as long as you can trust yourself not to run in a straight line, there’s very little risk of hitting, tripping or injuring yourself. And that’s what you want in a final training run, really.
The weather (yes, I’m already writing about the weather again…) helped: it was a beautiful warm morning, with clear blue skies. Well, apart from one thing: there was quite the sea breeze coming in from the Gulf of Mexico. It wasn’t the sort of crosswind that really causes problems while running – in fact, it helped keep me cool in the Texan warmth – but it did hamper long-range visibility a bit, with a haze of sea water being blown across the seawall.
Still, it was a lovely place for a run – and definitely warmer than the last time I ran along a seawall, when I went for a short run in the days after Christmas while visiting my dad in Burnham-on-Sea. There’s plenty to recommend the Somerset coast as a tourist destination, but I can attest that the Gulf of Mexico in mid-January is far more pleasant than the Bristol Channel in late December…
After a morning and lunch in Galveston (I opted for a turkey chilli with corn cake and rice, which ticked a lot of pre-run marathon dining boxes), we headed back inland to Houston for one more night away from the family. So now I’m staying downtown, within walking distance of the Convention Centre that will host the Houston Marathon expo tomorrow.
A late afternoon walk was a great chance for an early sample of the build-up for the big race. And the drive in even featured a course preview – the road to our hotel took us along the final stretch of the marathon route. There was even a late detour because the road we tried to drive along was actually shut due to the finish arch being built on it…
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) January 12, 2017
While that caused an unplanned detour, at least it means I’ve seen the finish line now. It’s going to be a lot harder to get to on Sunday when I won’t see it until I’ve done 26.2 miles of running…
One of the fun things about taking part in races is the chance to run in places you might never otherwise visit. Just this year alone, I’ve raced around a agricultural research facility in Kent, along a river trail near the town of Ware (Ware? Where? etc), and up a ridiculously steep Cornish hill.
But sometimes, it’s quite fun to do a race somewhere you know pretty well. So this weekend I stuck close to home and competed in the Cabbage Patch 10, which started and finishes in Twickenham. It’s a race with a pretty storied history (it dates back to 1982, and previous winners include some bloke called Mo Farah…) – and I know pretty much every inch of the ten-mile course.
Every inch? Oh yes. Consider the following (a working knowledge of the geography of the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames will help you here, but the point should be clear enough if not):
The Cabbage Patch 10 is named after a pub called – surprise! – the Cabbage Patch. It’s the pub located right next door to my office in Twickenham.
The race starts in Twickenham town centre, and the first mile or so of the course is down a road that follows the course of the River Thames to Teddington Lock – the road I walk along to and from work every day.
When it nears Teddington Lock, and the footbridge I walk across every day, the race passes the old Teddington Studios site, where my office used to be based (it’s now a big pile of rubble, soon-to-be stupidly overpriced luxury flats).
After that, the race heads follows the course of the Thames down to Hampton Wick – home of a curry house I used to frequent on a depressingly regular basis in my portly pre-running days.
Shortly after Hampton Wick, the route crosses the Thames on Kingston Bridge, passing through Kingston-upon-Thames, the nearest big shopping area to my home.
It then follows the other side of the river back up to Ham, using roads and footpaths I run along most weeks. At half-distance the race hits Riverside Drive in Ham, a long road with a big, wide footpath which I run along at least a couple of times a week.
At one point in Ham, the Cabbage Patch 10 route literally goes past my bedroom window. Like, right past. Like, look across and think ‘I could still be in bed there’ close.
From there, the route passes Ham House and heads up to Richmond-upon-Thames on roads I run and walk along frequently.
It then crosses Richmond Bridge, before moving back onto the River Thames towpath on the Twickenham side of the river – a section of footpath I use if I do an evening run from my office.
Finally, the race heads back to Twickenham – finishing back to the town I work in.
See? I don’t think there’s an inch of the ten-mile route I haven’t run, walked or driven along multiple times. It’s just a shame that my house if at the halfway point. If they could shift the start five miles or so, it would be perfect (for me, if nobody else).
That can be both a good and bad thing. On the negative side, that whole thing about familiarity breeding contempt can be true – it’s hard to distract yourself from the pain of pushing out a quick ten-miler by admiring the scenery when you know the scenery so well.
But on the plus side, local knowledge does help. I knew the bits of the course that were rough and smooth, the bits of the course where there were likely to be puddles and mud, and the painful place where there were sharp turns or sudden steep inclines.
And it would seem that familiarity paid off. I set myself a target pace that matched my previous quickest ten-mile PB, and tried to discipline myself to sticking to it early on when I could have gone faster. There was a bit of a late-race wobble just after Richmond Bridge – the sharp slope from the river path to cross the bridge was a leg-aching jolt that really broke my stride – but I kept to it and was able to put in a strong sprint finish (using my local knowledge not to start my push on side street with a treacherously broken-up pavement).
The result? A new ten-mile PB – by full-on 30 seconds. Which was… great, but wholly unexpected. And encouraging, since a lot of that time came with a strong push in the final mile.
Was my quick time down to local knowledge, or just a fast, flat course and me rounding into ten-mile fitness at the start of my marathon build-up? Unknown.
But I’m convinced the local knowledge was a big help – not least because I knew exactly where in Twickenham town centre to go for a great post-run coffee and cake…
This weekend I’m sticking close to home, and competing in the Ranelagh Harriers Richmond 10k. It’s one of my favourite races, and handily local – the route goes past my house twice. Oh, and the reward for finishing is a mug, which I heartily approve of.
Today I received the traditional race information email, which contained what is (to me, at least) an interesting detail: my race number. And for this Sunday’s outing, I’ll be number 27.
Why so interesting? Well, a few reasons. As a motorsport fan, I’ve always been interested in the use of car numbers, especially in categories such as NASCAR. Certain race numbers become synonymous with certain drivers. I’m fascinated by the various ways different series assign race numbers.
My motorsport interest means the number 27 has a particular resonance: for most Formula One fans that number is inextricably linked to Ferrari – and in particular Gilles Villeneuve. So getting to run with a big 27 pinned on my chest (once I eventually stop faffing and get it on there…) is pretty cool.
It’s perhaps because the number 27 resonates with me as a motorsport fan that I realised another interesting details: Sunday’s event will be the third I’ve done in just over a year with 27 as my race number. Which seems pretty remarkable, really.
After all, most of the races I’ve entered attract several hundred competitors – and often more. So what are the odds of being given the same number three times?
Well, it isn’t quite as utterly random as it seems. The results for the three events I’ve been given number 27 for (aside from Sunday’s race, the other two are the 2015 Fullers Thames Towpath Ten and the 2015 Kington Ten Miles) are all done by the same timing company. As best I can tell, that firm assigns race numbers in alphabetical order. My surname is Attwood, so I’m always likely to have a fairly low number.
Assuming those events attract a roughly similar amount of entries with a roughly even spread of surnames, it makes sense that my race numbers are always going to be pretty close to each other.
Still, with that said, having the same number three times on three different events? It still seems… unlikely. I’m sure I could do some great statistical analysis to work out exactly how likely or unlikely it was, but I’m really not very good at maths and statistical analysis and that sort of thing.
Anyway, whether it’s an amazing coincidence or not, I’ll continue to be fascinated by race numbers, and how they’re assigned. The most popular seem to be either alphabetical, or simply by order of entry. Some events also assign certain numbers to certain categories (for example, the Wokingham Half Marathon assigned 1-2999 for men, and 3001-4500 for ladies). The bigger event, the more complex it gets. Seriously, just look through the London Marathon race information and read the section on how numbers are assigned. Fascinating!
My interest in race numbers perhaps explains why I’ve kept all of the numbers from all the races I’ve done – except one (ironically, one of the three in which I was 27), which I posted to my niece in America for complex reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture.
So I can tell you that the number for my first race (the 2014 Wedding Day 7k in Bushy Park) was 20. I did the event again in 2015, and this time was number 19.
The lowest race number I’ve been given is 10 (on the 2014 Castle Combe Chilly 10k). Again, that event assigned number in alphabetical order. A year later they changed the system and used different groups of numbers for different parts of the event (it ran alongside a triathlon), so I was number 2010.
The highest race number I’ve been given is 47,812. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that was on the biggest race I’ve ever done, the London Marathon. Notably, there weren’t actually 47,812 runners taking part – it’s all to do with how they dish out their numbers.
Oh, and there’s another interesting coincidental oddity revealed in my stack of race numbers. I’ve done the Richmond Park 10k quite a few times. Numbers for that race, as best I can tell, are assigned in order of entry, rather than alphabetically. And somehow I’ve been given number 90 twice on that event. Perhaps I somehow just enter events at the same time before each race…
What does any of this mean? No idea. Probably nothing. After all, they’re just race numbers. They’re only there to help identify you. They don’t actually mean anything. But I find it interesting.
Then again, that might well just be me…