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.

A quarter of the way there

So, I’m four weeks into the 16 week marathon training plan. The long Sunday runs still aren’t all that long, but the weekly mileage is consistently above what it typically is, and my legs are hopefully getting more used to running when tired without too much objection.

Week two: three midweek runs from home, a gentle parkrun at Ellenbrook Fields with Alex, and then 13km in the King’s Forest. The long run was ideal conditions, sunny and dry underfoot, cool but not cold, and no wind, and though the terrain was very familar to me, I really enjoyed it. As a long(ish) run, once again was really easy – at the end I felt I could have gone on for much longer, and it was nice to be on (easy) trails for a change.

Week three: three midweek runs, the first from home and then two around the NEC site. It’s not easy or particularly interesting doing a 10km in the dark around the car parks of the NEC, though there was some mild interest from passing one group of runners eight times as we each made our way round a similar 1.9km-loop multiple times in opposite directions. The weekend saw me run my fastest 5km since March, during a visit to Morecambe Prom parkrun. And on Sunday my slow run was almost 15km initially along the River Lune and then mostly along the towpath of the Lancaster Canal to Carnforth. Not quite such an easy long run, but a much harder parkrun the day before, with other walking being done during my Lake District mini-holiday.

Week four: I started with intervals along the old railway line from Broughton-in-Furness, then returned to Suffolk where my other two pre-work runs reached 11km, requiring an early alarm clock and some out-and-backs along the short bits of pavement available to me before it got close enough to sunrise to venture onto the country lanes around home.

Saturday saw Lucy and me at Kingsbury Water parkrun south of Tamworth (prior to a visit to the National Running Show at the NEC) – it was a very crowded start and I lost a good deal of time trying to overtake people, in addition to which the lovely course is quite twisty and has a variety of surfaces, so it wasn’t as fast as Morecambe’s easy running, but still very satisfactory.

Sunday was a change from the typical pattern as the plan called for a 10k race. I decided to forego that and just run 10k about as quick as I could on my own, and headed for Felixstowe prom. After a warm-up mile, I turned up the pace for the 10k and was pleased to manage a time of 53:46, despite having to weave in and around a lot of inattentive wanderers on the prom on what was a delightfully sunny but cold and very windy morning. It’s still some way off my best, but my fastest for a good while.

All in all, I’m happy with how things are going. I still worry a bit about how my knees will cope as the distances increase, but for now all’s well. Hopefully doing a greater proportion of my distance at a slow pace, as widely recommended, will also have the advantage of putting less strain on my knees.

If you put the 53:46 into a race predictor to give a marathon time estimate, then the app on my phone says 4:19:58, Runner’s World says 4:21:24, McMillan Running says 4:12:16, Good Run Guide says 4:22:11, and OmniCalculator says 4:07:06. They’re all inside my goal of 4:29:59, which is encouraging, particularly as (subject to IAAF decisions to come) I should be in faster shoes on the day, hope to have lost some more weight, and will have done 12 more weeks of training. The shoes could knock 10 minutes off if all about them is true, as could losing 5kg in the next 10 weeks.

However, I’m still inclined to think the calculated estimates are too confident, and underestimate the extent to which my performance wilts over longer distances (somewhat more than the average runner), but perhaps this time round I’ll have got the training right and will cope better.

Marathon training plan one week in

The first week of 16 in the marathon training plan is complete. As I said in my previous post, this was an odd week, with the original plan mauled about a good deal. Let’s see how the remaining 15 weeks stand up to encounters with real life: this week’s deviations were planned from the start, but I’ve managed to fit the remainder of the plan around my current non-running intentions.

Monday was supposed to be short, a gentle introduction. Why do most training plans seem to have us starting almost from scratch? It can’t be at all unusual for someone aiming at a marathon to have run a half-marathon the previous week, as I did.

I had the additional objective for Monday 30 December (Tuesday being devoted to bell ringing) of running far enough to make my 2019 distance further than 2018. In the end, I needed less than 6km for that little objective, but rounded up to a nice slow 11km along the River Cam – the route was amended on the fly when I found a path from Stourbridge Common onto Ditton Meadows closed due to construction of a new bridge as part of the Chisholm Trail cycle route – which will in due course open new opportunities for some nice runs around here.

River Cam looking NE from Green Dragon Bridge

Wednesday, being New Year’s Day, was centred around the parkrun New Year’s Day Double, the once-a-year opportunity to claim two parkruns in a day. We went to Grovelands in Enfield and Oak Hill in Barnet. These were my 109th and 110th different parkrun venues, and Lucy’s 41st and 42nd in her quest for membership of the Hoffman Club.

Grovelands in the fog

Grovelands was very busy (it turned out to be a record attendance both here and at Oak Hill) with a congested start leading to slow jogging interrupted by walking at the start. But once we thinned out a bit it was a pleasant run, despite being in fog. The route was 2¾ laps, each with a modest hill, but all on tarmac (part of the benefit of coming here after such a very wet month). After I’d finished, I saw Lucy just disappearing as she went past the finish funnel, and I waited for her to complete her 1¾ laps ready to run with her for the final lap. Lucy had forgotten to bring her Garmin watch with her, so I’d set the Strava app on her phone recording, but it wasn’t behaving as well as it should so she was guessing pace and intervals.

After Lucy had finished, we walked back to the start where she’d left her fleece, and I then started the next phase of my running day: the run to parkrun number 2. The two events being close together, quite a few people had undoubtedly done this, but I was probably the last to do so, not setting off until almost ten o’clock, from the wrong end of the park, but I knew I had time. Part-way, I was offered a lift by some kindly parkrunners, but I assured them I was fine. After some slight confusion about where I was meeting Lucy, I found her just as the busy new-runners’ briefing was getting underway.

For Oak Hill, I ran round with Lucy, trying to get the pace and intervals right for her. Although she’d had a bit of a break, her longest run in a day is 6km, so to go to 10km was a big increase. The first km was sensibly slow, but after that Lucy seemed to gain energy and coped well, particularly on the flat sections. The route was again 2¾ laps – as we came through the finish area at 1¾ laps there was a good deal of congestion, with a queue building up for the finish funnel, but also a lot of people standing around on the course, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the slower runners were still coming through. Lucy finished strongly – great to see.

Thursday was the first day to stick to the original plan, with a 3½km “steady” run, a pace which is variously described as “comfortable, but purposeful, pace” or marathon pace, or (suitably vaguely) as 10 seconds faster to 20 seconds slower than marathon pace. For the moment, I’ve adopted about 6:20/km as my “steady” pace, and today it was a familiar jaunt across Woolpit to the far end of the Old Stowmarket Road and back.

Saturday is, with a couple of exceptions, going to be parkrun-day in my marathon Plan. Today was a visit to Barking in east London for my 111th different event, and Lucy’s 43rd. We met up with Claire who is returning to parkrun after a bit of a break. A very pleasant urban park, almost flat, all on tarmac and with a nice lake. Brindley and I managed a respectable 25:31, after which I jogged round with Claire who we haven’t seen for a little while, catching up which continued at the café afterwards.

Brindley and us at Barking – woof woof.
The lake in Barking Park.

Most weeks Sunday is the long slow run, though coming up in the plan I have a fast 10km and two half-marathon races thrown in for variety. Although I tested myself with the 21km on the busway a fortnight ago, the Plan has me starting with 11km, and I stuck with that today, accompanied by Lucy on her bike – it’s very slow for cycling but it was really nice to have her company on a longer run. I’ve tentatively pencilled her in for another such in a few weeks though she doesn’t really want to go much further than today so it may need some adjustment in a few weeks.

When I did my slow 21km two weeks ago, it was surprisingly easy. Today, with just 11km it was a fair bit harder – but I must recognise that it was at the end of a 50km week, which while necessary as I aim for my marathon, is a step up on my normal and so to an extent I’m training my body to cope running on somewhat tired legs. “Slow” in this context is again subject to a lot of variation in definitions and guidance: I’m currently aiming at about 6:59/km (for psychological reasons) for the shorter ones, a bit slower as they become very long. I’ve never before aimed at running quite so slowly, nor at spending such a high proportion of my week running either slowly or fairly slowly, but I can understand the wisdom of getting miles in my legs without always pushing myself too hard – let’s see what happens.

One week down, 15 to go.

2019 including infographics and statistics

So, how did the year go?

Races

  • Vienna Half-Marathon, 2:15:11 – enjoyable as a run and a holiday, the race went as well as could be expected given injury-induced lack of training.
  • Milton Keynes Marathon, 5:01:07 – with far too few long distance runs in my legs, and suffering from knee pain, I tried to jeff my way around. It almost worked but I ran out of steam and slumped to slower than London 2018, which had been my target to beat. With hindsight, I wish I’d then tried harder to beat 5 hours which would have been still something to note. A great race with fantastic support – I may return in 2021.
  • Clacton 10k, 56:19. A rather frustrating race, with no attempt at starting people in order of speed, and the start being too broad compared to what followed, the inevitable result being a fair bit of queuing to make progress; on the lower prom, there were sections with deep sand.
  • Great East Run (half-marathon), 2:10:09. Very satisfied with this, as it was four minutes faster than I planned, and I achieved some really good pace control throughout, getting the pace appropriate for the ups and the downs.
  • A14 Great Ouse Challenge (7km), 49:04. I ran this at a deliberately gentle pace – it was a unique opportunity to run along the new Huntingdon southern bypass before the road opened in December, but was for me it inconveniently timed the afternoon before the Great Eastern Run, so I wanted to take it very easy.
  • Great Eastern Run. Cancelled on the day, after spending a lot of time standing in cold rain. A man acting suspiciously on the course had been reported, and resulted in an armed police response in fear of a suicide bomber. Fortunately it proved to be a false alarm, but not without causing enough delay to make holding the race on closed roads no longer possible.
A decent year’s running – a smidgen further than 2018, but slower – too much weight being carried, and too little good training ahead of the spring races due to persistent injuries in late 2018 and early 2019. Here are previous years for comparison…
The Veloviewer wheel for 2019 shows a slightly different distance run as it doesn’t include my few treadmill runs. Mostly UK, naturally, but with four runs in Norway (three in the Arctic) and a couple in Vienna.
Fairly consistent monthly distances.
This shows how many tiles (an area of the Openstreetmap maps) I’ve visited – fairly consistent across the months, and showing ongoing good outcomes of my vow to keep my running interesting and fresh by keeping finding new places to run, or at least places I haven’t been to for some time, rather than re-running the same routes again and again.
My Voronoi diagram of UK parkruns visited shows a slowly growing expanse of green – two new ones in Cambridgeshire to visit in weeks to come to fill that little gap, but quite a few more apparently in the pipeline in Norfolk. A few other scattered ones will be added in the next few months too.

Third time lucky?

London Marathon 2018 was a great experience, but somewhat unsatisfying as a run since I injured my knee around mile 14 and thus went much slower for the remaining 12 miles and was very focused on that pain and whether I was going to finish, in addition to the challenge of a very congested course.

Milton Keynes Marathon 2019 was a great experience, but somewhat unsatisfying as a run since I’d had a series of muscle strains which had constrained my training, and some concerning knee niggles, and so I went even slower than London, running out of energy towards the end.

There followed much dithering about whether I should abandon the idea of another marathon. I so enjoyed the atmosphere of Milton Keynes that I would have given that another go, but a family wedding counts out that option for 2020, though who knows about 2021?

In the end, I’ve signed up for the Boston Marathon on 19 April 2020 – the UK version in Lincolnshire, which while not being the original and more famous Boston Marathon (the UK one is the day before the big one across the Pond), does start and finish in the original Boston. The course is the flattest in the UK, with barely detectable changes in height as it makes its way across the flat southern Lincolnshire farmland. If it’s windy, it could be a challenge, but then few courses in reality offer a huge amount of shelter from the wind.

By comparison with London and MK, the size of the field is much smaller (614 finishers in 2019), and the size of the crowds commensurately reduced – that could be a mental challenge, but also an opportunity to focus on myself and my running, without needing to worry about crowds on or off the roads.

The flatness and simplicity of the course appealed – I’ve had plenty of practice at running along country lanes between arable fields, and it doesn’t bother me. And, let’s be honest, the idea of telling people I’m running the Boston Marathon does tickle me slightly.

I’ve identified a marathon training plan which includes my much loved parkruns, and adapted it slightly to fit my needs. I’ve tentatively planned some locations for the long runs: I’m trying to make as many as practical of the long Sunday runs different – unique in the context of this plan.

I’m going to try to stick with the advice to run slow for much of the weekly mileage, even though it feels wrong.

The 16-week plan officially starts on 30 December, though the plan is flexing on the first day since the Monday will not be a short introduction, but will serve the twin purposes of being the previous week’s longer run, and of mopping up any kilometres still needed to meet my 2019 objective of running further (just) than 2018. The Wednesday (1st January) will also deviate from the original as it is the New Year’s Day parkrun double, and I’m planning to run between the two parkruns as well, to add to the fun. Two half-marathon races are in the plan, and I’ve booked one and am still pondering the other. There’s also a 10k race but I may end up just running a hard 10k somewhere suitable.

I’ve been regularly running a little bit longer on Sundays the last few weeks, up to 16km, as my thoughts of a marathon intensified, and having entered on Friday, this Sunday I betook myself to the Cambridge Guided Busway at Impington for what was originally planned to be another 16km, squeezed in between service ringing at Woolpit and Great Finborough. But a last-minute realisation that the benefice service was at Drinkstone and thus 75 minutes earlier, gave me extra time for the run, so I decided to target 18km.

Over Windmill near the Guided Busway

But when I was out, deliberately running slower than I had for seven months (since I ran out of energy in the MK Marathon) I found the going really quite easy, and decided to round up to a nice 21.1km. The effort increased a little towards the end, but it was really remarkably effortless – despite succumbing to temptation just a little and aiming at the more psychologically satisfying 6:59/km rather than the computer’s suggested 7:07/km. I could definitely have gone a few kilometres further without undue effort or distress. I adopted a jeffing approach with around 120 metres of walking per kilometre, and Garmin says I managed within one second of 6:59 for each of the full kilometres which is nicely consistent, though the single kilometre that was 7:00.1 was trivially annoying.

As far as Boston goes, my goal A is to finish in under 4h30, goal B to finish in under 4:52:11, and goal C to finish. Goal A will require a pace of around 6:22/km, and it is mentally tough to be deliberately aiming to spend so little time running at that pace.

Four and half hours is a less ambitious time goal than I had originally set myself for London, but I’m a good deal heavier (and two years older and wiser), and so let’s just see how things go.

Two in Essex – Hadleigh and Burnham-on-Crouch (67)

Hadleigh with Alex, Andy, Catherine, Claire and Lucy

That heading is the first time I’ve written anything quite like that – with the exception of the WLR gang at the Reading Half in 2010, I don’t think I’ve had more than two people known to me at a run. When I’d met with Catherine and Alex at Harlow, we’d agreed we should do it again soon with Lucy along too; it was also a little while since Southend parkrun in June when Lucy and Claire had run together; and with Andy having done some volunteering recently, it was to be his first run.

From near the start, the view across Benfleet Creek to Canvey Island with the estuarine Thames beyond

Lucy, Catherine and Alex getting ready at the start

Catherine, Alex, Lucy and me (sporting my new MK Marathon top)

Andy, Claire, me and Lucy

Me with one of the zeroes from the three-balloon 100, this being Hadleigh’s centenary run

Lucy and Alex on a beautiful morning

This was my fourth Hadleigh parkrun, and my slowest yet – I’m probably the heaviest I’ve been at Hadleigh, and not at maximum fitness either, but it was an enjoyable run, and I pushed myself hard enough to run all of it (having walked a little one at least one of the earlier, quicker, attempts).

After getting my breath back and my token scanned, I had a couple of bits of celebratory cake (it being Hadleigh’s 100th run), then I jogged back to find Lucy, Catherine and Alex. On the steep zigzagging section downhill, it was a bit of a challenge trying to run while keeping out of the way of those making their way slowly uphill. I passed Andy who was doing well, despite his slightly unconventional running kit.

I had to go about a kilometre to find the others, weary after the first steep uphill. We jogged a little downhill then tackled the long bouldery zigzags. Alex seemed keen to run on, so with Catherine’s encouragement she and I went on a bit; I’m not sure whether she then changed her mind or ran out of energy or just wasn’t yet comfortable with me, but we didn’t get all that far ahead and mostly walked uphill.

Soon we reached the finish with a sprint from Alex, and soon after a final push from Lucy with support from Catherine. Claire, as tail walker, came along a bit later. All was packed up and we walked back to the café. Although I had a recollection of cake here, there wasn’t much along those lines (surprisingly) but we were tempted by bacon or sausage baps, accompanied by some unusual chips/wedges/potato things, and sat outside chatting for a good while.

A great morning: lovely course, lovely weather, lovely company.

Burnham-on-Crouch (67)

Another parkrunday, another lovely morning, and the third consecutive visit to Essex. Once safely along the twisty B1010 (I count 10 right-angle bends, on flat land, in just 2.3km) I parked up and after a quick visit to the river-wall for the view, made my way to the start via the convenient toilets. I said hello to a few people, then offered some navigational guidance to Claire, which was good enough for her soon to be joining me on a chilly morning with temperatures just nudging 4° with a stiffish breeze which got stronger during the morning.

From the river-wall, a look up the River Crouch past Essex Yacht Marina on Wallsea Island

Soon the call “3, 2, 1, go” came, and I realised that I had forgotten to get my Garmin ready. I can have it ready 15 minutes early when I’m on my own, but give me company and I regularly forget. Fortunately it found a GPS signal within seconds, and as I was towards the back of the pack, I was able to start it as I crossed the line.

Looking east along the River Crouch from the parkrun route

I wished Claire a good run and took advantage of the firm grassy field to overtake much of the field before we climbed the zigzags onto the river wall and headed west into the headwind. The route took us to the marina on the north bank where we turned north alongside the marina, then a long loop around a grassy gentle slope and then retrace our route along the river wall, with the wind on our backs, descending a different path and back to the start. Then it all again for the second lap.

I overtook a couple of people on the ascent up the river wall, and then it was a long, long reeling in of Frances Nestor who was in front of me, it (unknowingly) being her turn to fulfil my objective once again of someone to help me keep my pace up. I caught her around the mid-point of the grassy loop, and managed, just, to keep ahead of her. I half thought she might catch me as we neared the finish, but my legs had a reasonable kick in them today and I accelerated nicely to the finish line.

After catching my breath, I thanked Frances and then ran back to find Claire and ran back in with her. We then went to Happy Returns, mentioned as the gathering place on the parkrun website but devoid of any parkrunners except Claire and me. We enjoyed hot chocolates, chatting about running and plans for sailing next year among other things, then went our separate ways, she back home and me to the recycling centre to deposit our old fridge-freezer.

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