Tagged: travel

Be quiet achey legs: the challenge of back-to-back races

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…

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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The other side of the barriers: spectating on the Brighton Marathon

Running a marathon is tough. That won’t be news to anyone, obviously. So anything that can make such a tough task a little bit easier is always welcome.

When one of my good friends signed up to run this year’s Brighton Marathon, it seemed only right to go and cheer him on. So, along with my other friend (and fellow 2016 London Marathon runner Matt) last weekend I headed to the south coast to take part in a spot of marathon spectating. It was a great experience – and it also taught me a lot about what it’s like to experience a marathon from the sidelines.

The first lesson: if you think the logistical planning involved in running a marathon is tough, try spectating. No, really, it’s complicated!

When you’re running a marathon, your biggest challenge is getting to the start on time, dropping off your bag and kit, and then getting ready to run. Most big marathons will take care of the rest: dump your kit bag in the right place at the start of the London Marathon, and it will be magically handed to you after you finish.

Spectators have a lot more to consider. You’ve got to work out how to get there, where you’re going to spectate and, if you’re cheering on a friend, what time you need to be there to make sure you see them. And you’ve got to work out how to do all that while trying to account for an unknown number of other spectators, and the disruption in the city you’re heading to due to road closures because, you know, there’s a marathon taking place.

It’s not easy, and requires lots of planning. On last year’s London Marathon, my brother managed to head to the start with me, saw me three times out on the course and made it to the finish – while also finding time for a Gregg’s sausage roll. I have a new-found respect for his efforts.

Me and Matt spent much of Saturday evening poring over maps and spectator information from the Brighton Marathon website, while poring over train timetables and parking options.

1A plan

Brighton is about an hour’s drive from my house, but with the city limited parking at the best of times, let alone on an unseasonably sunny weekend during the school holidays with a marathon on, the train seemed a better option. Well, aside from having to work our way around the inevitable line closures caused by weekend engineering works in the London area. And it was while delving into train timetables that we stumbled across a brilliant plan: don’t get the train to Brighton at all.

Eh?

Eager to avoid the huge crowds we anticipated around the start and finish areas and the centre of Brighton, me and Matt had identified a chunk of the course a few miles west of the town centre, in Hove. We reckoned the crowd would be a bit thinner there, and the twists and turns of the course would make it possible for us to see our friend four times in relatively quick succession at miles 15, 17, 18 and 24. And, almost by accident, we discovered a train route that went from Clapham Junction to Hove, without going near Brighton.

This turned out to be a genius move. The train was much quieter than ones heading to Brighton on the way down – and the difference was even more marked on the way back (a Twitter search for #brightonmarathon results in lots of pics of a massively overcrowded Brighton Station on Sunday evening).

The other great benefit of heading straight to Hove was that it made for a far more relaxed start. Because our first spectating point was at around mile 15, we had a few extra hours to play with to get in position.

Mind you, it was a bit surreal being stood on a platform at Clapham Junction at 0915hrs, contemplating that the marathon was starting some 50 miles south of us. And even more odd checking my friend’s split times through the Brighton Marathon app while on the train to Hove.

Those split times taught me another important lesson of marathon spectating: following someone’s split times is much more stressful than actually running one yourself! Seriously, every time check provided more questions than answers. Was my friend going too fast? Was he going to slow? Was that slight drop in pace planned? Trouble is, the only information we had to go on were the split times every 5k or so – a hugely incomplete picture. At least when you’re running a marathon, you know how you’re faring.

Still, our stress at interpreting split times was more than tempered by our relaxed start. We even arrived in Hove with an hour or so to spare before we needed to be in position, giving us time for an absolutely lovely cooked breakfast. If you’re ever in Hove and need a quality breakfast, I can wholeheartedly recommend Wolfies Kitchen.

2 breakfast

Fortified by breakfast, we then headed down to the course, and got in position. The Brighton course featured a section which involved running down one side of a street, doing a small loop and then running back the other. That meant we got two viewing chances for the price of one. We duly spotted our friend going past, shouted enough until he spotted us and gave us a pained wave, and then waited for him to return. I think we even did our part by giving him a bottle of water.

3 sign

We then dropped down a street and saw him again five minutes later, before heading further down to the seafront, where a stream of marathon runners were making their way along the final few miles of the course on the promenade. It was all wonderfully English seaside: blue skies, a pebble beach, brightly coloured beach huts – and an ice cream shop.

Wait, did somebody say ice cream? And Ben and Jerry’s ice cream at that? Is it wrong to sit eating an ice cream while watching people run a marathon? Probably. Maybe. But, well, it was a darn tasty ice cream…

4 BJ sign

Now, contrary to these tales of breakfast and ice cream (and I haven’t even got into the ma-hoosive sandwich I munched at Hove Station while waiting for the train home…), my Brighton trip wasn’t all about food. It was a chance to get caught up in the wonderful vibe and atmosphere of a big city marathon. And, in a way, it was payback time.

On both the London and Houston marathons I completed, the crowd played a huge role. The encouragement, clapping, cheering and support really did help me push on in moments when the pain kicked in and I began to doubt myself. So I didn’t stop at cheering on my friend in Brighton.

I’m not exactly the world’s most outgoing person, and I’m certainly not the whooping and hollering type. But I spent an awful lot of time last Sunday clapping, cheering and yelling encouragement at random strangers running the Brighton Marathon. And it was a lot of fun.

There was even some utterly random chat. Since it was a warm, sunny day I stuck on a cap in a desperate attempt to protect my pasty, fast-burning English skin. It just so happened to be a Houston Texans cap, which actually caught the attention of one runner, who somehow had the resolve to shout some Tony Romo-based banter at me as he passed.

A particular memory of the Houston Marathon was the encouragement that came from having complete strangers call my name – a benefit of having it emblazoned on my race bib. Plenty of Brighton marathoners had their names written on their shirts, and where possible I took to shouting their name in encouragement.

5 huts

Mind you, I learned there was some balance to it, especially when we were stood at our final spectating point on mile 24. There was an art to reading the body language of a runner as they approached: some were pushing on strong to the finish, some were gritting their teeth and hanging in there. A few looked utterly defeated.

I eventually began to read from a runner’s body language how receptive to cheering they might be. And, contrary to what you’d expect, those runners who were really struggling often didn’t take too well to it. Perhaps they were just exhausted; perhaps their time plan was out the window. Many just seemed to want to get to the finish quietly.

By contrast, many of the middle group of runners – those clearly struggling but still pushing on – really did seem to feed off the crowd support. And if, in some small way, my being there to clap and cheer played some small part in getting them to the finish, it was worth the aching hands that resulted in clapping almost non-stop for several hours.

With my marathon running friend having his family in town, and with our train home departing from Hove, once we’d seen him head past mile 24 we set out for Hove Station. By the time I was back home late on Sunday afternoon, I was strangely, well, exhausted. Spectating on a marathon, it turns out, is hard work.

That said, it’s nowhere near as hard as running one. Despite that, as much fun as my day was, it would have been even more fun to be racing, not spectating.

Wait, what’s that, you say? Entries for the 2018 Brighton Marathon are now open? Hmmmm…

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Random running loves No. 2: running in strange places

Here’s a really quite random list of places. Your challenge: to work out what they have in common (this is a bit like Only Connect, except with more options and not quite as difficult…).

Barwell Business Park, across the road from Chessington World of Adventure.

The Sprat and Winkle Line trail, Hampshire.

Sam Houston Race Park horse racing course, Houston, Texas.

Panshanger Park, Hertfordshire.

Parque de el Retiro, Madrid, Spain.

Leith waterfront, Edinburgh.

Sainsbury’s experimental pear orchard in East Malling, Kent.

Any idea? Alright, given the subject matter of this site you’ve probably been able to give it a good guess – so you’ve probably figured out that they’re just some of the places that I went running – either in a race or just for fun – in 2016.

Some of those places were lovely: The Sprat and Winkle Line was a pleasant trot through lovely English woods. The Parque de el Retiro was an amazing tour through a grand Spanish park. Some of them weren’t: sorry Barwell Business Park, but you are, and always will be, an anonymous collection of semi-industrial units. Although you do have that in common with the scenery surrounding Sam Houston Race Park.

But whether beautiful or bland, scenic or smelly (hello parts of Leith…), they’re all places that I was able to explore because of running. And for every place I’ve run that would make for a lovely tourist trip, there are plenty of others that I wouldn’t ever have gone to if I hadn’t been running in, through or past them. In a way, that makes running in such random and odd places – and yes, we’re talking business parks, industrial estates, schools, country backroads and so on here – really quite special.

Think about it. A joy of running a big city event like the London Marathon is that you get to see some world-famous landmarks from a different perspective. Running over Tower Bridge, or passing Buckingham Palace as I turned onto The Mall, during the marathon was a really cool experience. But it wasn’t like I’d never been across Tower Bridge, or visited Buckingham Palace, before.

But before I tackled the Larkfield 10k last year, I’d never been near East Malling Research Station. I may well never go back there again. But, thanks to running, I’ve been there, and I’ve seen it.

So there you go. I love getting the chance to run in some beautiful, scenic and spectacular locations – the centre of London, downtown Houston, heck, even just the Thames path near where I live in Richmond-upon-Thames. But I also love getting the chance to run in places that I might never think of visiting otherwise, no matter how unusual, odd, ugly or drab.

Previous Random Running Loves…

Random running loves No.1: footsteps