Now That’s What I Call…. Encouraging!

With five weeks to go to the Chester Marathon the week had been a good one once I’d fully shifted the cold I’d picked up and suffered over the weekend. Monday saw three hours plus in the gym: A virtual spinning session followed by 45 minutes on the elliptical trainer, ten km of progressive running on the treadmill and a group spinning session to finish me off, all played out whilst outside torrential rain the like of which I’ve not seen in many years flooded parts of Grantham and the surrounding area.

Tuesday was an hour on the elliptical trainer in the morning then a run in the evening which I described euphemistically on Strava as Clearing the pipes, a term the legend David Duffield had coined earlier in the day watching You Tube videos of the 1992 Tour de France. The nasal passages were certainly cleaner once the run had ended, the run feeling very easy despite beginning on jelly legs, knocking out ten and a third miles in sixty four minutes.

Wednesday was a recovery day of sorts, a double spinning session at the gym. The air-con wasn’t working for the first session, which meant Malaysia-esque conditions were replicated for 45 minutes of hard cycling. Luckily the second session was cooler and easier, I pushed on the final rep to see how many watts I could generate. 568 was the result and a slightly tweaked right hamstring the reward.

Thursday saw a fairly painful massage in the morning, an hour on the elliptical trainer in the afternoon and a 13.2 mile GRC run in the evening.  IT was good to have a fair few out of there out running what is likely to be the last over the fields run of this summer before the nights start prohibiting where we can safely run. The run was leisurely but good in many ways to knock out some slower miles.

Friday could have been a rest day but I wanted to do something so I spent 75 minutes on the elliptical trainer. Saturday morning was a straight out of bed run, and for that reason was a bit harder than I’d hoped. There were plans of marathon paced efforts, but the first six miles just weren’t that comfortable, languishing at around 6:45 pace. Then something seemed to click and the last four minutes were closer to six minute miles, complete with a cheeky Strava segment steal I’d just missed out on a few days earlier. The section was only 90 seconds or so long, but the pace (5:01) indicated that the legs were in good shape. That evening I put in another easy hour on the elliptical trainer, lamenting the fact that the last 10 minutes were done in darkness out in the shed. Autumn is coming…

Sunday’s run was going to be a bike ride but the conclusion of the World Athletics Championships put pay to that. I woke at 6:30am to watch the Women’s marathon I’d recorded overnight. I was changed and ready to go for 9 o’clock but my wife was still sleeping, having put in a 17 hour stint working and not finishing until 3am. Plans were changed with the athletics due back on at 11am, I decided instead to run once the athletics had concluded in the afternoon.

By 2:30pm it was raining and not feeling particularly inspired I headed out on a 20 mile route I’d hastily put together and uploaded to my watch. Luckily the rain was fairly light and with the temperature around 18C, it was really rather pleasant to run in with barely a breath of wind. The first mile was comfortable at 7:05; the second mile through the town centre was a 6:28 and felt effortless. I stopped for a semi-planned pit stop at local conveniences and headed back on my run – Somerby Hill the first and main challenge of the day.

This four fifths of a mile climb only averages 4% because it has a long fairly flat section in the middle. The opening and final ramps though are relatively hard, certainly enough to usually fill the legs with lactate. Today though I was feeling fresh and fast, and although the heart rate climbed to near 170bpm, there was no sense of fatigue at all as I completed the climb in 5:45, beating the previous segment record on Strava by one whole second (Very pleasing as I’ve failed many times before to beat it). The third mile was 6:38. Strava GAP reckons it was worth 5:32 with the hill taken into account. I was concerned that that exertion could come to be costly later in the run, but for now it all felt very easy, the fourth mile an effortless 6:08.

Miles 5 – 12 took me on a loop around Ropsley, mostly on roads I’ve run on before, albeit not often enough for me to run without the guide of the breadcrumb trail on the Garmin. Therefore, short of splits, I had no guide to pace and HR. Still it all felt pretty comfortable, the quickest mile 6:09, the slowest, 6:24 on a long drag out of Ropsley towards the A52.

Thankfully only 100 meters or so was on the busy A road, I turned right on the quiet road to Welby. I found myself picking up the pace as I came to complete a half marathon in around 83 minutes, the 13th mile 6:08; the 14th into Welby itself in 5:57. Still it felt very comfortable, the form as good as when I’d started the run. The fifteenth mile was mostly uphill and not particularly pleasant as the rain intensified and High Dyke was busy, but when a slow mile was 6:18 you know you are running well.

Miles 16, 17 and 18 went through Londonthorpe and past Belton House. I allowed the heart rate to rise slightly but still 5-10 beats below my marathon heart rate. The mile splits were 6:02, 5:56, and 6:08. I beat my own Strava segment on five gates, one I’d clocked recently on an eight mile run. The nineteenth and twentieth miles were slightly uphill, that they were run in 6:08 and 6:05 had me almost disbelieving what I was seeing. This was an easy effort long run and I reckoned I’d just run twenty miles faster than I’d ever run them before!

I clocked 20.24 miles in 2:06:28, which is 6:15 pace. 2:45 pace for the marathon is 6:17 per mile. When I went through 20 miles at Rotterdam last year (on my Garmin) it was in 2:06:17. On this training run I went through 20 miles in 2:05:32. I’ve run quicker over 30km (Stamford 2014), by around 5 minutes, but there my average HR was 12 or so beats higher, so I was working much harder.

It was comfortably the best long training run I’ve ever done and arguably one of the best runs ever. I just now have to hope I can maintain  fitness for another five weeks. I know too well that fortunes can change in a moment, so I’m not going to take anything for granted. But I’m very excited about what I could do over 26.2 miles in a few weeks time.

The German ‘Training Camp’

Part of what makes an autumn marathon different from a spring one is that, for most, factoring in family holidays around training is going to be a likelihood. For me this year this was a week with my brother and his family in Ismaning, a town just north of Munich in Germany proud of its agricultural heritage, in particular its cabbage and potatoes.

Much as I’d loved to have spent a week enjoying nothing but the produce of the land and good company, training had to continue. The opening run was the day after we landed, made far harder by one or three too many glasses of wine and the weather, which was extremely sunny and around 32C by the time I staggered out of the door. On the advice of my brother I headed to the River Isar which has an immaculate gravel cycle path and is largely tree lined, offering some respite from the heat. I headed to the English Garden, used their toilet facilities at one of the famous Beer Kellers and headed back. It was hard going but pleasingly not impossible, eleven and a half miles covered in 6:42 per mile average and a couple of Strava segments to take back home with me as souvenirs.

Friday was spent in the joys of Play Mobil land, a magical place for young kids that became something of a trial of endurance thanks to weather even hotter than the day before. We were grateful for the large thunderstorm on the drive back home, although that in itself brought challenges – namely staying on the road.

The break in the weather meant it was a mere 22C or so when I headed out on Saturday morning. Feeling refreshed after a day off I soon found myself in my running as I again hit the River Isla. I headed in the opposite direction, away from Munich and planned to head down and back for four miles at marathon heart rate to make it a ten mile run in total. The results were very pleasing, averaging the entire run at 6:08 per mile and sub six minute miles for the final eight of them.

Sunday saw wet and dreary conditions as my brother and I headed out. He would join me for just 4km before I headed back onto the River Isla path and into Munich for a spot of sightseeing. Having been more or less the only runner out on the hot days, there were many runners on this far cooler day. Indeed the German runners, who my brother informed me have a penchant for overdressing, would have me convinced it was a a winters morning, some wearing three or more layers, hats, even gloves. The reality was it was 20C by the end of the run and, once the rain had cleared, ideal for running.

After a slow first three miles, I settled into a pace of around 6;45 pace, which felt comfortably aerobically but I had a few niggles with the left hip and groin which made the going a little tough. It got harder as I hit central Munich – the cycle path twisty and even a little hilly in places. I turned around at just over ten miles, the 6:45 miles slowed to 6:59 at 13 as I began to labour. Still seven miles from home I decided attack was the best form of defence from fatigue and began to up the effort, knocking out successive miles of 6:52; 6:38; 6:35; 6:27; 6:35; 6:04 and 6:12 for the twentieth and final mile. It was a pleasing end to what had been quite a challenging run.

Monday saw a decent evening 10k recovery run on the loop by brother had run on the Sunday. The legs loosened off sufficiently to knock off two sub 6:40 miles to close.

Tuesday saw a day off running and saw my brother and I head off on the much talked about cycle ride planned for weeks in advance. Nearly scuppered by a couple of pre-ride punctures we finally headed out for a very pleasant 70 mile ride. I was on my brothers racer, he was on his touring bike used mostly for commuting. His racer was a little large but perfectly rideable and I took the lions share of the work at the front – only fair considering I was on a faster, lighter bike. It was only on the hills I gave myself leave to stretch myself, enjoying thankfully pain free ascents for the first time in a while.

The final morning saw an 11 mile ride I mapped out on my Garmin the night before, taking in parts of runs before and venturing further afield to a rather picturesque lake, the emergence of which a very old man, as naked as the moment he was born, from a swim, left an indelible mark on my mind. It was an easy paced run, pleasing then that it averaged 6:51 per mile.

The last run in Germany was also the last for a while that I wasn’t suffering from a cold picked up mid-trip. A small price to pay for an enjoyable and productive week away.

Race Report – Maverick Original Somerset Trail Race – Saturday 1st August 2015.

Racing the Maverick Original Somerset Trail Race coincided with a short break with the family to see my parents, sisters, and other members of the family in Minehead. Normally my runs there consist of at least one climb up North Hill and the surrounding area, or a trip up to Dunster Castle and a beach run. This time around I looked in advance to see if there were any races on locally and I stumbled upon this half marathon trail run, taking place on a Saturday morning in the Quantock Hills for the first time in Kilve.

I’m not a trail racer normally but this race appealed. A relatively low-key event that would test the legs and allow me to take in some of the stunning countryside I usually drive past when on the A39. After opting not to race in the Lincoln 5k on the Tuesday (sinuses still an issue and it was very windy) I went into the race relatively fresh, albeit having replaced the race with a solid 11.5 steady state run among other run and elliptical trainer sessions.

A mission of military precision meant my family and I were out of the house just a handful of minutes later than planned, light traffic meant we arrived at the Kilve Educational Center 90 minutes ahead of the race start. I went to register and to have a quick summary of the surroundings. Hilly was the word that came to mind. It was also rather dreary, heavy cloud and light rain spoiling the idyll of the countryside around us.

The pre-race routine was much as any other – I got changed, went for a mile or so easy paced warm up on the opening section of the course (on road, thankfully), and generally fretted for a while waiting for the race to begin. Thankfully the rain stopped shortly before the start of the race, the sun tried to make an appearance during the race but it was a largely cloudy affair, and temperatures were pleasant at around 16C. I’d opted to race in my regular Nike Pegasus trainers – I took a calculated gamble based on terrain I’d run on regularly at North Hill that the Quantocks would be a similar affair (An email to the organisers beforehand appeared to confirm this) and therefore fine for regular trainers, which I prefer over my rather average multi terrainers.

I’d planned to race with a GPX track of the route on my Garmin. At the last minute I changed my mind when, at the pre-race briefing, we were assured the course was well signposted. I took a chance and went without the course, mostly because the watch becomes very annoying when it is constantly telling me I’m about a metre Off Course, which it told me for most of the warm up, when I was very much On the course.

The race began with as little fanfare as I just gave it there. 3-2-1 go, said the chap who had just given the briefing. A small pack of us hurtled off at a silly pace – I took time to wave to my family, then went to the front of the race to try and control it (slow it down). As we took a couple of tight corners and onto a narrow road, beginning to head uphill, I looked at the Garmin – we were averaging 5:32 for the mile. This was insanity and I was relieved when the breathing around me got heavier and the pace slowed somewhat.

The first mile (which would be the last mile of the race too) was a harsh introduction to the race. The hill was gradual at first – around 3-4%, but  in the last third of the mile it ramped up significantly to around 20%. I shortened the stride and attempted to keep the heart rate under control. I found myself  moving away quite quickly from the three others in the lead group. By the time I left the road and onto the first footpath and gate to tackle, I found myself already with a 20 second or so gap – a 7:34 opening mile calculated with the Strava GAP as a too quick 5:29.

As I reached the top of the opening climb I was already thinking that victory was nothing but a formality. That thought was soon wiped firmly from the mind on the first descent of the race. Mostly on-road and again with a section of 20% + descent, I was feeling comfortable when, without warning, both quads cramped in an alarming manner. It was the same sensation I had at the Melton Parkrun (again on a downhill section) and more recently coming down Minnett’s Hill on a training run. I was fairly devastated, fearing another Bronte Sportive style early calamity where my chain snapped in the opening 5 miles or the same results as a post Christmas run where I was reduced to walking the final 2 miles home (after just 15 minutes of running).

I stopped at the bottom of the descent and performed a quick calf stretch, allowing the lead group to catch me. I went with them, stopping again a minute or so later at a drinks station, when I gulped a cup of isotonic drink. I carried on running, a little relieved that the pain wasn’t quite as severe on a flatter section, and knowing that if the pain got too much I could take one of several shorter race routes on offer. The lead three asked if I was okay and I explained my predicament. Too quick too soon came one opinion, which was quite possibly correct. I hoped I hadn’t ruined my chances of winning with a silly rookie error.

After a mile of fairly easy trail running through woodland, we began to climb again. I was pleased to fell that, if anything, the cramp residue pain in my quads lessened on the uphill section. I stuck in second place on a technical section for a while, but when I felt the pace began to slow I didn’t hesitate to take the lead and drift away from the pack. We left the woodland and onto the more exposed hills. It was steep but not so steep here that I ever felt the need to walk.

It was over a mile to the top and once there it was a sharp right off the dirt track and onto a more grassy, narrow, and, at times, rocky path. I had around 15 seconds on the second placed runner but, very nervous of my quads cramping again and generally not being a great descender, the second placed runner slowly began to catch me on the mile long descent. He did actually briefly catch me, I used the narrowness of the path to prevent him from passing, slightly sneaky tactics but legitimate I felt. Our feet got quite wet as we crossed some small streams – it was here I wished for the first time for some multi terrain shoes.

Having survived that descent intact, it was straight into the third climb of the race. This was a mile long and very steep in places – perhaps touching over 30%. I soon began to pull away from the second placed runner but was consigned to walking two brief sections of the hill, which actually proved to be no slower than trying to run. If I was finding it tough the second placed runner was suffering more than I. By the time I reached the top there was no sign of him. The quads were now nearly pain free, confidence was beginning to soar as I plunged down the other side of the hill on a near two mile long descent. The quads showed signs of wanting to cramp, but they resisted the urge thankfully.

At the bottom of the hill came the second feed station where more isotonic was taken on. It was here I began to pass runners who were tackling one of the smaller courses. This was a mixed blessing – it was a boost to pass runners, but a pain when they inadvertently held me up on narrow sections. It also became increasingly hard to determine who was in what race. I would look behind and wonder whether I’d just past them or whether they were catching me. This alone inspired me to keep the effort relatively high, although I was consciously trying to keep it under control to minimise the risk of the cramp returning.

The fourth climb was a real beast – two and a half miles long, although the hardest bit was at the beginning and just over half a mile long where, even though I stopped to walk a couple of times, I was pretty much the only one on the climb attempting to even run it slowly. At the top of this cliff face I was met by a runner who clearly hadn’t run up the hill and was asking me which way he should go as he was lost. I took a quick look and saw some orange markers and said it must be that way. He looked a bit confused but followed me, his pace reasonable. A half mile or so further on and there was another split where the long and the medium course went different ways. I took the long course and to my surprise so did the lost runner. I queried whether he was doing the long course and he said he was. I knew there was no way he’d caught me and knew he’d taken a wrong turning somewhere (Strava flybys confirms this).

He decided seemingly he was back in the race and began to chase me. My comfortable victory was now less so, and I was forced to work pretty hard on the remainder of the climb and the subsequent long descent to eke out a gap where we could no longer see each other. Thankfully the descent from 1100 ft to around 400 ft was over three miles long and for the most part not steep, so the quads weren’t overly troubled.

A quick drink from the final feed station and I was heading to the finish, now on familiar track tackled at the beginning of the race. This was a double edged sword as I knew there would be a tough final climb and, more worryingly, a very steep final descent on road. Comfortably in the lead I allowed myself the luxury of walking for a few seconds on the ascent before bracing myself for the descent.

Within meters I found my quads beginning to cramp severely. I stopped and tried walking but that hurt too. I then remembered a pieced of advice from an ultra runner who had explained why they often jog backwards down steep hills to lessen the stress on the quads. It looked daft but I gave it a go and to my relief I was able to jog on the steepest section at around eight minute miles backwards!

As soon as the descent steepness diminished it was back to forwards running and ignoring as best I could the cramp in my legs. This became easier as I saw the 1km to go marker and then, not long after that, the final turn into the finish, where my family were there to cheer me past the finish line for my first proper race victory! In the end it was a relatively comfortable victory – 2:41 clear of the second placed finisher who took a wrong turn and 4:05 clear of the third placed runner.

After congratulations I was whisked off for a podium photo with my prize – a pair of £140 Newton trainers. Not a bad return for an hour forty five’s work! The legs by now were totally shot with cramp, but the joy of winning helped lessen the pain. I chatted a while with quite a few runners, a friendly bunch these multi-terrainers certainly are, before showering and heading off for lunch with the rest of the family. A good day had by all!

The winner's podium!