The forecast for Sunday morning in Guildford didn’t look good on Friday evening. That it was going to be cold wasn’t really in question. Nor was the fact that a big weather front was going to be dumping moisture from the sky. The questions were whether that moisture was going to be falling as heavy rain or heavy snow – and whether there might be storm-force winds.
Normally, I’d only have a passing interest in Guildford’s weather, what with the Surrey town being about 25 miles south west of my house. But Guildford was also the location for the Hogs Back Road Race, an 11.7km run I’d signed up to run.
Of course, when I’d signed up, I had no idea what the weather would be like – aside from the general assumption that it might not be that pleasant, what with the race being held in Britain on the second week in December and all. But there’s not very pleasant, and there was the forecast for this weekend. With cold weather, heavy rain and/or snow, and potentially storm-force winds. Frankly, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it, especially given the course included 147 metres of climbing – the clue is in the title, since the Hog’s Back is an elongated ridge on the North Downs in Surrey.
Incidentally, I’m entirely blaming my mate and fellow runner Matt for my entry: he’d signed up first and encouraged me to join him. It was also his idea to do the ridiculously hilly Treggy 7 in Cornwall. He’s a glutton for punishment, or something.
It didn’t help that I wasn’t feeling quite at full strength. I’d been suffering from some form of mild illness, which left me a bit short of energy. I made it to yesterday’s Kingston Parkrun, but didn’t exactly set a quick time. After a restful Saturday, I felt much improved by yesterday evening, if not quite at full strength. Well enough, though, that I didn’t think I could justify sitting out the Hogs Back Road Race on account of illness – even I knew I wasn’t going to be setting a blazing pace on it.
The question about the weather hung around for most of Saturday. The confusion was that there was a big cold front over Britain, but a milder front sweeping in. What nobody quite knew is where the heavy clouds would meet the cold front.
When my alarm went off at six am on Sunday morning, the noise of rain pouring down outside gave me the answer. There was no snow. Just rain. This was probably good news, on balance, since a heavy dumping of snow could have led to the event being cancelled. When I’d gone to bed on Saturday night, I’d a quick glimpse at the Twitter feed of AAT Events, which organised the race, just in case they’d postponed it preemptively.
— aat events (@allabouttri) December 9, 2017
They hadn’t, and heavy rain on Sunday morning in Richmond-upon-Thames was a sign that there was very unlikely to be snow in Guildford, either. Again, this was, in theory, good news, since it meant the race going ahead. Yet as I contemplated leaving my house a good hour before daylight, in near-freezing conditions and with rain pouring down, this didn’t exactly seem like a good thing.
I did question my sanity for still going ahead with this when I wasn’t feeling at full strength, especially on the drive out of south London and down the A3, which involved dodging substantial patches of standing water on the road.
It was still miserably wet when I parked up on the grounds of Loseley Park, a 16th Century manor house set in what I think are lovely grounds – but which were mostly wet and bleak during my visit. Thankfully, the rain did ease off – as the forecast suggested – before the start, but it returned for much of the race.
Still, it had rained so heavily that much of the route was sodden, with standing water all over the place. The Hogs Back Road Race course, as described on the event website, is: “90% road and 10% gravel track.” This seemed roughly true. But that description was followed by the line “no mud”, which emphatically was not true. The heavy rain had washed muck all over the gravel paths. At times, the choice was to trudge through standing water or mud. Nice.
All that climbing didn’t help either. Most of the uphill was thankfully in the first half of the event, and wasn’t as bad as I feared: the climbs were mostly long but steady, rather than being brutally steep – although a few uphill hairpins didn’t help.
That said, about halfway up the first hill I realised how little energy I really had, probably a combination of illness and my relative lack of enthusiasm. I found myself ticking into some form of ‘survival mode’, and I trudged through the rest of the event at a pace that was some way from my potential – even accounting for the cold, mud, rain and hills.
I was genuinely glad to reach the finish. And I was utterly thrilled that I had a car for the weekend that featured both heated seats and a heated steering wheel.
As I drove out of Loseley Park, fingers just thawing on a warming wheel, I decided I perhaps should have trusted my instincts and sat out the race.
Of course, then the runner in me kicked in. By the time I was home, I was cheered from the feeling of having conquered such a challenge, and of having pushed myself to do something despite my instincts not to.
There was extra cheer, too, from downloading the data from my Garmin GPS running watch. I mentioned before the race was a very unusual 11.7km distance. Partly that’s because of finding a course that starts and finishes in the same place. But it also seems to be so the Hogs Back Road Race looks like this…
Somehow, that made it all worthwhile.
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) December 10, 2017
After weeks of anticipation – and with some dread – last weekend it was finally time to head back down to Cornwall to take part in the Treggy 7 for the second year in a row.
Now, the dread, it must be noted, was not caused by visiting Cornwall. It’s a lovely place, tempered only by being a flipping long way from where I live in London. But Cornwall is, as previously noted, also quite a hilly place. And those hills are big. And steep. And Cornish race organisers seem to delight in coming up with routes that go up them.
The weekend followed the pattern of my previous trip: it started with the Lanhydrock Parkrun on Saturday, followed by the Treggy 7 the next morning. The Lanhydrock Parkrun, which takes place on the grounds of a beautiful National Trust property near Bodmin, also features a course dominated by hills.
It begins with a fast downhill sweep past Lanhydrock House, a castle-like Victorian mansion, before a short, steep climb uphill into the woods. Then the fun begins: a frankly terrifying, dizzying, steep descent on a bumpy, rock-strewn, tree root-lined dirt track. There’s a brief bit of flat at mid-distance, before the climbing begins: a series of steep, steep, steep uphill slogs across uneven fields and lanes. Finally, the race finishes with a final bit of steep downhill on grass to the finish.
It packs a lot of elevation change into 5k: 122 metres of elevation gain and 143 metres of elevation loss – reflecting the fact the finish is just past the start line.
Still, on a fresh, clear, lovely Cornish morning it was worth the effort. When I first tackled Lanhydrock last year I stupidly forgot to take my Garmin, so perhaps mercifully I didn’t have any kilometre split times from then to try and compare my times to. But knowing the second half featured the bulk of the climbing, I realised the key to improving my form was to give myself plenty of wiggle room in the second half of the race. Having set a 22m 05s last year, I reckoned I needed to aim to complete the first 2.5k in 10m or so, giving me 12m to complete the second half.
Of course, the key to going fast in the first half was attacking that treacherous downhill, which was a big challenge in and of itself. I pushed as much as I dared, until I was at the limits of being in control. To paraphrase Buzz Lightyear, I wasn’t so much running as falling with style.
And, despite going as fast I dared – fearing that any quicker would likely pitch me rolling into the Cornish undergrowth – I was passed on all sides by fearsomely brave Cornish runners. I caught many of them on the flat bit – and then came the climbing.
It was tough. Seriously tough. Tougher than I remembered, in all honesty. It was a slog and I only just managed to run all of it. I say run, but on the steepest bit near the end it was more of a quick trudge.
Eventually, I crossed the line in 21m 55s, an improvement of 10 seconds on the previous year. A good result.
Now, my day of climbing hills wasn’t over. On a beautiful, clear day, my Cornish running buddy Matt decided we should do a spot of tourism and visit Rough Tor (pronounced like an internet router), which involved a somewhat hilly, but very pleasant walk.
It was hilly, but far more relaxed than the parkrun and offered some lovely views of Cornish countryside, the Davidstow Cheddar creamery and Brown Willy. Which, as you all know, is the highest point in Cornwall.
Stop sniggering at the back there. You wouldn’t catch me laughing at a hill with ‘Willy’ in its title.
Of course, the weather can change fast in Cornwall. And, sure enough, the clear skies clouded over late in the day and, late in the evening, it began to rain. A lot. And then it rained some more. A lot more.
It was still raining heavily on Sunday morning when it came time to leave for Launceston, the home of the Treggy 7. It was still raining when we got there. The rain eased up when we went to collect our race numbers an hour or so before the start. And then, when we returned to the car, it started to rain heavily again. And then it got heavier.
Around 15 minutes before the start it was raining faster than the drains could cope with. And harder than seemed at all sensible to go and do a seven-mile run in. But, displaying commitment that still seems questionable, we set off from the car and sprinted to the start. That involved descending a steep hill from Launceston’s car park to its town centre – and water was cascading down that hill at an alarming rate.
Mercifully, the rain actually eased up again as the runners assembled for the start – but it wasn’t long until it picked up again and, besides, by that point the roads were sodden. In places there were pools of water across the road; in others there were veritable streams running down the Tarmac. But it wasn’t cold and, in some ways, the conditions only added to the general merriment and challenge, even when the rain soon began to fall harder again.
It also took my mind off the mighty hill that comes almost halfway through the Treggy 7, a monster slog that lasts for around a kilometre and feature 85 metres of climbing. But, once on that hill, there wasn’t much that was going to take my mind off it.
Having tackled it last year, I knew what I was in for – but strangely, unlike the previous day’s Lanhydrock hills, it wasn’t actually as bad as anticipated. I don’t quite know what that was. It was probably because it wasn’t as out and out steep in places as I’d remembered – it’s a fairly consistent climb, which meant I could lock into a pace and stick to it.
Bizarrely, as with last year, I also drew strength by seeing other people struggle. That’s not meant to sound cruel, honest. It’s just that every time I did think about walking I found myself catching a runner ahead of me who was already doing so – and the fact I had more energy than them gave me the strength to keep on going.
Once I’d finally crested the top of the hill I was in fine spirits. The hardest part of the run was done, and now I could press on. Well, that was the theory. Turns out the weather had other ideas. For a start, the rain got heavier, and predictably the roads became wetter. There was a stretch of around 20 metres or so when the road was flooded with ankle-deep water. There was no way round, so runners just had to plough through it. Of course, doing so gets your trainers soaked, and horribly squidgy for the rest of the race.
At the top of the hill the wind picked up too – an occasionally fierce headwind that slowed my significantly. Visibility was also an issue as well, with all that water splashing and smudging my glasses. That made it difficult to really push on the wet roads on the downhill run back into the town.
In the end, I reached the finish in the grounds of Launceston Castle in 49m 22s. That was nine seconds slower than I managed last year, although my 61st place was 17 positions higher (and it’s worth noting that, despite the conditions, more runners took part in the event this year).
As previously noted, the Treggy 7 organisers like to give out slightly unusual prizes – this year there was a metal Treggy 7 water flask and a four-pack of Ambrosia Rice Pudding. I will savour that rice pudding, for I definitely felt I earned it.
There was a weird lesson too: having been dreading the hill on the Treggy 7 course, it turned out to be the rain I should have been worried about all that time. It’s a lesson that, even when you go back to a race, the challenge is never the same twice.
* * *
Tackling a race on a particularly wet Cornish September day might not be pleasant, but recent events in Texas do give a sense of perspective. However wet I got, my temporary discomfort was absolutely nothing compared to what thousands of people in Texas went through with Tropical Storm Harvey recently.
Thanks to visiting my brother and his family living there for years, I know Houston very well – not least from tackling this year’s Chevron Houston Marathon. Seeing pictures of roads I ran along for that event transformed into rivers of deep water has been a surreal experience.
Texans are a tough bunch though, and I have no doubt the people of Houston will recover. This British runner will be thinking of them while they do.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
There was also a great collection showcasing every event T-Shirt offered by race organisers.
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.
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) January 13, 2017
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.
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.
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.’
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…
With three days to go until the Chevron Houston Marathon, I did my final proper training run this morning (I’ll likely have a ‘shakedown’ outing the day before the race, but that’s purely to get my legs moving).
So far, my marathon training programme has taken me to some varied locations. I’ve tackled busy city half-marathons on the streets of Bristol, in the south west of England, and Houston, Texas. I’ve set a new 10k PB around Castle Combe Race Circuit in Wiltshire, and scored a first class win on the roads near Sam Houston Race Park in Texas. I’ve done long training runs on the seafront and country lanes of my hometown of Clevedon in Somerset, and also while dodging deer around Richmond Park near my home in greater London.
So it almost seemed fitting to do my final training run in a new location: along the seawall of Galveston, Texas. Well, why not?
The opportunity arose to spend a few days away from my brother’s place during my extended holiday/family visit/marathon-running trip to Texas, and hitting the coast seemed a great plan. So we decamped for a night to a seafront hotel on Galveston, the historic island and city on the Gulf Coast south of Houston.
That meant I could go for a morning run along the seawall, which is pretty much the perfect place for a final marathon training run. Why? Because it’s flat, wide and straight. In other words, as long as you can trust yourself not to run in a straight line, there’s very little risk of hitting, tripping or injuring yourself. And that’s what you want in a final training run, really.
The weather (yes, I’m already writing about the weather again…) helped: it was a beautiful warm morning, with clear blue skies. Well, apart from one thing: there was quite the sea breeze coming in from the Gulf of Mexico. It wasn’t the sort of crosswind that really causes problems while running – in fact, it helped keep me cool in the Texan warmth – but it did hamper long-range visibility a bit, with a haze of sea water being blown across the seawall.
Still, it was a lovely place for a run – and definitely warmer than the last time I ran along a seawall, when I went for a short run in the days after Christmas while visiting my dad in Burnham-on-Sea. There’s plenty to recommend the Somerset coast as a tourist destination, but I can attest that the Gulf of Mexico in mid-January is far more pleasant than the Bristol Channel in late December…
After a morning and lunch in Galveston (I opted for a turkey chilli with corn cake and rice, which ticked a lot of pre-run marathon dining boxes), we headed back inland to Houston for one more night away from the family. So now I’m staying downtown, within walking distance of the Convention Centre that will host the Houston Marathon expo tomorrow.
A late afternoon walk was a great chance for an early sample of the build-up for the big race. And the drive in even featured a course preview – the road to our hotel took us along the final stretch of the marathon route. There was even a late detour because the road we tried to drive along was actually shut due to the finish arch being built on it…
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) January 12, 2017
While that caused an unplanned detour, at least it means I’ve seen the finish line now. It’s going to be a lot harder to get to on Sunday when I won’t see it until I’ve done 26.2 miles of running…
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.
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…
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:
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…
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…
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.
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…