Dorney Lake Half-Marathon

Week 8 of my 16-week marathon training plan had a half-marathon race, and I’d chosen Dorney Lake. This is only a small race, but is simple, almost flat, and I hoped would give me what I needed – a little bit of atmosphere, something different from an ordinary training run to test myself a bit, after only short runs at speed, and long runs all being slow or at most “easy”.

Two Sundays ago we had Storm Ciara, and I lurked on the treadmill; one Sunday ago we had Storm Dennis, and I lurked on the treadmill. So I had watched the weather forecast with some trepidation for several days. The wind, which has barely dropped below 20mph (gusting to 40mph) for more than two weeks, with yet more rain, looked likely to put a damper on things, though by Saturday the forecast was hinting that the worst of the rain would be out of the way by the time we got underway.

Sunday morning dawned wet and windy, but by the time I arrived at Dorney Lake, the rain had stopped, and baring a little bit of drizzle, mercifully stayed away for the rest of the morning. However, when I got out of the car, I was pushed across the car park by the strong wind, and yet another factor joined the mix in my pace puzzle.

The Pace Puzzle

  • I’ve set a goal of sub-4h30 for the marathon. My favoured running calculator says that’s equivalent to being able to run 2h03 for a half-marathon – or 5:50/km
  • My best recent 10km is 53:46, nominally equivalent to a 1:58:45 half marathon – or 5:38/km
  • My training plan said to aim for sub-2h06 – or 5:58/km, and 2h03 in a fortnight.
  • I am not a sprinter, but have always tended to underperform at longer distances compared to what I “should” achieve – my 10km time is relatively slightly poor given my 5km time; my half-marathon is relatively poor given my 10km time
  • If you start too fast, then in a long run, by the time you realise it is too fast to maintain the pace throughout, you are in deep trouble
  • I wanted to test myself and find out how my training is going – that is a key reason for being here.
  • I was going to be wearing my Vaporfly trainers for the first time in a race
  • It was extremely windy

I’d arrived intending to go for 5:50/km, but when I experienced the wind, I moderated that to 6:00/km, adjusted back to 5:59/km because that would be psychologically more satisfying.

The preparations

I walked to the boathouse and got my race number. I explored the facilities including changing rooms, then went back to the car to finish getting ready – pin my number on, remove excess clothing, put on running trainers, add heart-rate chest strap, put on bumbag with gels, take caffeine tablet, finalise pre-race nutrition, and keep well hydrated.

For a 9.45am start, I wandered back to the boathouse at about 9.25am, feeling somewhat self-conscious in my pink Vaporflys – I couldn’t immediately see any others in evidence around me. As well as being pink, they do keep reminding one of their presence as they are so bouncy compared to normal shoes.

I went for a warm-up jog of a few hundred metres, then we assembled for a short pre-run brief, and moved to the start line. I chatted to a couple of people who were running a shorter distance (there was a 5k and 10k starting at the same time), and spotted one other person in Vaporflys, albeit green ones.

The race

And, at 9.43am, we were off. The route for the half-marathon was four laps around the Olympic rowing lake – the “up” being along a winding lane with glimpses of the Thames through trees to the left, and at times quite a gap to the lake – almost the feel of a rural lane, with no traffic, just the occasional dog-walker or small family group, some waterfowl, and at one point a small herd of deer running across the lane. Although the wind was blustery and somewhat variable in direction, it was mostly a headwind along this section. At the end we reached the top of the rowing lake; on the first lap there was an extra out-and-back to make the maths add up with the otherwise 5km laps used for the 5k and 10k races. The very windy out-and-back completed, it was a straight run alongside the 2.2km or so of the rowing lake, crossing three bridges, to return to the start, with the wind somewhat from my right, and somewhat behind me, hopefully returning some of what I’d lost into the headwind. So far, so good, and I found I was going a little faster than recent plans, around 5:48/km, but consistent with the original plan.

The second lap went well. I’d had a little pain/discomfort in my insteps on the first lap, something I’ve not really had trouble me before, and I worried it might be the new shoes, but it passed after about 3km, and now fully warmed up, I felt my legs moving freely. On the outward part of the lap, I had to constrain myself a little to avoid speeding up, and as I return back along the lake, I decided that I was going to maintain the pace until the end of lap 2, then try a little acceleration.

Having done lap 1 at 5:48/km, and lap 2 at 5:44/km, I had the odd sensation of feeling fresher as time went by, and I found lap 3 completed at 5:29/km, with my eye now very much on the average pace – I knew that if I got it under 5:41/km I would be under two hours, though I had a suspicion that the course might measure slightly long on my Garmin.

I was still holding myself back, but let my legs accelerate a bit more on the outward section of lap 4, as the wind intensified further. I managed finally to overtake three people who I’d had in my sights for 10km. At the top, I turned for home. Having run the 18th and 19th kilometres at 5:19 and 5:16 into a headwind, I now had the benefit of the wind behind me, and the 20th and 21st kilometres were at 5:07 and 4:49, with the last section at 4:36. I was helped somewhat by the wind, but the feeling of energy in the legs after 20km was remarkable. Although the Vaporflys are said to benefit all speeds of runners, perhaps this was when they really came into their own, when I was properly running rather than what the elites would consider a jog – certainly towards the end, my cadence was up and my stride length was up, but I felt less tired than after a full-effort parkrun.

And so I crossed the line in an official time of 1:58:18, or 5:33/km on my Garmin distance of 21.3km. That was significantly better than planned, despite windy conditions. The second half of my race was 4½ minutes faster than the first half, which is a significant negative split. It’s my 4th fastest half-marathon (with the smallest field, of only 100), and 3rd fastest 15km within that – very satisfying in its own right, and as a step towards Boston. I’m currently carrying a fair bit of extra weight – if one were to produce a weight-adjusted time, then this would be a personal best time.

The aftermath

After catching my breath, collecting some water and jelly babies, and picking up my bag, I went upstairs and had a shower and put on some clean clothes – a really civilised thing to be able to do after a race.

The pace puzzle will return in 13 days, when I decide, in the light of today, how I should pace my next half-marathon. But in the meantime, my running calculator says 1:58:18 is equivalent to 4:19:05 for the marathon – I’m not expecting that time, but it gives me a little more confidence that sub-4h30 may be within my grasp.

And the impacts afterwards – no digestive distress at all, no toe pain or blistering at all, no muscle-soreness at all, and my mild knee pain no worse than usual. Probably the least impact after a half-marathon race or any run of this distance. I even had the energy to take six dogs for an hour’s walk in the forest when I got home.

Is it the shoes? Is it the different training (more distance, less speed)? Who can say? But looking good so far…

First outing for the Vaporflys

As I mentioned last week, for my birthday I received a pair of Nike Vaporfly Next% running shoes. They weren’t a surprise – they’d been sitting in a box in the spare bedroom since just after Christmas when a discount-on-a-discount meant that they’d been picked up for under £200 rather than the RRP of £240 – though still a very significant sum for a pair of shoes, 50% more than I’ve ever paid. And though these things are rather subjective (when is a shoe worn out?), the new shoe definitely has a shorter lifespan than my regular shoes, making the cost per kilometre that much higher.

It’s worth noting that running, despite it’s simple origins, has never been particularly cheap for me – regular new shoes, clothing, race entry fees, occasional overnight hotels before races, GPS watches, sports nutrition, hydration backpacks, running belts, dedicated headphones, petrol/diesel/trains to get to parkruns, races and weekend long runs in the various places I like to travel to (arguably aeroplanes too though the two overseas race holidays probably substituted for other holidays we would have had), physiotherapy, massages, water bottles, head torches, extra towels, running the washing machine and tumble drier more often, and more – it all adds up. In that context, a more expensive shoe that will largely be reserved for my occasional races on suitable terrain doesn’t make an enormous difference, though I would probably still have baulked at the cost, hence the pleasure at receiving them as a gift.

The shoes have proved somewhat controversial, or at least sparked a large amount of commentary, including from non-runners. I can see merit in a range of perspectives. Is wearing them cheating? Of course not, any more than wearing running shoes generally rather than flippers or wellingtons (neither of which I’ve run in) or hiking boots (which I have when I accidentally turned up to parkrun without a change of footwear). Nor are spikes, or fell-running shoes, both of which clearly convey an advantage in appropriate circumstances. Technology has always progressed, as has nutrition, coaching techniques, financial support, the quality of the surface of racing tracks, and all sorts of other things which together contribute to elite athletes today being faster than their peers of decades or generations before. Technology doesn’t replace the need to train – I’m training for my third marathon with more discipline and devoting more time to it than previously – the shoes are most definitely not a short-cut for me.

But equally I share a degree of nervousness about the “but where will it all end?” concern, and that the quality (and brand) of equipment could become disproportionately important in determining outcomes for the elites. For me, as a mid-pack amateur, I’m quite content to adopt a shoe that has been widely adopted, and declared legal for elite competition by World Athletics (formerly the IAAF) – though I admit that, as a mid-pack runner, I will feel self-conscious about wearing a conspicuous shoe that some might, wrongly, perceive as wasted on me – I will, in fact, quite probably gain more from it than those at the front who’ve adopted it in such large numbers.

A more interesting question could arise soon if Nike or other brands release shoes which are not allowed for elite competition – will amateur runners including me want to adopt them?

Anyway, with my new shoes’ first race coming up on 23 February, a flat if exposed and thus potentially windy half-marathon at Dorney Lake, I wanted to give them a little outing, just as an experiment – it’s not generally a good idea to do anything for the first time in a race. So on Tuesday I decided my intervals session would work nicely – just around the village, on dry pavements, and intended to include some fast running.

Although I’d very briefly tried them on, on carpet, when they arrived, this was my first really experience of their feel. The first impression (other than the vibrant pink) is of the oddness of the offset lacing, intended to reduce pressure on the top of the foot which can otherwise get sore, particularly as the upper of the shoe is so thin (to save weight) – by contrast my Brooks Adrenaline has a heavily padded tongue and upper generally. I found after a few hundred metres that I stopped to tie the right shoe more tightly, and with hindsight should probably have re-tied the left one too – they do need to be done up quite tight to stop the foot moving around, hence the need for the offset lacing. This was definitely one useful thing to emerge from this outing that will help me get things right for the race.

The next impression is the bounciness – it’s not quite like being on springs, but they are bouncy – the foam and internal plate combining in some way that should improve energy return and hopefully also reduce the impact effect on my legs.

Once I set off, I felt full of energy and really struggled to run slowly enough – my plan was for a 1.5km warm-up. Struggling to run slowly enough isn’t totally novel to me (few runners have mastered perfect pacing), but it did seem hard to get the pace down to my 6:59/km target, and the best I could manage without being ridiculous about it was 6:25/km for that 1.5km. Of course, I was mentally expecting to be going quite quickly after all the hype about the shoes, and Tuesdays should be easier as Monday is a rest day.

I then moved into my intervals – a fast 1km, then 200m recovery, then 8 times fast 400m with 200m recoveries. There was a 26 mph wind, mostly blowing from my side, but presumably occasionally giving a small helping hand and at others slightly in my face as I ran back and forth along the cycle path. I ran 4:42 for the kilometre and a variety of paces from 4:47/km to 4:15/km for the 400 metre intervals. The shoes definitely felt fast. I don’t have a direct comparator for those times, as I’ve not done that set of intervals recently, but I don’t believe I’ve run at those paces since 2018.

My 1.5km cool-down at the end was an uncontrolled 5:47/km which is far faster than a normal cool-down – my legs and my enthusiasm getting the better of the control of my head, but for that pace to be so easy is interesting.

All in all, an encouraging outing, and these 9km give me enough confidence to tackle 21km in a couple of weeks even if I don’t do another trial with the shoes. On the race day, I need to allow myself time to make sure the lacing is right, something I’ve never had to think about much, and to test it properly with some warm-ups before the start.

Distances build

Week five saw another 11km slow run before work on Tuesday which at the moment still requires a fair bit of running in the dark. Wednesday was what I suppose you could call fartlek, being 3km of my normal slow pace (6:59/km), then 3km jog with Lucy and Brindley, and then 3km at marathon pace. Thursday was a full 8km at marathon pace.

On Saturday I paid my fourth visit to Harwich parkrun. I planned to get a course PB, but that only required beating 26m08 which I was pretty confident I could manage. I had new running shoes, my 8th pair of Brooks Adrenaline GTS, my first of the 20th edition. New shoes always give an extra little boost – fresh grip, fresh foam, and no doubt a small psychological extra too. Harwich starts off with a little loop and then downhill onto the prom, so the result was I found I’d started with a good pace. It was into a strong 20+ mph headwind, and I thought I would see how long I could maintain the pace. The answer was to the turnaround point, overtaking a good few people along the way, and suddenly it was a quiet, calm day, now that the wind was behind me. I found a woman to chase for 2km, overtaking her going up the hill away from the promenade, then she sprinted past me as I approached the finish. Net result was my first sub-25 minute parkrun for almost 12 months, and my fastest since August 2018, despite strong winds. I’m not particularly focusing on speed at the moment, but there are still signs that a little more speed is gradually returning.

Sunday is LSR (long slow run) time. In my quest for somewhere different to go, preferably traffic free, I roamed fairly far afield, heading for the Brampton Valley Way, a former railway line from Northampton to Market Harborough. I ran 9km mostly gradually uphill to the summit tunnel, and through the tunnel which is unlit – fortunately I was well prepared with a headtorch for that section. I was caught by another runner who chatted with me for a couple of minutes before he pushed on past me. He is training for the Peterborough Marathon, one I looked at but rejected in favour of Boston. After 9km I turned round and came back through the tunnel and headed gradually downhill back to the car. After lots of rain, there were lots and lots of puddles and a moderate amount of mud, but it was still fairly easy going and pretty well sheltered from the stiff winds.

Week six saw hill training on Tuesday with 8 uphills initially in the dark in Bury. Wednesday was 10km slow where the growing light in the mornings for the first time this year meant that it was just possible to do this in daylight, albeit a fair bit before dawn. Thursday I had a meeting in Warwickshire which meant an early start anyway – fitting in a run beforehand would have been quite tough, so I decided to squeeze one in afterwards, running for 8km at half-marathon pace along the towpath of the Northampton Arm of the Grand Union Canal, before dashing across the country to get back for some bellringing.

Saturday’s parkrun is currently called Greenwich parkrun, though the current trend towards renaming them for a more local feature could well see it being known as Avery Hill Park parkrun in future. It’s in the corner of the borough of Greenwich, but it’s a bit as if Pymmes parkrun was called Enfield parkrun. It was my 171st parkrun at my 114th different location. Lots of friendly faces today for Ben’s 100th parkrun celebrations. I ran a very satisfactory 25m19 on an undulating and in places muddy course, helped unknowingly by a woman who pulled me round – I caught her at the end of the first lap, but after that I couldn’t quite reach her but she remained close by. Immediately afterwards I ran across the park to pick up Catherine – I was expecting a short rest on the other side, but spotted her running, clearly setting a great pace, and I ran in with her: she set a course PB and her best parkrun time for quite some while. After the others had crossed the line we had a very impressive cake and other celebratory goodies.

Sunday’s main feature was Storm Ciara with 60mph winds, so I did my run indoors, doing a half-marathon on a treadmill at the gym. It’s a mentally challenging thing, running for so long on a treadmill – it’s fairly uninteresting with no scenery (though there was a regularly changing array of other people on the machines in front and to the sides of me to watch), but really hard in that you can press “stop” whenever you want – outside, when it gets tough, usually I need to keep going anyway to get back to the car or the house or the train or wherever. At the gym today the lights flickered quite a few times as the wind howled outside, but the power stayed on. Interestingly, I seemed to find it easier once I’d changed the treadmill display to show time rather than distance. After 20km I upped the pace from 6:59/km to under 5:30/km for the final 1.1km – it’s a good sign that this was pretty easy.

I was able to listen to the cricket commentary for most of the run, and a bit of Lord Hornblower during the interval in the cricket. (England went on to beat South Africa, but by a narrower margin than seemed likely at one stage.) Still, 21km is 21km and it feels reassuring to be upping the distance though, as in previous years, 42km still seems an awfully long way.

The other feature of Sunday was that it was my birthday, and though not a surprise I was delighted to receive my Nike Vaporfly Next% shoes from Lucy and my parents. Now officially allowed by World Athletics, they will, if all that other people say is true, make a noticeable difference to my pace and to how tired my legs are after a long run. Their first proper test will be a half-marathon race in a fortnight, but one of the midweek runs between now and then should be a test run to make sure I’m not totally taken by surprise by them when I run in them.

10 weeks to go and lots of running still to do.