Notts AC 5 – Wednesday 22nd July 2015.

Not feeling totally refreshed from the Bronte Sportive, thoughts turned to the Notts AC 5 mile race which took place just three days after the 88 miles of torture. It was at this race last year I ran a 27:53 PB and saw the beginning of a good run of unexpected form that ran through to late September.

It was also that race where I woke up with really tight hamstrings that jeopardised my participation until literally after the warm-up. Alas a similar predicament struck this year, although the malaise came in the form of a mild sinus infection, which may or may not be late season hay fever, which may or may not be post Sportive fatigue syndrome. Whatever the cause it left me through the day feeling lethargic and stiff limbed. Like last year I waited until the last minute before deciding to head off to Nottingham, a check of the resting heart rate revealing nothing too alarming made it plausible to at least turn up and jog I reckoned.

The delights of Nottingham in its continued pursuit of a working tram network causing traffic chaos meant I finally made it to the start a bit later than planned but not dramatically so. I changed into my running kit and knocked out a distinctly uninspiring two mile warm up. There was nothing particularly amiss, just a real feeling of lethargy.

My spirits were hardly raised when I then attempted to use the pre-race toilet facilities. At a new start venue near a pavilion, the organisers were apparently let down by the council who failed to open the ladies toilets. The men’s were in a frankly disgusting condition, a rusted urinal and just two toilet blocks, one of which was leaking profusely and had it’s sole toilet roll sitting in what I hope was a pool of water. I queued patiently with a number of ladies who had the delights of watching 200 or so men using the urinals in front of them before walking into the toilet cubicle and promptly walking straight back out. Trainspotting’s “Worst Toilet In Scotland” immediately came to mind and I decided I wasn’t that desperate to use the facilities. I pity the ladies who had no choice – a sadly unacceptable state of affairs.

All this didn’t leave me in the best frame of mind for running, and as I took my place on the start line I felt a little disinterested in racing, so much so I placed my self five or so rows back from the front of the race. It began with little fanfare and we were soon into our running. Thankfully from the first hundred meters or so I knew that I wasn’t feeling quite as bad as I had first feared. Legs were a little stiff but otherwise okay. I decided I would limit my efforts on the day to something around half marathon heart rate, which would be a solid workout but nothing that would likely stress the systems too much.

I found myself overtaking a few people quite early on and feeling comfortable, passing Philippa Taylor in the opening mile, who would go on to win the ladies race. Much of that opening mile was run into a head wind, which wasn’t as much a feature as last year’s race, but was still noticeable. I passed through a mile on the Garmin in 5:33 – solid, but ten seconds slower than last year. The Garmin is by no means the last word in accuracy but it was better than the erratically placed opening mile marker, which I went past in excess of 6:10….

With the wind behind me along the Embankment I settled into a comfortable pace, one I felt very assured in being able to maintain until the finish. The race unfolded in an undramatic manner, mile two was passed in 5:32 (the mile marker more or less tallying with the Garmin this time); the third mile which took us into the second and final lap was run in 5:28, with 5k passed on the Garmin in 17:12, which would have been PB territory a year ago, but today felt easy.

The fourth mile, back along the Embankment, saw me pick off three other runners, leaving me in 12th position, where I would end up finishing. That fourth mile saw another 5:28, had I realised how close I was to a PB I would have made a larger effort in the final mile, but my still relative disinterest in the race saw me instead maintain steady pace – so much so that I passed through 5 miles on the Garmin in another 5:28.

Unhappily the beep on the watch for the fifth mile didn’t mark the end of the race – another 0.09 was required, taking us off road onto the grass finishing chute. It was there I glanced at the official clock and saw that a narrow PB was a possibility. I put on a sprint finish and came home on my Garmin in 27:54 (rounded up to 27:55 on the official results). A little frustratingly this was two seconds outside my PB set a year ago to the day.

So despite going home without a PB and not feeling particularly healthy it was a largely positive race. To finish two seconds outside my five mile PB feeling sub-par beforehand and therefore having run it at half marathon heart rate is good indication that form is very good at the moment as thoughts move towards the Chester Marathon in October. The only frustration is knowing that had I given it full gas I could have gone a lot, lot quicker. That though will hopefully come on another day.


Sportive – Bronte Monster – Sunday 19th July 2015

Quite a bit like a parkrun, sitting a sportive in as a race report doesn’t entirely sit properly. To get around prohibitively expensive and quite probably impossible to attain road closures, sportives are at pains to stress that they aren’t races but merely events that are timed. Some offer medals based on your finishing time. To make the event even less like a race than a parkrun, finishing times are often not even displayed in a time based order.

The reason this fits in to the race section is that, unlike the handicap bike race I took part in a few weeks ago with Witham Wheelers, the Bronte Monster Sportive was undoubtedly one of the hardest sporting events I have ever taken part in. Its quiet unassuming nature; hardly any fanfare at start nor finish, belied the sheer enormity of the challenge packed into 88 miles.

It’s by no means the longest sportive on the calendar, most like to come in at over 100 miles to make the sense of achievement seem more significant. It’s not even that large an event, with only perhaps a couple of hundred taking part. What makes the event so tough is that in the heart of Yorkshire, it packs in over 22 hills (or Cotes as they are now more familiarly known in the area thanks to the 2014 Tour De France Grande Departe), most of which have percentages that average 8% minimum, many of them considerably steeper. Thanks to the Vale of Belvoir I have a fair few hills on my doorstep that could be used as a test run, but as it transpired the vast majority are mere mole hills in comparison to the sheer abundance of lung busting, leg breaking climbs in Yorkshire.

The sportive was based in Keighley and proceeds were going to the local Sue Ryder hospice – over £4000 was raised on the day. As I drove up from Grantham the poor weather became progressively worse. As I tried to navigate Bradford I could barely see out of the car windows the rain was falling so hard. I pity those who had chosen to leave at between 7:15 and 8:15, they would have experienced terrible conditions, apparently a fair few chose to abandon.

As it was when I arrived at 8:15 the rain chose to stop and the sun even attempted to make an appearance. I took around 45 minutes getting changed, making decisions on how much clothing to wear – I went nearly full spring spec, at the last moment electing to carry the long gloves and knee warmers in case the weather really deteriorated –  and set off at just gone 9 o’clock.

The first couple of miles were easy enough as we left Keighley – I recognised the roads from our family holiday a year earlier when we made a couple of tricks to the Eureka! museum in Halifax. The issues I’d had with the gears not shifting properly I’d seemingly fixed with some lube and gentle manipulation – the changes were crisp and smooth – I felt quite proud of myself for this very small piece of mechanical proficiency. The first climb on the Halifax road was 1.6 miles long and a Cat 4 climb according to Strava. I felt comfortable up this, aware that I wanted not put in too much effort too early on.

A short downhill followed then we climbed up Bridgehouse Lane at Haworth (Famous for the Bronte Parsonage Museum) and took a dogleg left turn onto Main Street which is not only very steep, but cobbled. Despite the severity of the climb I was feeling fresh and making good progress. I was just passing two other riders on the steepest bit near the top when…. SNAP!!! I lost all drive from the pedals. I nearly went over the handlebars, my Garmin dismounting from its mount and onto the floor – thankfully without damage. A quick look down and I saw the chain, under considerable strain, had snapped at a seemingly weak link. Luckily I was able to unclip from my pedals and avoided a low speed topple. I walked the short distance to the top of the hill and thought the game was up. A long way to travel for just under four miles of cycling.

Eerily calm, I had a quick chat to the photographer at the top of the hill (Apparently the shot from that vantage spot was front page of The Times when the tour passed through twelve months earlier. I’d bought equipment for a puncture, but not for a chain snap (It has never happened to me before). There was an emergency number I could call, I assumed in this instance it would be to pick me up so I could make it back to the start and head home for an early bath.

To my great relief the voice on the other end of the phone stated that someone would be on their way and would try their best to get me back on the road. Around 20 minutes later salvation did indeed turn up in the form of one of the race organisers, complete with a large white van. Not safe to park at the top of this very narrow hill, he drove me a couple of hundred meters to a nearby car park – he said he wouldn’t report it to the commissaire, which was quite topical, as a rider in the Tour De France had been disqualified from the race the previous day for the exact same offence when his chain too broke.

It was not a quick fix, the broken chain link proving very stubborn to come out. However after 15 minutes or so the job was done and I waved the van off out of the car park. Ten seconds later I was trying to hail him back for after two pedal strokes the chain had snapped again! Slightly bemused I rang the organisers again and I was told a few minutes later my mechanic would be back just as soon as they’d rescued a rather lost competitor. Not too long after he returned; a few more chain links were removed and fixed. We made the wise decision to do a test lap of the car park to decide the chain was in good order. Thankfully it was and, after an eighty minute delay, I was back in the game.

After a few miles I almost wished the chain had been too damaged to fix. The climb out of Oxenhope (A third category climb on Strava, was very hard thanks to a stiff headwind. What made the ride more bearable was the plethora of hand written messages to Tour De France riders from the previous year, still clearly visible from the road. Indeed for 21 miles we followed last year’s stage two route and even if it could in no way compare to twelve months earlier, you could almost feel the fever still lingering a year on.

Having reached the high point of the Sportive early on (a shade over 1400ft) The long descent back down to 360 ft was fairly hairy thanks to some blustery winds. Indeed the wind was quite a factor during the ride – the next long climb up to over 1000ft, the well known Cragg Vale, which is apparently the longest continuous hill in the UK, was into a stiff head wind, which made the relatively shallow gradients feel all the harder. It was here I began to pass fellow competitors, I was no longer the last man on the road.

After the drop down from Cragg Vale we came to the first of three check points which doubled up as feed stations. I took on as much flapjack and chocolate I could muster, and with me also came a banana, half of which literally fell out of my mouth as I tried to eat it on a descent which quite quickly had me at 45mph.

Incidents were thankfully few and far between on the ride. We were warned at the checkpoint that at one hill the road had actually been closed at short notice for resurfacing. Thankfully we were permitted to use the footpath and after a short delay were back on our way. Miles 30 to around 65, which included another briefly visited checkpoint, were just a relentless succession of steep ascents followed by steep descents, the kind of which you can’t relax on as you hurtle out of control possibly just moments from imminent disaster.

Thanks to my chain issues I’d lost my two lowest gears on the big chain ring. Not a huge deal, but useful gears to have on some sections of the ride and a pain to accidentally engage at points and find the chain jamming. Despite this I felt I was riding quite strongly, indeed on Strava I was typically in the top three on the day for most of the climbs, but some way down on the descents where I was being quite cautious. There were even a couple of hills where I made the top thirty, and one the top ten, which I was quite proud of.

That said, by 60 miles I was beginning to suffer badly. Having the route loaded on Garmin was very useful in terms of navigation and the elevation profile handy for letting me know when hills were coming or if they were coming towards and end. By the 16th or so hill – each one marked on route at the beginning and end – and with a series of large spikes still to come, I wondered if I was going to make it, especially as my left knee was beginning to ache quite a bit thanks to a tight IT band. I would definitely have had to stop were it not for it being pain free when I stood on the pedals to cycle – which ended up being most of the way up the latter hills.

Shortly before the final feed station at around 67 miles, there was an option to cut the ride short and ride 72 miles. It was severely tempting – quite a few apparently had and many more were likewise enticed by the prospect of an early end to what had now become near misery. The stubborn fool that I am meant I decided I’d entered the 88 mile Monster and the 88 mile Monster was what I was going to finish.

A quick stop at the final feed station (only four or five more steep climbs I was cheerily told) and I was back on my way, only to be hit by a bout of severe stomach cramps which, if I was running would have been disastrous, but on a bike merely at times very uncomfortable. Still, I battled on. The third from last climb Netherghyll Lane was a 20% bastard – the cadence dropped to a point where pedals were barely turning, those ahead of me had given up and walked. I made it to the top only to be faced a couple of minutes later by the fourth category Dick Lane climb. At 1.8 miles and averaging 6%, on most rides for non Yorkshire folks it would be the killer climb. But after 20 or so of Yorkshire’s finest for practice, somehow I found this one relatively easy.

Climb finished and 80 miles into the ride, I’d thought we’d tackled all the climbs as we dropped down into Sutton-In-Craven, narrowly avoiding taking a wrong turn and returning to the correct route, even seeing a welcome sign post for Keighley, which we disappointingly were signposted to ride in the opposite direction from. A couple of miles later and we took an innocuous looking right hand turn into what looked like any modern day housing estate. This housing estate though was built on Burrows Lane which, leading to Redcar Lane, forms a 1.8 mile climb which Strava has classified as a third category climb.

According to my probably dodgy Garmin elevation data (but gives an idea of the climb), the initial ramp was around 12-15%, followed by a short section of 3-6% where I thought the climb was coming to an end. However a left hand turned revealed another ramp, this time more severe, with a short section over 20%. I’ve never had to climb off my bike on a hill before, but here I had to briefly admit defeat. I walked for 15-20 meters to a point where the hill’s severity lessened a touch, came to my senses and got back on my bike. Happily, although the climb continued for another mile and had a section of only 12%, I was able to recover sufficiently to make it to the top, bizarrely setting the 43rd best time out of 391 riders for the hill segment on Strava. I can only assume that walking was barely any slower than riding at the moment where I climbed off.

That hill done and with 86 miles covered, I knew now it would be downhill to the finish – and indeed it was. In a very understated way I came to the finish to be greeted by the man who came to my rescue when my chain snapped. He congratulated me on my efforts. I thanked him not only for helping me in my hour of need but for creating a truly brutal course which pushed body and mind to the limit. They offered a barbecue at the finish. My stomach overdosed on energy drinks, bananas, sweets, flapjack, chocolate bars and malt loaf, I politely declined the offer, but welcomed a nice cup of Yorkshire Tea.

My official finishing time, including the time taken for repairs and the small amount of time at checkpoints, was 6 hours 59 minutes, earning me a bronze medal. My Garmin time (which discounts any stops) was 5 hours 40 minutes, which was five minutes inside the time limit for a silver medal – which I would have come close to attaining had I not had the mechanical issues. The time though was largely irrelevant, it was an achievement just to finish. Each of the people I spoke to at the end said it was the hardest sportive they’d ever done.

I wasn’t going to argue with them.

Publishing my data - putting the doubters to rest ;)
Publishing my data – putting the doubters to rest 😉

The Next Attack At Sub 2:45 Will Be….

Those who follow my progress on Strava (which, is not many) will have noticed the past couple of weeks have seen two or three runs where the term marathon HR has been mentioned. The desire to test my marathon pace has not been out of idle curiosity, although I’ve always valued the positive training merits of a good marathon paced training run. For the past month or so I’ve toyed with the idea of taking part in an Autumn Marathon – something I’ve never done before.

Normally the early autumn months for me are where I target a half marathon or two. This year, because of the way the F1 calendar has panned out, all the best options for a quick autumn half have been ruled out. I was banking on being able to take part in either the 2015 Manchester or London Marathons, but with the provisional 2016 F1 calendar revealed I can do neither of those, so a spring marathon looks unlikely.

So, with the recent flush of unprecedented good form surely representing my best chance yet of cracking the hitherto elusive sub 2:45, I’ve made the decision to enter an Autumn Marathon. That marathon will be the 2015 MBNA Chester Marathon, held on Sunday 4th October, which was twelve weeks away at the start of this week. There are other marathons available at that time of year but, based on highly positive reviews from runners whose opinion I trust, and having sung its praises to others who have gone on and entered, I thought it only right that Chester should be the marathon of choice.

That makes this week the first week of marathon training. I’ve made a decision that unlike my previous attempts I’m not going to train specifically for the marathon. Instead I’m going to continue broadly on the lines that I have been doing for the past couple of months as they seem to have yielded great results. This is, broadly speaking, a diet of cycling; elliptical trainer and other gym CV equipment; the odd swim; and, of course, a fair amount of running. There is no grand twelve week plan, more a macro day by day, week by week, training intention based on how I feel – which worked very well for me this time last year.

Normally the opening weeks of training would be lots of long slow runs building up mileage with the odd marathon paced run thrown in. However, the coming weeks and those just past have seen me enter a few shorter races, which require more speed specific training. So there has and will be more interval sessions than normal (with marathon heart rate runs playing more of a role than the Rotterdam 2014 effort) and less focus on working towards big weekly mileage. I anticipate a lowering in volume for a week or two over August with holidays, before working towards the early October marathon with some long runs hopefully thrown in somewhere.

So far this week training could hardly have gone better (running wise anyway). Monday was meant to be an interval session of 3 minutes at half marathon heart rate and 3 minutes at marathon heart rate, x6 with a recovery in the middle. I was relying on a workout I devised on the Garmin website and transferred to my watch. Suffice to say it didn’t work out as planned (Garmin got very confused) and so I just ran eight miles at marathon HR after a two mile warm up. The ten miles was clocked at 6:02 pace; the 8 miles at marathon pace worked out at an average of 05:44.

If I, by some very unlikely chance, was able to replicate this over a marathon, I would come home in 02:30:13. What is more plausible is that, if I stay injury free and healthy, 06:17 miles will feel much easier than they ever have in a marathon. Indeed my easy HR runs have seen me running just a few seconds slower than 06:20 pace, so indications are very good.

Tuesday saw the only blip of the week where I was meant to take part in a Witham Wheelers time trial, but punctured just as I was ending my warm up. Thankfully a very kind fellow club member took pity on my total mechanical ineptitude and fixed the tyre at an unbelievably fast rate. It was though just a tad too late to take part in the time trial. I decided to save my energy and run a revised Wednesday long run of 14 miles, mostly off road on trail or the canal path from Woolsthorpe to Grantham, where I took off at marathon heart rate and closed each of the final six miles in sub six minutes. Truly unprecedented times for yours truly.

Yesterday was a glorious club run in idyllic conditions again over a mostly off road route to try and get me in shape for my first half marathon of 2015 – a trail race in Somerset in a couple of weeks time. It was one of those evenings where it felt truly great to be out running.

This morning saw a sweaty two hour effort on the elliptical trainer, a relatively easy effort ahead of this Sunday’s novelty sporting activity – a hilly sportive in Yorkshire, which I am looking forward to and dreading in equal measures. For now – rest after a very good six days of training.

Parkrun Report – Peterborough parkrun #106, Saturday 11th July 2015

The first thing to state is that I’m very much aware that to post a parkrun report in Race Reports is something of a faux pas, the free to enter timed 5k run is very keen to stress that it is not a race – no matter how similar it may feel like being one from the moment you arrive at one to the text message you receive an hour or two after the event telling you your time and finishing position.

From the onset however mentally I was treating my participation at Peterborough parkrun, if not as a race, as a very serious time trial, a serious stab at beating my very old parkrun PB of 17:20, set at Coventry back in 2012. The week’s training had been moderately easy – an 80% effort at an intervals session on the Tuesday, which confirmed I was in good shape and the other session of note a 13.5 mile club run on the Thursday which saw us neck high in crops at one point and then tripping over a poorly dumped roadworks barrier late on in the run.

That last incident very nearly saw me not take part in the parkrun. The Friday saw the right shin quite sore and when that cleared up on Saturday morning I found myself limping a touch with a very tight quad. Thankfully some last minute foam rolling before setting off appeared to alleviate the limp. The drive down to Peterborough was rather blissful, the fact I had the sunroof open and windows down pointed at the temperatures already being warm.

I arrived a little later than planned, which meant after the customary call of nature I only had chance to do a short 1.5 mile or so warm up – which was one loop of the course. The legs felt a bit stiff and the sun pretty warm, but in the last minutes of the warm up I felt the body loosen off and feel ready for the assault.

After the customary parkrun briefing we headed to the start and I made my way to the front, having a final brief chat / excuses tick off with fellow GRC runner Rob. A couple of minutes late and we were on our way. I was pleased to have just in front of me a couple of runners who were willing to take the early pace, and another runner just behind as we eased away from the field. I felt comfortable sitting in third as we completed a mini lap of the lake and headed off on the first of two larger laps. I was chopping the stride slightly but there was none of the inadvertent tripping I was doing at the recent Solstice.

We went through the first mile in 5:10, which is one of my fastest ever miles but felt comfortable – especially as I’d covered 800m earlier in the week during intervals at sub 4:40 pace. We then went over the only real climb on the course in the form of a pedestrian bridge. The climb is just a few seconds but it was enough to cause a slowing on the descent. I decided that this was the moment to push and I took the lead and didn’t look back. We were already passing backmarkers, who had been instructed to keep to the right. Most did but there were occasions when I did have to shout quite loud to get someone’s attention. Thankfully there were plenty of runners who were also shouting to others to keep right, so at no point was I held up.

If this wasn’t a race it still continued to feel like it. The Peterborough parkrun course is held on nigh on exactly the same course as the 5k race held there as part of a summer series, albeit I imagine the parkrun has significantly more crowd support, especially with the enthusiastic cheering of the Peterborough Sweatshop Community Runners, who risked wearing bright yellow t-shirts (And in so doing became a magnet for all sorts of insect life) to give the run a race like feel.

As I completed the first large lap and headed for the final tour, I worked out from the applause of spectators that I had a comfortable gap on the second placed runner – and it was now a time trial to the finish to try and get that PB. Mile two was covered in 5:19 and I still felt fairly fresh. I then hit an exposed bit in terms of the sunshine and wished I’d worn a vest rather than a t-shirt. It was over 20C (40 minutes later when I got in the car the temperature was 23C) and I was having to play mind games to convince the body it wasn’t hot.

The second climb of the bridge numbed the legs and the final mile began to feel like an awful long way. It was here the crowd support and the generous enthusiasm of lapped runners really helped me to the finish. As I took the final left hand bend and began the final 400 meters or so I glanced at my watch and saw it had only recently clocked 15 minutes. I knew a sub 17:20 was assured, it was now a question of how quick I could go. I didn’t register the third mile split at the time (it was a 5:15, but it felt slower) it was an all out effort to the finish chute.

I crossed the line and heard the official shout 16:36 which, to a tenth of a second, tallied with my Garmin time. The tiredness soon flushed out of the body with the elation of a big new PB – 44 seconds for parkrun and 19 seconds for 5k (the Peterborough parkrun course is certified as accurate, apparently).

The fact I finished first didn’t really matter at all – my effort was true to the parkrun ethos that it is a run against the clock and to better yourself rather than necessarily others. That said I couldn’t help feeling that I’d been to many races that felt less like a race than Peterborough parkrun, but today I wasn’t complaining over the rights and wrongs of parkrun. It was a good day.