Race Report – London Marathon – Sunday April 24th 2016

Once upon a time, not so long ago, I would have killed for a time like that…

The taper is always my least favourite part of training. Doubts creep in, the body sometimes repulses the idea of suddenly dropping the volume its been accustomed to in the past 4-6 months. This, I found out today when reading over lunch, is why some don’t bother with a taper. I think, next time, I may do the same.

The 2016 London Marathon taper did not go well. The Chinese GP meant I was tired and virtually jet-lagged. My final long run was a disaster with my weird cramp afflicting me after just three miles of running and crippling me to a halt after seven miles. I ran twice subsequently without a repeat of the episode, but the legs didn’t feel great. The last two sessions on the elliptical trainer especially felt really bad, a cadence of 8-10 rpm less than what I’d easily managed a week earlier felt too much like hard work.

Then on Thursday evening – Prince died. Those who follow me on Facebook will know what the Purple One meant to me. I’ll spare you of the emotions I’ve felt over the past week, suffice to say I took the news fairly badly, a bottle plus of wine later and not getting to sleep until nearly 3 am meant I felt dreadful most of Friday and not a whole lot better on Saturday.

Added to that my eldest daughter came home from school midweek with a cold. Over dinner she decided to cough all over my face. Twice. By Saturday I could feel the onset of a cold trying to envelop my body. I tried my best to dismiss it, put it down to the moderate pollen count, but the tickle in the throat and the slightly heavy legs were a tell tale sign that I was not quite 100%. Ironically this was confirmed with just how easy it was for me to fall asleep on Saturday night. Normally the night before a big race I’d be tossing and turning until the early hours, especially if I decided to get an early night (9:30 pm). This time however I was sound asleep by ten, not stirring until the alarm clock chimed at 4:30 am.

I checked my phone to confirm it was indeed that early. It was. I was informed that Gwenda Williams had taken six of my Strava segments, none of which by legal means. Somewhat oddly I insisted on firing up the PC to flag each and every one of her poorly veiled bike rides pretending to be runs, before downing an espresso, grabbing my bags and heading out the front door.

I made a very late decision to catch an earlier train from Stevenage to Kings Cross than first planned. It’s possible the 7:38 would have been fine, but the night before doubts crept in and I insisted to my passenger, Scott, that the 7:03 would have to be the train we caught. And so it was we were on the A1 heading south at 5:30 am, the roads blissfully traffic free. Scott sat beside me, taking part in his first London Marathon, barely having slept a wink the night before. In the back my eldest daughter and my wife.

We arrived at Stevenage in plenty of time, just as well as the ticket machine proved to be very reluctant to produce any ticket at all. We were joined at the station by fellow Grantham Running Club members Paul and Helen, who were also taking part in the London Marathon and had also plumped for the drive to Stevenage and catch the 7:03 to Kings Cross option.


The Marathon 4 at the home station of Lewis Hamilton.
The Marathon 4 at the home station of Lewis Hamilton (when he was a child).

We were soon on the train and before we knew it we were at Kings Cross. I bid farewell to my wife and daughter who enjoyed coffee and croissants at the station cafe. I was a couple of tube journeys away from Charing Cross. Last year the train to Blackheath was rammed beyond comprehension. This year, thanks to being 40 minutes earlier, we had a choice of empty seats. It soon filled, but this was far more civilised.

It should be pointed out at some point that all the talk before the marathon was the weather and the threat of snow on race day. This was no Daily Express sensationalist crap that failed to materialise. Yes, the snow failed to materialise, but it snowed at Liege Baston Liege, it snowed at the Zurich Marathon, and it snowed in London a day or two after the London Marathon. As it was the forecasters were a little out in their prediction, conditions were a little wet first thing, but then mostly cloudy, a little breezy, and temperatures of around 8-10C – perfect for marathon running.

At Blackheath and at the Blue Start I wished Scott and Helen the best of luck as I embarked on the Championship start, which turned out to be a rather small, somewhat underwhelming, enclave within the Blue Start. Arriving over an hour before the start I had plenty of time to arrange a me in front of the Championship start photo. It has taken nearly 20 years of training to reach this start, it may be the only time I make it here. So I was going to get a (not that great photo).

I finally made it!
I finally made it!

After showing my number and confirming that my Kenilworth Runners T-Shirt met with the regulations I had an hour or so to kill before the start of the race. This was made much easier when I stumbled upon my good running friend Stuart Hopkins. Our running and sporting paths have followed very closely together – we last raced just a few months ago at the Chester Marathon, where I passed him at 19 miles en route to my 2:43 PB. Stuart has PBs at all distances just a bit quicker than mine but we have been fairly evenly matched over the years.

By the time we’d caught up on all the happenings of the past few months it was time to get a wriggle on, get in the queue for the toilets (Disappointingly we weren’t assigned one each…) and get the baggage bag on to the lorry. As an acknowledgement of our running talents it had been decreed there would be a road open for us to warm up on. However, it turned out this stretch of road was somewhat smaller than in previous years. You therefore had the rather amusing sight of hundreds of runners trying to run in an area no larger than a small playground. It meant that running was reduced to a jail yard shuffle. I wasn’t that fussed, I’ve never warmed up before a marathon and I wasn’t about to waste my energies now.

The championship starters begin their race just behind the elites. Disappointingly we were around 10 meters behind them. Moreover Stuart and I joined the start a little late, so we were quite near the back, back with the majority of the female championship runners, some of whom were only looking to run around 3:15. This meant potentially we could have a more congested start than when I competed from the Fast Good For Age start. I really wasn’t that bothered though, for a fast start is never in my plans at a marathon.

I was very calm when the gun fired for the start of the race. I’d tried my hardest to not get worked up and that had paid off handsomely. I now had to make sure I wasn’t too laid back and not be able to get into my running. The early miles worked out near perfectly. I like to run the first mile at a maximum of 150 BPM, the second mile at 155 BPM max, then the third at 160 BPM max, before running miles 4-20 at a maximum of 165 BPM. I had little difficulty keeping the heart rate down, as has often been the case. The first mile was 6:43, compared with 6:40 at Chester, 6:23 in the second mile (6:22 at Chester) and 5:56 in the significantly downhill third mile, compared with 6:15 at Chester. I felt comfortable and restrained.

With the crowd support in full voice as usual and the throngs of equally able runners around me, it was not difficult to maintain the pace and pleasingly the heart rate was the lowest it has ever been at the kind of pace I was running in a race, typically 2-3 beats lower than at Chester and well under the 165 threshold. The fourth mile was 5:57, but then I slowed a bit in miles 5 and 6 with 6:08 and 6:11. I ran the first 5k in 19:51, the second 5k in 19:12.

Miles 7-9 were much the same as the comfortable, restrained running continued – 6:04, 6:10; 6:04 for a third 5k of 19:14. I saw my wife at just over 9 miles – a fleeting glimpse. She would have seen me looking happy. It was the last time, metaphorically speaking, I had a smile on my face.

At nine and a half miles I started to get the familiar cramp feeling in my left quad that I suffered on that fateful last long run a week or so earlier. It didn’t manifest itself immediately into full blown cramp, but I knew from the five or six runs over the past 15 months where I have suffered this weird cramp (weird, because it typically happens very early during a run) that it would eventually take control of not just the left leg but the right leg too.

I also knew that, as at the Maverick trail race I won last summer, where I got the cramp at just two miles into the fifteen mile race, I could potentially run a good distance at relatively undiminished pace with a moderate amount of discomfort before the pain would become intolerable. So I tried my best to ignore the discomfort and run as well as possible for as long as possible.

Mile ten was another 6:04, mile 11 6:03 and mile 12 6:07. This wasn’t 2:36 pace but it was possibly a sub 2:40 if I could run a negative split in the second half. As we crossed Tower Bridge and were blown away, once again, by the sheer ferocity of the crowd support, my confidence took a knock as the discomfort intensified on descent from the bridge. Mile 13 was 6:14, the slowest since the second mile and I passed halfway in 1:21:39 having actually just run the fastest five km of the race (19:10). My mental maths worked out that basically if I matched my first half I would match my PB to virtually the second.

This actually didn’t inspire me that much. The main motivator in my training was the lure of possibly breaking 2:40. It now appeared that, barring a miracle and the weird cramp leaving me the best I could hope for was a marginal PB, the likelihood a performance a little way short. Mile 14 gave me brief room for hope. Inspired by the lead women runners on the opposite side of the road. I ran a 5:58 and still felt comfortable. Three gels down, three to go. Maybe I could still do this.

Mile 15 bordered on the surreal. At no point in the run did I really feel the need to visit a portaloo. By mile 15 there was small feelings, shall we say, but I could have comfortably held it all in for safe disposal after the race. Running down the appropriately named Narrow Street I had a flashback to the ill-fated 2011 marathon where, having just made it back from China / Vietnam / Moscow in time for the race thanks to the Icelandic ash cloud, I made an urgent visit to the portaloos in the 15th mile en route to a 2:55 clocking. Before I could snap myself out of it I found myself barging through the unsuspecting spectators and sitting in what could have been the very same portable toilet I found myself in five years earlier.

And there I sat. For quite a few moments doing nothing in particular. This was frankly ridiculous. I pulled myself together and made sure my trip to the WC wasn’t fruitless. I lost a minute or so before the shorts were back where they should be and I was on my way. The crap may have left the body but the cramp sadly hadn’t. The left quad still aching away.

That fifteenth mile was 7:22 including the stop, mile 16 showed I was still running well with a 6:02, followed by a 6:06 and a 6:11 as we headed into the Docklands. Mile 19 on the Garmin is listed as a 5:57 but I have my doubts as I could feel myself slowing and we passed Canary Wharf, which is always known to wreak havoc with anything relying on a GPS signal. To my surprise I chanced upon my wife, daughter, brother and his fiance cheering me in a prime spot at aforementioned Canary Wharf. This put a smile on my face and a small spring in my step. Sadly it wasn’t to last.

It was just after this point I caught and passed Stuart. Amazingly I believe it was almost the exact same duration into the marathon at Chester I passed him. He has been struggling in the past weeks with a hamstring injury and was clearly slowing. At Chester I had no doubts I would finish ahead of him. Here I wasn’t so sure.

Mile 20 was 6:11 but by now the left quad was awash with cramp and the right leg was beginning to suffer too. I mentally gave up at almost exactly the same point as I did last year – the temporary bit they’ve put in on the A6121 where you double back on yourself somewhat awkwardly. It’s wholly bereft of spectators. This year they put on a mobile disco to offer encouragement but, for me, it was not enough. I slowed, mile 21 was 6:57. Sub 2:45 dreams were over.

I think had I not have run 2:43 last year I would have doubled my efforts, tried to ignore the cramp, and battled through to a heroic 2:47 or so. Because I have now broken 2:45 and my only motivation was to try and break 2:40, now that was clearly not possible I switched off, slowed down and went into damage limitation mode. I thought of the upcoming World Duathlon Championships, the Summer Solstice 10k I want to run, the half marathons in the Autumn. What was the point in killing myself now for a time that would be five minutes outside my best? I set my sights on running sub-3 and dismissing the 2016 London Marathon as just a bad day in the office.

Mile 22 was 6:52, but that was the last respectable mile. By mile 23 I was having to stop and walk on occasion as the pain in the left quad especially was bad – as bad as it was on that last long run. The problem at London is that the spectators simply don’t let you stop and walk. They scream and shout, willing you to being running again. Last year I took the pressure off myself, expected fully to hit the wall and embraced the crowd when I did, almost enjoying the experience. This year I hated it. I hated the London Marathon and wondered why on earth I was doing it.

Still though I carried on. Mile 23 – 7:30. Mile 24 was really bad – 8:56. Mile 25 a little better at 8:25, but that included a spell of not moving at all, a few steps run backwards in a desperate attempt to cure the cramp – as it partially did a week earlier.

Thinking back now, bizarrely it may have. Either that or a conscious attempt to increase the cadence and reduce the stride length. The intense discomfort In the left leg subsided a little and I was able to shuffle the remainder of the way to the finish line, even mustering a little sprint finish near the end. In the meantime I had been re-passed by Stuart, passed too by GRC club mate Chris Limmer who was running strongly to a 2:53 clocking, and spotted the wife and family once again, who had managed to get from Canary Wharf to bag a prime spot right next to Big Ben!

As for me, well at 23 miles I figured I had 33 minutes to run the last 3.2 miles. I reckoned that was possible and so indeed it turned out to be – stopping the clock at 2:54:50. There was no fist pump, no smile, almost no emotion at all as I collected my medal and goody bag other than disappointment mixed with resignation and even a little optimism.

As I told, somewhat hastily as is usually the case, anyone who cared to listen that this was the last marathon I’d ever run, I also reflected that aside from the marathon itself, the training for the marathon has possibly left me in the best shape I’ve ever been in. I was second at the Newton’s Fraction Half Marathon in my fastest ever spring HM time. I’d qualified for the World Duathlon Championships at my first attempt, and up until 20 miles I was running comfortably the fastest I’d ever done at the London Marathon.

2:54:50 would have been a time I’d died for ten or so years ago. When I first broke 3 hours I never thought I’d get down to 2:43 with the real possibility of going faster yet. The very fact I’m so disappointed by a 2:54 clocking shows how far I’ve come.

With my daughter at our personalised repatriation area.

I’m always touched when the London Marathon gives me my own repatriation area (K-L…) Sadly it is the furthest possible distance from the finish line. My wife was suitably restrained in her congratulations, she knows me well enough to know that today was not one to be celebrated. As for my daughter, well she was thrilled at the thought of a packet of popcorn and a Nutri-grain nestled in my goody bag. She turned down the Beef Jerky (any takers please do call me…).

We headed to Covent Garden for a post race meal and drink – I just had two large black coffees. Last year after the race I could barely move for cramp for hours after the race. This year two hours after the finish the legs felt almost fine – confirming my suspicions that this was no ordinary cramp. That was almost more frustrating than had I fully smacked into the regular marathon wall.

It wasn’t long before we were on the train back to the car and driving the car back home. The champagne stayed in the fridge, a glass of Baron St Jean rose (Suspiciously pleasant for £2.99 a bottle at Aldi) my reward for my efforts.

The next morning I woke and put in an hour on elliptical trainer. I was stiff, but frustratingly it was still better than Thursday’s efforts. I spun in the evening, by now the throat sore. The next day I was in the throws of a full blown cold. I almost certainly had the cold virus in the body during the marathon. More fuel to the fire that misfortune afflicted my marathon dreams.

The 2016 London Marathon summed up exactly why I prefer the marathon training to the race itself. I love the hard work required to run a good marathon, I dislike the reality that during a marathon you spend the entire race running with a ticking time bomb hoping it doesn’t go off, knowing full well that, despite all your best efforts, there is often little you can do to stop it if it decides to detonate – sending its painful acid through unsuspecting muscles in your body, rendering you powerless and pathetic.

It detonated for me at London 2016. I was wounded, maybe scarred permanently, but hopeful I’ll bounce back stronger and really do forget the painful memories that were the concluding miles of the greatest race in the world. Don’t let the past 3000 words put you off. It really is a fantastic race, the overwhelming crowd support an affirmation that the vast majority of human beings are wonderful people, and that it is the one race that all runners should indeed take part in – at least once.


2016 London Marathon Training – Weeks 15-16 (11-23 April)

Taper time! For me the worst period of marathon training. Nervously completing each session hoping not to get injured. Reducing volume when the body wants to keep on pushing. Two weeks to get through before the big day.

Monday 11th saw a pair of hour sessions on the elliptical trainer. I wasn’t really planning on beginning the taper until Thursday, which would be a natural time to begin it as I was working on the Chinese GP, which was another four days of early mornings and long days. The first hour I felt really strong, the second hour a little tired, but still feeling a lot of power in the legs.

That evening I took part in another spin session. Feeling strong again I went for a measured performance, which saw an average of 254 watts.

Tuesday morning and I was out for an eight mile easy paced run, which was unremarkable other than it being quite humid for an April morning. That lunchtime I got an unexpected email from the British Triathlon Federation informing me that I had, after all, qualified for the World Duathlon Championships in June! To be honest I’d totally forgotten I’d got a qualifying time and was on standby in the event of any drop outs. I’d even gone and booked a half term holiday the night before, which I was thankfully able to cancel without penalty.

With this new event on the horizon in mind, my planned debut on my new TT bike at the Witham Wheelers time trial took on a new importance, as I now had just six weeks or so to get used to the bike, adapt to the time trial position, and get up to speed.

The 10 mile TT was more an exercise in getting used to the bike. It clearly has potential for speed but I found it hard to maintain the aero tuck position for more than a minute at a time before the upper arms screamed enough! I’m not blessed with any upper body strength, it’s no disadvantage when running, but clearly i have to do some urgent work to address this. It’s planks and push ups for me for the foreseeable future!

The time 26:30 was not too bad considering the time spent in the upright position and the cadence being far higher than I found to be my optimum when time trialing last summer. It was fifty seconds outside my course best when I gave it full gas, almost collapsing at the end from the exertion. Today I was as fresh as a daisy and cycled home without duress.

Wednesday saw a ten and a half mile marathon paced run in the morning – six miles at marathon pace with the final mile at marathon heart rate. The legs took a while to warm up, but the pace wasn’t bad when they did, peppering six minutes per mile, with the marathon heart rate mile at 5:37. That afternoon I ran to the school to pick up my daughter; she paced me home on her scooter, hitting close to ten mph at times. That was cool!

Thursday I was working through the night. I had to take my daughter to school so again literally did the school run. I did that again in the afternoon, albeit with a diversion to the bike shop which made the run a ten km effort.

Friday was, as planned, a rest day with a 2 am wake up call and 11 hours of being sat behind the desk – with more hours later on in the afternoon.

I was hoping Saturday’s final long run would be an easy effort. It turned out to be something of a near disaster. I’d planned to run eleven miles, then changed at the last minute to make it 13. I set off okay, the pace dropping down to 6:40 or so by the third mile. I then began to feel an odd ache in the upper right hamstring, followed by some glute discomfort. Then that spread to the left quad and the left glute in the form of cramp. It receded a little after some stretching so I continued, hoping to run around 11 miles. At eight miles however the cramp in the left quad became a searing affair, and I was left virtually unable to walk. Still two miles from home, I, in desperation, began jogging backwards. This seemed to help the issue somewhat and I was able to jog slowly home.

It seems this issue of cramping is tiredness related and probably due to dehydration. As with the previous bouts of cramp the pain receded over the course of the day and was feeling good enough to consider running on the Sunday. However I decided discretion be the better part of valour and so, in gap in work, put 90 minutes on the elliptical trainer. I was tired, and the left quad still had some aches, but it was a strong session.

Monday morning and I decided to risk a 10k run. As it turned out things were fine save for the pretty high heart rate, which I am hoping was just down to tiredness. That evening I put in a very easy effort in the spin session, reducing the FTW so that periods in the red zone were actually fairly comfortable.

Tuesday was my last run in anger before the marathon. Three miles warm up, then 5k at marathon HR, then a mile at sub 2:40 pace and a final mile at sub 2:45 pace. The marathon HR 5k was covered in 18:02 which equates to 2:32 for the marathon. That I don’t think is sustainable, sub 2:40 pace felt very comfortable.

I had another crack at the TT in the evening with Witham Wheelers. The week of planks and push ups had a good effect as I was able to stay in the aero tuck position for the majority of the ride. I lowered the cadence but was mindful to avoid pushing the legs beyond any period of discomfort. I clocked 26:00, ninth on the night and just 20 seconds now outside my PB.

Wednesday morning saw an hour on the elliptical trainer, then a final four miles of running that saw me naturally progress down to 6:10 for the final mile as I warmed up and felt more comfortable. The last session before London was an hour on the trainer. As with Wednesday’s effort I didn’t push hard but the legs felt a little heavier than I would have liked. I’m hoping it’s of no concern and just still the effects of working the weekend on Chinese time. I do though have what is either a slight cold or hay fever (the pollen count is high), which may be effecting me slightly. I have no concern over that.

So – no more can be done other than some pre-race stretching. My main concern is definitely cramping, but if that can be avoided, I am hopeful of a strong run, hopefully another sub-2:45, maybe a PB, maybe something a little more special. Time will tell.

2016 London Marathon Training – Week 11 (14-20 March)

Week 11 of training had long one been down as a week that could either see some of the highest volume in the training plan or some of the lowest. It turned out to be the latter.

Monday morning I woke really stiff and sore from the exploits of the Fraction the day before. I got myself on the elliptical trainer first thing for a very gentle hour of pushing the legs back and forth. I headed to the gym that evening for a spin session, which was treated very much as a recovery ride, keeping the FTW low at 230 and averaging just 3.4 w/kg.

Tuesday and I was busy preparing for the Australian Grand Prix weekend, having already woken at 1:40 for an hour or so prologue effort as the first images from the event began to head my way. That meant I just had the evening to train. I had an unexpected opportunity to visit the gym and managed to grab the last place for the spin class. First I headed to the treadmill for a very easy paced recovery 5k, beginning at just over 6 mph and peaking at around 8 mph. Everything was pretty stiff, especially the calves, but I was thankful to be even able to run.

The spin session was much easier than the day previous, I increased the FTW to 240 (my normal figure is 260-265) and put in a solid but deliberately not too taxing effort, averaging 3.7 w/kg. I then put in 30 minutes on one of the gym elliptical trainers, the effort quite high compared to the home machine thanks to the ramp feature mine does not have.

Wednesday and I was up at 2 am to begin work proper on the Australian GP. I only got to sleep at around 11pm so was pretty shattered when I finished work at around 11 am and headed to bed for a few hours fairly dreadful sleep. I dragged my sorry body out at 4 pm for a really tough easy ten mile run. Both calves continued to ache and generally I just felt really lethargic, both from not enough sleep and the efforts of Sunday. It says something for my form at the moment, that I averaged a fairly respectable 7:20 per mile pace.

In recent years this week of covering the Australian GP has offered the opportunity to put in a surprising amount of running – two years ago I put in my first, and probably only ever, one hundred mile week. The reason I could fit this into a busy working schedule was the GP was held at twilight, which meant I could go to bed at 10 or so, wake at 3 or 4 am, work for six or seven hours, get a couple of hours nap, then have the late afternoon and early evening to run.

Following the tragic accident of Jules Bianchi they have largely dispensed with races ending in poor light and so the practice sessions, coupled with an eleven hour time difference, were beginning as early as 1:30 am, with my work beginning an hour or so before that. This transpired to make things very difficult.

I got around three hours sleep Wednesday night before waking at 2 am on Thursday evening for ten hours continuous effort behind the desk, finishing at 11:30 or so and retiring to bed. I am a dreadful daytime sleeper and managed just a couple of hours sleep before giving up and pottering around the house for a bit. I’d agreed to take Grantham Running Club’s Thursday night marathon paced session, so I was out at 6:30 to meet up with the other guys. The legs were tired, the hip a bit bothersome. I threatened repeatedly to drop out when we passed my house at six miles, but there was some kind of team spirit going on as I found myself continuing and completing the ten mile group run and putting in another mile or so to make it 13.1 for the day.

I headed to bed at around 9:30 but found it impossible to get to sleep, knowing I had 12:30 am alarm set. So I finally drifted off to sleep at around 11:45, giving myself just 45 minutes sleep to ready myself for a break free 12 hours stint as the opening practice sessions of the 2016 F1 season took place. Shattered I headed straight to bed, but by now my body was virtually jet lagged and woke less than two hours after getting to sleep.

I took Friday as a rest day, as I often do. I went to bed at 10:15pm and was able to get around 3 1/2 hours sleep before waking at 2 am for qualifying day. This was not quite as long a day as Friday and I was done by 11:30 am. I got a couple of hours sleep before waking again prematurely. I had plans to run 16 miles or so. I set out at 4 pm. I was tired but actually running quite well, the first mile 7:20, the fourth mile 6:39. Then, out of the blue I found the very top of the right thigh, near the hip flexor giving off alarming pains, very much like an attack of cramp.

I stopped at a bus shelter, sat for a minute or so then began to stretch the hip. I set off again and was able to run with a moderate amount of discomfort. I was in a strange situation where I felt I couldn’t possibly run 16 miles but didn’t feel bad enough that I had to take the very shortest route home. So I ended up meandering a little, finally drifting home having covered nine miles at an average of 6:56 per mile. I assumed it was a cramp as the pain was quite intense having finished, but by the time I retired to bed had mostly dissipated. I was though quite clearly exhausted, so I gave up any ideas of supplementing the missing miles with an hour on the elliptical trainer and settled down to watch the World Indoor Athletics Championships.

I managed to get nearly four undisturbed hours sleep on Saturday night before waking at 2 am for the final day of work covering the Australian Grand Prix. The race itself was quite eventful, I began work at 2 am. I was hopeful perhaps of finishing early enough so I could ride solo the 13 Hills ride Witham Wheelers were taking part in on Sunday morning. Any hopes of an early finish were dashed with the sheer volume of work coming in, we reckoned it was our busiest race ever!

I kind of finished at 1pm and crashed on the sofa, hoping to get an hour or so nap before maybe going on a bike ride. By 3 pm I still hadn’t got to sleep, but I was too shattered to contemplate leaving the sofa. Finally I got to sleep and before I knew it it was 5 pm. With more work still to be done I abandoned any notion of exercise and resigned myself to a very easy week of training, but a really hard week physically in terms of sleep deprivation – hoping that a quiter week before Easter may see more opportunities to put in a full week of training.

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!

Race Report – 2015 Virgin London Marathon

Part 1 – Pre Race

Back in January when I was in full training and looking like I could make a serious stab at Sub-245 at London, I’d booked some train tickets to London on Saturday with the intention of sourcing accommodation overnight. With the fractured build up and last minute decision to actually take part, I found myself with nowhere to stay and devoid of actual train tickets, thanks to a succession of issues too mundane to report here.

Salvation came in the form of fellow Grantham Running Club member Rob and his partner Catherine, who were planning to travel down from Grantham on the morning via car and train. They kindly offered me a space in their car – they even pre-bought the train tickets from Stevenage to avoid any potential queues in the morning.

I was very pleased with this arrangement. When I lived in Coventry I always drove down on the morning of the race. The lure of a familiar bed and a familiar pre-race meal and routine outweighing the drag of an early wake up call on race day. Even that is arguably favourable – rising at 5am gives the body plenty of time to fully wake up before the race start at 10:10am.

We left Grantham at 6am and made good progress down a quiet A1 to arrive in Stevenage seventy five minutes later. The station was reasonably full with like-minded runners and spectators. The race fever began to kick in! We were on the 7:35 train into Kings Cross, which pulled into its destination just before 8 am. I wished good luck to Catherine as we split on to different underground trains thanks to starting in different Good For Age locations.

The rest of the journey to Blackheath could not have gone much smoother – the Northern Line to Euston, a switch of lines to head to Charing Cross, then making it just in time to catch the 8:30 to Blackheath. Walking along the platform I happened to spot old running friend Rob Thompson standing in one of the carriages. I think we last ran together at the 2006 London Marathon. He’s making a comeback of sorts to running after a spell away, and today he was tackling the course dressed as Freddy Mercury. “How did you recognise me?” he joked. He was fairly hard not to notice, even the BBC managed to later on in the day.

Rob Thompson – the fastest Freddy Mercury at 2015 VLM!

The train journey can best be described as intimate, as it fast became an exercise of just how many people you can fit on a train. It was a blessed relief when we arrived at Blackheath and could make the short walk across the common to the start area. I was there at 9am – plenty of time to prepare for the race. As I approached the Good for Age start and realised that we had been upgraded to now be known as Fast Good For Age, I couldn’t resist but attempt a selfie in front of the rather flattering banner. I’m not one for taking selfies, and my efforts showed as I struggled to even get myself in the picture let alone anything resembling the desired background. Fortunately salvation once again came in the form of a fellow runner wanting the same ego stroking photo opportunity but struggling with the practice of performing a self portrait. We used the tried and tested practice of exchanging cameras phones, and posing for a rather satisfying, if for 2015, technically incorrect in terms of being fast or good for age, photo. Thanks fellow runner!

Stretching the concept of ‘Fast’

Once inside the hallowed enclosure of the Fast Good For Age pen the preparations were rather condensed, having spent far too long on the photo above, but were smooth and stress free. I changed into my kit and promptly put my bag on the truck, much to the delight of the girl with the loudhailer, who amused and irritated in equal measures with her near hysterical demands to get your bag on the truck by 9:30. I joined a queue for the toilet, which although not exactly short, were not panic inducing like Nottingham last year nor when I’ve been on other starts at London. I chatted with a couple of runners, who it transpired lived with a couple of miles of each other – who knows if a future running partnership will ensue? The actual port of call at the Portaloo was uneventful save for the redistributing of the Powergels I’d fastened to the inside of my shorts which now had to be carefully moved again to avoid unwanted tickling of areas best tickled in situations which don’t involve running, let alone running a marathon. That mini-drama over, I joined the compact but clearly excited Fast Good For Age start pen exactly twenty minutes ahead of the start.

Part 2 – The ‘Race’

The weather was near perfect, early rain had passed and it was cloudy, fairly cool at 8°C, with a slightly chilly breeze. This made it rather unpleasant as we lined up – I was grateful for the bin bag I had packed and was now wearing, and grateful too for being again as condensed as sardines in a tin just behind the start line. There were random bursts of applause for no apparent reason, but generally the atmosphere at out start was fairly muted. Certainly nothing compared to the rousing rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone experienced at the Rotterdam Marathon last year.

With no countdown nor fanfare, at 10:10 the race began. We were into our running within seconds of starting, which is all you can ask for in a race and quite a feat of organisation with so many entrants of varying abilities. There was certainly no repeat of the fiasco a few years back when they stuck the celebrity runners in front of Good for Agers, which almost literally saw punches thrown, as a C-list wall of joggers blocked the path of runners pretty desperate to get into their (far, far quicker) running.

Right until the start I wasn’t totally sure how I was going to attack the race. I had originally intended to jog slowly, enjoy the atmosphere and be prepared to walk most of the way if necessary. Then, as I guess Paula must have felt, when you actually prepare to set your toe on the start line the racing instinct kicks in. The night before I harboured dreams of feeling so fresh I would be able to give it a full beans to marathon heart rate style attack. Once into my running I felt fine in the sense that everything appeared to work as it should be and I was comfortable running a 7:04 first mile, but aware that it didn’t feel like I could push on and sustain mile after mile at a pace the best part of a minute per mile quicker.

So it came to be that I settled on the plan I expected I would given the circumstances – treat it like a regular long run, so keeping broadly within the zone of my long runs (145-155 bpm) and see how long I could go before the wheels fell off. It wasn’t totally possible to stay within the zones, the opening three miles on the red start (which I don’t recall running before) had a couple of noticeable drags although overall downhill, but by and large I was running smoothly and to plan, clocking a pair of 6:45 miles through to the third mile where we joined the main start and the swarms of runners and masses of spectators. It was here I felt a little ache in the left hip and glute, but it soon passed and I don’t recall feeling it again, which was a blessed relief as the area had stopped me running altogether after just a few minutes nine days earlier.

I took my first of six gels at three miles, the rest consumed every four miles thereafter. I assume the joining of the two races and the significant drop in elevation spurred me on a touch as I ran what turned out to be my fastest mile (6:37) through mile four. The fifth mile passed with little incident at 6:50 and I began to envisage wild thoughts of sustaining this all the way to a sub-3 clocking. The sixth mile heading towards Greenwich and Cutty Sark has long been my favourite in the marathon. The drummers under the A102 bridge on the Woolwich road have never failed to send goose bumps down the arms – their intensity as impressive as the sheer volume of spectators lining the course a little further down the road.

It was at Cutty Sark where I felt the first twinge in my upper right thigh, close to the IT band. I could sense it was the very early onset of cramp. I knew that whilst the cardiovascular effort of running would not be too bad thanks to the hours spent on the elliptical trainer and bike, the sheer physical demands of running 26.2 miles with little in the way of running in the build up would more than likely take its toll. The intention now was just to keep calm, keep running smoothly and try and avoid the onset of cramp for as long as possible.

The sixth mile was 6:48, the seventh a little slower at 6:58, but there was a slight slowing through congestion at Cutty Sark. The slight drag leaving Cutty Sark has not been my favourite part of the course, so was pleased to clock a pair of 6:47 miles taking me to nine miles. It was at around eight miles that fellow Grantham Running Club of sorts (She was wearing a Nene Valley Harriers vest, and I was wearing the green of Kenilworth Runners) Abi Schofield came alongside. She commented she was a bit surprised to be running up where I was. After I explained my less than ideal build up to the race, she tried to look on the bright side and said perhaps the break from running would do me good. I knew that was wishful thinking. Had I have had another 3-4 weeks of running then perhaps I could have been in full shape. As it was I was hanging on and hoping for the best. I let her drift slowly into the distance en route to an excellent 3:07 PB.

It was around this stage I fancied a stop for a wee, the preferred option of a Portaloo was fruitless on a couple of occasions as they were fully occupied, so I took the less glamorous but equally popular option of using a building site entrance just shy of the 15km marker. This cost me forty odd seconds for mile 10, but according to my Garmin I was just about on sub-3 pace (Although the creep in disparity between the Garmin mile markers and the official ones was starting to grow).

The run towards London Bridge and halfway saw the slow onset of cramp begin to hit the legs. I was determined to save myself at least the ignominy of making it to halfway before having to stop so I tried my best to relax and put the pain messages coming from the legs to the back of my mind. It seemed to work, clocking 6:50, 6:48 and 6:50 miles through to halfway. The atmosphere before, during and just after London Bridge was simply stunning, another goose bump moment. I went through halfway in 1:31:04 (On my watch – the clock at halfway had malfunctioned) which confirmed that my Garmin was a little out by now (It had me going through a minute faster). On a good day I’d be confident that I would be able to negative split enough to come home sub-3. Today I knew that these comfortable miles were soon to be consigned to the past.

It was here where I was cheered on by the majority of the Kenilworth Runners support crew for the first time. I was smiling much of the way round, when I heard them call my name I was beaming. No matter what was going to happen this was definitely a most enjoyable marathon. Mile 14 despite feeling somewhat tired I managed a 6:52; the fifteenth I was hanging onto my legs for grim death, but churned out a 6:46.

I stopped for the first time just after 15 miles. It wasn’t a full blown bout of cramp in the right quad, but enough to make me want to stop and stretch it a couple of times. Despite the legs feeling fairly poor and a couple of stops, I managed a 7:36. I think I would have slowed even more but at 17 miles I was caught by a pair of Kenilworth Runners who were looking to run around 3:05. I originally told them I was going to drop back straight away, but from somewhere the legs appeared to improve for a couple of miles, so I tackled the twists and turns around Canary Wharf and other very tall buildings in 7:04 for miles 17 and 18 and pulled a now alarm bell ringing 6:51 for mile 19 (I do wonder if GPS accuracy is to account for this – it didn’t feel that quick at the time).

The wheels finally fell off at 20 miles, just as we tackled a rather curious loop back on the wide A1261 which I don’t recall having ever tackled before. Both pairs of quads cramped up, not in a searing outpouring of pain, but enough to leave no option but to stop and walk a while. In previous marathons this would have onset a spell of dejection as all hopes of setting a target time would be thrown out of the window. Today, I barely cared. I looked forward to being able to stop and chat to Tom and Pauline at 22 miles, which I did, taking 30-40 seconds to see how they were and how other Kenilworth Runners ahead of me had got on (And instinctively, I asked how Paula was doing). I would rather have not faced the final six miles with legs that hurt and resolutely did not want to cooperate, but at the same time they served to authenticate the genuine marathon experience of hitting the wall, yet battling on determined to the end.

Gingerly running along as the cramp sets in at c. 22 miles.

So mile 20 was 8:07. The next four miles I adopted an impromptu jog / walk strategy, stopping and walking when I felt a wave of cramp sear through my quads. This meant miles 21, 22  and 23 (which included a stop for a chat) took 8:32, 8:05, and 8:57 respectively. Every time I stopped and walked the crowd begged me to start running and cheered loudly when I did, fellow runners offered encouragement to keep it going to the finish.

The 24th mile was the hardest. I must have felt fairly bad as I decided to take one of the Luco*ade drinks just before the loneliness that is the long underpass approaching the Embankment. Despite having thrown up the contents during a race of this drink on previous occasions, I reckoned it wouldn’t be bad this time as I was running so slowly. It took the length of the tunnel for this theory to be proved wrong as the sickly orange liquid began to repeat on me. Thankfully I managed to keep the contents down.

It is at this point I was looking constantly at my Garmin to see how much longer I had to go. It was disappointing from a desperately wanting to finish point of view, that Garmin had me running around 0.6 mile further than I actually had. If anyone has any doubts over the validity of the distance of the course, then check out the route I supposedly took below. I know I was a bit wobbly on the legs at places, but I definitely did’t wander this much over the road (Nor turn back on myself) and I did manage to stick to the course rather than recklessly head through buildings. The moral is GPS watches are great as a guide to speed and distance, but they are no where near the last word in accuracy.

Wandering all over the place – according to my Garmin.

After my low point, just before the Luco*ade where I did actually stop briefly at the side of the road and was asked by a marshal if I was okay, coming out of the tunnel a determination came over me to run, or at least jog all the way to the finish. There was no shortage of encouragement from the crowds, and even if the waves of runners pouring past me, thanks to the large sub 3:15 groups on course to hit their target, was a touch disconcerting, I managed to find a shuffle that enabled me to keep on running. So after the low point of mile 24 (Which I have at 9:39, but may be a bit quicker than that (Strava has it at 8:54), the 25th mile was tackled in a better 8:34.

It was at the 26th mile I had my moment of TV time I’ve secretly been wanting since I first ran the London Marathon back in 2015. Unbeknownst to me, once I’d turned the right hand corner at Big Ben and headed on, what was today, the interminably long drag down Birdcage walk, the BBC cameraman began a long sweeping pan focusing on one runner among the hundreds on the road, which happened to be me! I imagine the cameraman chose me because I was clearly the slowest of the bunch. He / she probably reckoned on me pulling up in cramp filled agony at any point in his pan – the veritable money shot for any film crew working in the last couple of miles of a marathon. Fortunately I managed to keep it all together and plodded successfully slowly out of camera shot. I just wish that I could have been captured in another year (Ideally 2008) when I was storming along at this exact spot at something close to sub six minute miles, but, alas, that’s how things often turn out to be.

My Moment of Fame!

The last mile was painful but I was determined to run to the finish. Mile 26 (on my Garmin) saw a slight increase in pace (8:18). The final 0.7 mile – or so it was on the Garmin, saw me slow to 8:47 as I battled the worst cramps of the run. There was no sprint to the finish as it came into view. Just an absolute will to make it to the finish without stopping and to make it inside 3:20 – a goal I set myself in the final three miles as form of incentive to keep going. This I managed, coming home on the official timing in 3:17:44.

Part 3 – Post Race

The medal was as gratefully received as any I’ve had. The long, slow, painful walk to repatriate myself with my kit bag was almost as bad as running the last six miles of the race. I was happy to stop for at least five official post race photos. My bag was in the very last truck on The Mall, it had been tied up so efficiently by one of the baggage handlers on Blackheath, I had to ask one at the Mall if she could undo it. It took her a good couple of minutes. After letting nearest and dearest know I was okay, I began the painful and difficult task of changing into warm clothing – once sat on the floor it was very difficult to get up!

I’d arranged to meet up with some members of Grantham Running Club at a pub in Covent Garden. Apparently it would have been quicker for me to walk there, as it was I took a slow, lengthy walk to Westminster tube station (Diversions in place), then at least two trains and a walk to the pub. We enjoyed an hour or so of marathon recollections, before beginning our journey back home, which was as smooth and uneventful as the journey down. Back home before seven to a reception of sorts from the wife and kids, who were both thrilled to have seen me on TV and desperate to try on the medal.

The hour or so in the car had taken its toll and the legs were super stiff. The next day was hard going, especially getting out of bed, but I managed to just about walk the 3.5 mile school run in the afternoon. Proof it was just the effects of cramp hurting the legs was demonstrated on Tuesday evening when I took part in the Witham Wheelers Ten Mile TT . Despite cold windy conditions, I managed to beat my previous best by 22 seconds! A four mile run on the treadmill on Wednesday saw no ill effects other than a bit of tiredness.

It may have not have been my quickest marathon, but the 2015 London Marathon will live long in the memory as one of the most enjoyable, not just because I got to enjoy the legendary atmosphere, but because I defied the odds and made it round reasonably quickly despite a build up that really shouldn’t have seen me run at all. And, more importantly and as long as something untoward occurs in the next week or two, I escaped without damage to the body.