South Woodham Ferrers (66)

Looking east down the River Crouch from near the start.

So having completed Cambridgeshire again last week, today it was time to return to Essex, and to South Woodham Ferrers parkrun on the River Crouch. I parked the car as instructed in the car park of Marsh Farm Animal Adventure Park, but there were surprisingly few other people about, and as I jogged down the path to the river, when I got to the south end, I turned back and looked along the path: no-one was behind me. However, I continued on, and found that almost everyone had parked in the car park for Marsh Farm Country Park, which is rather more convenient.

And they’re off…

After the briefings, we moved across the car park to the start, and were soon underway. The course runs around the car park onto the sea wall, which it follows for a little while before descending onto the marshes and going inland for a little while, eventually reaching another river wall at Clementsgreen Creek which we followed for a while before reversing our route on a track below the river wall, then taking a different route back to the River Crouch, eventually rejoining the outward route which we followed back to the finish funnel. I didn’t manage to find anyone to latch onto for an extended period today, four people fulfilling the role, each for a little while: the first three I eventually overtook; the fourth sprinted away from me every time I caught her up, and in the end finished eight seconds in front of me.

River Crouch looking upriver

A really lovely course. Final time 25:39, finishing 26th of 103.

Incidentally, I came across the 5000m dash-board today, which shows the numbers of people who have run all the parkruns in a particular area, and how others (including me) are progressing. It reports that there are only two people who’ve run all the East of England parkruns, and there are only another two people who’ve done more than 60 of the 70 runs in the region – clearly completion, or being very close to completion, is not a widespread thing. The site says I’m 18th equal on the list, and with 22 more to go I will take a while to rise up the rankings.

Commiserations

So, no place for me in next year’s London Marathon in the ballot – like 2018, but unlike 2018 I don’t plan to seek a charity place. I am proud of the funds I helped raise this year, and very grateful to family, friends and colleagues in their support, but I don’t want to put either myself or them in the position of asking for more money again so soon.

But I do still feel like I have unfinished business – I didn’t entirely succeed in what I aimed to do from a running point of view, particularly once my knee gave out at about mile 14 and so the second half turned into run-walk and my pace was much slower than planned.

So I’ve booked myself in for the MK Marathon on Monday 6 May after a good deal of deliberation as to where I wanted to run. It’s slightly more undulating than I would have liked, but I think the style of the course will suit me, and it’s not impractical to go and practice run on some sections over the winter. I did consider the Boston marathon (the one in Lincolnshire) as being the flattest in the country, but the course isn’t inspiring and it could be really challenging if a bit windy.

And in advance of that, Lucy and I will be spending a long weekend in Vienna at the start of April, when I’ll be running the Vienna City half marathon, fuelled by schnitzel and a slice of Sachertorte.

parkrun catch-up (numbers 98 to 104)

It’s been a little while since I posted here, during which time I’ve had a few more great Saturday morning parkrun experiences, so here’s a brief recap:

Harlow parkrun – location 60 for parkrun #98

me, Alex and Catherine

Harlow parkrun (my 60th different parkrun location) was an opportunity to meet with my friend Catherine and her daughter Alex. It’s described as an “undulating” course, and that sums it up: not actually a huge amount of ascent (just 53 metres) but it makes its presence felt more than one might expect. There’s a mixture of woodland and some very brown grass. The uphill start was very congested, but after a while I was able to stretch out a bit. Once I’d finished, I went back to find Catherine and and Alex and ran the last lap with them. We chatted for a while then Catherine took Alex off to get her ears pierced.

Felixstowe parkrun – parkrun #99

The plan to meet up with a friend in Clacton was abandoned as she wasn’t well, so Lucy and I went to Felixstowe for my second visit, where parkrun is along the prom: pancake flat apart from the gentlest of rises over the entrance to the pier. I set off too fast (5km PB pace) and couldn’t keep it up, but still finished in a good time. It’s a course with out-and-back in one direction, then out-and-back in the other. So by the time I’d finished, Lucy had gone past the finish into the second leg; I got my breath back then went to catch up with her, but it took far longer than I’d expected, and I only caught up at the second turn-around point. We ran in together, she knocking 45 seconds off her PB, which was fab.

We then went for a paddle (in my case) and swim (in Lucy’s case) in the sea to cool off, followed by a lovely ice-cream. A brilliant start to the day. I still can’t quite believe I’m going running with Lucy – it seems so unlikely.

Letchworth parkrun – location 61 for parkrun #100

My 100th parkrun was at Letchworth yesterday, my 61st parkrun location, en route to lunch in Surrey. This is the local parkrun for a couple of friends who were there to help mark the occasion, though Kate didn’t feel great as one of her contact lenses was malfunctioning and making her feel sick. Lucy was on finish tokens: I got a “99½” as I finished the first of two laps, and a nice cheer across the finish line. A surprisingly tough course: about three-quarters of it is on tracks and around field edges, with the relatively modest undulations (macro and micro) making their presence felt more than the numbers might have suggested, and lots of dodging around holes underfoot. Fortunately, despite a month’s rain in 36 hours, the previously dry ground meant that Calamity Corner didn’t live up to its name, being merely sticky, but I can see how it would be interesting in the winter.

Lucy with the prized token number 1 – neither of us are ever likely to be handed it at the end of a run

Ford parkrun – location 62 for parkrun #101

Ford parkrun is named after Ford Park in Ulverston. We’d popped up to the Lake District for the August Bank Holiday weekend. At one point I’d considered visiting Whinlatter, another Cumbria parkrun I haven’t yet been to, but Ulverston was closer and fitted in better with plans for today, so our weekend started off with me running the parkrun while Lucy watched and cheered with the dogs. The course description on the website is one which risks sowing confusion rather than light, and makes me grateful I’m in the middle of the pack and so usually need only to follow the person in front (but see Fritton Lake).

The start and the green field of the park are overlooked by the Hoad Monument, but once underway the focus is on the many twists and turns which make for an interesting run. Still recovering from the pain in my bottom (self-diagnosed as a strained piriformis muscle), I tried to take it easy, but found myself as so often finding someone to latch onto and pull me round a little faster than I felt comfortable with – we both accelerated in the final circuit of the field, but she pulled away for a sprint finish while I’d already given what I could. On only its third run, the organisation was excellent though the marshals were rather quiet.

Littleport parkrun – location 63 for parkrun #102


Lucy and I visited Littleport parkrun at the start of September, thus allowing me to complete Cambridgeshire again (for the third time). It was a decent sized crowd gathered outside the leisure centre on a beautiful summer morning for two-and-a-bit laps of two grassy field, linked by a relatively narrow trod and a broad tarmac path for a bit of variety. I’m still suffering from the effects of relatively little running (and too much gained weight) but was reasonably satisfied with my run. I joined Lucy as she went past with half a lap and the extra bit to go: she was finding it a bit tough with the conditions underfoot being more demanding than her previous two parkruns at Southend and Felixstowe, but still recorded a decent time.

Manor Field, Whittlesey parkrun – location 64 for parkrun #103

A visit to the inaugural parkrun at Manor Field, Whittlesey made me a little anxious as I know inaugural-chasers can risk overwhelming new parkruns, but fortunately the numbers weren’t excessive. It isn’t something I plan on making a habit, but it was interesting to experience the first time once. Today’s visit also enabled me to complete the Cambridgeshire parkruns (for the fourth time). As was to be expected, there were various announcements of thanks to those involved in getting the parkrun off the ground, and not quite the practised fluency that one can get where they have more experience, but all seemed well organised.

The parkrun is another around playing fields, and to be honest these never sound terribly appealing when reading about them online, but they can still be very pleasant and quite varied in reality – if they are “around” playing fields, then what is on the edge? In this case, the biggest edge feature was King’s Dyke and Ashline Lock which we ran past twice, plus some tree-lined sections and the distinctive smell from the leisure centre swimming pool. Once again I found someone to latch onto and she pulled me round, all the more helpful today as my GPS watch had a fit part-way round and claimed I was elsewhere in Whittlesey and then back again, and thus all the distances and paces were up the spout.

Afterwards, as I was cheering on some of the slower runners and chatting with one of the marshals, I heard and caught sight of steam and smoke from Union of South Africa pulling a train along the track on the other side of the river – I was too slow to grab a picture, but it was still great to see, especially as such a surprise.

Coldham’s Common parkrun – location 65 for parkrun #104

Andrew is one of the 13 Bushy pioneers who ran the first Bushy Park Time Trial, the format which evolved into the parkrun we know today.

Today we were on our way to Chester, and at one point had considered a stop in Kettering for parkrun, but the weather forecast suggested it would be raining hard there, and a sunny summer’s day when we can also have a ride on the train would be a better time to visit Kettering. So we picked Coldham’s Common – the second parkrun in Cambridge, thus allowing me to complete all the Cambridgeshire parkruns (for the fifth time!). Although originally Lucy had been going to run too, in the end we decided to save that for another time and get back on the road northwestwards as soon as we could.

The route is two circuits of two sets of playing fields, linked by a gate which needs to be used in both directions, and is thus potentially something of a bottleneck, but which was very well marshalled and didn’t cause me any problems. I latched onto another runner partway round the first lap, and she pulled me along at a decent pace. We both accelerated in the final few hundred metres but she pulled away with a better sprint finish than I have. After barcode scanning, I looked to thank her but she’d disappeared so we hit the road for Chester.

With the closure of Heartwood Forest parkrun, that takes my East of England tourism tally to 47 out of 70, two-thirds of the way. Although the journey can be more fun than the destination, I’m enjoying the target (even though it keeps moving) and the journey – it will take me a while yet to finish, so lots more interesting places to visit, and some to re-visit.

Tring parkrun – location 59 for parkrun #97

This morning’s visit was to Tring parkrun, the most westerly parkrun in the East of England region. It was hot and it was hilly, but beautiful too.

A few visitors to Tring
The RD, Anna, gives her briefing
And they’re off!

The route is fairly steeply downhill, then a gentle incline up the grassy valley, then a steep wooded zigzag up onto the ridge, along the woodland ridge, then downhill to the bottom of the valley, gently back up the valley, a steep “Heartbreak Hill” then along an avenue of trees to the finish – delightful.

The avenue of trees, scene of a few sprint finishes after the challenge of Heartbreak Hill

The climb up to the ridge is quite challenging for a Suffolk lad, but the run down with a decent gradient and reasonable footing was thrilling, with my Garmin recording my peak speed at below 3mins/km and me grabbing a Strava segment at an average of 3:30/km, which is astonishing for me – definitely the fastest I’ve ever run.

The picture is taken from the ridge route which forms the middle kilometre or so, and is the first time in 97 parkruns that I’ve stopped on the way round to take a photo. The finish is on the other side of the valley at the right-hand end of the avenue of trees in the centre of the picture.
This is the only parkrun I’ve done which has cow marshalls, to try to keep the cattle out of the way of the runners or to direct runners around the cattle if that fails. In practice, I saw a few at the start but after that it was only cowpats that presented a hazard.
A view of the finish line

A day out in Norfolk including Blickling parkrun – location 58 for parkrun #96

Today a visit to Norfolk, starting with parkrun at Blickling Hall, a large National Trust estate. After I’d had a little warm-up run, I stood guard over a frog as it gradually made its way from the danger area where runners were assembling towards the long grass where it would be safe.

Once it was out of the way, the new runners briefer told us of the course, with what he described as a “Norfolk hill” to start with.

The main briefing advised that pacer-makers had been withdrawn because they considered it irresponsible to encourage people to go quickly – but if we really wanted to, they had trained first-aiders and resuscitation equipment. It was only 22 degrees, for goodness sake – warm, yes, but hardly hot. If people are affected by that temperature, slow down, but for those not significantly affected, just let them enjoy the conditions while they last.

We set off, and the runners in front of me pushed up a lot of dust into the air – it was worse than last week when I was passed by a couple of off-road bikes on a dusty byway. As we spread ourselves out while climbing the Norfolk hill, the dust dissipated and wasn’t a problem for the rest of the run. A lovely mix of gravel/dust paths across open grassland and through attractive woodland. Although with the steep mountains to climb, the loose surface underfoot, and the warm day, it wasn’t my fastest, I was pleased with my time of 25 minutes exactly. That was parkrun #96, at location #58.

I then headed to the coast for a bike ride and then coastal walk to fill in the last bit of the Suffolk and Norfolk coasts as far as Hunstanton that I hadn’t walked. Glorious day for it, and I did the last 6km barefoot which was lovely though left me with sunburn on the top of my feet, a risk which I hadn’t thought of.

parkrun catch-up: Blackpool (53), Felixstowe (54), Haverhill (55), Great Denham (56), and Pocket (57)

Blackpool (53)

With all the parkruns in Cumbria having been visited, a Lake District holiday saw me heading south down the M6 early on Saturday to visit Blackpool parkrun. It was probably an unwise thing to do as I wasn’t feeling great and it was a cold morning, but I resolved to run it slowly.

The route is two circuits of Stanley Park, mostly flat with a mixture of gravel/dirt paths through woodland and tarmac in the open, the latter with quite a bit of ice to avoid. I latched onto a group who pulled me round slightly faster than I’d planned but still relatively slowly at 28:21 and my first second-half finish since Mount Edgcumbe in April.

Felixstowe (54)

parkrun got rather neglected in the run-up to London. On 28th April I made a return to parkrun tourism, visiting a new course, Felixstowe (my 54th different parkrun, and 90th overall). It’s only their 4th run there, and my first, though I’ve run the route along the prom there quite a few times, and it’s always enjoyable, both because I like running by the sea, and because it’s flat and straight.

When I glanced at my watch after 500 metres or so it was a case of “b*****y hell, better slow down”, which I did a bit, but ran the parkrun faster than expected. After collecting my finish token, I ran a further 900 metres or so to get to the 3.7 miles to #finishformatt, and also knocked a remarkable 75 seconds off my 6km PB (including the stop to collect the token) – my legs are definitely full of life.

The marathon-injured knee briefly muttered at about 1.5km, but then went quiet so I’m hoping that moderation in distance over the next two weeks will allow me to make a decent stab at my 10-mile race in 15 days.

Haverhill (55)

2nd June took me to the fairly new parkrun in Haverhill on the south-west edge of Suffolk to complete the Suffolk parkruns, again. I understand that Sizewell will be starting soon, which should be a lovely course and which it will be a pleasure to have to visit. Haverhill was pleasant enough, and the decent if not exceptional pace set my pulse racing even if the scenery of the playing fields didn’t. Despite some rain, the ground was firm if rutted in places. There were just 68 of us, making it my third-smallest parkrun so far, but a very friendly welcome, good support from the marshalls, and some friendly chat afterwards. I gently pulled my left hamstring on the way round, which is troubling me a little.

Great Denham (56)

Great Denham parkrun on the edge of Bedford was my 56th parkrun location. It’s a very pleasant parkrun, two laps of a fairly new and attractive country park on good paths, very flat. I met a few other tourists beforehand and we had a good chat. The run itself went well – after about 500 metres I found myself running with someone who was going at just the right pace for me, and clearly me for her, and with no verbal communication we had the effect of pushing (or pulling) each other on for the remaining 4.5km. I pulled away by a few metres at the beginning of the final kilometre, but she reeled me in near the end, but I beat her by a second, me finishing with my best 5k time this year and Heather with a PB, both of us having run faster than originally intended. We broke our silence afterwards and thanked each other for being the ideal pacemaker. Each km was fractionally faster than the last, which is my perfect way to run a brisk race.

Pocket (57)

Pocket parkrun on the edge of St Neots was my 57th parkrun location. It’s a fairly new parkrun, and being on the floodplain of the river it is almost completely flat, but is the second-hardest flat parkrun I’ve done (after the Millom mudbath), with much being on uneven long grass, some more on uneven dirt with tree roots alongside the river, and eight little bridges to cross. And it was a hot morning, 22 degrees at the start, so a challenging little run for me today.

Lucy’s first parkrun

After 10 years of well-meant teasing about how odd runners are, Lucy decided she was going to give it a decent stab, perhaps inspired in part by the London Marathon. She embarked with determination on the NHS Couch to 5k programme on 9 April, and with suitable tweaks continued to progress with three runs every week, the plan right from the start being to do her first 5k as a parkrun on 16 June. I’ve been out with her on a few runs, but she’s done most on her own, including a couple while away on the Isle of Wight.

I even got Lucy a mention on the 13th June episode of the Free Weekly Timed podcast with Vassos Alexander and Louise Ayling, wishing her well for her forthcoming first parkrun.

Me, Lucy and Claire at Southend parkrun

Claire ran with Lucy so I ran my own race, passing them towards the end of the second of three laps. I recovered, then ran back to find them and run in the remaining part. Lucy was finding it tough, and kept asking how much further, to which I didn’t really have a precise answer. Near the end, Claire ran on in order to get a photo at the end.

Victorious!

Well done Lucy – a great achievement, and shows what can be done with determination.

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.