Tagged: training

Running sweet treats: childhood snacks turned exercise energy

Here’s an oddity. I took up running four years or so back as part of a general kick to become fitter, less fat and all together healthier. It’s clearly worked too. Not only can I now do things like run marathons quite quickly, but I’ve transformed my diet, cutting out masses of chocolatey, biscuity things and adding in lots of fruit and veg and salads and stuff.

The odd bit? Well, as counterintuitive as it seems, taking up running has helped reintroduce me to many of the sugary sweets and snacks I remember from my childhood but had long since moved on from, even in the worst of my ‘Fatters’ days.

Of course, this time there is some purpose to the sugary sweet things: it’s all about energy. If you’re going to run, you need energy: before, during and after. The science bit is that you need energy in easy-to-digest carbohydrate form so it will start working faster (I should add here, as should be obvious, that I’m not a trained sports scientist, so if you want the proper science best go look elsewhere).

That’s why the shelves of running shops and the like are full of those carbohydrate and energy-filled gels, all scientifically designed to get you energy quickly during exercise. And, well, it turns out that sweets such as jelly babies or jelly beans actually actually have a very similar mix of sugary carbohydrates.

Add to that the fact that race organisers like to give out treats to runners who’ve just finished a race – because if you don’t deserve a treat after a race, when do you? – and runners get plenty of opportunity to relive their childhood sweet-eating days without the guilt (well, with only a bit of guilt).

In fact, along with the almost inevitable banana (which I rarely eat, since I’ve already eaten one…), most races end with me walking away with a small bag of sweets that double as some fine childhood memories.

Here are some of the childhood sweets I’d almost forgotten about – and how suited they are to running.

Jelly Babies

A classic, although quite odd when you look at them through grown-up eyes. I mean, whose idea was to make multi-coloured sweets shaped like, well, babies? And why didn’t I realise during my childhood that eating Jelly Babies by starting with the head was all a bit sinister?

Still, there are few better sweets to eat during a long run. They’re practically the same make-up as most energy gels, but are a little more solid to chew on, if you like that sort of thing. And you can still actually taste them at that strange part of a marathon when your exhausted body start playing weird tricks with your mind.

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Cola bottles

In this case, of the Haribo variety. Fizzy cola bottle sweets are really quite sharp and tangy, which can make them something of an acquired taste when running (or, indeed, at other times). I’ve always been confused why fizzy cola bottles don’t really taste that much like actual cola, at least to me.

Incidentally, Haribo’s most popular product is its gummi bears, which also make decent running energy snacks. I find them a slightly tough chew than Jelly Babies which, for me, means they’re not so suited to mid-run chomping. A small packet makes a fine post-race pick-me-up, though.

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Jelly Beans

You can get these in Britain now, but they’re probably more of an American thing. They certainly weren’t as common growing up, which makes me somewhat less nostalgic for them.

The big difference between Jelly Beans and Jelly Babies – aside from the fact they’re less intrinsically sinister by design – is that they have a hard outer shell, so they take a lot more chewing. If you like to take your time with your energy snacks, that’s a good thing.

In America, you can now buy Sport Beans, which are designed as mid-exercise performance snacks. I’ve a deep suspicion they’re essentially exactly the same as regular ones, albeit in slightly plainer flavours (there are some odd flavours of Jelly Beans…), but even so, my Texan marathon experiences have made me a fan. Mixing energy gels with a pack or two of Sport Beans gives me a good variety of energy sources during a run. I think.

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Jelly Snakes

A variant of the above, really, and I’ve done a few events in the last few months that have given them out post-race. I’ve found they’re less than ideal for such a purpose, because they’re huge, so you can’t fit them into your mouth all at once. Trying to manage biting a chunk off a jelly snake in a dazed post-race aftermath is quite a challenge.

Fruit Pastilles

Another childhood classic. The sugar coating on the outside sets them apart from Wine Gums, and also reminds you they’re not intrinsically healthy. A little hard for chewing while running.

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Love Hearts

Love Hearts may be the oddest sweets of all. They’ve got a distinctive texture for one thing: they’re hard, and powdery or chalky in texture. But that means you can chew or suck them quite successfully. And they’re not quite as sugary sharp as other sweets, which is a bit of a benefit in the aftermath of a run. Which is good, because mini packs of Love Hearts seem to be a frequent sweet-based giveaway at the end of races.

But really, Love Hearts are odd. Odder than Jelly Babies, even. Who devised a tablet-shaped, slightly powdery sweet, looked at it and decided that a way to improve it was to inscribe love-related messages such as ‘Kiss Me’, ‘U Rock’ and ‘All Yours’ on them?

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Of course, this is only scraping the surface of the large childhood sweet tin. I’ll probably think of more soon – likely the next time I’m at the end of a race and there’s a goodby bag handed out. I may write about some more soon. Anyone got any childhood sweets they’ve particularly enjoyed reuniting with through running?

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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 Marathon 2018 countdown: one week to go

One week today, then. As I write, it’s exactly one week until the 2018 Chevron Houston Marathon. In fact, I’m writing this at 8.30am on Sunday morning, so if you conveniently ignore the six hours time difference between London and Houston, this time next week I’ll hopefully be somewhere approaching the halfway point of the Houston Marathon.

Which is quite an odd thing to reflect on, because right now I’m sat in London Heathrow Terminal 5, eating porridge while trying to comprehend how really not very far away the marathon is.

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In part, that’s because it still seems some way off. As explained previously, I’m taking something of a circuitous route to Houston – flying to Las Vegas (via, of all places, Dallas Fort Worth) for a work trip to the Consumer Electronic Show, before flying across to Fort Worth to meet my brother and his family, then driving down to Houston.

Although that wasn’t actually the start of my unusual travel schedule. Because, after leaving work in Twickenham – a scant few miles from Heathrow – on Friday evening, I headed down to Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset. Why? Because that’s where my dad lives, and yesterday was his 70th birthday. And, since he still enjoys (and is very good at) running, what better way to celebrate than by joining him on the Burnham and Highbridge Parkrun?

It was, in many ways, a perfect British winter morning for a Parkrun. It was cold but clear, and with only a scant sea breeze on the bit of the course that runs along Burnham’s sea wall (I’m hoping you worked out from the on-Sea bit that Burnham is a coastal town…).

Perfect then. Except for the frost and ice on the course. Slippery frost and ice, at that.

Things that are not good to do eight days before a marathon: fall over and get hurt.

Things that make you fall over and get hurt eight days before a marathon: slippery frost and ice.

Eek.

At the start, I didn’t quite know how bad the frost and ice might be, so I set off at my normal pace, and found myself nearly sliding off at the first bend. In fact, fearing I might slip up, I actually ran wide off the park footpath and onto the grass, which turned out to be really very muddy.

And, after that nervous moment, I found myself with greatly reduced confidence. On my previous parkrun outings in Burnham, I’ve done the first kilometre in something approaching 3m 50s. Yesterday I was around the 4m mark.

The course was then quite grippy along the sea wall section, but the final 0.75km or so was back in the park. And, as I tried to speed up for a sprint finish, I found myself sliding a little bit again.

Eight days before a marathon. Don’t fall over.

And so, memories of pre-run paranoia coming back to haunt me, my sub-conscience slowed me down, and I found myself gingerly tiptoeing towards the line, rather than staging an epic sprint.

My final time was 20m 14s, which I know isn’t exactly slow. But it was still the slowest of my nine outings at Burnham – by a full 14s – and way off my course (and 5k) PB of 19m 24s. And the time wasn’t due to lacking fitness: it was instinctive survival.

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And so, as so many people say, yesterday Burnham-on-Sea, today Las Vegas. It’s been plenty cold enough in America lately, but Nevada and Texas look to be warming up, so hopefully I won’t have to worry about ice for the next week or so.

No, the next challenge will be trying to rest up, carb-load and do all the sort of things you’re supposed to do the week before a marathon while working at a huge trade show.

But first, a transatlantic plane flight. And, for once, I won’t feel guilty about reclining my seat, watching a film and dozing (well, aside from the work I have to do while flying). Not sure how textbook tapering on a plane is, but let’s give it a go…

 

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…

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The pain of not running the London Marathon

Today’s lesson: it turns out that not running a marathon might actually be harder than running one.

Now, that statement is, of course, almost entirely untrue. There are very few things I’ve done that are harder than running a marathon. Running a marathon is physically and mentally demanding. It’s a personal, physical and psychological challenge. And even in this age of mass participation marathons, only a very small percentage of people have ever managed to run one.

Not running a marathon, by contrast, is easy. After all, millions of people don’t run a marathon every day.

Here’s the thing though: the Virgin Money London Marathon took place today, with more than 40,000 runners taking part. I wasn’t one of them. Last year, I was. And, frankly, I wanted to be out there again. Far more than I expected.

Now, I entered the ballot for this year’s race, but didn’t get in. I chose not to pursue a charity entry again, and since I’ve already run the Houston Marathon this year, I didn’t think I’d miss it that much. Sure, running last year’s London Marathon was a thrilling experience, but it’s an experience I now have and will never forget. But as this year’s marathon approached, my feelings began to change.

I’ve written before about the experience of running FOMO: the fear of missing out. Today was a bit different. It was, if such an acronym exists, a case of running KOMO: the knowledge of missing out. I knew exactly what I was missing out on. I knew the intoxicating concoction of emotions and sensations that you encounter running one of the world’s great marathons.

As this year’s marathon drew closer, even small events began to bring the amazing memories of last year’s race to the front of my mind. Every time a weather forecasters briefly mentioned the likely conditions for the race in their reports, I’d remember how obsessive I became with checking the forecast last year. Every time a news bulletin featured a story about a charity runner, I’d remember the joy of fundraising last year, and the honour I felt the first time I pulled on my South West Children’s Heart Circle running top (by the way, if you’re in the mood to donate, it’s still a very worthy cause…).

As mentioned previously, I did toy with the idea of going into London and watching this year’s marathon. But, in the end, I thought that might be too close. So I decided to revert to an old family tradition: watching the marathon while eating sausage sandwiches.

Sandwich

Yes, one year after I was pounding the streets of London, this year I watched the race from my living room while eating sausage sandwiches. And they were very tasty sausage sandwiches too (the secret ingredient: Gran Luchito smoked chilli mayonnaise. Seriously, it makes pretty much anything taste better…).

But while the sausage sandwiches and freshly brewed coffee tasted good, the more I watched the TV, the more I wished I could trade them in for a clutch of energy gels and a bottle of Lucozade Sport.

Almost every time I looked at the television, I saw something that reminded me of last year: whether it was the mass start in Greenwich Park, an images of runners rounding the Cutty Sark or just an otherwise innocuous street that I vividly remembered running down.

It brought all the emotions, all the sensations, flooding back. Watching the elite women and men race up a small rise on Embankment and then past the Palace of Westminster brought back memories of just how much I hurt near the end of last year’s race. Watching them sprint down The Mall made me reflect on trying to spot my mum and brother in the grandstand last year (I miserably failed: I made the amateur error of looking in the stands on the wrong side of the course…).

It was hard, it really was. So I eventually decided I needed to break myself away from it. So, naturally, I went for a run.

Although this was a run with a difference. There’s no shortage of beautiful places to run near where I live, but since I covered most of them during marathon training runs, I decided it was time to head further out of London. I hopped in my car and headed for Virginia Water, at the southern end of Windsor Great Park.

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I’d never been running before, so it was a complete change. And on a pleasantly sunny Sunday, I carved out a lovely route around the lake and up past The Totem Pole (a gift to the Queen from Canada back in 1958).

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It was all really very lovely: a relaxing, stress-free, brilliant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. But it’s not where I’d really liked to have been running today…

In short, not running a marathon really is rather hard. But only because I know what I’m missing out on. And, frankly, it probably won’t seem so hard tomorrow when I wake up and my legs are working properly.

Because, clearly, running a marathon is absolutely, definitively, unarguably harder than running one. So if you were one of the 40,000 plus people who ran the London Marathon today, congratulations. You’ve just done something utterly amazing. Enjoy it.

An open letter to anyone running the London Marathon

Dear runner,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, yes, it’s going to hurt.

But it will be incredible.

And painful.

But mostly incredible.

Honest.

James

London Marathon 2016 runner 47812

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Houston Marathon reflections, part one: first impressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on James!”

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

“Looking strong, James!”

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

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

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

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Houston Marathon countdown: Let’s go expo

I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: for a mass participation event, running a marathon is a lonely pursuit.

That sounds contradictory, until you consider that preparing for a marathon involves month of training, preparation and planning – which you’ll largely be doing by yourself. It’s only when race week arrives that running a marathon turns from an individual exercise into a large shared experience. And the event that kicks off race week for most marathons is the pre-event expo. Walking into the 2016 London Marathon expo to collect my race number was the moment where I fully grasped quite how big the event I’d signed up for was. Walking round an exhibition hall buzzing with the anticipation and nervous excitement of a mass of would-be marathon runners made me realise that I was just one runner among many, one small story of an epic tale.

If my experience of the London Marathon expo lessened the surprise element of attending the Houston Marathon expo – sorry, the Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Exercise Institute EXPO, to give it the correct, on-brand name – the event still provided a big injection of excitement and energy ahead of Sunday’s race.

The Houston expo was a slightly smaller affair than London – which figures, given there are fewer runners in the event – but it also felt a bit more relaxed and less overwhelming. It was a fun place to wander round.

Actually, having stayed in downtown Houston close to the race HQ in order to be close to the expo, it was great to see how the city is embracing the marathon. There was loads of signage up for it on lampposts downtown, and plenty of hotels and businesses had marathon signage up to. A nice touch.

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The basic elements were the same – race registration and packet pick-up desk, an event merchandise stand, sponsor stands with random freebies and a bunch of stalls from running groups, shops, events and purveyors of assorted products. But there were also some further examples of the differences in running culture in the UK and America.

For starters, as with other American races, the Houston Marathon features a T-shirt that’s given to you pre-event. British races, including the London Marathon, generally only offer finisher’s shirts. Although it’s worth noting that the Houston Marathon also features finisher’s shirts – so every runner who completes the course gets TWO T-shirts.

Well, I’ve got three, if you count the ‘in training’ top my brother bought me for a present a few months back. And, actually, I’ve now got four, since I couldn’t resist buying one of the classy official shirts at the Expo. Is four T-shirts for one event excessive? Probably, but that’s for British Airways to decide when they weigh my suitcase at check-in on the flight home…

There were also plenty of freebies to pick up, which could also cause trouble for the BA scales. Some of the corporate-badged freebies were similar to those on offer in the UK – such as fridge magnets, stickers and those inflatable ‘bang bang’ sticks (my niece and nephew will doubtless ensure they don’t survive to join me on the flight back to Britain).

But some of the freebies aren’t so common in Britain: half-marathon sponsor Aramco was handing out bandanas with the 13.1-mile race route on them. And capes (which, again, my niece and nephew are likely to be taking off my hands very soon). And Skechers was offering free dog tags and cow bells (I’m almost scared to contemplate the wall of noise my niece and nephew will generate with the latter…).

There were plenty of other nice touches at the Expo, including a wall that featured the name of every runner in the event. Since it was in alphabetical order, it was a nice touch to find me and my brother (who got me into this mess, then chickened out and switched to the half) right next to each other.

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There was also a great collection showcasing every event T-Shirt offered by race organisers.

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And there were also plenty of adverts highlighting a photo opportunity to ring the ‘PR’ bell if you set a new Personal Record (or Personal Best, if you’re British) on the event. The bell is sponsored by a sporting goods chain, which caused the very immature Brit in me to chuckle.

The most important thing to pick up, of course, was my race number – A1960. The timing chip is already on the back of the number, safety pins were included with my pack and, basically, I’m now all ready to go.

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The one note of concern coming out of the expo was based around a familiar theme: the weather. While having breakfast this morning, I received an email from the organisers issuing a ‘yellow’ weather advisory. The headline: ‘Organizers urge runners to slow down and adjust pace for Sunday’s race’. That was a worry – backed up by a big, yellow warning flag in the expo hall.

The forecast is now for temperatures to exceed 74 degrees Fahrenheit (around 23C) on race day. More worrying is that humidity is expected to exceed 90 per cent. The Houston Half Marathon taught me about running in high humidity, and it’s not all that pleasant. It could well cause issues, especially for a Brit who isn’t used to running in such temperatures on a regular basis. Oh, and given my struggles to collect drinks from paper cups.

Wandering around Houston this morning you could definitely feel the humidity, even though a thick fog doused the city early on. It was a reminder that you don’t need direct sun to feel the heat out here.

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The weather warning also highlighted one more cultural difference between running in Texas and Britain. One board in the expo highlighted the ‘event alert system table’, which lists the various warnings the organisers might issue for various conditions. The yellow warning – in effect for this weekend – is labelled moderate. But the bit that made me chuckle was at the bottom: the ‘<50F Cold Weather Alert.’

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So anything under 50 degrees Fahrenheit is classed as cold weather worth issuing a cold weather warning for. 50 Fahrenheit? That’s 10 degrees Celsius. That’s… positively mild compared to the English winter in which I did much of my training… And, frankly, I’d probably take icy cold conditions over 90 per cent humidity.

But, hey, you can only run in the conditions you have, and all that. And this is Texas, where the weather is bonkers and the forecast seems prone to changing by the hour. All I can do is rest up and see what things look like on Sunday morning…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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