Late Spring into early Summer is probably peak running season, in Britain at least. It’s when the nights are getting longer and conditions are, in theory at least, just about perfect for running: not too cold, not too hot, and relatively dry.
That’s the idea, anyway. Britain being Britain, nothing is certain. This year the weather has alternated between unusually warm and unusually cold with seemingly reckless abandon. And, Britain being Britain, it’s usually ended in a dreary grey halfway house.
But I digress. The point is that this time of year is just about the best time of the year for running. And that means there’s no shortage of races to choose from. The challenge is deciding which ones to do.
Do you do a handful of long races, or a lot of short ones? Do you return to events you’ve done before and really enjoyed, or pick ones you haven’t done before? It’s such idle consideration and searching of running event websites that often leads me to sign up to races without full consideration to my calendar. Which explains how, earlier this week, I ended up running two 10k races in two days.
Here’s my excuse. Last weekend was a Bank Holiday in the UK, and it seemed a good idea to spend my Monday off work contesting an event near Reading called the Shinfield 10k. Also last week was the Silverstone 10k, an enjoyable event that takes pace on a weekday evening and features two laps of the British Grand Prix circuit. As a big motorsport fan, it’s hard to resist – hence why this was the third year in a row I’d entered it.
I hadn’t fully looked at the dates before signing up, then realised they were in the same week. Not too much to worry about though, since the Shinfield 10k was on Monday morning, and the Silverstone 10k was on Wednesday evening. Plenty of time. Until, the night before the Shinfield 10k, I realised I was wrong about something: the Silverstone 10k was on the Tuesday evening…
So, inadvertently I faced the challenge of running two 10k races in two days. And once I realised I’d signed up to do it, it was an interesting challenge. I knew I could cope with the distance – after all, 20k is just short of a half-marathon distance, and I’ve proven that I can run a full marathon in one go.
Still, it was hard to know how my legs would react to being pushed twice in the space of 36 hours or so. And what tactic should I adopt? Run as fast as I can on both? Use the Monday morning 10k was a warm-up, and save myself for Tuesday night’s outing? Or push on Monday, and be prepared to coast on Tuesday night? Hmmmmm.
In the end, my plan was to set off on Monday morning’s Shinfield 10k at a decent pace, and see how I felt. I didn’t know the course, so I wasn’t sure what hills or challenges it might offer that could prevent a quick time.
It was certainly an interesting run. Because while Shinfield seems to be a relatively small town, it won’t be for long. There’s a massive housing development going on there, which forced organisers to revise the route for this year’s rate. Curiously, it went right through the development. Which meant that, as well as undulating country lanes, a few kilometres near the start and finished involved running on a semi-finished path in the middle of a massive, flattened space that will shortly become a huge building site.
Slightly odd then, but it was still an enjoyable semi-rural run. And in a field of pretty competitive club runners, I was happy to cross the line in 58th place, with a time of 40m 48s. That worked out at an average pace of 4m 03s per km. Decent.
The Silverstone 10k course could also be described as slightly odd, in that it takes place entirely on the racing circuit. As mentioned, I’m a huge motorsport fan, and jump at any chance to run on a race track: as well as Silverstone, I’ve also done runs that have taken in Castle Combe and Goodwood (and I’ve already signed up for a race at Thruxton later this year).
The Silverstone route starts on the old finish straight, and covers two laps of the old grand prix circuit (it skips out the new ‘Arena’ section). And it’s always good fun, even if the weather is somewhat unpredictable.
The first time I did the race, it absolutely poured down and I got completely soaked. Last year’s run, by contrast, was held on one of those absolutely beautiful English summer evenings. This year was a bit more mixed: while there was no rain, the grey clouds suggested it wasn’t far away, and there was a fairly stiff chilling breeze (a common hazard on Britain’s race circuits, given many are ex-World World Two airfields).
Again, I set off without really decided on a pace strategy, figuring I’d just see how my legs reacted – which turned out to be fairly well. While a bit achey before the start, once I was running they loosened up quickly, and for most of the run any effects of the previous day’s exertions didn’t figure.
That was until I turned onto the International pit straight on the second lap, with about 2km left to run. The wind had picked up by this stage, and I was running straight into it. I could feel it slow me down, and that extra effort seemed to prompt my legs to remember I’d run hard on them the day before. They suddenly began to feel very heavy.
Still, I tempered that slightly wobble, and managed to finish strong. Against a huge field of competitive club runners, I was pleased to come home 160th, with a time of 41m 14s.
Now, the 26s gap between my two finish times would suggest I was slower on the second half of my accidental back-to-back… but there’s a twist. Every time I’ve run it the Silverstone 10k course has, by measure of my Garmin GPS, been around 180 metres long. Sure enough, comparing the results on my watch suggests that the 26s difference was largely down to a longer course. In fact, my average pace per km on the Silverstone 10k turned out to be… 4m 03s. Exactly the same as I managed on the Shinfield 10k.
Now, does that suggest I pushed to the max on both races, or that I could have gone really fast if I’d focused on one? Hmmmmmm…
Anyway, the moral of those story? Well, it doesn’t really have one, to be honest. Other than this: it is possible to run two competitive 10k races on back-to-back days. But maybe it’s best to spread these things out a bit…
It was a study in contrasts. Three weeks after walking to the start of the Chevron Houston Marathon among the stately skyscrapers and brown-beaten bail bonds offices of downtown Houston, I was back in race action. Except this time, my journey to the start involving a pleasant Sunday morning drive through the rolling countryside of Surrey and West Sussex.
On a grey, occasionally misty morning, my 60-mile jaunt from Richmond-upon-Thames took me through small towns and villages with quaintly English country names such as Haslemere, Fernhurst, Crinkly Bottom, Midhurst and Cocking (Alright, one of those isn’t real, as those who grew up in the mid-Nineties watching British Saturday evening family TV fare may spot…).
My destination was another quintessentially English attraction: the Goodwood Estate. Depending on your interests, you might know Goodwood for its grand stately home, its ‘glorious’ race course, its small airfield or even it’s sculpture garden. If you’re a motorsport fan like me, you’ll better know it as the home of the Festival of Speed motorsport event, and a historic race circuit that still hosts occasional revival meetings.
My destination last weekend was the circuit, to take part in a race – but there were no engines involved in this one. The circuit was the new-for-2017 host venue of the Chichester Priory 10k. A long-established fixture on the West Sussex running calendar, the race had previously been based out of the nearby county town of Chichester. The move was made, according to organisers, for ‘organisational and practical reasons’ – in part involving the challenge of closing roads in a busy town on a Sunday morning. Moving to a race circuit that’s part of an event used to holding big events must have seemed an ideal solution.
Once some teething issues are sorted out, I don’t doubt it will be. But last weekend… not so much. The problem seemed to be that substantially more cars turned up to Goodwood than expected by the venue and organisers (about 500 more, according to a local newspaper report). And venue staff and organisers struggled to get all those cars into the circuit and parked quickly enough. As the 10am start time for the race approached, long queues began to develop on the roads around the circuit.
I was completely oblivious to this. I always prefer to get to a race early to ease any parking-related stress, and arrived about an hours before the start. There was a short wait to get in, but I parked up easily and then stayed warm in my car until it was time to commence my pre-race warm-up. It was only when heading to the start area that I heard the commentator mention a delay.
The problem was exacerbated by the clever route the organisers had devised. The race started right outside the main gate of the circuit before taking in a six kilometre loop on closed-to-traffic roads in the local area. It then returned to the race circuit, finishing with a lap of the track. As a motorsport fan, I’m a bit of a sucker for runs that take place on race tracks, and this was a brilliant combination of a road run and a race track.
That said, having the start line on the road outside the circuit proved a problem: because it meant the traffic queueing to get into the circuit was stuck on the race route. There was nothing the organisers could do but delay the start until the road was clear.
The delay totally around 30 minutes in the end – hardly ideal on a cold day, but not enough to take the shine off an otherwise fun event with a great route. It did get me thinking though…
You see, a circuit such as Goodwood is, in theory, a genius place to use as the start venue for a running race. And I’m sure it will be in future, so long as the minor teething problems are addressed and organisers are ready for the right number of cars.
Why so genius? Well, think about the facilities needed to cope with a run that attracts nearly 2000 runners: you need somewhere for them to park (or, alternately, a viable way to get them to the start on public transport), and you need somewhere for them to warm-up and gather pre-race – such as a race track and big paddock area. You could do with some buildings for the race officials to base themselves in… just like the sort you’d find at, say, a race circuit. Oh, and it’d be great to have a really spectator friendly venue. And yes, you guessed it, a race track scores on that point too. The fact that race circuits offer several kilometres of smooth, traffic-free paved surface to run on is a massive bonus.
As noted, I’ve also done races at Castle Combe and Silverstone circuits, and both work brilliantly for similar reasons. It’s not just race circuits either. I’ve done races that start at other large sporting venues (such as Sam Houston Race Park in Texas, where I started 2017 with a 10k), and which benefit from offering a similar infrastructure to base a race out of.
Other venues can work: there’s a half-marathon which is based out of Thorpe Park when the theme park is shut out-of-season – essentially giving organisers access to a massive, unused car park. The Valentines 10k in Chessington, which I’m competing on this weekend, has used a clever combination of a semi-industrial business park (good for weekend parking when nobody is working) and a nearby college (a big building with toilets and showers to base the race in).
Schools and colleges, in fact, are popular places for runs to be based out of: when they’re not being used on a weekend they tick the boxes of parking, facilities and space really well.
Obviously for atmosphere you can’t usually beat the vibe of starting a race in the middle of a town or city centre. But such races usually involve more pre-race hassle for runners: they might have to hunt around for parking, and then walk big distances to get to the race start. That’s fine on occasion, but it does add an extra level of pre-event stress to proceedings.
By contrast, having a race based at an out-of-town venue in return plentiful parking, loads of space and access to some wonderful places to run seems a perfect compromise. And, once the teething troubles are sorted, I’m sure that can be demonstrated with next year’s Chichester 10k.
A week or so back I took part in my final race of the year, the Richmond Park 10k. And last weekend I tackled what is very likely to be my final parkrun of the year. Which kinda makes this the end of my 2016 running season.
Erm, not that I’m going to stop running between now and December 31. Quite the opposite. The Houston Marathon is less than four weeks away (eek!) – so I’ve got a good chunk of training mileage to go. But that’s effectively prep work for my first planned outing of 2017.
Still, it seemed a good excuse to do what everyone else does at this time of year – look back at the year and hand out some awards. Although when I say ‘hand out’, I mean that only in a metaphorical sense. Clearly, I’m not giving out any actual trophies or awards. What I’m handing out is some recognition, awarded entirely arbitrarily on my own whims among the 19 races I tackled this year.
So no trophies. But hey, it’s the thought that counts, right?
So, without further ado, metaphorically don your tuxedos, sit down, quaff champagne and settle back for the inaugural Atters Goes Running Awards 2016. Ooooh, aaaaah, etc.
The ‘blimey, I’m on the podium’ finish of the year: Luke’s Locker Run The Woodlands 5k (The Woodlands, Texas, August 27)
Okay, this gets the nod since it was the only time I’ve ever claimed a top three finish in a race. And given it was a friendly, $1 entry fortnightly event, it’s not like I was competing against a world-class, highly motivated field. Still, a podium’s a podium, right?
Let’s just not mention how I ran in second for most of the race before being outsprinted in the final 100 metres. I consoled myself that I only dropped the spot because as a Brit I was disadvantaged in the Texan humidity – until I learned the person who beat me was also from the UK…
Also nominated: Erm…
Best organised race: London Marathon (London, April 24)
Given this is one of the biggest races in the world, it’s hardly surprising it’s superbly well organised. But it’s not until you see it up-close and first-hand that you really appreciate just what a great job the London Marathon team do to ensure virtually every one of the 40,000 or so runners feels cared for and looked after.
Aside from the cheery, supportive and enthusiastic marshals and volunteers, the best example was this: before the start I handed my bag in to my assigned bag drop – one of nine lorries in my start zone in Greenwich. Around four hours and 26.2 miles later, I was staggering down The Mall past a big group of lorries. By the time I was within 20 feet of ‘mine’, a volunteer had spotted my number, found my bag and was holding it out for me.
Best organised race (non-London Marathon edition): Cabbage Patch 10 (Twickenham, October 16)
Exclude the London Marathon and picking a winner is really tough. Most running events in the UK are organised by volunteers from clubs, who put in hours of painstaking work and effort to make them happen.
I’ll narrowly give the nod to the team from the Cabbage Patch 10 (organised by the Stragglers and BeaRCat running clubs). Despite a year off from running the event, it went faultlessly, despite a difficult start that effectively involved stopping the traffic in Twickenham town centre, and a open road course that required plenty of traffic control.
Also nominated: the volunteer organisers of pretty much every race, ever.
Strangest venue: East Malling Research Station (Larkfield 10k – East Malling, Kent, May 8)
East Malling Research Station is almost certainly somewhere I’d never have been if it wasn’t for running. It’s an agricultural research station in the Kent countryside. Unusual, sure, but a good place to have a 10k race. Plenty of parking, and lovely countryside.
Still, running past Sainsbury’s experimental pear orchard was certainly odd.
Toughest uphill: rise out of the Embankment underpass (London Marathon – London, April 24)
The Embankment? A tough hill? Really?
Yes. Yes indeed. Okay, I doubt the total vertical climbing involved in a short uphill section on the Embankment reached double figures in metres. Most days, it probably wouldn’t feel like a slope. But in the 24th mile of a marathon, when exhaustion was setting in and my legs achieved the seemingly impossible state of simultaneously feeling as wobbly as a jelly and as heavy as lead weights… in those conditions, it was tough.
It wasn’t just a small rise. It was a mountain.
Toughest uphill (non-London Marathon edition): the climb to Tregadillett (Treggy 7 – Launceston, September 4)
This hill shouldn’t have been a surprise. I was warned about it. Heck, my mate Matt had been bugging me to head to Cornwall for the Treggy 7 since I’d taken up running, specifically for the challenge of taking on the hill.
And what a hill. After a largely downhill run out of the town of Launceston into the Cornish countryside, the course suddenly turns sharply left – and starts to go up. And up. And then up some more.
It is brutal: something approach 85 metres of climbing in little more than a kilometre, on a tight, twisting road with little false flat to provide any relief. Somehow I ran the whole thing. Although run was a relative term – by the end my effort at running was so ungainly, it may have been quicker to walk…
Toughest downhill: Ware Park Road (Ware 10 – Ware, July 10)
Running downhill? That’s easy, isn’t it? Not really.
Not when the downhill is particularly steep.
Not when the road has several sharp turns in it.
Not when the road is slippery underfoot.
Not when there are unmarked speedbumps right after a tight turn.
The downhill section of the Ware 10 had all of those things in one tight, twisty descent. It was fun, but utterly nerve-wracking.
Tedious running gag of the year: Ware/where (Ware 10 – Ware, July 10)
Running gag of the year? See what I did there?
I did a race in Ware. Where? Yes, Ware. But where? Ware, that’s where. Sorry, where? Yes, Ware.
Repeat ad infinitum.
If you can bear it, you can read a full drawn-out version of Ware/where obfuscation here.
Best start location: Greenwich Park (London Marathon – London, April 24)
The perfect place to start a big marathon: plenty of space so it never felt crowded, lots of drinks, and lots and lots and lots of portable toilets. And a huge, wide road for the pre-start holding area, along with a big wide road for the first section of the race.
Best start location (non-London Marathon edition): National pit straight, Silverstone (Silverstone 10k, May 4)
What’s not to love about starting a race on the start/finish line of Britain’s biggest race circuit?
This gets the nod for the excitement. The fact the wide track just helps accommodate the thousands of runners only adds to the genius of the location.
Best finish location: The Mall (London Marathon – London, April 24)
Come on, it’s The Mall! It’s in central London! It’s in front of Buckingham Palace! It had grandstands!
Yes, it’s a predictable pick, but still.
Best finish location (non-London Marathon edition): Sam Houston Park, downtown Houston (Houston Half Marathon – Houston, October 30)
This one’s also kinda predictable, but for a person used to running in little old Britain, finishing under the shadow of Houston’s downtown skyscrapers was a real thrill. Plus, the park was a perfect place for the post-race party and free taco stand.
Best post-race free Mexican food: Houston Half Marathon (Houston, October 30)
Okay, this was the only race of the year I did that offered free Mexican food at the finish, courtesy of the lovely people at Taco Cabana. All I had to do was redeem the free taco ticket on my race number.
One small point of order though… it may have been a free taco ticket, but the choice was actually from a range of burritos. Not that I’m complaining: they were proper tasty after a 13.1-mile run…
Best post-race baked goods: Ware 10 (Ware, July 10)
Take a race, and stick The Great British Bake-Off at the end of it. That’s what the organisers of the Ware 10 did, with volunteers cooking up all manner of cakes which were sold to runners and spectators at the finish. And the choice was simply incredible. The hardest part was choosing…
Strangest finisher’s goody bag contents: The Treggy 7 (Launceston, Cornwall, September 4)
The Treggy 7 was sponsored by Ambrosia, so I guess the inclusion of pots of rice pudding and custard in the post-race perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise. But when you compare it to the pile of bananas and chocolate bars most races proffer, it was an odd but welcome change. Bonus points to the event for also handing out thermal travel mugs instead of medals.
Best medal of the year: London Marathon – London, April 24
Yup, utterly predictable. Other medals may be funnier, shinier and bigger, but there’s no other medal I’m as proud of. And likely never will be.
Best medal of the year (non-London Marathon edition): Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon – Hampton Court, March 20
It was big, shiny and featured a cartoon King Henry VIII doing a Usain Bolt impression. Genius.
Also nominated: Houston Half Marathon (a seasonally appropriate sparkly halloween pumpkin with the outline of Texas in its eyes).
And, finally, it’s time for the big one…
Race of the year
Woah, woah, woah. Just hang on a moment. This is probably going to be a bit predictable, so let’s do this in reverse. You know, to build the tension or something.
Race of the year (non-London Marathon edition): Cabbage Patch 10 (Twickenham, October 16)
Maybe I’m a bit biased towards any run that starts near the office I work, passes right by my house and is rooted in the roads I train on every day. But the Cabbage Patch 10 was a simply brilliant club event.
It had the wonderful vibe of a club-level run put on by enthusiasts, yet mixed with a big event feel that befits the race’s long history. Simply great fun.
Also nominated: Houston Half Marathon, Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon, Treggy 7
Race of the year: London Marathon