Plans afoot

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

A pre-Christmas half-marathon on the Lee Valley Velopark on 23 December. I did a 10-mile run there in April, and I rather enjoyed it, so after Snetterton I’m still hoping to knock a second or two off the PB, but in any case it’s a good cold-weather focus.

Hadleigh Legacy 10k in January 2018. I did this in January 2017 and it was my hardest run by some margin. It’s run on the Olympic mountain-bike course, and is all hill, with some mud, rocks to run up and four tunnels for added fun. Definitely not one for a PB but for the fun and the challenge and the variety.

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

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

Snetterton Race Track half-marathon

A chilly morning (zero degrees when we set out from home) made for a slightly tricky decision on what to wear for this race, and as I stood around before the start, wearing an extra fleece and still cold, I began to doubt whether I was going to be wearing enough. The large number of women in vests and skimpy shorts (there were a few men similarly attired but we’re typically less hardy) suggested that either they were going to be even colder, or maybe I would be ok, though the several billion goosebumps in evidence didn’t set my mind at rest.

The warm-up, though delayed because of late arrivals struggling to get to the course, eventually did its job, and once the race was underway I was fine. Later, I even contemplated throwing my gloves at Lucy who’d come to cheer me on. My top layer got increasing unzipped as the race went on.

The course was three laps of Snetterton motor racing circuit plus an out-and-back along an access road, which meant six crossings of a bridge with a noticeable little climb. Even without the bridge six times, it wasn’t quite as flat as I’d been lead to expect: not hilly but enough gradient to notice. It was a beautifully sunny day, albeit with a fair breeze which increased and was noticeable everywhere on such an exposed route. A fair few supporters, and the looped route meant that I got a personal cheer eight times, which is always great.


My objective was to beat, just, my PB from last month of 1:56:26. I was weakening slightly on the third lap, but reckoned I had just enough in hand to make it; however, my Garmin recorded me doing 21.2 km so the pace calculation was fractionally out, and at the water station on the third lap I had to wait several seconds for them to pour a drink as there was none ready, which I didn’t begrudge at the time but with hindsight was a bit frustrating since the end result was that my official time was 1:56:26. Couldn’t have done it if I’d tried.

So, another medal to add to the collection, plus a bottle of water after the finish. No goody bag – they’re often a waste so probably no bad thing. The site had shower blocks which I took advantage of, and then after a quick snack we walked slowly along the access road, being passed by the tailenders, back to the car and so to the White Stag in Hingham for a late lunch.

Perkins Great Eastern Run

A beautiful day for a run today, the Great Eastern Run half-marathon around the streets of Peterborough. One or two people afterwards complained that it was hot and muggy, but they obviously weren’t in the same place as me – I thought it nearly ideal running conditions: blue skies to start with though more cloud later, about 12 degrees, and the gentlest of breezes.

I recently read a Facebook post along the lines of “things I wished someone had told me before my first marathon” and one of them was the need to pee 19 times before the start. Well, I haven’t quite reached those heights, but after three visits at home, I stopped for another at the Peterborough motorway services which was full of runners with a side order of doggie people (the other group out and about this early on a Sunday morning), then got to the car park in Peterborough in good time. On arrival at the Embankment, I got in the queue for loo visit number five, then checked out the starting pens before rejoining the loo queues for visit number six. I guess it is nerves or excitement, but I can’t say I felt nervous, and while there was a general buzz of anticipation, I wasn’t unduly excited, either.

I dropped off my bag and then returned to the starting pens. I was slightly uncertain about which was which: with one labelled “1:50” and another “2:00”, where should I go if I’m aiming at 1:59? I took the former to mean “1:50-something”, and found myself at the front. With the pacers for each pen near the back, I then found myself close to the 1:40 pacer as I crossed the start line, which felt odd.

I felt reasonably well prepared for this one, having taken the running easy during the week, and rested fairly effectively yesterday, and with the weather being good and the course being fairly flat, I set off intending to run at my PB pace and see how it went.

I adopted my increasingly familiar “jeffing” approach, running a mile and then walking for forty seconds. Knowing that there were water points at 3, 6, 9 and 11 miles, I flexed things slightly to make sure the water points coincided with walk breaks, which allowed me to take on water at a walk, which is much easier. I also took on gels at 2, 5, 8 and 10 miles.

My aim for PB pace was 5:28/km for the mile-long runs, but in practice they came in at a very even 5:27 or 5:26 pace up to the half-way point, where I felt really good and pushed the pace just a fraction more, cut the walking sections down a smidgen, and found some further acceleration in the last two miles as the crowds grew thicker and noisier: I finally managed to pass the woman I’d been chasing since just before the half-way mark with just 200 metres to spare. My finish “sprint” was subdued but a definite speeding up to around 5:00/km for the last km, which saw me overtake quite a few other runners.

My final time was 1:56:26, knocking 2:40 off my PB, so I was really very pleased with that. And while I worked hard, there was a bit more in the tank on the right day, so we’ll see how I do in 6 weeks’ time at Snetterton.

I then waited at the finish for fellow runner Marion from WeightLossResources who also had also run a great time, on her fourth HM in four weeks she’d run her fastest for two years – lovely to meet her and spend a few minutes chatting.

King’s Forest Trail Half-Marathon

This morning the King’s Forest Half Marathon, my first trail half. Or rather, half and a bit as it was long: the race director said 13.71 miles though I measured it a bit less.

I arrived in good time at West Stow Country Park and put the car in the overflow car park, missing a huge hole which would have got the car stuck and possibly damaged it – it may be a field, but it is a field signed as a car park, and while I wasn’t expecting ‘flat’ I wasn’t expecting such a large hole, either.

I picked up my registration pack which included a bold orange t-shirt, which will get more use for routine runs than array of darker colours I’m starting to collect. There was also a chunky chip-timing device which I strapped to my ankle. I returned to the car and pinned on my race number.

I chose to wear my hydration backpack today, as it was a warm day and there were just two water stations. There is a lot of advice about not making sudden changes to footwear, clothing, nutrition, and so on, between training and racing. Well, the hydration backpack has rapidly become something I rely on during longer runs, and despite the minor penalty of running with an extra 1.5kg on my back, I think there’s a lot to be said for sticking with what’s familiar and what works.

We assembled near the start for the pre-race briefing, given by a chap with possibly the loudest voice I’ve heard. There was good news and bad news. The bad news was that with a slight change of route to avoid knee-high nettles and brambles, he’d measured the course at 13.7 miles. (To be fair, the publicity had always made it clear that the distance was approximate.) The good news was that it was a lovely sunny day.

And so we were off promptly at 10.30am, an hour behind the marathon runners. I had expected that the fastest of the marathoners would catch me up near the end of the route (as they were doing two laps of the half-marathon course) but that didn’t happen.

We started along the River Lark, including alongside a lake, mostly firm footing with a small bit of mud and a couple of gates. Then we crossed the road and took to field-edge paths to Icklingham. I found that I was going too fast, but struggled to slow down, and once I’d done my first 40-second walk break found that I was between people on narrow trods, which made me want to avoid getting in the way by slowing down.

After the first drinks station at Icklingham, we turned north and the start of a long gentle climb across breckland. It was lovely scenery, but still I was going too fast given the ascent.

There were quite a few large puddles on the level ground at the top, and some sandy, gravely patches from time to time, but mostly the going was not too demanding.

We eventually turned into the eponymous forest, with some challenging running initially, on a hogsback of a section which descended and ascended every few metres. After the second drinks station, I ended up at the back of a procession of five along a narrow trod, which worked quite well, but I was now starting to tire.

The remainder through the forest did at least benefit from quite a lot of shade on a warm day, but it was increasingly hard work and my pace slowed. A woman who I’d caught up coming out of Icklingham, and who had then got away from me, was having problems with her knee, and we passed and re-passed each other several times, before I eventually kept ahead.

At various points, the route through the King’s Forest was in familiar places, albeit often from an unfamiliar direction. We eventually emerged to cross the road for the second time. I passed the magic 21.1km and soon there was the sound of strong applause, and I realised it was for me as I powered over the finish line.

2:08 was my second slowest half (my first attempt at Reading being 2:10 but the last 4km or so of that was walked when my knee gave way), but my position of 39th of 101 was my best relative position in a half (first time in the top 50%), and I suppose a trail HM PB (and also my longest race as it was measured slightly long).

A trail should be expected to be harder, and I should be satisfied, but I was a bit frustrated, in part because I had failed to pace myself well enough. Looking back, I probably did too much running in the last fortnight, too, plus a very cold swim on Thursday took more out of me than I’d realised, so all in all I wasn’t quite 100% at the start line.

A great welcome at the end, and lots of cake.

Stowmarket Golden Mile

My shortest race yet was the Stowmarket Golden Mile race on Saturday afternoon, being a mile through the main shopping street. Rightly or wrongly I did a 2km warm-up with some sprints about 50 minutes beforehand, this being the first time ever that my warm-up has been longer than the race.

The entry was 300 people, and it was a very busy start up a gentle hill before entering the main shopping area where there was some good support, then little footpaths before returning to roads to enter the park for the finish.

The best value paid-for race I’ve done: in addition to all the organisation, there was drink, food and a medal, all for £3. Thanks to the Stowmarket Striders running club for their organisational efforts including the many members volunteering to help manage this fun event.

It was rather too crowded at the start and too undulating (and warm) for a PB, but my second-best mile time so quite pleased with that.

Great Yarmouth Half Marathon

After an emotional rollercoaster of an evening at the World Athletics Championships in London last night, today it was time for my own athletic effort, the Great Yarmouth Half Marathon.

It was a very well organised and incredibly friendly race thanks to the Great Yarmouth Road Runners – really friendly and helpful at race HQ, and really superb marshalling: lots of noisy encouragement (static and on bicycles and motorbikes), plenty of water to drink, plus cooling hosepipes and jelly babies if wanted.

Despite the name, the race doesn’t visit the town of Great Yarmouth (presumably gaining its name from the running club rather than the town), starting and finishing in Gorleston and taking mainly rural lanes to the south and west, and incorporating the grounds of Somerleyton Hall: I’ve pinched the picture – it wasn’t mine, but I tried to take in the view as I passed, as it’s so easy even on the most picturesque runs, especially when running hard or to a fixed pace, to fail to take in one’s surroundings.

It was my first half-marathon race using a run/walk technique – every mile, I walk briskly for about 35 seconds, to give my legs just a little time to recover, also giving the opportunity to drink from plastic cups while walking, and consume any gels etc. at a walk rather than run. I used the approach for a 10-mile race at the Lee Valley Velopark in the spring, and set a new PB with it, then signally failed to do so at the London 10-mile when I reverted to full-time running, and I’ve become a convert to run/walk on distances longer than 10km.

I had quite a while to chat (in short bursts) about the approach with one runner, Donna Crake, as we passed each other a total of 14 times. I think she was intrigued though perhaps not persuaded, but subsequent online discussion elsewhere seems to have caught the attention of another runner who is going to try it shortly in a long training run.

I was aiming for 2:03 which would have been my best HM time this year, and consistent with the plan to PB at Snetterton in November, but I felt good early on, and pushed the pace a little, then felt great after half-way so pushed it further to run negative splits, and finished in 1:59:06, a new PB, despite all my previous half-marathon races being fully run rather than run/walk. The beaten PB is from the Reading Half in 2010 so there is life in the old legs yet, and it was 6 minutes better than my training run half-marathons this year. Really pleased with that.

After resting for a short while and eating my post-race banana and drinking my water, I spent some time afterwards with a first-aider as I had pins and needles the length of both arms and hands, a first for me (other than when associated with migraine), but it passed in about 15 minutes with rest and gentle exercise. The first-aider was very calm and reassuring. She suggested it was most likely to be caused by keeping my arms a bit too bent while running too much of the time, and I do work them quite hard towards the end of long runs as a means of maintaining or increasing the speed when my legs start to tire.

I had my protein recovery drink, another thing that I’ve become a convert to, then returned to the race HQ (a school) where the friendly volunteers returned my bag and I had a shower and changed into clean and dry clothes – a very civilised thing to be able to do after a run, and not something I’ve previously been able to do.

Congratulations to the Great Yarmouth Road Runners on a superb morning.

London 10 Mile

Today was the day that running training for the last 17 weeks has, at least nominally, been heading towards. Although I would have been going out running anyway, I’ve been working to an Mbition training plan with today’s London 10 Mile in Richmond Park (originally advertised as the Royal Parks 10) as the objective. I successfully ran all 51 of my training runs (plus a small handful of sneaky extras) so had put in the work.

It was a longish walk from the south where we’d parked the car near the Robin Hood Gate, across the park to the event village, but a lovely one on a sunny day, with no traffic other than cyclists and a few deer. While Lucy went to investigate whether there was scope to buy an event t-shirt, I queued for the toilets, which gave me opportunity to pin on my race number and sort out my bag and other bits and pieces. The long queue moved swiftly, and after that was sorted I dropped off my bag.

There was no news from our friend Claire whose suggestion this race had been, and who has also been training for it, and so I guided Lucy to my suggested spot for her to watch the start which also allowed for an easy short walk to the 3-mile point, and then I went to my yellow pen, the second of the four pens. It was already getting busy and the 90-minute pacemaker was some distance in front of me, unreachable in the dense mass of people, and I wasn’t much in front of the 100-minute person. I wasn’t looking for a formal pacemaker but it did suggest there would be a fair few people in front of me looking to go more slowly than my 85 to 87-minute target.

The start was delayed by 15 minutes for reasons not explained, but that period did allow for a minute’s silence in memory of those killed last night, and an emphatic round of applause for the emergency services.

Eventually the first pen was underway, and after a short pause, our pen was too, getting me across the line about four minutes after the gun. It was very busy and slower than desired along the first straight, but once I’d turned the first corner and been cheered on by Lucy, it wasn’t too challenging to start to overtake people, both up the first hill and down the other side. I expected there to be some people a bit slower, but there were some very slow people who really should have been much further back in the fourth pen if that’s all they could manage at the start.

The scenery of Richmond Park is sublime and there was plenty of opportunity to enjoy it as the route wended its way to the south-east corner by Robin Hood Gate and then began its circuit of the park. I found myself running alongside a woman in pink in the second mile, and we more or less matched each other until about 7.5 miles which I think was helpful though with hindsight perhaps caused me to push a fraction too hard, though that was mostly driven by me aiming for a specific time and thus a particular pace on my Garmin.

After turning the north-east corner at Roehampton Gate, there began a slow drag of 2.7km gaining 66 metres of height and all into a stiff breeze and increasingly warm temperatures. I waved to Lucy as I passed her, she calling to me from the right-hand-side when I was expecting her on the left. This section was challenging and maybe I pushed too hard here, though once we turned the north-west corner by the Star and Garter Home, the next side was downhill or level so did give time for the legs to recover somewhat, and I did one km in 5:00 and my average speed thus far was bang on target at 5:21/km.

However, turning the south-west corner at Kingston Gate then produced another significant little hill, just 30 metres but at a gradient of up to 10%. The painful ascent was enlivened by tree surgeons sitting in a tree overhanging the road and cheering us on. Great fun but it didn’t have much impact on my legs which had had enough by the time I got to the top, and never regained their freshness. My intermittent companion in pink now pulled away from me, though initially not far. The ascent was followed by a steep descent which improved the speed but didn’t do much to help the legs – long and gradual would have been more helpful.

After a brief circuit at Robin Hood Gate to add a few metres to the route, it was back towards the event village along the outward route, which meant a gentle but persistent 1.7km uphill with another 30 metres of ascent in warm sunshine. I was determined I wasn’t going to walk, but the pace dropped dramatically to around 6:18/km, the lady in pink disappeared into the distance, and I was feeling demoralised as I was passed by dozens and dozens of people whose legs were in better shape than mine. Eventually I crested the hill and the remaining 900 metres were downhill and then level: although easier, my legs were struggling and I could still only manage 5:39 for the 16th kilometre.

As I approached the final turn into the finish straight, after a run with relatively little support, the crowds suddenly appeared and the air was thick with “Come on Stephen” (names being printed on the race numbers), which was great to hear, and plenty of hands out for high-fives, but it wasn’t really needed by now as it’s always easy to find a last smidgen of energy for the end with the finish line in sight. I passed Lucy close to the finish, and crossed the line in a chip time of 1:28:49, some 98 seconds slower than my PB which had been my primary target and 2.5 to 3 minutes slower than my dream target.

I had given it my all, and as I walked to the table with goodie bags, it was something of a drunkard’s walk, only just managing to propel myself in the right direction without falling over, and having claimed my water, protein drink, fridge magnet and packet of crisps, I had my cherished medal hung around my neck, walked out of the finish zone, and collapsed on the grass. After a short while I recovered enough to have a drink and message Lucy as to where I was. Gradually I recovered strength and after eating my crisps, drinking the water and the protein shake, I went to collect my bag while Lucy queued for some food.

The food queue was lengthy, and though the food was excellent we barely had time to eat it before we went over to the finish straight to wait for Claire who’d had time to post a Facebook message that she was at Mile 9, which we noticed six minutes later. She was a few minutes yet, and we cheered a few others across the line before she appeared, jogging cheerfully, in company with Paul Wright. As her longest run before today was 11.7km, she did very well to finish, though clearly had a few breaks as she had managed to take a lot of photos on her phone including ones at every mile.

So, it is done. I knew it was going to be hilly (by my standards, at any rate – there are plenty of hillier races) but the combination of the hills, the wind in the face on the leg heading west, and the warm temperatures, made the time target prove to be too challenging and in the last quarter I paid for having managed that target pace in the first three-quarters. However, I wasn’t that far off the objective, but nevertheless feel a little disappointed and dispirited. With an objective in 10.5 months which is 2.6 times as far, it also isn’t very motivating about my capacity to run such a long distance, either.

Clearly I need more practice on hills, and I need more long runs both to get my legs more used to distance and to start to reclaim some confidence. Would the two half-marathons I had my eye on in August and September help or hinder that, I wonder?

Stephen afoot

I started running indoors in late 2007, and after reaching 5km indoors in March 2008, started outdoor running, and entered the first Royal Parks Half Marathon in October 2008. I did two more half-marathons in Reading in 2009 and 2010, after which my running rather lost objective and focus.

In 2014, I discovered parkrun, which gave a fresh objective, and I rediscovered my enthusiasm for running. Successful weight loss in 2016, together with several running friends (mostly online so far) and a growing love of parkrun tourism further increased my love of running.

A chance visit to the London Marathon in April 2017 (in the interval of Harry Potter and Cursed Child) generated a lot of emotion, and I found myself, having vowed not even to do another half-marathon because of the strain the training had put me under, seeking a place for the 2018 London Marathon.

To my delight and surprise, I quickly gained a place running in aid of Guide Dogs. With almost 12 months to go, my enthusiasm for longer distance running started to bubble over, and I thought it might be a good time to experiment with a blog, mixing run reports, thoughts and plans. I don’t expect a wide audience, but it may be interesting to experiment with the format.