The Best (and Worst) of 2016.

It’s been a funny old year, 2016. So much going on in the world, not much of it that good. I find it bittersweet that, sporting wise, I probably had my most successful ever year. I may not have bagged any PBs but I won races and prizes, represented my country at a World Championships, and had several other strong events.

The flip side was that I also had some pretty bad races and some really tough times during training. Around half as many bad experiences as good.

So here, are my top 10 best experiences of 2016 and my worst 5 …:

The Best

  1. The 2016 Newton’s Fraction Half Marathon was quite simply the best, most exciting race I have ever taken part in, made all the more special as it was my home race and because until the morning of the race, I genuinely thought that injury would prevent me from taking part.

2. If you asked me at the beginning of 2015 if, 18 months later, I would be taking part in the ITU World Duathlon Championships, I would have laughed at you. That I took part was amazing. That I wound up seventh in my Age Group was almost unbelievable. A most pleasing performance, especially given the pre-race dramas with the dreaded cramping.

3. I didn’t write about it for some reason, but on Wednesday 4th May I was honoured to take part in Ben Smith’s 247th consecutive marathon. We visited 19 schools around Grantham, receiving a heroes welcome at each of them. Spellbinding stuff! He is a true legend. A day I will never forget.

Ben Smith Marathon #247

4. Not an event nor a race, my three week summer holiday was the best I’ve ever had. One of the joys of the road trip was the near daily dose of near 10 mile runs and the photo opportunities that entailed. Aside from one parkrun there was no competitive bent to the running, just enjoying getting out and savouring the many delights Britain has to offer.

5. The race itself was not that exciting. Nor was it the biggest nor most prestigious. But I will forever remember the Stilton Stumble 24K race as the first and, to date, only road race I have ever won.

6. The race itself was not that exciting. Nor was it the biggest nor most prestigious. But I will forever remember the Holdenby Duathlon (standard distance) as the first and, to date, only duathlon I have ever won. Two golden weeks in October!

7. 2016 was the year I got serious about cycling. Once I’d qualified for the World Duathlon Championships, I knew I needed a proper time trial bike, so I got one. Then I got myself a proper decent racing bike. I used that bike one weekend in July when I decided to take part in two sportives in two days. 100 miles on ride one, a mere 76 on the second, but featuring the best (worst) hills that the Cotswolds can throw at you. Sportives aren’t races, but I was pleased to be in the top 5 fastest times on day one and possibly as high as third on day two.

Sportive One

Sportive Two

8. I’ve not cycled as much as I would have liked, but 2016 has seen me cycle more miles than ever before. Probably my favourite ride came early on in the year at one of Witham Wheelers’ Reliability Rides. No winners, no prizes, just the satisfaction of riding with and climbing alongside some of the best riders in the area and not disgracing myself.

9. I hate cross country running. I try my best to avoid it. But there is something unique about the National Cross Country Championships that inspired me to go buy some cross country spikes and take part. I didn’t have a particularly great race, I didn’t enjoy a lot of it – far too muddy for my liking – but it marked my last team outing in a Kenilworth Runners’ vest before switching first claim allegiance to Grantham Running Club. For that reason it was a special race.

10. The notable part of the Robin Hood Half Marathon was that I wound up finishing as third Veteran. Not a particularly remarkable achievement but the race had the honour of calling itself the National Half Marathon Championships and so technically I am the third best Veteran half marathon runner in the country. This is, of course, nonsense, but I was £50 richer for the experience.

The Worst:

  1. I trained hard and well for the London Marathon. It was to be my first appearance as a Championship entrant. I was in the form of my life. Then the 7-10 days before the race I suffered the leg cramps, that had previously afflicted me seemingly randomly, on pretty much each training run before the race. I went in nervous that they would hit me in the race. All was good until six miles then I got the first dreaded symptom and I knew my day was done. At the end I vowed my marathon days were over. Like so many who have uttered those words before, they proved to be short lived promises…

2. The day I snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The Rockingham Duathlon will forever be remembered as the day I wished I could count…

3. If you ignore the minute or so I spent walking as I tried to get myself going after suffering stitch, there would have been a 10K PB at the Summer Solstice 10K. As it stands it became a race best forgotten (But I can’t…)

4. The Dambuster Duathlon shouldn’t really feature in the worst events of the year as it proved to be the race that qualified me for the World Duathlon Championships. At the time though it was one of the least enjoyable, most poorly executed, and miserable races I had ever taken part in. Part of me is glad it may have been the last ever incarnation of the race (although it is actually a bit of a tragedy the organisers appear to have given up on it).

5. For nearly eighteen months I’d been suffering what I called random cramps in my quads, hips, and glutes. I put up with it until I took part in the Thunder Run 24 Hour Race. I knew something was amiss before I even began running and, sure enough, the hip flexors began cramping just a mile into my one and only leg (I was working that weekend). Bloody mindedly I put up with the increasing discomfort, pain, and then agony for seventeen more miles before finally calling it quits after three laps.

The positive to come from this was it was the event that made me revisit my GP and insist that something be done about it and fears of some weird chemical imbalance put to rest. Touching wood, a trip to Loughborough and some great physio since has meant I’ve barely had a sniff of any issue since October.

Thunder Run

Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Let’s hope it’s better than 2016!



Race Report – Keyworth Turkey Trot – Sunday 11th December 2016

Unless there is a dramatic change of heart, the Keyworth Turkey Trot half marathon will be my last race of 2016. This is a much hyped race, entries opened one morning in late September and all 1000+ places were filled by the same evening. I entered on a whim, confident I could sell my place if I didn’t fancy racing it after all.

As the weeks went by I felt more compelled to give it a go, and so trained semi-specifically for it. I ran three short interval sessions (pretty much the first of the year aside from one at the very beginning) and a couple of quick tempo training runs before committing myself to base training (i.e. nothing hard or particularly fast) in preparation for the London Marathon in April. I’d done a couple of long runs with a parkrun stuck in the middle, a long run on the hilly Newton’s Fraction half marathon course and three Tuesday evening runs containing the same killer hill at Great Gonerby. This was all done with the knowledge that the Turkey Trot is an undulating race with one stiff climb in particular – at around three miles.

Injury wise I was fairly clear of anything major – the left Achilles is still nagging away but continues to show every indication it is a calf issue. I’ve had a problem with a tendon aching on the top of the left foot – caused by overly tight laces on one run. It’s been tricky, but I’ve been able to continue running with some readjustment of laces and sticking with a couple of pairs of trainers that hurt less than the others. The cramp sensations I’ve been suffering at random periods for much of the past two years are much diminished – all but disappeared since I began having some regular physio to establish the cause of them. Early days yet but the suspicion is it is a significant lack of any mobility in the thoracic spine and other issues regarding flexibility in the hip and pelvis area. A daily dose of specific stretches and mobility exercises have appeared to work wonders. So it was I went into the race fairly confident I would last without cramping up or suffering with bad Achilles pain. I was though fighting the inevitable colds that are flying around town and being brought en masse by my youngest daughter. Come race day however I was pretty much bug free.

A pleasant feature of the Keyworth Turkey Trot is the relatively late start – 10:30am. I doubt this is to let runners enjoy a pre-Christmas lie-in. The reality is more likely to give any overnight ice and frost the chance to melt away. Thankfully after a day of heavy rain on the Saturday, Sunday awoke dry and with fairly pleasant temperatures for running – around 8C – albeit with a slightly annoying breeze. I awoke at the normal hour for a Sunday, had breakfast, the coffee, grabbed as much Match of the Day I could before setting off for the 40 minute journey to Keyworth.

I made it to one of three car parks (all with postcodes provided and walking distance to race HQ on the pre-race instructions – a great touch) with over 90 minutes to spare. This guaranteed a seat in the school hall used as Headquarters for the race. I went about preparing for the race, taking a risk with the Nike Frees as the last time I tried to wear them they were too painful on the foot tendon – but today they felt fine. I had the chance to chat with a few guys and gals from Belvoir Tri Club, who had appeared in huge numbers for this race, before bidding adieu and setting off on an uneventful warm up and a queue for the toilets, which was long, but well managed by race crew.

The plan had been for a pre-race Grantham Running Club group photo but this never quite materialised due to people queuing for baggage, toilets, warming up etc. I’m never a big fan of the pre-race photo, I’d rather be concentrating on the race, so ten minutes before the off and with a last minute trip to the loo required, I declared the pre-race photo postponed until after the race. I joined the front of the race with five minutes to spare, the race looked like it was going to go off early until someone on a walkie-talkie reigned in the enthusiasm of the starter and insisted it go off on time.

The start of the Keyworth Turkey Trot, held on Sunday December 11th 2016.
Lining up for the start. I’m behind runner 1112. Photo c/o John Oldfield.

So at the prescribed time of 10:30 we were off. A key feature of the Keyworth Turkey Trot is the lightening fast start. The opening of the race is downhill and regularly sees runners hurtling off way faster than any pace they can maintain. A sting follows almost immediately with a drag uphill of around the same length before the race calms down on a section of flat before another downhill stretch as the local church is passed and Keyworth is departed. Much of the first three miles is downhill, albeit fairly gently. It is usually time to bank some seconds but at the same time being careful to not get too over exuberant and run faster than the descent allows for.

The start of the race.
The start of the race. Photo c/o John Oldfield.

I had a fairly mediocre start to the race. My legs took a few minutes to come to life and a mile or so before the left Achilles stopped aching. The field soon became quite spread out with a rapid bunch of runners quickly disappearing into the distance. I went through the opening mile in 5:38, which I knew was eight seconds down on 2013, when I ran the race for the first and only time. The second mile saw me employ some tactics. We were heading west, into the not stiff, but noticeable breeze. I had two runners behind me who were clearly taking shelter behind me, so I slowed until they were forced to take the pace. I tucked in behind them. This wasn’t particularly comfortable as I was chopping my stride a bit but I reckoned the protection could help later in the race energy wise. I went through the second mile in 5:45 compared to 5:40 in 2013. Back then I was setting off at PB speed, this year I knew I was already a bit off PB shape, but looking forward to another solid race.

At the two mile point we turned left and the headwind was a crosswind negated by tree cover. Instinctively I pulled out from the two in front of me and put in a little surge. One was able to follow, the other began to drift. I knew from experience in 2013 that there would be a pair of hills just before and just after three miles which would further shape the outcome of the race. Not caring about drafting I pushed on and focused on catching the couple of runners ahead of me.

The first hill came at just before the end of the third mile, I felt strong and clocked 5:57, comparing favourably to the 6:09 I set in 2013. Back then at this point I’d began to feel decidedly dodgy and suffered badly on the second hill – which felt as though it was one of the toughest I’d ever encountered. This time around the hill was a challenge but felt relatively easy, certainly easier than the local Grantham favourites Casthorpe and Woolsthorpe. It seems that the three and a bit years of Granthams’ hills have weathered the legs well in coping with elevation. I passed the two runners ahead of me – but was a little perturbed that another runner passed me as we neared the top of the climb.

Chasing the runner who was quicker than me on the main hill.
Chasing the runner who was quicker than me on the main hill. Photo c/o Neil Rabbitts.

The hill came and ended early on during the fourth mile. The pace for that mile averaged around 6:55, so I knew that I’d have to forget about recovery and put in some effort to get that average down. Thankfully that was made easier by chasing down the guy who’d passed me on the hill. Once I caught him we actually worked together for a bit taking the pace. He appeared to be working hard so I reckoned eventually he would tire, but for now he was useful company. The fourth mile was the slowest of the race – 6:03, but that was ten seconds quicker than in 2013.

The next few miles were fairly unremarkable. We passed through a couple of pleasant villages where there was great support, and a few other places with small pockets of spectators, otherwise there wasn’t much to entertain other than the aim of getting to the finish as quickly as possible. The fifth mile was a quick 5:35 (5:45 in 2013), the sixth was slower at 5:55 (6:00 in 2013), but the constant elevation changes made consistent pacing tricky. The seventh mile was 5:51 (5:52 in 2013) and it was here my mind got a little confused as the rolling hills I’d remembered as being at around 10 miles were evidently three miles earlier than the brain had processed them as being. It may have temporarily forgotten two miles or so, but the memory of a very pleasant gently descending stretch of road came flooding back.

Pulling clear of my hill nemesis. Picture c/o Neil Rabbitts.
Pulling clear of my hill nemesis. Picture c/o Neil Rabbitts.

By now I had pulled slightly clear of the runner who’d passed me on the hill and I was chasing two runners in front of me. Mile 8 was 5:45 (5:51 in 2013) and mile 9 was 5:40 (a swift 5:32 in 2013). As we came to a small village where Keyworth Rugby Club were playing, I feared the sight of a whacking great hill. Fortunately we turned right and along a stretch of flat road I knew would lead to a left hand turn and the final hills of the race. As we did I caught one of the two runners in front of me, just as we were cheered on by his (heavily pregnant) wife sporting a helium balloon for the husband who was celebrating his birthday with a rather swift half marathon. Sadly for him I was offering no gifts and I passed him as we turned left, faced the headwind, once again, and began climbing.

The tenth mile was 5:48 (5:45 in 2013). I now began pushing to try and put a gap on the birthday boy who was proving stronger than his slight fade a few moments earlier had suggested. This last hill was a real pain – not particularly steep and with a brief descent in the middle, but seemingly going on forever. Still mile 11 was 5:57 (6:04 in 2013), and I knew that most of the way to the finish was downhill. I pushed on hard, fearful that I would be caught, but now my left hip and groin were giving a few aches, so I was tempered a touch. The 12th mile was another 5:57 (6:02 in 2013). The first half of the last mile was all downhill and quite steep in places. This though was almost a hindrance as it caused a little cramping in the left quad. Thankfully the descent ended and the cramp desisted and I pushed on, still thinking I had a runner right behind me.

The end of the Turkey Trot was a killer in 2013, an ill-timed hill right near the finish put pay to a chance of a PB. This year I felt stronger and knowing there would be a hill, better prepared. I didn’t know it at the time but I climbed that hill only a few seconds slower than the winner which is fairly satisfying. I logged a 5:37 for the final mile (5:41 in 2013), and with a glance at the watch knew I was going to beat 1:17.

On the finishing straight. Picture c/o John Oldfield.
On the finishing straight. Picture c/o John Oldfield.

I crossed the line in 1:16:45, unaware of my finishing position (It was eighth), but made immediately aware that I had won the prize as first veteran finisher! I knew what was coming! First I received my multi-tool medal from Santa himself. I quickly got changed and got out just in time to photo most of the GRC runners coming to the finish line. Star of the day was SJ who knocked an impressive four minutes off her PB. I had little doubt she’d do well having struggled to chase her down on the way to Belton House parkrun a few weeks earlier!

SJ heading to the finish.
SJ heading to the finish.

With all the GRC runners in there was finally chance for the obligatory group photo:

The GRC Group Photo.
The GRC Group Photo.

Then there was a bit of hanging around for the prize ceremony. Kudos to my team mates for hanging around, even if one had to disappear for what appeared an inordinately long time sorting out their dodgy guts! As has been pointed out I’ve received my share of odd prizes recently. This may not quite have topped the slap of stilton, but the frozen turkey is certainly a prize that would be mostly wholly inappropriate at any other time of year – but at this time was most warmly received – Christmas dinner is sorted!

First the glass presented... Picture c/o Neil Rabbitts.
First the glass presented… Picture c/o Neil Rabbitts.
Me and the turkey! Picture c/o SJ Willis.
Me and the turkey! Picture c/o SJ Willis.

With that the day was done and home we headed. All in all a good day’s work. Very pleased to have broken 77 minutes for the half, especially as the average HR was 3-5 beats lower than it usually was. I didn’t push full gas, that’s for sure, yet managed a respectable time. With Christmas fast approaching it’s back to base training preparing for the London Marathon. Next race (Hopefully) the Folksworth 15.