London Marathon 2018

The short version

I completed my first marathon in the hottest London Marathon yet, with wonderful support from family and friends coming to London and many others more remotely. The crowd support was quite extraordinary. In common with almost everyone in the race, my time was slower than originally planned – in my case a knee niggle adding to the impact of the sun and warmth. Thanks to the generosity of so many, I exceeded my fundraising target. A great day for me, though tinged with sadness at the news that Matt Campbell, one of the many runners who collapsed during the run, has since died.

The long version

I’d stayed overnight in Gravesend in order to avoid a very early start from Suffolk, and so woke at 3am and couldn’t get back to sleep. I had at least gone to sleep at 9pm so still had a reasonable rest. At 4.30am I realised that, though I’d written an extensive packing list some time ago, the list was deficient in two items, viz. my bandana/buff which I’ve been using as a loose wristband for the last few weeks, and my headband. Neither is critical but it was annoying, though illustrates a danger of relying too much on packing lists. I sent Lucy a message in the hope that she could bring them with her and pass them to me in Woolwich. Getting out of bed and searching in vain for those items made going back to sleep all the more unlikely. The text message from London Marathon at 5.06am telling us it was going to be warm didn’t help, either.

Final test of the kit on Saturday. Note the absence of buff and headband.

I got up at 6 and left the hotel at 7, driving to Dartford, where I caught the train, mostly full of fellow marathoners; I chatted with a couple of them, one a first-timer and one who’d run it last year.

From Greenwich station it was a short walk into Greenwich Park, and up the hill of The Avenue. This was the first time I’d walked up this hill: I ran up it three times in a 10k race which is still officially my 10k PB but the true distance of which I have doubts about.  On my way up the hill, a marshal said “Good luck, Stephen” – reading my name from my top. I suppose I should have expected it, but it still felt surprising the first time, and felt good.

Walking through Greenwich

At the top I entered the runners area. I picked up a free bottle of Lucozade Sport to drink gradually before the start, and made my first visit to the toilet. I sat down and enjoyed the beautiful morning in Greenwich Park, and had my first banana, then decided to drop off my kit bag on the luggage lorry.

Picnic in Greenwich Park

Noticing that the toilet queues were now lengthening significantly, I joined one for the second visit. I found myself queuing with Mel Elliot, who had got married earlier this morning and was running the marathon with her new husband, James. She invited us to join her for a celebratory Lucozade at mile 7.

The queue moved faster than I really wanted, which left me wondering whether to join again or to move towards the start pens. I decided that I would be fine, and went to the largely empty start pens, and sat down on the kerb at the back of pen 5 and had my second banana and gradually finished the Lucozade Sport. A woman came and sat next to me and we chatted for a while till the pen was fairly full and we decided to stand up.

From the back of start pen 5, looking back across pens 6, 7 and 8.

The 4-hour pacers were at the back of the pen, as I’d known they would be. All the advice in recent days had been to moderate ambitions due to the forecast record heat. I’d struggled to give up my dream goal too easily, and the best that my head got in its battle with my heart was to try 3 miles at goal pace and see how it went.

An overly ambitious pace

The race started at 10.00, and about 10.10 we started to creep forwards. Having told those visiting London and further afield that they would be able to follow me via the Garmin Livetrack system whereby my Garmin GPS watch feeds my position out via my phone, I then spent a frantic 10 minutes repeatedly trying to get an Internet connection on my phone to set it going – the crowds of runners and spectators together saturating the mobile phone networks. Eventually I managed to get a connection, and hoped that it would work well enough during the day to be of some use to those trying to meet up with me.

We finally crossed the start line just before 10.28. Despite the phased release of the runners, the thing that was immediately apparent was how busy the course was. There were periods when there was enough room, then periods when I was repeatedly slowed down behind someone before finding a way to squeeze between two slower runners or weave round them. The 4-hour pacers gradually slipped away and I decided I would be quite happy with 4:12, one of my original goals.

At the bottom of the hill around 3 miles, we turned west towards central London. A short while later I found Lucy waving a flag – at this point I couldn’t read it as it was rather furled up, but I later saw it said “Go Stephen”. She passed me my headband and buff, and I gave her my hat, which I was worried would make me hotter, though it would have prevented my head from getting sunburnt.

The crowds continued to line every metre of available space. Some areas were quieter than others, but there was nowhere that could be called quiet. In common with most other people in the race, I’d had my name printed on my top, and there were a few calls of “Go Stephen” and the like, though a significant proportion, maybe a majority, of the people of SE London pronounced it “Go Stefan” which was mildly irritating. Later on, the people in central London were all correct in their pronunciation – no Stefans there.

The water started to be provided at mile 3, after which it was approximately every mile. Original advice had been to make it clear that you don’t need to take water every mile (most people collapsing have drunk too much, not too little, and when the marathon had run out of water in a couple of earlier years, the number of people collapsing went down), but in the light of the hot weather, the emphasis in the advice had changed, and at Expo on Thursday the focus was more on not taking more than one bottle per water station, and using some of the water to cool one’s body. So I took water at every place available, drank a small bit and used the rest to cool my arms, hands, neck and top of head. Because most people were doing similarly, rather than skipping one or two water stations, they were particularly busy and slowed progress a little. I gather that later in the race, the supply ran out at some places.

Although I saw quite a few fellow runners collapsed by the side (particularly in the middle stages) receiving medical attention, I didn’t feel hot or troubled. I monitored my pace but didn’t try to push it at all, just running at what felt like a comfortable speed, and one which was around 4:12 pace for a good while. Even that slipped slightly, but I didn’t let it worry me, continuing at what felt right with the time pressure now off.

Between miles 6 and 7 we went around the Cutty Sark, a real landmark on the route, and one which spectators were advised to avoid due to over-crowding. It was busy, but from my brief perspective not really any busier than lots of other places: with the growing popularity of the event, coupled with the great weather for spectating, the numbers of people out on the course as a whole must surely have been a record.

I knew my parents were at Surrey Quays just before mile 9, but didn’t have a good grasp of where exactly, and spotting anyone in the huge crowds as one goes past at 6mph is a big challenge, so I missed them. With a map in front of me now, I can see that they would have been on the left hand side, as proved by the photo they took, but while running along I didn’t even have that in my head so was trying to watch both sides at once.

Heading past Surrey Quays, missing Mum and Dad

Next landmark for me was the Guide Dogs cheering station, where I expected Lucy to be as well. To be honest the cheering spot felt slightly lost in the general huge level of noise, with lots of other charity cheering spots too. The crowd in general was so loud that quite a few people had brought speakers or loudhailers to help them be heard. I briefly waved at the Guide Dogs people, thinking perhaps I’d seen Lucy with a borrowed megaphone, though I wasn’t sure – it turns out it was a total stranger who I gave a big smile to. The cheering point had apparently been moved slightly, and Lucy wasn’t there but nearby.

Shortly after, as I approached mile 12, I got a message from my brother to say he and family were at mile 12, but unfortunately I didn’t spot them, either.

Crossing Tower Bridge is the next landmark, and in a world where the word “iconic” is overused, it is perhaps justified here. Looking up at the towers outlined against the blue sky was beautiful, and the bridge was lined with roaring crowds, albeit if anything quieter than the streets in the mile approaching the bridge. The gentle hill leading up to the bridge felt easy, and the hill down on the other side even easier and made that section with the electric atmosphere even more enjoyable.

Crossing Tower Bridge

My friend Claire was on the far side somewhere, but I didn’t see her either, so that was four failures in row – very difficult to spot people in the crowd, even more so without complete precision as to their location.

Turning right along The Highway, we saw the faster (and earlier starting) runners going the other way about nine miles ahead, and soon after passed the 13.1-mile half-way mark. We’d been warned that this is much quieter than Tower Bridge, and that the combination of the realisation that there are still 13 miles to go, seeing the runners so far ahead, and the relative quietness, can be mentally challenging. I didn’t find it so – there are always going to be people behind me and in front of me, the promised quietness didn’t materialise even slightly, and though I’d slowed a bit, I was still feeling quite strong.

In 2009 I ran the Reading Half-Marathon, and my right knee gave out at about 11 miles in, and though I could walk the last two miles, it didn’t let me so much as jog a few paces. The knee hasn’t much troubled me since, but today it did start to bother me. When I got to mile 15, I found my ability to maintain the pace ended quite abruptly, in significant part due to the knee suddenly troubling me much more. I dropped to a walk for a little while, then tried a run again, and quickly settled to a routine of between 2 and 3 minutes’ run, followed by 1 minute of walking, which together produced about 8-minute kilometres. This was much slower than I’d hoped to be going, but now the important thing was to finish, and I found this was something I could maintain.

As I ran south down the Isle of Dogs peninsular, I found myself alongside a man dressed as a toilet for quite a while. The crowd all around were roaring “Go toilet!”, which is the command we use when we want the dogs to evacuate themselves. As I was contemplating whether I needed to join the queues at the toilets along the course, it wasn’t helpful to have my attention continually drawn to this, so I was glad when our paths diverged. Fortunately, my brief need to stop also evaporated and didn’t return.

Most of the runners were in ordinary running clothing, albeit a lot of us wearing our charities’ tops, but of course there are quite a few in fancy dress – many of them starting behind me. In addition to the toilet, among many others I recall passing a man carrying a tractor, a man as an X-Wing fighter, a man carrying a tumble-drier on his back (it was reassuring to go past him), and a barefoot Jesus carrying a cross, plus a group of Grenfell Tower firefighters in full kit.

Jesus runs past Lucy early in the race – I think I caught him on The Embankment

Lucy had been able to give me very clear information as to where she next was, and I picked her and her flag out easily at Km 30. It was really great to see her. While my slower run/walk technique was still holding out, I was rather anxious about whether I could maintain it and whether I would finish at all. My knee was sometimes hurting towards the end of the two to three minutes, but the walk break was allowing it to recover so it didn’t bother me at all at the start of the little runs, but would that continue? In Reading in 2009, it gave out very suddenly, going almost immediately from painful to unrunnable.

As we ran towards and onto the Aspen Way dual carriageway, we had one of the very few lulls from crowds lining the route. That was soon followed by the left turn into Poplar High Street, now heading west once more towards central London, soon followed by the Mile 20 gantry and it suddenly felt like the home straight, the end was metaphorically in sight and I started to relax again. I’d heard before that a marathon is a 10k race with a 20-mile warm-up, and that seemed a very odd way of putting it, but certainly having less than 10k to go did feel a notable milestone in conjunction with the change of direction.

Crowds thronged The Highway to an even greater extent on the way back, and the “Go Stephen” calls were very motivating. I’d heard that these calls are great at the start but can be annoying by the end, but I didn’t need them early on but later they were helpful, especially when I could see the individuals calling out and thank them personally – eye contact making a definite difference.

As I neared the end of The Highway, coaches were passing along the other way, nine miles behind me, presumably mopping up the slowest runners, either requiring them to get on the coach or to move onto the pavement to complete their run as the road closures began to be lifted.

At Tower Hill, I found Claire and we exchanged a high-five – great to see another familiar face. From here, the crowds continued thick and loud for every step of the way, with even more enthusiasm for calling out support to individual runners.

Approaching and almost missing Claire

My run/walk strategy was continuing to work for me. I had enough energy gradually to speed up as I progressed from mile 15 to mile 26, by running slightly faster or with longer run sections, but I kept listening to my knee to drop back to the regular brisk walks, and was content to enjoy the experience now there was no time pressure.

If I had been pushing the pace, the very crowded nature of the course would have been much more frustrating – it was busy early on, then eased off, but by now seemed even busier, with lots of people doing the same as me, run/walking. That was fine when I was ready to walk, as I checked behind me, moved to the side and broke into a walk. But when I wanted to run, it was difficult to do so without lots and lots of dodging and weaving, which adds both distance and effort. Even without that, if everyone had been going at the same pace as each other, any hope of following the dotted blue line on the road which is the 42,195-metre route is impossible unless you are very near the front of the race. This was the busiest race I’ve run by some margin: I’ve had some busy starts, but no crowded conditions 80% of the way through.

Looking back at the half-marathon PB which contributed to my pace confidence, it was done on a cool morning, on an almost deserted route, almost completely straight, without having to stop for drink or food or cooling showers. Of course, it was done without any taper, and without any race buzz or crowd support, either, so the factors split both ways.

The crowds lining the route got even busier as we went along Lower Thames Street and along The Embankment. Near Hungerford Bridge I was looking for a first aid station where Mark, Debbie, Ben and Thomas were located, with an assumption that Mum and Dad might be there too. I never saw the first-aiders but did hear a call from the crowd and turned to see the family cheering me on, which was great.

Lucy was somewhere at the end of Whitehall for her final spot, apparently opposite some music, which I looked out for, but the crowd was so loud I didn’t hear the music until I was past it. I turned to look over my shoulder for Lucy and ran into the back of the man in front of me, so refocussed my attention on the remaining kilometre.

Although I was now full of energy, relatively speaking, and the large majority of my legs would have let me run much faster, conscious of the knee I deliberately timed my walk session to take me to the “385 yards to go” bridge, so that I could be sure of running those last 385 yards without break. And then it was the magical turn onto The Mall, the finish line, and it was done: I had finished.

On The Mall – almost there

My finish time was 4:52:11, making me 21,131st of 40,149 finishers. Considerably slower than hoped or planned, but in the record warmth (officially 24.1°C) and with a knee injury, still something to be pleased with.

A slow walk followed, to be awarded my medal, pick up my goody bag, and then collect my kit bag from the appropriate luggage lorry. I looked for Marion, who was one of the volunteers on goody bags, but didn’t spot her and my mind was not focused for a long search.

Baggage lorries and successful runners

Once I had my kit bag, I mixed my recovery drink and downed that. I could see the Guide Dogs reception up to my left at the Institute for Government, but I had to take the long way around, past all the prostrate runners, out through the exit, up the steps to the Duke of York’s statue and along Carlton House Terrace.

Mark, Thomas and Ben with the flag and banner

Lucy was arriving at the same time, and we chatted for a little while with one of the many people benefiting from a guide dog. I popped upstairs and got a little bit of food, by which time Mark, Debbie, Ben and Thomas had arrived. We had some quiet family time, interspersed with a massage and shower for me. Eventually we set off home, pausing for a photo with a guide dog.

Relaxing at the Guide Dogs reception

After effects

Sore thighs, but they let me go for a 3km run on Tuesday morning. A slightly bruised second toe on my left foot, but I think the toenail will survive. A sunburnt head – maybe I should have kept that hat on after all. Cramping feet on Sunday evening which made getting to sleep difficult. Sickness due to sunstroke during Sunday night. And of course that knee. But all in all, fairly modest impacts. No blisters. Remarkably little hunger – not the raging insatiable hunger I’ve had after many shorter runs. By Monday morning, I was 2.5kg lighter than Saturday morning, so still some fluids to replace.

Thanks to the generosity of so many friends and family, I met and exceeded my fundraising target for Guide Dogs, which is fabulous – thank you.

With a guide dog afterwards

The future

A number of people have asked: would I do it again? Maybe, one day. A part of me would like to do it in cooler conditions, with a knee that behaved itself. I know I have it in me to get close to four hours. But it did consume a large part of my life in training, and while I really enjoyed that focus and the new opportunities, I’m not sure I want that to be the new normal. And my knee was clearly not happy. So for the moment at any rate, a return to shorter distances.

The coveted medal

Dear friends (two days to go)

As I approach my run in the London Marathon this Sunday, I wanted to thank you for your support, through your words of encouragement and morale-boosting.

I am feeling excited but also a little nervous in advance of my first marathon, but I think that’s normal. It is said that running is a series of arguments between the part of your brain that wants to stop and the part that wants to keep going. The support from you all, in various ways and at various times, has helped that second part of my brain, to motivate me to keep going through training, and will help me as the streets of London stretch out in front of me on Sunday.

I am also very grateful for the generosity of sponsorship from so many of you. Some of the sponsorship online has been anonymous, which is understandable, but leaves me unable to thank those people directly, but thank you all – you are awesome!

As I write, I am 94% of the way towards my sponsorship target, raising money for Guide Dogs for the Blind. If any who haven’t sponsored me feel able to help this important cause, and help me to help them make a difference, and reach and surpass that target, then sponsorship at virginmoneygiving.com/StephenD would be really appreciated – or money via other routes is fine too (including after the race).

A number of people have said they would like to follow me on the day: if you would too, my race number is 40244. The London Marathon app (download from www.virginmoneylondonmarathon.com/en-gb/event-info/spectator-info/  or the app stores) should enable you to keep track of your “favourite” runners on phone or tablet – I’m not expecting Daniel Wanjiru (race number 1) or Mo Farah (race number 13) to be overtaking me, but if it happens, you could see it on the live map. (Note that though the main race starts at 10.00am, I don’t expect to cross the start line until between 10.22 and 10.28am according to the official timetable.)

Also, while I’m not a big Twitter user, my Garmin GPS watch will tweet a link to a live map of where I am – you don’t need a Twitter account, just go to twitter.com/StephenRDawson after say 10.30am on Sunday and follow the link which should be there by then.

Training has gone well, with no injuries other than a few blisters on my toes. I reached a long run of 22 miles at Easter, albeit deliberately slower than planned for the big day, since when I’ve been gradually reducing the mileage to let my body rest and recover. Some of the winter training has been very cold and with some floods to splash or wade through, but most has been enjoyable, and it’s been fun to challenge myself and execute the plan successfully. Just one run to go now!

Thank you again.

Picking a pace

A pleasant run 24km this morning, mostly on lanes towards Diss but including about a mile on a rather muddy byway. There were a few spits and spots of rain, but not enough to wet the ground, and getting distinctly warm towards the end. I found myself racing the postman in his van for several miles – it was a pretty evenly matched contest as he needed to stop so many times.

With two weeks to go till London, I still remain in a dither of doubt about what my target marathon pace should be. In an attempt to address that, this morning’s run was deliberately intended to be at 3:59-marathon pace. My logic beforehand was that as I ran an easier 22 miles last weekend fairly easily with energy left at the end, and if I could run at 3:59-marathon pace for 15 miles today on not well-rested legs without the boost from the occasion, the crowd, the fellow runners, etc, then it wouldn’t be a totally unreasonable target pace on the big day.

I kept nice even splits throughout, and finished a few seconds ahead of schedule, but finished in as much doubt as when I started. There’s a long way from 15 to 26 miles, and the last two today weren’t easy. Maybe I should adopt 4:05 or 4:10 as my target and take the pressure off myself.

The VDOT app on my phone says the half-marathon time a fortnight ago is equivalent to a 3:59:01 marathon time, which is encouraging.

The Running Calculator app on my phone says the half-marathon time a fortnight ago is equivalent to a 4:13:10 marathon time, which is less so.

The dither continues…

But on a more positive note, today is the 10th anniversary of my first outdoor run – I’ve come a long way from the boy/man who couldn’t run.

Peak District 35km – longest yet

I ran 35km this morning on the High Peak and Tissington Trails in the Peak District, starting from Middleton Top. (The photo shows a wagon at the top of Sheep Pasture Incline and the engine house which used to pull the wagons up the 1:8 incline). This was my longest run yet, done in 3h38. Despite overcast weather it was a glorious run in beautiful scenery. There were a few spots of rain but nothing that amounted even to a shower; there was some lying snow remaining from drifts in one cutting, but otherwise I saw none all day.

Lucy and I and the dogs have been spending the Easter weekend in a cottage in Wirksworth, and Lucy drove along the route, stopping from time to time to cheer me on, walk the dogs several times, and provide me with supplies – great fun (for me, anyway)!

The benefits of large-scale crowd support are well known, but even a solitary cheerer is still both uplifting and distracting.

I had the route almost to myself for the first half: indeed I saw 1 walker, 2 runners and 7 cyclists in the first 10km. But by the time I got to 30km, I stopped counting – at that point I had 92 walkers, 24 dogs, 6 runners and 100 cyclists, and the total would rapidly have increased after that – the last couple of kilometres were on the verge of getting tedious with people walking four abreast on the path and oblivious to other users (me!).

I was very pleased with how it went, and if it hadn’t been increasingly busy I might have considered doing a little more since although I was tired I definitely had more in the tank, but this was plenty as a training run and to give me further confidence for the full 42.2km.

Within the constraints of access to the route and what I could ask of Lucy, nutrition was very close to marathon day. I took my Camelbak with some water, but didn’t use much of it, so in comparison to the big day, I was carrying a little more weight than I will be.

I aimed at 6:15/km and overall managed 6:13/km, which was great, with the last mile being the second-fastest. It must be noted that the last 10km were slightly downhill, which definitely takes the edge off the effort, so this isn’t directly comparable with a flat race. It leaves me full of confidence at the prospect of the full distance, but still very unsure how fast I should aim at running. I am going to attempt a marathon-pace 15-miler next weekend, to see how I get on: if I can do that on still moderately tired legs, without complete nutrition, with a bit of up and down, without crowd support and the uplift of the day, then I can do that pace for 26 miles a fortnight later.

I was tired afterwards, but not unreasonably so, and went out again in the afternoon to do some walking and exploring.

Now the taper starts for London in three weeks.

Speedy legs in Essex

This morning I popped to the Essex coast for a nice almost flat traffic-free half marathon, from Walton past Frinton and Holland and back again, where possible using the upper and lower options available in the two directions.

The weather was cloudy and hazy but a perfect temperature for a run, with only very light winds.

Although there was a lot of sand on the prom, in general the conditions were close to ideal, and I decided to see if I could push the pace a little. I let my Garmin be ruler of my speed, and with the exception of the first slightly faster mile (no walking), every mile was within 3 seconds of 8:47 (including my 40-second walk).

The net result was a new half-marathon PB of 1:55:37, knocking 42 seconds off my previous best, which was very satisfying, and another confidence booster with four weeks till London. There were a few cheerful “good morning” calls, but otherwise not a lot of crowd support today!

I wore my heart-rate monitor for the first time in a while, and it showed a very even heart-rate throughout (with even a fractional decrease in the second half) which seems like a good sign – I’ll try to remember to wear it for next week’s longer run and see if the same pattern continues into the fourth hour.

Within sight

With five weeks till the London Marathon, I ran 31.3 km this morning, my longest run yet, in 3h14.

It snowed almost throughout but fortunately only very light, but the wind was gale-force so with the temperature below freezing (the Met Office said a “feels like” temperature of minus nine) it felt pretty chilly on my face but the rest of me was lovely and snug, wearing three layers on top (first time), leggings under trousers (first time) and a scarf/bandana (first time) and hat, with just the one pair of thick gloves.

About a third of the run was on tracks and footpaths, and much of that was the really exposed bit including along the top of the river wall for a few kilometres which was right into the face of the gale, but giving some expansive views.

For my longest run, this was surprisingly easy, all the more so in less than ideal conditions with lots of extra clothing (albeit that I wasn’t pushing the pace), and with the second half almost two minutes faster than the first, so I was really pleased.

I realised afterwards that my little out-and-back foray towards Hemley was longer than planned (I mustn’t have noticed my watch beeping to tell me I was off course) so the run was 31.3km rather than the planned 30.3km. That didn’t really matter except that as I neared the expected distance on my Garmin watch, there was no sign of the car and it gradually dawned on me that I still had some way to go – that last kilometre was therefore a bit harder mentally than it needed to be.

This was less than 7 miles short of the marathon distance, and for the first time me finishing successfully is no longer an abstract concept but something I can now visualise myself doing.

Bawdsey and Felixstowe Ferry

Getting longer

28km this morning, my longest yet. I found it went in four phases, perhaps more mental than physical.

First it was easy, as any run will be to start with. Second it turned hard with my legs no longer fresh and as I became aware of still how far it was to go. Third it became more comfortable again as the legs became metronomic, before finally turning tough but manageable near the end.

Long gentle inclines (even less than 1% slope) still get to me, particularly if the road is fairly straight too – my head tells me it’s level and that I should be able to maintain my normal pace without difficulty, but my legs disagree.

I ran slightly faster than intended, and managed to maintain that pace right to the end so that was very encouraging.

It was mostly on roads to the north of home with a lot of flooding to negotiate, with a little bit on field paths which were rather muddy and I lost my shoe once.

Cyprus half marathon

Seven weeks to go till the London Marathon, and my training plan had suggested a half-marathon race, and somehow that got turned into a short holiday to Cyprus. It was an early start on Sunday morning to get to the Cyprus half in Paphos by 7.40. I was able to use a loo in the car park, which was a good move as there were long queues down near the start. I had my second banana of the morning, topped up water, and then headed down to the harbour.

The start and finish were by the castle at the harbour, and though very familiar to me, still a great spot. The marathon runners had started at Aphrodite’s Rock at 7.30, but the start area for the rest of us was a little busy with HM, 10k and 5k runners all milling about together, but absent any instructions I headed as close as I could get to the start line, which proved a sensible move.

The temperature was unseasonably warm, being 19 when we set off – I’m not sure what it was later in the race but it reached 26 later in the day.

I wasn’t sure how fast I should run in the warmth and took it a little easy to start, and chose to adopt my run/walk strategy once again – run for a mile, then walk for about 40 seconds. I used this to set my personal bests at 10 miles and half-marathon, though on long training runs where the pace is lower, I stick to pure running. Not only does the short walk break, if adopted right from the very beginning, allow the legs to recover before they get too tired, and thus achieve a faster average pace than continuous running, it also makes drinking and eating gels or other foods much easier (even more so in races where the drink is in a cup rather than a bottle), but by being fairly regimented about the structure, it stops the temptation to walk for too long or too often.

Lucy and my parents had driven out to a roundabout on the course, which thanks to the doubling back of the route, meant that with virtually no movement they were at the 5km, 9km and 16km points, which meant for good support and also the opportunity to be refuelled twice: I deliberately timed my walk breaks to be as I passed them at 5 and 16 kilometres.

After reaching the high point, 60 metres above sea level, after 12.5km, I realised I wasn’t far off PB pace and was feeling good, so pushed myself quite hard, skipping the walk break at mile 8 as it was downhill, and having one at about mile 11½ instead of 11 and 12, and really trying to push the pace. It is amazing how a trivial upwards slope of less than 1% still feels vertiginous towards the end of a race – I’d never noticed that the coastal road past the hotels is fractionally uphill, but now I did as I fought to gain a few extra seconds.

I found I couldn’t quite make up the missing time, though, despite finishing with a 4:24/km sprint which passed a few people, with shouts of support from friends coming as I neared the line. I finished 13 seconds off my target, in 1:56:19. However, I subsequently realised that my PB was 1:56:26, not :06, and so it was a new PB by 7 seconds which is fabulous, and makes that sprint finish doubly worthwhile.

My last three halfs have all been within 7 seconds of each other, so good consistency too. A really satisfying result in the heat. I stopped to recover for a few minutes, and admired the astonishing array of trophies for the various age categories.

A great morning, and more marathon nutrition practice too. As a practice run for London, as an event in its own right, and as something to experience with family and friends, a success on all counts.

Then back to our villa with friends and family for well earned drinks, food, and a very bracing swim.

8 weeks to go

So, just 8 weeks to go till the London Marathon. So, how are things going? A good week, I think.

During the week, some hill intervals on the treadmill, a good paced 10km, some speed intervals, a swim and a good cycle. Then on Saturday I took the car to Melton and then the train into Ipswich, followed by a slightly looping 25km back to Melton, my longest run yet. It was a cold morning so I was kitted out in tracksuit bottoms, my warm winter top, a fluorescent top over that, my warmest gel gloves, and a fleecy hat, plus my Camelbak for water and to carry fuel. Possibly the most I’ve ever worn for a run.

There was a good deal of suburbia but I enjoyed the docks/marina at Ipswich, several parks, the minor thrill of finding a pavement added to a road since the Google Streetview car had been along, exploring some of the heathland at Martlesham Heath (most of it now being housing estate), running through woods, views of Martlesham Creek, a visit to bits of Woodbridge familiar from over 26 years ago, into Melton, round the back along some rural footpaths, a train leaping out at me from behind a tree, and finishing by the River Deben.

I also practised fuelling strategy, taking on Lucozade Sport drink that’ll be at the marathon (note: do not get this in your eye, it stings like hell) and for the first time a Lucozade Sport gel (much sweeter than the Sport in Science ones I usually use, but acceptable). I also had my planned pre-marathon breakfast at about the right time, and no problems experienced. I even added to the reality of the occasion by waking up before 5am and being unable to get back to sleep.

Sunday I went out to the headwaters of the River Gipping for a relatively gentle 11.5km recovery run, which went very well – no effects from the previous day’s long run.

I’ve run personal record distances for each of the last three weeks, running over 59 km this week just gone, as well as nudging the longest run up a smidgen. However, 42.2km still seems like an awfully long way! Work still to do.

Claire’s 50th parkrun

Today was Claire’s 50th parkrun, and someone who bear’s his share of the responsibility for Claire doing parkruns (and 10k’s and 10-milers) at all, I thought I would pop down to Hadleigh to help celebrate.

It was a glorious morning albeit rather chilly, with lovely views across the Thames estuary.

Claire was tailwalking with her Dad, dragging her “50” balloons with her, while I pushed myself hard, trying to get the pacing right – in round terms, the first third is downhill, the middle third is gently undulating, and the final third is a fairly challenging uphill, so getting the pacing right is not easy. The analysis on Radio 4’s ‘More or Less’ recently suggested that by some measures this may be the hardest parkrun in the country.

Anyway, something went right today and I knocked 50 seconds off my course PB to finish in 25:25, not bad with 110m of ascent – my running calculator says it was the equivalent of a flat 5km PB, for what that’s worth.

I then had another kilometre run to the car and back to fetch my barcode which I’d carelessly left there (you’d think I would have got the hang of this by now), and then twenty minutes or so of cheering people across the finish, before retiring to the café for a nice hot chocolate and chat.

I then changed from trail to road shoes, popped down the hill to Chalkwell on the seafront, where the sea was almost completely flat, and set off for a run of indeterminate length – both 10km and 10 miles were in my head. My legs initially felt very heavy but after about 4km they seemed much happier and I kept going past the potential 5km turn-round mark. I still felt good at 8km so decided that it was a lovely day for a half-marathon and continued further past Shoebury Ness to the remaining MOD property. On the way back, the pier seemed to linger in the distance for a very long time without getting any closer, but it was good mental practice, increasingly so as my legs tired in the last couple of kilometres.

Very happy with the morning’s running – albeit in three bits, the most running I’ve done in a day.

It was a chilly 1°C at the start of parkrun, and a warm 11° by the end of the long run.

Plans afoot

Since getting my place in May 2017 for in The Big One on 22 April 2018, I’ve deliberately run a lot more races than previously, with more in the pipeline. Those planned still to do:

In March, my first overseas race, the Cyprus Half Marathon in Paphos. In places it’s not the most thrilling of routes, truth be told, but a great start and finish, and having spent so much time in Cyprus it will be fun to run a race there as part of the London Marathon build-up, 7 weeks out.

Other possibilities: the Stowmarket half-marathon in March is very local and a possibility, 5 weeks from London. The Tarpley 10 or 20 in February is also very local. However, none of these quite fit the distances my training plan is calling for, so I’ll reserve judgement for now.

I’ve entered the London 10-mile in Richmond Park again in May 2018, having run the first one in 2017 and not done quite as well as I’d hoped. It’s only three weeks after the London Marathon, so I’m not sure whether that means I’ll be in peak form, or still gently recovering, or with a body just too focused on the endurance of the marathon distance rather than a bit more speed for 10 miles. We’ll see.

And after that – no definite plans. Perhaps the Perkins Great Eastern Half again in October. Definitely a 10k or two somewhere as that distance has been neglected with the marathon and half-marathon focus, and I think I now have more strength to succeed at 10k. And of course some more parkrun tourism, which has also suffered slightly.

London Marathon Meet the Experts, February 2018

at the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, 3rd February

The organisers of the Virgin Money London Marathon put on an event called “Meet the Experts”, an opportunity to hear from a range of experts to help those attending (almost exclusively first timers such as myself) to be better prepared by the time we get to 22nd April, as well as entertaining and inspiring us with some noteworthy previous runners. I got a free ticket through my charity, Guide Dogs. I wasn’t sure it was going to be worth trekking into London, but it proved to be very worthwhile.

Before the main session in the lecture hall, I had my feet measured for the first time in many, many years, and possibly the first time with such precision. My right foot is a 9.6 and my left a 10.4; my right is slightly wider than normal and my left about normal; my right is more arched than my left. I had my gait analysed, though with such a short runway, rather than a treadmill, I’m not sure how representative it was: the sponsors New Balance then tried to sell me new shoes based on their analysis, but nothing seemed quite right, and this close to the marathon it’s probably best to stick to what I know anyway. I already have four pairs of running shoes in action at the moment, which should be enough.

So, in addition to the entertainment and inspiration from some of the speakers, what did I learn today? Lots of little bits and pieces, some relevant to the next 11 weeks, others to the day itself. Quite a few things weren’t new to me, but hearing them afresh should stimulate me to do something about them. Though I may have mentally absorbed a few other things too, here’s what I noted down, together with some actions or notes to myself:

  • Lucozade Sport is available at five points on the route (miles 7, 11, 15, 19 and 23) – start drinking it during my longer runs, to make sure my stomach can take it and that I have a clear nutrition strategy for the race. [First test on 4th February showed no problem drinking it in principle, but I really don’t want to down 500ml in one go. I did one bottle in four quarters, spread over 3km. Probably want a running belt that can carry the Lucozade Sport? Do I still have my old blue one? If so, try it out as not used for a while now. Is it big enough to hold my new phone – probably not.]
  • Lucozade Sport gels are at 14 and 21 miles – try Lucozade gels, as the combination of the Lucozade drink and gels would mean I would need hardly any gels of my own. In some ways I’d like to avoid having a running belt at all, but it is handy for phone, gels and handkerchief – and see point above about Lucozade Sport.
  • Toilets are available every 2 miles from mile 1 – I hope not to need them, but it’s reassuring to know the option is there (regularly)
  • Baggage lorries close at 0925. Only the official kitbag will be accepted, but I don’t know how big that is. Get to the start in lots of time – allow time for baggage lorry and multiple visits to the loo!
  • Discarded clothing at the start goes to charities – look out for something warm that we don’t mind losing, plus bin bag if any chance of rain or excessive wind.
  • Wheelchair start is 0855, with para-athletes at 0900 and women’s elite race at 0915, so things for spectators to see before the men’s elite and mass race reaches them.
  • Mobile phones may not work near the finish (and perhaps the start) due to the volume of people – don’t rely on them for meeting friends/family
  • The meeting points are very busy to get to – it may be better to arrange to meet elsewhere, most obviously at the Guide Dogs place
  • Three critical things to remember: bag, tag, number
  • The routes around the west side of Docklands which look as though they pass each other are actually on different levels, though still potentially provide opportunity for very short walk between viewing spots.
  • Good spectator option is to start spectating near Canada Water (or Bermondsey), and then after I’ve passed, get Jubilee Line train to Canary Wharf, from where walk to where can see again (possibly even twice more). Trains will be very busy – be mentally prepared for queues and waiting. Then either to meeting area or to the Embankment – if the latter, don’t go too near Westminster as very busy.
  • There are Runners World pacers – in 2017 at any rate, the relevant options for me would be 3h56, 4h15 and 4h30. At the moment I don’t have a target finish time (I have a range: 3h59 to 4h26). Unless I can get near one at the start, there’s little point, and there is a danger that I run too fast (or even too slow). Also, I don’t know which starting pen I will be in (I’ve no recollection of what I put as my estimated finish time) but I’d need to be in the same pen as the relevant pacer otherwise we’d be too widely separated. In next 76 days, get clearer idea of target pace – think in terms of target pace, not target finish time for now.
  • #SpiritOfLondon is this year’s official hashtag
  • Get my name printed on my t-shirt – find out how!
  • Think about what I will eat in the morning of the race (particularly as most of my long runs are done first thing in the morning, without significant food). Early breakfast (but what?). Pre-run snack: banana? (Yoghurt, toast with cheese, etc. may be ok before training, but less practical before the race.)
  • Suggested to drink 400-800ml per hour. Five full Lucozade Sports is within that for four hours, so may not need much else if I get them all down me. When I tested myself, I found I lost 2.5l in a two hour half-marathon, so 5l in a marathon which suggests I should be drinking at the upper end of that range.
  • The most common reason for people dropping out is drinking too much water.
  • Only 500 people drop out – nearly 99% of people who start, finish.
  • Around 500 people who collect their number etc. in the four days before the race, fail to start. I wonder why?
  • I will be going from the Red Start. If I come in from Kent, as I’m currently planning to do, I will be able to walk from Blackheath if that looks the best train option, though Maze Hill and Greenwich are the official stations for the Red start – but there will be no barriers to prevent me walking through from Blackheath.
  • Recovery food after long runs: fluid (milk, greek yoghurt, recovery drinks); carbs; high protein (for each meal during the day after the long run).
  • Avoid hitting the Wall – it’s not inevitable. Have a race day nutrition plan, carb load for the 2 days prior to the race, taper properly, run at a consistent sensible pace
  • Don’t start too fast. Don’t start too fast. Don’t start too fast. Don’t start too fast.
  • Runners knee exercises – investigate exercises to strengthen appropriate muscles. Look at other strengthening exercises though experience to date suggests knee is most vulnerable and other common problems haven’t bothered me so far.
  • Investigate books by Paul Hoborough [bought one], Vassos Alexander [put on wish list for now], Ben Smith (in April) [put on wish list for now]
  • Investigate Marathon Talk website/podcasts (Martin Yelling) [most recent two now downloaded ready to listen to]
  • Give more consideration to psychology of running – a good proportion of success is mental. [I’ve bought two books.]
  • Identify a mantra for me, e.g. “That medal is mine”, “I will succeed”; and when necessary say it to myself over and over
  • Work on visualisation – for example, imagine myself crossing the finish line (and possibly a time?)
  • Work on distraction – think about afterwards, about Facebook messages I’ll post, identify the best banners seen, the best costume, attractive runners
  • Smile while running – it reduces perceived effort and increases running efficiency
  • Plan in advance my tactics for dealing with the mental challenges of the day
  • Be as prepared as possible with all the details of the day, so that all the focus is purely on running
  • My race preparation is well ahead of many people – keep positive.

Hadleigh 2012 Legacy 10k, January 2018

Part of the legacy of the 2012 Olympics is the mountain-bike course at Hadleigh in Essex, including some rather challenging terrain for bikes.

Arising from that is the slightly confusingly named Hadleigh 2012 Legacy 10k, confusing only in the sense that one must understand that the 2012 doesn’t refer to the year of the event, a 10k run around the course.

I did this last year, and said at the time it was the hardest 10k I’ve done, and 12 months later I still agree. Somehow I was persuaded to come back for a second go. We’ve had much wetter weather recently, so I expected conditions underfoot to be tougher. They were, but only a little, as despite one’s distorted memories, the large majority of the route is on firm gravel surfaces. But the muddy bits were definitely muddier and I was restricted to an inelegant stumbling, flailing walk on them.

The route is essentially all hill (or is to the eyes and legs of someone who started all his running on the flood plain of the River Lee), with around 300 metres of ascent in its 10km – not much by some standards, but plenty for me. Some of it is very rocky too, and running up it is quite a challenge.

There are two tunnels on each of the two laps, and a 270° corner where you loop tightly around above the runners just behind you. There are zig-zags to get up hills which my Strava plot tells me peak at a 41° slope. And there is a grassy section some of which rapidly turns to mud on a sideways slope – interesting!

My hope had been to beat last year’s time, but I didn’t manage it, being about 1½ minutes slower – perhaps I set off too fast (though most of the start is downhill), perhaps the extra muddiness took its toll, perhaps it was just that it was windier than last year, or maybe despite the marathon training I’m still not quite at peak fitness yet. I think there was also a little mental challenge which I didn’t quite overcome – once I decided I definitely wasn’t going to beat last year, I perhaps was too content to walk up some of the hills that I ran up last year, though I note that the winner was almost two minutes slower than last year too, which I take some heart from.

By contrast Claire, whose idea it was originally for us to run it, knocked several minutes off her time – well done Claire! She has just crossed the finish here so is showing the agony I’d been showing a bit before, while I’ve had chance to recover.

Review of the year

So, how did 2017’s running go? I’m pretty pleased.

    • I gained a place in the London Marathon for April 2018 (I’m looking for sponsorship in aid of Guide Dogs) which added a major new goal, and as a result from May 2017 I’ve run a half-marathon every month: it’s not easy yet, but the distance is not nearly as daunting as it once was.
    • I enjoyed 10 different races: the challenge and variety of Hadleigh Legacy 10k which I’ll be doing again in 2018; Greenwich Park 10k where despite the hills I got a great time; the old familiar ground of the Lee Valley Run Fest 10k; the different challenge of 10 laps of the Lee Valley Velopark for the 10-mile there; the London 10 mile in the glorious scenery of Richmond Park; the delights of the Great Yarmouth half with the thrill of a new PB; my shortest race in the Stowmarket Golden Mile; the new challenges and pleasant scenery of my first trail half in Kings Forest; the flat Great Eastern Run half-marathon in Peterborough where the crowds helped to propel me to another PB; and another different environment in the Snetterton Race Track half-marathon, where I managed to equal my half PB.
    • I set new personal best times at every distance I monitor, from 1 km to half-marathon.
    • I ran 1331 km, the furthest I’ve run in a year, including finishing the year on 31st December with my longest run yet.
    • heart beats per km fell 5.2%, hopefully a further indicator of improving fitness
    • I met my commitment to go to new places, visiting 512 different map squares, the most in a year (including 394 not been to at all before) – that expanded my red visited squares in Suffolk (the green boundary), as well as taking me to my 53rd different parkrun location.

Druridge Bay – parkrun location 52

My 52nd parkrun location for this morning was an icy Druridge Bay, the most northerly parkrun in England while we were spending a weekend in Northumberland. While I was waiting in the cold and then running, Lucy took the dogs for a walk along the beach and found a couple of geocaches.

The route is two (well, about 1.9) very attractive laps of the lake, with some gentle undulations, some in the woods and some more open. And in the frozen north it was my first parkrun in a hat.

There were a few icy patches, but it was possible to find a route around them all without much difficulty.

I’d intended to take it relatively easy, but once I got warmed up I found someone to chase (thank you Jilly Bell), and she pulled me round increasingly quickly so the second lap was 40 secs per km faster than the first (and didn’t need a hat). Good start to the day.