Keep on running

It was a week where the UK started to shut down properly as the coronavirus epidemic intensified (though with much more to come), and we staggered from one extraordinary government announcement to the next with barely time to take breath, and virtually no challenge or scrutiny.

But, returning to running for the moment, I opted to accept the default option for my postponed Boston Marathon of running it on 13 September 2020, and continued to hope that I would also be able to run a marathon distance on the original date of 19 April 2020, though as the week wore on that went from a confident expectation of a second-best option, to growing doubt that even that would be possible.

Week 12 of the 16-week marathon training plan meant that on Tuesday morning I did a warm up across and around the village, then 4 out-and-back fast miles along the Old Stowmarket Road with little recoveries, and a coll down back to the house, to make 10km in total.

Wednesday would once have been difficult to fit the run in, since I had a Board meeting in London, but we’d changed that to a videoconference which gave me more time. For reasons I now can’t remember, I still ended up swapping the planned runs for Wednesday and Thursday, doing the brisk and shorter 8km to Drinkstone and Woolpit Green on Wednesday, and then on Thursday taking Brindley to the King’s Forest for a slow 11km.

Brindley in the King’s Forest

Then came my error of judgement, but it’s remarkable the power of inertia. I’d long ago booked a long weekend in Cornwall, essentially as part of the marathon training plan, though with a view to a pleasant long weekend away. I was thinking partly of my objective to make the weekly long weekend runs fun and varied. Reading an article on cycle paths on old railway lines, I’d read about the Camel Trail in Cornwall which runs for almost 20 miles, in addition to the Bath-Bristol Railway path. I’d planned this weekend around the Camel Trail, plus a visit to the Eden Project parkrun and the Eden Project itself; and the Easter long weekend around the Bath-Bristol Railway Path, SS Great Britain, and other touristy things in Bristol.

But with the pandemic worsening, I found myself asking whether I really should go. In truth, the answer was “no”, but I persuaded myself that I could minimise risk to myself and everyone else, and thus that it was ok. I took food for four days so I didn’t need to visit any shops or to eat out – just as well as the day I arrived, government ordered all restaurants, pubs, cafes cinemas, theatres, and gyms to close, a dramatic step which was followed minutes later by the Chancellor committing to pay 80% of the wages of anyone “furloughed” by their employer as a result, plus other measures. He used the word “unprecedented” an unprecedented number of times in his announcement, which I listened to as I walked around Pentire Point on the South West Coast Path, having travelled down on quiet roads but having to stop a number of times to help manage a letter to the Minister about the potential for action soon more drastic even than today’s. It all brought home to me the fact that I shouldn’t really be here, even if I was planning to spend my public time outdoors and trying to be very cautious. I drove on to the hotel, used hand sanitiser as I got out of the car, made sure I was more than two metres away from the receptionist at all times, and as soon as I reached my room, washed my hands, repeating the double-cleaning process each time I either left or arrived at the hotel.

With parkrun cancelled, I took Saturday off from running, saving my legs for Sunday. I started Sunday’s 31½km run at Wenfordbridge, and followed the delightful Camel Trail, mostly alongside the eponymous river which was initially little more than a stream and became a sizeable estuary by the end. I diverted up the former railway branch into Bodmin, both for completeness and to make sure the distance I ran was sufficiently high. As with my other long runs, I continued to target a little under 7 minutes per kilometre, usually achieved by running about 6:25/km for the first 850 metres or so, and then walking until the average reaches the right level, a formula that my knees are grateful for – remarkably, as the distances I’ve been running have gone up and up, my knees have complained less and less, though my left foot has become less happy in recent days. As I passed the 25km mark today, I started to feel a little weary, but I gained fresh energy as I approached 28 or 29 kilometres, and I found the running section of each of the last few kilometres actually getting faster without me trying to push the pace at all – very encouraging.

There were a few people about towards the Padstow end of the trail, but it was still pretty quiet, and there was little difficulty most of the time in ensuring a two-metre separation as we passed. The harbour looked lovely on a perfect day for running, and it was a shame to depart without enjoying the town, but I felt that I was now an unwelcome outsider who should have stayed at home.

Monday evening of week 13 of the training plan saw the UK enter a yet more extreme “lockdown” with the population instructed to stay at home except for shopping for basic necessities as infrequently as possible, for medical needs, for travelling to and from work if it absolutely cannot be done from home, and for one form of exercise a day. Additionally, all non-essential retail stores are closed; all other indoor gathering places are closed; all hotels, hostels, B&Bs, campsites, caravan parks, etc. are closed; all weddings, baptisms and the like are banned; and there are to be no public gatherings of more than two people. Everyone is instructed to keep two metres away from others when away from home. The fear of the impact of the disease increases, as does the fear of the impact on the economy of the UK and the world of a prolonged shutdown – how many will die in years to come because we can’t afford the health care and social care that is paid for by a growing economy?

But as this is supposed to be a running blog, I shall indulge myself with trying to keep a running focus. Running is of trivial importance in the face of a national and global emergency, even if it contributes significantly to my personal physical and mental wellbeing. But the idea that I’m going to be able to run my marathon distance on 19 April now looks a lot less likely. Even if the measures in place by then are no more severe than currently (and who knows where we might end up?) then 4½ hours on Felixstowe promenade on a Sunday doesn’t seem to be a viable option (unless, perhaps, it’s raining heavily!). I’ve a couple of ideas that might be viable, with two mile loops or a two-mile out-and-back, away from likely pedestrian traffic – but even then they don’t really fulfil the “stay at home” instruction, even if they meet the underlying objective of minimising interaction with people from outside of the household – a trip to Tesco, which is permitted, is a far riskier endeavour in reality.

For the moment, while outside exercise is allowed (it’s now banned in several European countries and which now require you to carry official paperwork justifying your trip whenever you leave the house, or to request and receive permission every time to leave home, or are subject to random police inspections of households to check everyone is at home), I shall continue with the training plan, albeit with a bigger focus on times and locations that keep me away from other pedestrians. I’m not quite ready to fully defer the whole effort to 13 September, though I may have to make my peace with that soon. Let’s keep the dream alive, for a little while at least, and keep on running.

Boston Marathon (UK) postponed

So the almost inevitable has happened, and the Boston UK marathon has been postponed, until 13 September (maintaining the link with Boston USA).

I will be contacted in due course, and offered one of three options:

1. Do nothing and thus transfer my entry to 13 September.
2. Request deferment to the 2021 Boston Marathon, on Sunday 18th April 2021.
3. Request withdrawal of my entry, with a refund of 90%.

Given that I currently plan to be running my own marathon distance on 19 April 2020, all three have some attraction – I will have to ponder. It would be good, in these difficult times, to have a fresh focus for my running. I shan’t be paying to enter any races for the time being, until the situation becomes much clearer, so having one ready prepared in September 2020 or April 2021 has something to commend it, and having set out to run Boston, it would be good to do so. But marathon training is quite a commitment – do I want to sign up for it, again? Should I return to somewhat shorter distances which put less strain on my body – or do I take the time to gain further improvements in my approach which have already significantly reduced the impact?

There will be a little while to think about it…

Coronovirus dominating thoughts

At the end of last week’s blog, I reported on my plans for my personal marathon on 19 April in the event that the Boston UK marathon is cancelled. By Tuesday morning, as the evolving situation worsened, I was suffering from a lack of motivation but I managed to get myself out of the door anyway and did my 10km run including three brisk 2km sessions within in.

Wednesday was difficult too, but I did my slow 10km. Thursday I did 13km to Hessett and back at target marathon pace, but not feeling the joy.

Friday at work was dominated by dealing with coronavirus issues, and so escaping from that on Saturday was a day of mixed emotions. With increasingly desperate actions being taken around the world to limit freedom of movement, and reports that Italy has effectively decided to let those over 80 with Covid-19 die because they don’t have the resources to treat everyone, the UK approach is standing out as rather different. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, despite the opinions of so many amateur epidemiologists, but by Saturday morning there were growing noises that the UK would impose limits on public gatherings soon as have many other countries.

So my journey to Harrow Lodge parkrun to meet with Catherine, Alex, and the Eltham gang is quite likely to be the last parkrun for some time – already parkrun is suspended in most countries around the world. Online, I’ve seen a number of people in Italy posting Strava links to their rooftops runs – 80+ laps of the apartment block rooftop for a 5km run, as the Italian government won’t allow people to go out for a run, on their own, even in the middle of night. Spain is banning its citizens from leaving their house except to buy food or medicines or travel to work. These are worrying times, and strange ones for liberal democracies.

Harrow Lodge Park is pleasant, even on a gloomy overcast day, with a delightful lake. The majority of the route is on grass, and parts were rather muddy and it was occasionally a struggle to stay upright. After I’d finished, I went to find the others and jogged round with them chatting with Catherine. When it came to scan my finish token, I found that it had no number on it, and the barcode was so degraded it wouldn’t scan. Fortunately I’d heard the timer calling to the person giving out finish tokens soon after I’d crossed the line that someone was 40th, so I reckoned I must be about 37th and they noted that down.

The risk from being outdoors with a couple of hundred people, mostly spread thinly around a park, has to be very small. Those small risks that there are, perhaps including handling the finish tokens, could be mitigated with practical measures, but political pressure in the UK is growing not only to act but to be seen to be acting. But the risks associated aren’t zero and there is logic to the view that the cumulative impact of lots of small reductions in risk collectively have a significant effect.

We went to the café and had second breakfast and a lot of chat – very convivial, though significantly riskier than the parkrun itself if thinking of CV – with my amateur expert hat on, it would seem that better than banning large open-air gatherings would be to close down all semi-public enclosed spaces such as cafés, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, clubs – and public transport.

In the café the results processing was taking place, with a bit of difficulty since in addition to my problem (easily resolved – it turns out I was 36th) someone had been scanned as 107th when there were only 105 finishers and one of the Australians present clearly was linked to a different parkrun than she’d claimed, and the results processor had ended up having to start all over again. He was also doing double duty for the café staff, calling out order numbers in his loud voice while the timid staff could barely be heard. A very good bacon baguette when it arrived – a parkrun to go back to one day with Lucy, in dry weather as I don’t think she’d have enjoyed today’s mud.

So, possibly for the last time for months, I departed parkrun, my 117th location on my 174th run. When will be 175th?

Meanwhile, the Boston UK marathon have stopped taking bookings (for the half and fun run; the full distance was already fully booked) and postponed a marshals meeting, pending news from the government on whether the event will go ahead.

With five weeks to go till marathon day, my long run on Sunday was to the seaside, to Walton-on-the-Naze and along the front past Frinton-on-Sea, Holland-on-Sea, and Clacton-on-Sea to the unhyphenated Jaywick, and then back.

It was rather breezy – my app said 22mph winds – but it was the right way around, being in my face on the outward leg and behind me on the return leg. In a few sections there was a lot of soft deep sand on the prom, but mostly it was without difficulties, and I managed to keep churning out the kilometres very consistently, all 30 of them between 6:50/km and 6:57/km.

It was definitely easier than a fortnight ago, hopefully because the training continues to have an effect, though perhaps that wind being behind in the second half today but in my face towards the end a fortnight ago was a small factor too.

Now I’m making my peace with the idea of long runs being deliberately slower than target race pace, with confidence given by the two quick races, it’s rather nice not to be pushing the pace, and relishing just being out and enjoying the views. Certainly the impact afterwards is so much more muted – I went straight back home, showered and changed, then went out to ring a quarter peal. Only mild tiredness, no sore toes or other body parts, no insatiable hunger which used to plague me after long runs. The running is looking good – if only other things in the world were looking as rosy.

Victoria Park half-marathon

I started the running week on Tuesday with 10km comprising a 1.5km warm-up, then 3 lots of 2km brisk with 500 metres recoveries, concluding with a 1.5km jog.

Wednesday saw me setting out before dawn from Whittlesford station for a 13km slow run along the cycle paths that head in all four directions from the A505/A1301 roundabout, before heading into London for some work meetings.

Dawn from the A505 on Wednesday

Thursday was a gentle 5km, starting a small taper before Saturday.

Saturday was my second one in a row with no parkrun, but having tried to enter the Cambridge Half-Marathon too late (it was full when I tried in December), I plumped for a Half in Victoria Park in east London which was on the Saturday, but worth a minor tweak to the marathon training plan, now 6 weeks from the big day.

I arrived at the park in good time, collected my number, and made use of the toilet facilities – no soap, only cold water, so I was glad I’d brought my own hand sanitiser. I pinned on my number and attached my timing chip to my shoe, and now still had 45 minutes before the start, with the challenge of keeping warm. As the morning was colder than I’d expected, and I would be running in t-shirt and shorts, I chose to keep my fleece on for as long as possible and so delayed handing in my bag. That made a warm-up jog less practical, so I compromised by walking part of the course – it was billed as 6.5 laps, meaning 7 times past the water station.

I went and found the water station, and from there walked what would be the rest of the route after passing the water station for the seventh time. I knew the last bit of the route would be rather twisty with a danger of brief confusion – the point to turn off the main laps was clear, and then there were several bold yellow arrows which matched my mental picture of the route, then apparently no signage just as my mental picture went fuzzy. This was exactly what I wanted to avoid in my 21st kilometre later on when my brain would have less access to blood supply. I walked on, slightly uncertainly, and found a black sign with a small arrow not visible from a distance (black for half-marathon), a major contrast to the several yellow arrows, at the end of the path. I then followed the rest of the route back to the start/finish area, well satisfied with my exploration.

Swedish Fit led the warm-up exercises.

I dropped off my bag and did some gentle warm-up exercises, then we were called to the start area in order of expected finish time. We were soon off, but I hadn’t gone more than a few hundred metres before I found myself in a new situation for me, being interviewed on mobile phone camera by a fellow runner, with a thick Italian accent. I struggled to understand her questions due to the accent, and then, while running, to come up with good answers to questions such as “What are you running from?”. That novel interlude didn’t last long, and then it was time to focus on my running.

And I’m off. It was a bit chilly and breezier than I’d expected. The buff lasted about 3km as a scarf before becoming a wrist band. The gloves lasted 5km before being tucked into my shorts.

My original training plan had said to aim for sub-2h03 today, as being broadly equivalent in effort to my 4h30 marathon objective. After the success of the race at Dorney Lake, I’d decided to aim for sub-1h57, to beat the Dorney Lake time of 13 days earlier by two minutes or so, making for a target pace today of about 5:32 per kilometre.

However, I found my legs naturally turned over a little faster than that, and I decided to see how it went. Each time I went past the water station, at about two-mile intervals, I slowed to a walk to drink properly, but otherwise ran throughout. The lapped course, and combination of half-marathon, 10km and 5km distances being run, meant that it was a little crowded in places, especially in the middle third, but generally I was able to run freely.

I reached 10km in 54:04, an average pace of 5:24. This was ahead of my target for today, but also ahead of my half-marathon PB pace. I felt good, though understandably I didn’t have the excess of energy that I’d had at Dorney Lake when I’d run the first half so much slower. Today I pushed the pace a little further after half way, but decided that “a little” was the most I could manage, but that was still exciting, knowing I was heading for a PB, and a significantly better PB too. Having run the first half at 5:24/km, I eventually managed the second half at 5:18/km. At Dorney Lake, I was almost flying at the end; today I was really working very hard for only the most marginal of accelerations. I crossed the line and the clock stopped for me at 1:52:03, knocking 3½ minutes off my PB, more than 6 minutes off Eton Dorney, and 23 minutes off Vienna, my pre-marathon Half from last year (when I was injured and under-trained) – amazing improvements.

I allowed myself briefly to collapse to the ground; two concerned onlookers dashed off to get me water, and a third and fourth helped me back to my feet after a few seconds of recovery.

The scene afterwards

I grabbed a banana and other goodies, then fetched my bag and drank my recovery drink, and began to wend my way home – with a mere five loo stops en route.

My legs were a little weary afterwards, but they didn’t stop me taking the dogs for an hour’s walk by the Orwell in the afternoon, and on Sunday Brindley and I had an 8km run in the King’s Forest.

Our four Crufts dogs, looking not quite show-ready but enjoying themselves thoroughly
Brindley out for a run in the King’s Forest

So, 1:52:03, eh? My Garmin measured my route at 20.93km, but I don’t give that huge credence – 1% accuracy on a wrist GPS device is still good, and there didn’t seem to be a predominance of other runners showing under-distance, with a number showing over distance, so I’m quite happy that it should “count” as a half-marathon. Even if one extrapolates to 21.0975km, the time would still have been a big PB.

For what it’s worth, my running calculator says that pace is equivalent effort to a 4:04:48 marathon, which adds to my confidence that I can get my 4:29 time. I will try hard not to go too fast for the first 30km – if I still feel I have scope to accelerate after over 3 hours, I might allow myself to speed up, but I’m not going to let excessive pace dreams spoil this marathon – “goal A” remains under 4h30.

Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic is growing, with cases in the UK and other European countries doubling every two or three days. Responses in respect of public gatherings seem to vary: Germany has now joined several other countries in banning large gatherings, and Italy has imposed a nominal (though so far extremely porous) quarantine on 16 million people. The UK response has been that banning large sporting events has minimal benefit, and that the decisions made elsewhere are political rather than scientific ones. Whether that will last six weeks, remains to be seen.

Sophie Raworth tweeted very aptly:

The Marathon des Sables is the latest high-profile running event to be cancelled, along with many major marathons on the Continent, following on from Tokyo being restricted to a couple of hundred elite runners rather than its normal mass-participation nature.

The Boston (UK) Marathon has filled up with a surge of runners anxious that big UK events such as Manchester, London and Brighton could be cancelled but Boston might survive. Meanwhile the Los Angeles Marathon went ahead on Sunday – with some bizarre advice from race officials that people keep 6 feet apart, advice that is utterly impractical in a mass-participation race. An article in Popular Mechanics calculates that the start line would have to be over 3 miles long to fit in everyone 6 feet apart, without addressing the narrowest pinch-point of the route, nor that if we adopt such packing techniques, no-one would be able to overtake because they’d need a gap 12 feet wide to go through.

In the meantime, training goes on, and fingers are kept crossed, but I’m mentally developing a plan for 19 April with Lucy as my crowd and water station, probably on the prom at Felixstowe. If she were just east of the pier, then there could be a 3km loop to the NE, refreshments, then a 3km loop to the SW, refreshments, etc, all 7 times. I think having a back-up plan will make it easier to cope with the disappointment if the race is cancelled/postponed, and to continue with the training anyway.

A week of running and Covid-19

So, what’s been in the news this week? Very little reporting of my running in week 9 of the 16-week training plan, but a fair bit on Covid-19. Let’s start with my running.

Tuesday saw me travelling to Bury for my favoured hill. I park so that I have a 1.5km warm-up run to the bottom of the hill, and today I ran at top speed for 90 seconds up the hill, jogged back down, and repeated nine times, for ten in all. “Top speed” should mean the maximum I can run consistently for the 10 ascents, making the first one a bit of a challenge to get right, but I think it was broadly correct, each being just under 5:15/km which is good going for me uphill. Then the 1.5km jog back to the car.

Wednesday I took Brindley to the King’s Forest, where we ran 11km. I had my running harness on, but let him run free. I wasn’t certain how this would go, as it was the first time I’d tried to run with him without a lead, and the one time I’d tried it a few years ago with one of the other dogs (Hetty, I think), she’d just sat down and refused to move any further. Brindley loved it though. As it was a slow run, only about 6:50/km, he walked or trotted a good deal, doing relatively little running, so although it was his furthest run by some way, it was shorter than his longest walk, and he didn’t seem remotely challenged by it, and was still full of energy when we got home. He found several deer during our outing, and adopted a very deer-like four legged high bound through the undergrowth as he briefly chased – a quite amusing gait which I’ve not seen before in a dog.

Brindley with a herd of deer in the distance

Thursday saw wet snow falling, and so I ran my 13km at 6:20/km (hopefully marathon pace) on the treadmill at the gym – not exciting, but effective in keeping me warm and dry. It was my last run in February but meant that I ran further than I’ve run before in a calendar month.

Saturday was my first non-parkrun day since mid-October, as I was on a bellringing outing, including calling 42-spliced doubles and an apt quarter of Leap Year Surprise Minor.

Sunday was long-run day, and for the fourth weekend in a row, the UK was being battered by a storm. On this occasion, East Anglia didn’t have it too bad, and Storm Jorge (named by the Spanish), was looking mainly to trouble me with winds. I took to the Cambridge guided busway – nice and simple, and though with a few roads to cross, largely traffic free, though with relatively little shelter from the moderate winds.

I’d expected the bridleway that runs alongside the busway to be closed by flooding as, astonishingly, it is expected to be for 66 days a year in the construction plans, so had planned a right turn at Swavesey to go to Over and back, but I managed to forge through and just about reached the spot on the busway that I’d once reached from St Ives. As a result the run was slightly further than originally planned in the spirit of exploration, and so my tally for the day was 30km, resulting in the longest distance I’ve yet run in a week.

The last 5km was quite tough, with facing a 20mph headwind combining with tiring legs, but I managed to maintain my pace at the expense of my heart-rate climbing from about 121 to 129. My knees grumbled a little bit, but I think I’m managing to avoid their niggles getting any worse. Not for the first time, my second toes on both feet suffered a little with their ends rubbing on my socks, despite having put lots of Bodyglide on them and deliberately pulling the socks down to give more room for my toes to move. I think I’m going to investigate some new socks before the big day.

The flooded track

The run wasn’t desperately hard but was not easy despite being a good deal slower than marathon target pace, and after last weekend’s success, leaves me a bit more anxious again about the ability to run 42.2km at the faster pace. It was my 3rd fastest 30km, faster than either of the two marathons, so there’s lot of positives to take away too.

Over Windmill, which dates from c. 1870, on the gentle climb away from the gravel pits, heading back towards Longstanton from Swavesey

And so to the second theme – Covid-19. It’s been a week where the news has been dominated by the spread of the disease. The number of cases in the UK has climbed proportionately very quickly (it’s up 50% in the last two days) but still very low numbers of detected cases, albeit with growing hints of community transmission suggesting that a wave of cases not associated with travel to China or Italy or other hotspots is coming soon. France has banned gatherings of more than 5000 people, and Switzerland has set the bar at 1000.

The UK government has so far set the balance point in a different place than some other countries between risk of disease spread and risk of significant social and economic impact from restrictions – and any such restrictions might have to last months. But with my marathon being still 7 weeks away, will large gatherings still be happening by then? Will a predominately outdoor event with a couple of thousand entrants (plus crowds) across the three distance be considered large enough to ban?

The truth is, no-one knows. Clearly the outbreak is going to get worse, but how much worse, and how quickly, is the great unknown. From a selfish perspective, I want family and friends to remain safe; there are potential restrictions I’d rather avoid on planned holidays, on running races, on the gym, on bellringing, on Lucy’s dog shows and concerts; work activities could be constrained. I hope in most ways that those people who are dismissive of the risk get proved right. The “realistic worst case scenario” of 70% of the population getting the disease and 1% dying (half a million people), is, by it’s nature of being “worst case”, unlikely to happen, but more likely is a prolonged moderate outbreak with some social restrictions to reduce the peak. Let’s hope it proves less bad than so many experts seem to fear.

In the meantime, purely from my running perspective, I keep my fingers crossed, and continue the training. Lucy and I have already talked about a private 42.2km run on 19 April if the event is cancelled or postponed, with Lucy as my water station and crowd support.

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…

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.

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.