Tagged: weather

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…

Rain, wind, hills and traffic – welcome to Wimbledon

Waking up and drawing the curtains to find light skies and benign weather is normally a pretty good start to a day when you’re doing a race. Not this morning – because today it meant the bad weather hadn’t arrived yet.

Sure enough, 20 minutes after I’d first looked out the window, it actually began to get darker, as the bank of heavy rain that had been assuredly forecast closed in. By the time I left my house an hour later, bound for Wimbledon Common to take part in the Wimbledon 10k, it was raining hard.

You can’t control the weather, of course, and bad weather is an occupational hazard any time you enter a race in Britain (even if, as the forecasters harked on about this week, meteorological Spring has, erm, sprung). Still, it’s always a little off-putting when, the night before a run, you know that a nasty weather front is likely to be right over your head right about the time the start gun goes off.

Twenty minutes after leaving home I parked up near Wimbledon Common, and set off to collect my number from the race start. Wimbledon Common is, as you might expect, a pretty beautiful and well-kept place, but it loses it’s appeal somewhat when there’s a heavy wind, squally rain and mud underfoot. Still, that bracing wind did make it easy to spot the flags fluttering near the race start, largely by keeping them at quite the angle.

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Wimbledon Common looking glam

Having picked up my number, and braved a wobbly portable toilet (the wobble seemed to be partly the wind, and partly the fact it didn’t seem to be fixed to the ground properly. Either way, I was very careful while going, to avoid some unthinkable and unpleasant toppling toilet incident…), I retreated to the safety of my car until as late as humanly possible before the start. Oh, and added an extra long-sleeved running top, having realised my optimistic T-shirt set-up would clearly offer inadequate warmth.

Amazingly, come the time to decamp from my car and head to the start, the rain was beginning to ease. It was relatively light for the first few kilometres, and had actually stopped before half-distance. The wind and cold were more persistent challenges, but with the weather less of an issue I could focus a bit on what I figured the main challenge of the event: the hills.

Wimbledon Common is at the top of a hill: the race started with a plunge downhill, before then working it’s way back up through the residential streets of the not-coincidentally named Wimbledon Hill. When I decided to enter the event, it was partly because of the hills. So far this year, I’ve mostly done races this year on relatively flat courses, and I wanted to take in some races that would be charitably described as ‘undulating’ in order to force myself to push more on hills.

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The challenge was pushing hard enough to make the most of the early downhill section, without using up all the energy for the subsequent uphill. I seemed to get my pacing sorted pretty well, although it was a bit humbling to watch some of the quick runners doing the simultaneously run Wimbledon Half Marathon pull away from me, despite knowing they’d have to do a second lap. But, once I’d completed most of the climbing, and was running along The Ridgway (so called, you’ll be amazed to know, because it’s a road that runs along a ridge), I discovered that the biggest challenge of the Wimbledon 10k wasn’t the weather, or the hills: it was the traffic.

Yes, the traffic – and both automotive and pedestrian. The Ridgway is a fairly major thoroughfare in South West London, and at just before 1000hrs on a Sunday morning plenty of people were setting off on Sunday morning jaunts. Which made it a bit of a challenge when the runners needed to cross from one side of the road to the other. The only tactic was to run along one pavement, trying to focus on your normal pace, while also keeping an eye out for a break in the traffic to make a crossing. It wasn’t easy, especially because some drivers – both on the main roads and those traversing the residential roads the event went down – seemed determined not to make any allowance for the runners.

It got more challenging too: the final kilometrres of the course ran directly up Wimbledon High Street, in the quite posh part of town known as Wimbledon Village. At one level, it’s a lovely place to run: there were lots of posh shops and cafes to admire, for one thing. Except, of course, those cafes were attracting plenty of people for a Sunday brunch, using the same pavements the runners were charging down. It wasn’t exactly an ideal combination, especially because a small minority of pedestrians strolling in Wimbledon Village seemed put out there was a run going on, and pointedly made no effort to create a bit of room.

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Now, they’re shared roads and pavements, and it’s not like the runners had any particular priority or right of way over cars or pedestrians – something that was made clear in the pre-race notes. But still, a little bit of courtesy wouldn’t go amiss at times.

Again, this was only a small minority of people; several others took the time to clap or shout encouragement, which is always hugely welcome.

Thankfully, since the race field was relatively small, it was pretty spaced out as I ran the High Street section – but I imagine things might have been interesting for the half-marathoners on their second lap, when the shops would have been open as well as the cafes.

Nothing cost me too much time either, and if 41m 21s was the slowest of the five 10k races I’ve done so far this year, in the circumstances it felt like one of my stronger efforts.

Even better, in a fit of great timing, the sun was almost peeking through the clouds by the time I finished. Which made it a pleasant day to walk back to Wimbledon for a post-run coffee. And don’t worry: I gave the runners still gamely plugging on plenty of space – and plenty of encouragement as well…

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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…

Heating up in Texas: a Houston Marathon weather update

Yes, I’m writing about the weather again. Look, I’m British, it’s what we do. We talk about the weather. Especially when a) the weather is really very odd, as it frequently seems to be in Texas, and b) my experience on the Houston Marathon will be largely dependent on the conditions I’ll encounter on the course.

When last I wrote about the weather, Texas was proving surprisingly cold, and I was wrapping up as warm as I possible could for training runs in temperatures of -3C. Well, funny story… it’s now warm again.

On Sunday evening I went for a 10k jog in beautiful sunshine but with the temperatures barely above freezing – cold enough for me to break out The Hat I Can’t Throw Away.

On Tuesday morning, less than 48 hours later, I went for a gentle training jog at around eight am – and, despite cloud cover and very light rain, found myself running in around 17C heat and a surprisingly amount of humidity. Instead of freezing, I was sweating.

It was… confusing, to say the least.

Still, it was also useful, since – for what it’s worth, at any rate – the current forecast is for temperatures to feature daytime highs of around 25-27C (that’s about 77-80F) between now and Sunday, with overnight lows of around 15-16C (60-62F). Yes, those are overnight lows that are 15C warmer than it was in the middle of the day just four days ago. Like I said, Texas weather in January is bonkers.

Anyway, at least the conditions right now should approximate what the runners in the Houston Marathon will encounter on Sunday – although there is a greater chance of rain showers come the weekend. Showers wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, as long as they don’t get too heavy, and there’s another current Texas weather condition worrying me a little more: the wind.

It’s been pretty gusty round here recently, with quite a breeze rolling in from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s creating the sort of potent gusts that occasionally cause your car to wobble when you’re driving down a highway. And while such a breeze can be quite cooling – useful on a marathon – it can also be really difficult if you end up caught running in a headwind.

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Wind: good for flags, less so for running into

But hey, you can’t control the weather on race day, so when the time comes to start the marathon I can only run in the conditions that I find. But that won’t stop me being confused and slightly obsessed by the forecast.

After all, Texas weather in January is bonkers and unpredictable, and I’m British. Talking about the weather is what we do…

Sunshine, showers, storms, and… snow: welcome to January in Texas

A few weeks back, I wrote a great big Houston Marathon FAQ, trying to answer lots of questions about the 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon. One of the things I pondered was what the weather might be like on race day. In short, I had no real idea.

Well, I’ve now been in Texas for a week or so, and there’s about a week left until the Houston Marathon. So now I’ve had a chance to get a feel for the weather conditions it seemed a good time to have a second go at answering the question: what’s the weather going to be like on race day?

Well, in short… I have no real idea.

Really, I don’t. Because the last week has just demonstrated that Texas weather is bonkers. Really. Last Sunday, January 1, I tackled the Run Houston Sam Houston Race Park 10k on a fresh and cool morning. The sun broke through later that day, the heat rose to about 25C/77F and it was glorious, the sort of day when it was lovely to be outside wearing shorts and a T-shirt (although possibly not so lovely for people who had to see my legs…). On Monday there was an incredible overnight thunderstorm, with lightning and inches of rain… before it cleared quickly and turned into a simply beautiful day.

On Tuesday it clouded over, and the temperature dropped around 15F in, like, no time at all. Suddenly, it all felt a bit cold (at least compared to what you’d expect in Texas – it was still far nicer than January in Britain…). That wasn’t great for being out and about, but would probably make for far better marathon-running conditions. Except… the temperature kept dropping.

By Wednesday the wind had picked up and it was all getting very chilly. A short road trip north from Houston to Fort Worth didn’t help, since it’s a few degrees colder up there. But by Thursday the weather was hovering not that far above freezing. It wasn’t just ‘cold for Texas.’ It was properly cold.

And it kept on getting colder. On Friday the weather didn’t even get about freezing in Forth Worth, and there was snow. Yes, snow. In Texas. Alright, it was the lightest of light sprinkling of snowflakes, that were hard to spot as they flitted in the icily biting wind, but still. It was snow. In Texas.

I’m now back down near Houston, and things have changed again. The cloud has gone, replaced by a beautiful clear, blue sky. But it’s still cold. Blimey, is it cold. This morning’s 5k jog was a bracing affair in temperatures of -3C/26F. At around 9am.

Now, I’ve run in that sort of temperature in Britain quite regularly, but normally I have my pick of multiple wind-proof and thermal layers. I didn’t exactly think to pack them for Texas. Still, I bundled up as best I could, and in the glorious sunshine it was a beautiful morning to be out. Although I was glad to get back indoors soon after my 5k was done.

So what’s next for the weather? I really don’t know, although the forecast is for it to get warm – quickly. Here’s the forecast highs for the next few days:

Saturday: 4C

Sunday: 10C

Monday: 20C

Tuesday: 23C

Wednesday: 24C

Thursday: 25C

Friday: 24C

Saturday: 23C

Sunday (aka marathon day): 20C

Yup, it’s going to get warm again quite quickly. So it doesn’t look like I’ll be freezing on the marathon. Well, at least I don’t think I will be. Given the range of weather over the past week, and in the forecast for next week, I wouldn’t like to guess.

So, to conclude: what’s the weather going to be like on the day of the Houston Marathon?

I have absolutely no idea…

The last race of 2016: finishing where I started (but four seconds slower)…

My first paid-for race of 2016 was the Richmond Park 10k, way back on January 10. So it was kind of fitting that today I completed my 19th and final race of the year… on the Richmond Park 10k.

In January, I completed the hilly course in 41m 55s. Today my time was… 41m 59s. Four seconds different. Over ten kilometres. Actually, the difference came over less distance than that: according to my Garmin, I set identical times of 21m 01s over the first 5k of each run.

I can’t even blame the conditions for my disgraceful collapse in pace by four whole seconds. The weather records on my Garmin data showed the temperature on both days was an identical 6.1 Celsius.

The course was the same. The weather was the same. And my time was, give or take four seconds, the same. So… have I made any running progress at all this year?

Well yes. Of course I have. It’s been quite a year, in fact.

I’ve competed in 19 paid-for races – 20 if you could the Run the Woodlands 5k (which I tend to leave out because it only costs a dollar to enter…) – in two countries.

At the start of this year I’d never run a half marathon. Now I’ve done four.

So those 19 races included four half marathons, ten 10ks, three ten-milers and one random seven-miler.

I ran my first sub-40 minute 10k race (just: it was a 39m 58s on the flat, fast Chilly 10k at Castle Combe race circuit).

I also set a new ten-mile race PB.

I tackled my first big overseas race, the Houston Half Marathon.

That’s a pretty good list. Anything else? Oh yes, almost forgot…

I ran the London Marathon. I ran a marathon! The London Marathon. The actual London Marathon! In 3h 28m 17s.

I still sometimes can’t quite believe I did that…

In other words, I’ve done quite a lot when it comes to running this year. And this post isn’t an excuse so I can show off my achievements in a #humblebrag sense or anything. Honest.

No, I merely list my 2016 progress as a way of illustrating one of the strange contradictions of running. Running a race is a battle between you and the clock. The clock doesn’t lie. Your finish time is the ultimate record of how well you’ve run, and finish times are the easiest way to chart progress and form.

So being able to compare two race times set on the same course in the same conditions 11 months apart should give me a sense of my running progress, form and achievements. But… it really doesn’t. My running efforts in 2016 really shouldn’t be judged on dropping four seconds on a 10k course around Richmond Park.

In other words… the clock does lie, after all. Well, that’s my excuse anyway, and I’m sticking to it…

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The final medal of 2016. Festive goodness…

Cold-weather running gear: The hat I can’t throw away

This is a story about a hat. A black woolly hat, to be precise.

As woolly hats go, it is as basic as they come. It doesn’t have a fancy patterned design. It doesn’t have a fancy brand label on it. It doesn’t any fancy thermal lining. It doesn’t have any design flairs, or floppy ear covers, or a strap to hold it in place. And it certainly isn’t topped with a brazen, bouncy bobble. It is a black woolly hat; nothing more, nothing less. As woolly hats go, it is utterly unremarkable.

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Notice anything special about this hat? Nope, me neither.

I can’t tell you much about the hat. It doesn’t have a notable origin story: I found it at the bottom of a box in my house a few years back. It must have come from somewhere before it found its way into that box, but I certainly can’t remember buying it. I couldn’t even tell you which shop it might have come from: it is such a simple, basic woolly hat it doesn’t even have a care label.

In summary, it is a black woolly hat. Nothing more, nothing less. So how come it is a hat I can’t throw away?

For clarity, when I say it’s a hat I can’t throw away, that isn’t due to some sentimental attachment or particular fondness for it. What I mean is that it’s a hat I can’t throw away. Believe me, I’ve tried.

As best I can remember, the hat I can’t throw away made it’s competition debut pretty much exactly two years ago this weekend, on the Chilly 10k, held at Castle Combe Circuit in Wiltshire. The forecast for the day of the event was pretty typical for the time of year in Britain: a cold start with a fairly brisk wind, warming up a bit through the day. The sort of forecast that makes picking the right kit difficult.

The challenge was to wear enough warm clothes so that I wasn’t too cold at the start and in the early stages, but not over-dress so much that I became too hot late in the race when I was fully warmed up. I settled on a long-sleeved technical running top beneath a short-sleeved running T-shirt. But I was concerned about my head getting too hold. It seemed sensible to wear a hat for the cold, early part of the race – but I feared I wouldn’t need it later in the race when I warmed up.

I looked at my range of woolly hats, and none of them seemed to fit. I had some reasonably expensive ones with nice patterns and super-warm thermal lining. But they might prove too warm. And what would I do with it if I over-heated during the race? Pull it off my head and carry it? Didn’t seem like a good idea.

If I was going to start the race wearing a hat, I didn’t want to be burdened by it if I warmed up too much. Rather than carry it for most of the race, I’d rather just throw it away. But it seemed a real waste to pick a ‘nice’ hat and end up getting rid of it through overheating.

I found the answer at the bottom of a random box – and it was woolly, black, and utterly unremarkable. It was the perfect solution to my dilemma: the hat’s basic, simple construction meant I was less likely to get too hot in it quickly – and I could hardly have a sentimental attachment to a hat I couldn’t remember owning until I found it in a box.

The absolutely unremarkable nature of the hat made it the perfect solution. I’d wear it for the start of the race. If I overheated, I’d just pull it off my head and toss it in a bin whenever the opportunity arose.

Funny story: the hat kept me warm at the start, yet the weather never actually warmed up enough for me to throw the hat away. I finished the race with the hat very much still on my head.

Which meant I was able to wear it for the same reason again on the Kingston 10k the following weekend. And on many other subsequent races and long training runs since.

Essentially, if it’s cold enough to start the race or long run with a woolly hat on, the unremarkable black hat is my headgear of choice. A few times the hat has come off my head. Once, the wind suddenly picked up, I got cold again and I put it back on again a few hundred metres later; in most others case it was so close to the finish that it didn’t make sense to throw it away.

But I have actually thrown the hat away in two races. And yet still I own it. Eh?

The first was this year’s Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon. It was definitely woolly hat weather at the start, but after about five miles I’d warmed up so much the hat I whipped the hat from my head. Was it finally time to throw it away?

Not on this occasion. My Mum was visiting to cheer me on for the event. She’d come with me to the start at Hampton Court Palace, and we’d worked out that she was going to spectate near the palace gates when the race went back past there just after half-distance. So I decided to wait until then before throwing away the hat. As I reached the corner nearest the palace gates I spotted my mum, exactly where she said she’d be. Without breaking stride, I slung the hat in her direction. I wasn’t quite on target, but it was close enough for her to pick it up and return it to me at the finish.

That meant I still had the hat for this year’s London Marathon. Again, it was a cold start, but seemed likely to warm up. Perfect unremarkable woolly hat conditions. And, sure enough, about six miles in, I’d warmed up enough to take the hat off.

My brother came to the marathon to cheer me on, and we’d looked ahead to work out where he was going to try and spectate. His first spot was about seven miles in, in Greenwich just after the Cutty Sark. I knew which side of the road he’d be on, but he could have been anywhere within a half-mile or so stretch. Which the crowds at least three-deep in most places, it seemed unlikely I’d spot him.

Still, given when I’d removed the hat, it seemed silly not to leave it a bit before throwing it away, just in case. So I ran along, hat in hand, scanning the faces in the crowd, until – there he was. I spied my brother and, as I closed in and shouted some form of vaguely coherent greeting, I tossed the hat in his direction.

It wasn’t exactly an ideal situation for a hat hand-off. I was focused on running, the crowd left little room for a target window, and my brother had no idea I was about to throw him a hat, and was busy cheering me on and trying to take a photo.

As I ran on, I had no idea whether he’d even seen the hat being thrown in his direction, let alone grabbed it.

By the finish of the marathon, I was too exhausted to even remember the hat. After staggering through the finish area, finding my mum and brother and trying not to be overcome with emotion and/or exhaustion while celebrating, we limped on to a Pret near Trafalgar Square. After picking up a coffee, we couldn’t find anywhere to sit, so we headed over to a bench in Trafalgar Square.

By that point the heat I’d built up doing the marathon was rapidly fading, so I was quickly adding layers to try and keep warm. What I needed was something to stick on my head… and then, from his pocket, my brother produced the perfect solution: a black, woolly hat. An utterly unremarkable black woolly hat.

Of course, there is a weird twist to proceedings. The hat was pressed into service precisely because I had absolutely no emotional attachment to it. But not this hat has now served me so well on so many runs – and survived my repeated attempts to dispose on it – I’ve become quite attached to it.

So haven’t started as a hat that I can’t throw away, it’s now become a hat that I can’t throw away. Which, as the mid-November temperatures drop and I start to contemplate a season of cold weather running – starting with my third outing on the Castle Combe Chilly 10k tomorrow – I’m left with a dilemma. I’ve got a hat that’s ideal to wear for the conditions: warm and comfortable, but cheap enough to throw away if the weather warms up. But, if the time came, could I actually throw away a hat that’s served me so well? Hmmm…

Autumn running watch: when you just don’t know what to wear

It’s mid-October, so Britain is firmly in the grip of Autumn (aka Fall, for American readers…). An unseasonable burst of heat in September extended the Summer a bit, but all the signs that everyone’s favourite season sandwiched after Summer and before Winter is here. Consider the evidence:

1. Leaves are turning brown and falling off trees with reckless abandon.

2. Train firms are actually cutting back on commuter services for fear of leave on the line. No, really.

3. It’s still dark when I wake up at around seven am.

4. It’s getting dark not long after six pm.

5. The shops are full of halloween merchandise. Seriously, how much halloween merch is there this year? What happened to a spot of half-hearted trick or treating and saving the excitement for Guy Fawkes Night? (American readers: Guy Fawkes Night is when Britain builds bonfires and sets of fireworks to celebrate the failure of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Because of course we do).

6. It’s suddenly getting a bit cold, even on days with clear blue skies when the sun is shining. Which also means that…

7. Trying to work out what to wear when I go out for a run has become a nightmare.

Here’s the thing. Tonight I got home from work around six pm, and went out for a run about half-an-hour later. By that time it was basically dark. It was also kinda cold, especially with a bit of a chill wind. But it wasn’t that biting, icy winter cold. It was the sort of cold you felt when you first venture out into it, but can fight off with a bit of activity. You know, like running.

So the challenge is trying to wear enough clothes that you’re not cold at the start of the run, but not so many that you end up overheating near the end when you warm up. And that’s surprisingly hard.

A technical running T-shirt clearly isn’t enough. So a long-sleeved running tech top? Sounds good, but what if that chill wind picks up? It cuts right through a technical top. Perhaps the windproof running jacket, then? No, that’ll be too much. It’s so good at cutting out the wind and keeping the heat in that I’ll boil.

Okay then, a long-sleeved running top, topped with a short-sleeved running top. Two layers sounds good. Well, it could work, except my core tends to stay quite warm. It’s my hands that get cold. Gloves then? Let’s try gloves.

Aaah, but which gloves? My thin running gloves which offer a touch of wind protection but little added warmth? Or the ones with a bit of fleece lining I can get my fingers toasty in? Yeah, let’s try the fleece ones.

So we’re sorted then. Long-sleeved running top, short-sleeved running top, fleece gloves, shorts (I always do shorts, my legs never really get cold), running shoes (obviously), and no hat. Definitely not cold enough for a hat. Done. Sorted.

Fitted out then, I set off into the evening autumn gloom. Around 5k later, and… I’m a bit too warm, really. Particularly my hands. That chill wind wasn’t really there, and without that to cool me down my hands got a bit clammy and sweaty in the fleece gloves.

And so goes the challenge of picking out the right kit to wear while running in the autumn – when you try to predict the largely unpredictable. I know people who can’t bear the thought of going running in the height of winter, when it’s properly cold. But that’s never bothered me – I actually enjoy the challenge.  And, as a bonus, it’s far easier to work out what to wear…

Houston marathon countdown: 100 days to go

It seems no major marathon website is complete without a countdown timer on the homepage. In the build-up to this year’s London Marathon I’d regularly check the event website, and seeing the countdown timer drawn inexorably closer to race day was exciting… and a little bit terrifying.

The Houston Marathon website also has a countdown timer on the homepage. And as that countdown timer draws inexorably closer to race day it’s exciting… and a little bit terrifying. Yup, one of the early lessons of running a second marathon is that the slight terror of running 26.2 miles isn’t lessened by the fact I’ve done it before.

If anything, it might be a little worse – because I know how tough the training will be. Especially looking at the countdown timer today, to show that there’s now 100 days to go until the 2017 Houston Marathon. About 14 weeks. In other words, it’s time to begin ramping up the training.

Which isn’t all good news – because Autumn has finally hit Britain. After a late September summer swoon, the weather has snapped back to normal. The evenings are drawing in, and it’s getting chilly. I had to break out a long-sleeve running top for my post-work run last night – which was also my first evening run for several months to finish in the dark. That seems a bit ironic, since I’m preparing to run a marathon in Texas – hardly known for cold weather…

It’s going to get worse from here, too. The clocks go back in a month or so, and the temperature is going to keep on dropping. It’s not going to stop me running – I’m quite stubborn about these things, and have managed to keep on running in all conditions – but it can be hard to find the motivation to go running on cold, dark nights.

Finishing last night’s training trek in the dark was a reminder that there are going to be a lot of cold, dark nights between now and January. And, with a marathon to prepare for, that’s a lot of cold, dark nights I’m going to have to wrap up and head out on a run.

Still, when I’m out running in the cold, I just need to think warm thoughts. Apparently, it was 32 degrees Celsius in Houston, Texas yesterday…

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