Race Report – Virgin Money London Marathon – Sunday 22nd April 2018


The rescheduled Keyworth Turkey Trot, back in the middle of February, had come in the early weeks of marathon training and was a positive indicator that, despite a couple of months of injury, I was heading in the right direction towards another stab at my marathon PB of 2:41:42, set at London in 2017. Little did I know at the time that this race, treated partly as a training effort, would be the last time I raced until London itself.

My marathon training was a subtle remix of what worked back in 2017: mostly easy paced (Zone 2) runs with a weekly long run, usually on a Saturday  incorporating a parkrun, run at tempo pace, somewhere in the middle, a medium long midweek run and a run with some marathon HR miles thrown in. In 2017 these were nearly always during the week, this year it transpired that more than planned were at the weekend as part of a long run.

I was also cycling, partly because I was training hopefully for a Duathlon in March and partly because I simply enjoy cycling. A harsh winter meant that I did less of the Sunday morning Reliability Rides than in previous years and spent more time on the turbo trainer thanks mainly to finally being on board with Zwift and thoroughly enjoying the virtual racing and training world that offers. A big difference compared to 2017 and 2016 especially is that I spent a lot less time on the elliptical trainer. This is for a couple of reasons – a lot of the elliptical trainer sessions were replaced with Zwift and I also put in more running miles than in previous years. Indeed, the three largest mileage weeks, 79, 83 and 86 miles, were probably the largest mileage weeks since March 2014 when I put in my only 100 mile week.

It may look pretty, but it was sub zero and with the wind much colder! Back to back long runs in February.

The long runs were run pretty quick – in February and March they averaged 6:37 pace. This was partly due to having parkruns thrown in most of them run in around 18 minutes,  The bad weather disrupting plans meant I put in more long runs than normal, when I would have otherwise been cycling or racing. Some very cold sub-zero conditions at the back end of February saw back to back long runs: 20.5 miles at 6:26 average then the next day 22 miles at 6:46 average.

The first round of snow in 2018 made running the estate entertaining!

I tapered for the Newton’s Fraction Half Marathon in early March only to have the Beast from the East scupper the plans of a fast half effort as the race was postponed. Conditions were good to run on the day though and I put in 20 miles at 6:20 average on the Fraction course + extras. The following week I ran the course again, this time throwing in an 18:27 parkrun and some extras, totalling 27 miles in 2:59. My 24 mile time was 2:39:10 – which I expected I was capable of come marathon day.

The Grantham Half Marathon (sic) didn’t survive the Beast from the East
‘Enjoying’ the snow and cold that the Beast from the East brought to Grantham!

That was more or less the peak of my marathon training for work and night shifts and more bad work and illness began to see some of the hard work unravel. With the Fraction postponed until the autumn I looked to the weekend of the 18th and 19th March to focus on a race. My first choice was the Clumber Park Duathlon but I delayed entering too long and it sold out. I then thought about the Coventry Half Marathon, the Lincoln 10K or the Holdenby Duathlon, eventually opting for the latter. As it happened the latter was the first to be postponed due to the Beast from the Easy II on the Friday. I took my frustrations out on an easy paced 10 mile run at 6:20 average. Saturday morning I joined some fellow Duathletes who were equally frustrated that morning’s Clumber Park Duathlon had been postponed, when arguably it shouldn’t have.  We used the strong wind as good strength training on a 12 mile run at 6:36 pace.

Beast from the East II made the long run slightly more challenging…

Then on Sunday morning the snow came and the Lincoln 10K was postponed and the Coventry Half Marathon was cancelled altogether. It was back to the Fraction Course for a sometimes slippy 20 miles at 6:44 pace. All these runs at solid pace was good training, perhaps ideal for the marathon, but I was really craving the opportunity to race, but by then it was too late as the weekends where there were races I was working and the weekends I was working there were no local races.

Beast from the East II and Casthorpe Hill equals a tough climb!

I had to make do with a poor effort at Boston parkrun on Easter Saturday, where I finished first but the effort was deliberately restrained with a long run planned on the Sunday, and a ten mile run just a couple of days after the Beast from the East disappeared, which was planned to be marathon HR, but ended up being much lower than that, yet saw me average 5:59 for the 10.2 miles – the fastest I’d ever run ten miles or more in training.

All the signs were there that I was in good shape but I lacked the validation of a race to prove it and that was difficult mentally to cope with. It didn’t help that just a few days after the Easter Sunday long run (a cold and windy 23 miles in the Fens at 6:40 average) I suffered the double whammy of a slight recurrence of the left hip flexor pains (which I was able to more or less fix with some additional glute excercises) and, more troublingly, a heavy cold and chest infection which I carried through the entire duration of the taper period and had not completely recovered from come race day. This meant I ran less miles than planned and mostly at a far lower intensity than hoped. I substituted some of the running with cycling, but even then it was a mixed bag, with some days feeling good; others the heart rate sky high and pace way down on what I’d expect.

The days leading up to the Marathon threw in another spanner – one I predicted could and probably would happen back when Beast from the East occurred. For most in Britain it was a blessing after the longest, harshest winter in living memory. For London Marathon runners it raised alarm bells aplenty and potentially threw months of hard work down the toilet: the forecasters very confidently predicted a very warm London Marathon!

The predicted temperatures – early to mid twenties Celsius – would be difficult to cope with even if we’d had months to acclimatise, such as we might if the marathon were in early September and we’d had a warm summer of running behind us. Indeed things may have been a little more palatable if we’d had a period of spring like weather in the weeks before London. As it was, until a week before London I believe I had run in nothing more than around 12C. I think I’d run once in a t-shirt and the vast majority of runs were cold enough to be consistently wearing a thermal base layer and running tights as a minimum.

The Saturday before London, with a bit of sun on my back, I went for my final run (13 miles). It may have been around 15C but with a cold breeze and the cold very much in my body still it hardly felt like a balmy run. On Monday monring, as things began to look a bit desperate, I rode on Zwift with all doors shut, the heating on and fans switched off. Alas the room barely crept above 18C…. The evening’s run was sunny, but felt chilly. Of some concern was the wheezing noises I was making when running as the chest infection still held a vice like grip on my lungs. Tuesday’s morning’s 10K was cold enough for long sleeved tops and gloves and I was wearing all but full thermals for that evening’s bike time trial.

Then, suddenly, it all changed. I awoke Wednesday and temperatures were predicted to reach around 21C. This was my last planned run day – 10 miles with 3 miles at marathon HR. I delayed the run as late as I could – midday, to try and get as much of the sun and warmth as possible.  It was not an unbearable run, but the miles at pace were significantly slower and at a higher HR ( around 10 beats higher) than they were when temperatures were around 8C. They were though around the pace that I was looking to run for a sub 2:40 attempt. What was more concerning though was the final three miles of the run, where I shut it down and attempted to run as easily as possible i.e. with a low heart rate, proved virtually impossible, with the HR constantly creeping up and up while the pace was gradually dropping and dropping. This is a fairly normal phenomenon of running in the heat. It was also, I believe, indicative of the cold and chest infection still being in the body – this clearly evident at the end of the run where I went through the routine five minute coughing fit. This though was progress at least, a few days earlier and I was having these coughing fits during the run itself.

Before a marathon I often have three days of complete rest – it seems to work physically and mentally better than the much practiced option of reducing the mileage to a 5K the day before. The paranoia around picking up an injury is too much for me to cope with! However the Thursday before London was a scorcher! I sensed this could be too good an opportunity to miss to run in some real heat. Because I had a massage at lunchtime I was unable to run at the hottest part of the day but even at 6:30pm it was still in excess of 24C, albeit without the heat of the sun. I went for a 5 mile jog with GRC with just a minute or two at marathon pace to conclude my preparation. It didn’t feel uncomfortable but, once again, the HR was really high. The legs also felt really tired and generally I didn’t feel as if I was physically ready to attack a marathon. Just to complete the doom and gloom, the pollen count was rising and my eyes were itching…

By Saturday morning it was clear that, although there was a weather system coming in that would cool temperatures for much of the country, London on the Sunday of the marathon would remain hot. I looked back in my training log at when I ran London in 2007, the hottest London Marathon to date. On that warm, sunny day, with 500ml bottles compared to the smaller 330ml days we would be given this year, I ran the race to HR as normal and took on water every two miles until 14 miles then some water every mile until the finish, making sure I’d pour the undrunk contents over my head, which was covered with a cap. It seemed to work – my PB at the time was 2:57 and I managed to just break 3 hours on the day. The caveat though was that back in the day when I was an F1 jet setter, by the time the London Marathon had come around, I’d already spent time in and run at rather warmer locations, namely Melbourne, Kuala Lumpur, and Bahrain. Two hours running in the heat and humidity of KL made London almost like child’s play in comparison, as did a run in Bahrain which was a mere 42 Celsius. Without the benefit of tropical and desert preparation this time around, all I could do was run the race at an inevitably slower pace than planned and hope for the best.

The Race

In previous years I’ve driven down from Grantham on the morning to Stevenage train station and used public transport to make it to the start at Blackheath. After the debacle in 2017 with over-running engineering works I decided that I didn’t want to risk a repeat of that stress and so decided to go old skool  and do what I did when I lived in Coventry, namely drive as far down to the event as possible before walking the remainder, with my wife driving the car to North London for collection after the race. This meant a slightly earlier depart (5:15 am) but for the most part this worked really well – arriving at Greenwich shortly after 7 am. Only in the very last stages did things go awry – a wrong turn or two and before we knew it we were unwittingly on a buses only road, getting mightily stressed, frustrated… and lost.

Eventually, after what seemed an eternity but was in reality around 10 minutes, I found the road I’d planned to be on all along and bid farewell to my wife. I’ll never be sure if it was the car journey or that stressful incident but, to my despair, within moments of walking towards the start I felt both hips began to seize up in a manner alarmingly reminiscent to twelve months earlier, when the right hip all but locked en route to the start. I knew that the best thing to do was not to panic but try and make my way as calmly as possible to the start where I could begin to work to alleviate the issue.

I was in the Championship start ten shortly after 8am, by no means the first to arrive, but significantly earlier than in previous years when I’ve arrived at 9:15 am to a packed tent and a rushed start. I grabbed myself some space and began not only to prepare clothing etc. for the race but do some stretches that I hoped would ease of the tight, sore hips. An hour later and it appeared I had worked some magic. They didn’t feel 100% but a very brief jog after dropping off my kit bag demonstrated they were okay to run.

The Championship Start Men’s Tent an hour before the start.

In that time I made sure I was well hydrated, drinking a litre of electrolyte, consuming my banana and customary pre-race Lidl Snickers. With the sky blue and temperatures already feeling like they were just shy of 20C, I decided to pass on the warm up jog and queue instead one last time for the toilets. All done and dusted I was ready to join the start at 9:50, ten minutes before the start of the race.

As we were slowly shepherded towards the start line behind the Elite men, there was some initial concern from the Championship starters that it seemed the masses were going to be allowed to start alongside the supposedly quicker runners. Tempers were just beginning to spill over when the masses were held back and we were allowed to fill the road at the start. The panic over, I took my customary position to the right hand side of the road (Not sure why I do this, but I do), and took advantage, as did many others, for one last pit stop against the sponsor hoardings. I just managed to do this before the National Anthem played. With the queen looking down on us via the big screen, I’m sure I could have been banged up for treason had I committed the offence of urinating mid-anthem.

Once the Queen had pressed the big red button from the luxury and splendour of Windsor Castle and we endured the unnecessary heart beat countdown, we were set off on our way.  Under 20 seconds after the elites were set off I was too past the start line and on my way. And within a minute of running I knew it was going to be a game of survival.

The way I run marathons is quite simple – I observe a maximum HR of 165 bpm until 20 miles then as allow it to go as high as I can muster. The first three miles I gradually raise the HR, the first mile should have a maximum of 150 bpm, the second 155 bpm and the third 160 bpm before settling down to sit somewhere between 160 and 165 bpm.

This relaxed opening to a marathon means it’s not uncommon to see me going backwards through the field for the first mile or so before order is established and I tend to start picking off positions, hopefully all the way through to the finish. A minute into my run and I glanced at my watch. The HR read 153 BPM – already too high! I then looked at my average pace thus far – it was around 7:10! For the next three or four minutes, try as I could to get the HR below 150 BPM, short of stopping altogether, it seemed impossible. All the while literally hundreds and hundreds of runners passed me, the sub 3 pacer and the masses that clung with him, went storming past me.

I knew now was not the time to panic and abandon tried and tested plans. I made a small adjustment to the strategy, a bit of a risk, but one I was willing to take to avoid being swallowed up by what felt like the majority of the field. I allowed the first mile to average under 155 BPM, the second mile 160 BPM, and the third and subsequent miles 165 BPM. A small difference, one that may have consequences come the end of the race, but one that allowed me to run at something closer to the pace I expected while still keeping a reign on the early race exuberance that counts against so many runners in the closing stages of a marathon.

I went through mile one in 6:57 on the watch, under the banner a good 10 seconds slower than that. With the luxury of a few extra heart beats of juice mile two saw the pace increase to 6:31. The average HR was 160 BPM which indicates that no matter how hard I tried to keep the HR down, it was a battle that was very hard to beat. The second mile also saw the other key strategy played out – seek shade at all possible times, even if that meant running a slightly sub-optimal line. I found an opportunity during one of the extremely rare quieter spells of the course to run on the pavement, all but hugging a brick wall that offered near total protection from the sun. Psychologically and physically I felt as though I was gaining advantage over those who ran in the full glare of the sun.

Mile two was 6:31, the third mile saw the HR limit raised to 165 BPM, but as it was mainly downhill I only averaged 162 BPM, clocking 6:06 and 20:29 for the official 5K split. For comparison, in 2017, in near ideal conditions and with similar fitness levels, I clocked 19:16 for the opening 5K. I was resigned to this being largely a pointless marathon. Too hot to run a PB yet keen enough to attempt a good race to fully enjoy the frankly insanely loud crowd support, who were enjoying the great weather for spectating by coming out in numbers seemingly unprecedented even for London.

Shortly after two miles I passed the first of the water stations. The plan was simple and as advised by the race doctor – take one or two sips of water, except when I took on a gel (which I did at 7, 14, and 21 miles) when it would be half a 330ml bottle, then pour (or douse as is apparently now officially called) the rest over me – mostly over the head, but some on the wrists and arms and – in the later stages of the race especially – into the face in an attempt to try and keep the core temperature down. I pretty much did this at every one of the water stations which came at mile intervals. The only exception was the first of two stations, at around 9 miles I think, which trialled compostable cups, half filled with water and utterly useless – I grabbed two, dropped them, took a third to find once I’d taken a small sip of water there was basically none left to douse with. Thankfully at the second cup stop they had put on some additional water bottles which I gleefully grabbed having been left bitterly disappointed by the sparse content of the cups. I skipped the Lucozade bottles – bitter experience of throwing up the contents shortly after ingestion while racing meant I gave them a wide berth, even if they looked very tempting in the closing stages.

Mile 4 on the Garmin was the quickest of the race at 6:05 before I slowed to 6:13 for mile 5. Miles 6 to 17 were pretty constant, the quickest 6:11 and the slowest 6:20. The heart rate was quite interesting for once I peaked at around 164 BPM for miles 5-7 it dropped to 162 BPM for mile 8 and never got as high again. Indeed at mile 19 the average dropped to 158 BPM, although the perceived effort at this stage was probably the highest of the race – I was going through one of several bad patches at this stage. I think I’ve read theories into why this might happen – something to do with the body sending blood to the skin to cool it and so the larger muscles get less blood or something like that. There is also the possibility that by mile 9, with the temperature creeping up to the low 20s Celsius, I was really beginning to feel the heat and the central governor was already limiting my effort, aware that to keep pushing would end in an unpleasant manner. I was mindful of how hard the closing miles felt back in 2007 and I was determined to give myself the best opportunity to not suffer like that again.

I’ve often likened the marathon to a (rather unexciting) fuel economy run, where you spend most of the race running within yourself, all the while hoping you don’t blow up for reasons you cannot fathom. The 2018 London Marathon was like that except you now had to also try and cool components that were overheating and likely to fail at any moment. This, unfortunately, made the 2018 London Marathon one of the least enjoyable races I’ve taken part in. It was a game of survival for a T-Shirt and a medal. At times I wondered why I was even bothering to continue. But continue I did, and the further the race went on the better I appeared to be doing, compared to those around me at least.

I went through 10K in 39:57, the second 5K in 19:29. Not quite as quick as the 19:03 of 2017 but not too bad considering. 10K to 15K was 19:36, 15K to 20K 19:40. Slowing slightly but essentially even paced. I went though halfway in 1:23:20. On a cool day I’d give myself a fighting chance of a sub 2:45. Given the conditions, I set myself the tentative goal of trying to break 2:50. By now I had long stopped being passed by runners and was slowly but surely picking off others one by one. Almost unnoticed too the constant flow of runners had begun to form gaps. Although it really didn’t twig at the time, this was a sign that I was moving closer to the front of the field, relatively speaking, and that I must have passed a whole load of runners following the first mile when all I could see in front of me was a river of multicoloured vests and T-shirts (and a smattering of fancy dress costumes).

Leaving the section between 13-14 miles where you have runners at 21-22 miles in the other direction and we were onto Narrow Lane. I breathed a sigh of relief when I was able to pass the Portaloos at around 15 miles where down the years I have, more often than not, had to stop to use the facilities. The stomach didn’t exactly feel great, there were some mild cramps which I put down to the gels consumed and the higher than normal volume of water consumed, although with a dehydration headache beginning to consume me, clearly not as much as would be optimal to maintain full hydration. Each time I passed a Portaloo I felt the urge to stop but I resisted until the end of the race, thankfully without any unpleasant consequences.

20-25K was covered in 19:36. By now my Garmin was around a third of a mile over estimating the distance, as is quite normal at London. I often find the Garmin goes a bit crazy when we head under the roundabout underpass, spending around a minute outside of GPS coverage. The result this year around was that I went through the 16 mile banner almost exactly as the Garmin registered 16 miles. This was very handy! I had to disregard the 7:14 mile the watch showed, I hadn’t really slowed at all, just as I doubt I’d ran 6:05 the mile before.

Moving on from that excitement, the 5K between 25-30K, or miles 17 to 20 approximately, were the hardest of the race as we wound our way around the docks and Canary Wharf. While the crowd support was fantastic as ever and some of the buildings provided welcome shade, there were pockets of wind that almost stopped us in our tracks and a general feeling of weariness was taking over the body as well as some ominous cramping sensations in the quads. The 25-30K was not the slowest at 19:55, but it felt the hardest.

Some welcome relief came not long after in the form of a work colleague and friend James ‘Beaver‘ Bearne, who had come down to enjoy the day and to cheer on another friend’s sister, who had chosen a bad day to take part in her first ever marathon. I was aware of several friends and club mates who were dotted around the course. I’d spotted my wife and daughter at mile 9, just as I passed them, and club mate Paul Rushworth not long after. Thereafter the cumulative noise and volume of spectators and the shouts of ‘Come on Matt!’ aimed mostly at Matts other than myself, meant I had apparently missed quite a lot of people who were cheering specifically me on. Not Beaver though. At 20.5 miles just as we turned onto the road where runners come in the opposite direction at halfway, the loudest shout of ‘Come on Matt!!’ I’ve ever heard came right in my direction. Fully enthused by his command I pressed on, knowing that there was less than 10K left to run. The run from 30-35KM was the slowest of the race, after the opening 5K at 20:04. It should be noted though, that as well as being very warm, this was also run mostly into a headwind which, although hardly strong, was just firm enough to make it noticeably harder work than had it been behind us.

As I’ve done many times before the final 10K was a case of trying to run as hard as possible while not stressing the legs too much to the point of cramping, which they were doing in a mild, controllable manner, every mile or so. Mentally it was a case of breaking the race down into 5K chunks, then mile segments, then half miles, then a couple of minutes at a time, using the support of the crowd now to keep you going, when in the early stages I tried to block them out to try and stop me from getting carried away and running too fast.

Mile 25 along the Embankment. Picture c/o Helen Brown.

As we ran along the Embankment, passing Paul again and Helen (thanks for the picture!)  I went through 40K, having covered the last 5k in 19:57. The underpass beforehand again saw my Garmin get confused – the pace had stayed constant and I hadn’t slowed to 6:49 and 7:01 miles. The gradual slowdown reversed, I let myself pick up the pace just a touch as we turned right at the scarcely recognisable Big Ben and headed towards the finish, safe in the knowledge that even if the legs cramped up I’d only likely lose a minute or so. Apparently, according to someone behind me at the finish, I put on quite a sprint at the end as I pulled well clear of him. I don’t recall it being that quick but what was noticeable was that in a race where everyone around me was finding the going tough (there are usually a fair few runners flying at the end of a race as they nail a negative split) I appeared to be finding it a little less tough than others.

The slow start had paid dividends and I finished the race with a mile significantly quicker than I started. It wasn’t as quick as I had hoped, but I survived the race intact and in a respectable time – 2:47:27. When the positions were worked out I wound up 329th overall, 51 places higher than in 2017 and my best ever finishing position at London. This was something at least to be proud of, pleased about, and some small justification for putting my body through this unnecessary distress of running in what turned out to be the hottest ever London Marathon, officially at least 23.2C and likely warmer in places with radiated heat from the roads and buildings.

Me and my daughter at the finish for another year.

The long post race walk from the finish via the baggage area and to the zone where I met up with the family was noticeably quieter, more subdued, than in previous years. It was full of weary men (I believe only three women finished ahead of me who began with the masses), very few of whom I assume achieved what they had hoped to through the months of training and, looking at some of the runners I follow on Strava, suffered far worse than I did in the closing stages due to the heat and, for the most part, going off too quickly for the conditions. I imagine many of them, as I did, thought there were far better ways to enjoy a very warm sunny Sunday in April than run 26.2 miles. But we all did and I am sure we will all do so again, many in twelve months time, when hopefully the weather gods are a little kinder to us and provide an opportunity to make amends the disappointment of 2018. Marathon running is an addictive business. You know it does you know good but you can’t help but come back for me.

Of course, tragically, there will be one runner who won’t be returning in 2019. For Matt, and the others I’ve had the great displeasure in being part of a race where tragedy has struck, my thoughts are forever with you and I hope that at the very least you succumbed doing something you loved to do. Which, despite all that I wrote above, I do pretty much every time I run. Like most events that cause pain and suffering, the worst of it has been blocked by the mind and I am beginning to look a little more fondly on the hottest London there has ever been and already looking forward to the next race, which is hopefully just around the corner in a week or so.




Race Report – North Midlands Cross Country League, Race 1, Markeaton Park, Derby – Saturday 14th October 2017.

I Hate Cross Country… But We’ve Got Ourselves In A New League!

Around 10 years ago, as part of my role as writing the newsletter for my running club Kenilworth Runners, I wrote a series of articles over a couple of years beginning with I Hate Cross Country… But I Am Willing To Give It Another Try. In that humorous series I reported on my less than stellar efforts at representing my club in the Birmingham League Cross Country series. Despite my inability to perform as to the standard I had on the road, I was proud to be part of a team that punched well above their weight, culminating with an overall position well inside the top ten of the First Division before I left Coventry in 2013, taking part in one last Birmingham League XC Race in January 2014 at Coundon Park, where I was seventh counter for the team.

In the next three years ten months I took part in just one Cross Country Race – the National Cross Country Championships at Donington Park in 2016, the penultimate time I wore a Kenilworth Runners vest before becoming a first claim member of Grantham Running Club a couple of months later. Being second claim Grantham Running Club in the intervening years meant I couldn’t take part in the Lincolnshire Cross Country League that my current club is a member of. To be honest I wasn’t that heartbroken, the league is a pail shadow of the quality you see race in race out in Birmingham League in terms of quantity and quality and, with four races compacted into just over a month (Plus on a Sunday morning), it is over before you really get into your running.

For a couple of years I’ve pushed my club into considering joining another cross country league and finally for 2017 it was decided we would enter the North Midlands Cross Country League as well as Lincolnshire League. With races on a more traditional Saturday afternoon and with over four times as many people racing as normally found in Lincolnshire races, my appetite was whetted to don the club vest and dig out the old spikes and Walshes (Just in case it was dry) and head to round one at Markeaton Park in Derby.

Arriving with plenty of time to spare, I was able to enjoy the traditional spirit of cross country that keeps it thriving among grass root athletics (The number of clubs joining leagues is increasing apparently, despite the success of rival events such as parkrun). Junior runners were sent on their way, all heading off far too fast; some paying the penalty, the good ones staying strong to the end. I got ready to race, jogging a small part next to the course where I decided that with the very firm conditions underfoot, I would eschew both spikes and my Walsh trail shoes to wear my Hoka Hoka One trail shoes, which are basically road trainers with a slightly more grippy tread. What with the balmy conditions seeing car thermometers nudge 22C, this felt much unlike any wet, cold and miserable cross country race I’d ever take taken part in. Indeed only the Holme Pierrepont 10 Mile race this year was warmer than this one in the races I’ve taken part in.

I saw our ladies head off at the start then went about my final preparations, lining up 25 minutes or so later for a race that finally went off a few minutes late at 2pm. As usual there was the charge for the first corner, made worse by the number of keen young runners from University teams. For the first time I was taking part in a separate Veterans league, so although I was keeping an eye on my overall standing in the race, I was keen to keep those of a similar age to me behind.

As I prefer to do I made a steady start, probably outside of the top 100 in the first few minutes of the race. Although initially frustrated by the crowding on the course, it wasn’t long before the field began to thin out and I proceeded to make by attack from the back and pick off those who went out a little too keenly.

Slow and steady start on lap one of the race.

Firm underfoot and mostly flat, there was however one steep climb and one less steep rise immediately after on a switchback on the back of the course before heading back to complete one of three laps in total. This section was the only bit with any real mud, although there was no difficulty in keeping a good footing. Although I hate the hills, I do seem to be fairly strong on them, whether the 7th place of all time on the Switchback Strava Segment is genuine or a quirk of GPS inaccuracy I don’t know, but whatever I continued to make up places while not straining myself too much.

Keeping the younger ones behind me

The approximately 10K race continued without incident, nor much of a slowing up in my pace which hovered just under six minute miles for most of the race. I was able to catch and pass everyone I caught up with until the final runner as we entered the closing few hundred meters. He stubbornly stayed just in front of me and when I tested him with a faux sprint finish in the closing meters, he showed he had plenty of gas to spare if I dared to try and force my way past.

So I finished 44th overall and top ten in the Veterans’ race, which ranks among my best ever efforts for cross country. A good day out and about as much as I’ll ever get to enjoying cross country. I hope and pray it is as dry and warm for my next venture, which should be in December, but somehow I doubt it!

Grantham Running Club competitors.

Race Report – Jack Walters Memorial Notts 10 Mile Road Race, Holme Pierrepont, Friday 16th June 2017.

A couple of weeks after the nearly disastrous Lincoln 5K, I was putting the body back on the line at Holme Pirrepont for the Jack Walters Memorial Notts 10 Mile Road Race. A week or so of not running, a good massage session and not racing the Woodhall Spa 10K meant that I was reasonably confident that the calf muscle was well healed. Indeed running had been going pretty well, the only dodgy run was just a couple of days before this race when 15 miles in hot conditions took its toll, inducing some kind of migraine that left me unwell for the remainder of the day.

The weather driving to the race at the National Water Sports Centre on the at Holme Pierrepont (On the outskirts of Nottingham) was pleasant for driving with the sunroof open and the windows down – mid twenties celsius, sunny, with a steady to stiff breeze. These conditions were not exactly ideal for racing though.

I arrived in very good time for the evening race, allowing a long drawn out warm up. The mile and a half of jogging masquerading as a warm up revealed little other than both Achilles still aching a fair amount – my calf stretching routine partially working in minimising the discomfort but not yet wholly so. It was this aching which made me opt to wear my Hoka Clifton 2s rather than my Nike Frees for the race.

Conditions were still warm at 7:15 for the start, so much so that I made a point of trying to seek shade wherever possible. I did though have to line up for the start with hundreds of others. We had a moving speech from the son of Jack Walters, an stalwart of the sport who had passed away and was having this raced dedicated in his memory for the next few years. After a minute’s applause and a pre-race briefing we were ready to begin, all stood behind the line of flour that constituted the start line.

I made a brisk but controlled start, got a bit caught up in among some runners who stormed off then slowed dramatically, but within a few minutes I was comfortably into my running. The course took us out of the rowing arena itself and on a adjacent road (Adbolton Lane) before taking a mostly gravelly path that took us back midway along the 2km long rowing basin. We ran an anticlockwise loop of the basin before leaving arena again to cross the start line to complete another full lap, before running another half lap, only this time taking a left where we had previously turned right at the rowing basin to run a KM or so to the finish line.

We were aided by the tailwind for much of the opening two and a half miles. I went through the first mile in 5:40, the second mile in a quicker 5:29. As we took in a small rise before a descent onto the rowing basin, I was in a small group who looked as though we could catch another group in front of us. On the rowing basin path I knew there was only a couple of minutes of running before we would turn and face a strong headwind. I pushed on the pace to make a concerted effort to catch the group ahead of us.

I managed to bring the two groups together. The group ahead had contained Strava friend and Holme Pierrepont Running Club member David Greenwood, who I know is of a similar ability to myself. Playing the tactical game I tucked in behind him and stuck resolutely to his slipstream as we began the near 2km long stretch into the headwind on the regatta lake. This meant the pace slowed a bit – back to 5:39 for the third mile and 5:46 for the fourth mile, but I was happy to be conserving my energy, trying also to keep cool in the still warm conditions.

Approaching the end of the rowing basin a young runner who had caught our group pushed on and ahead of David. Sensing an opportunity to grab a good tow I followed his tail and we pulled clear of the group as we left the regatta lake via a small incline. I sat behind him for a few minutes before I sensed his pace slowing. Having now begun the second lap and enjoying again a tailwind I was happy to help with the pace. After around 90 seconds of leading my new running buddy pushed on and set the pace again. And so this continued for almost exactly one lap. The fifth mile was a 5:43, the sixth quicker at 5:36, the seventh 5:40 as we began again to hit a tailwind and the eighth my slowest of the race at 5:49 as we ran a total headwind mile.

Our pace sharing had meant we passed a fair few runners on Adbolton Lane and began to slowly but inexorably close down on a group of three runners ahead, including the second placed woman. We caught them on the final ascent of the small ramp out of the rowing basin. It was here I pulled clear of my young running friend who began to wilt. Indeed by now the heat was beginning to take its toll on the field, running along the Adbolton Lane for the third and final time I passed several runners for whom the temperatures were just too high to continue running at pace.

I was suffering too, I was beginning to shiver – a tell tale sign in the heat of dehydration, but I dug in, helping myself a touch at the final water station by ignoring drinking from the cup of water pouring it straight over my head! The ninth mile was a 5:44, the final mile saw us back onto the rowing basin for the long run into a headwind to the finish. I had two runners ahead of me who I could target and managed to pass. The tenth mile was a 5:43, my Garmin was as unreliable as ever and so had a good fifth of a mile left to run, which saw me muster something of a sprint as I came home to cross the finish line seventeenth overall in 57:41.

Coming into the finish. Picture c/o Andrew Pask.

This was a result I was very pleased with. My 10 mile PB is 57:20, ran on a cool December morning. This race was run in less than ideal conditions and aside from some aches in the Achilles I ran it free of any issues. Indeed the body felt pretty fresh after the race, I felt the limiting factor to my pace in the race was the heat. This was partly borne out the following morning at Belton House parkrun when I wound up easily finishing first in similarly warm conditions. If my body had been shot on the Friday, there was no way I could have run on the Saturday morning.

This confidence boosting race done and dusted, attentions were focused to my running club’s flagship race – the Summer Solstice 10K.

Enjoying the warm setting sun with fellow club members at the end of the race.

Race Report – Robin Hood Half Marathon aka Project Sub 1:16:47

The big day came; weeks and months of training came to this. After four years of trying to better my old half marathon PB of 1:16:47, today was do or die, sh*t or bust, all or nothing, hero or zero… The first thing to check, once it became light enough to see outside with a 6am wake up call, was what the weather was looking like. Blissfully wind free was the answer, my number one concern after the last two Robin Hood Half Marathon’s have been spoilt, more so in 2012, by strong winds. The forecast though was for unseasonably warm and sunny conditions, but I wasn’t overly concerned about that – it was all about the wind, or lack of it.

The early wake up and depart for Nottingham was necessitated following my 2013 experience when I’d aimed to arrive at 8:15 (a good 75 minutes before the start of the race), but got stuck in horrendous traffic and had to all but abandon the car with the wife and kids to make it to the start in time. So I and Scott, my travel companion and competitor in the accompanying marathon, aimed to be there at 7:45. The plan worked a treat, the car park easy to get into, which wasn’t the case just 30 minutes later when the queues of traffic began to form.

With 1 3/4 hours to play with before the off, it was a relaxed build up to the race – a walk around the race village, a chat to fellow club mates and a 1 1/2 mile warm up which was unspectacular but did at least see the sciatica related pain in the right leg subside during the run to a point where I figured it wouldn’t interfere with the race. Still, I did one last long Piraformis stretch on completing the run, which I’d like to think made the difference between a nagging ache during the warm up and no aches at all in the the race.

This relaxed build up bit me a bit as I’d not made my pre race trip to the Portaloo and it was now less than 20 minutes to the start. A look at the queues for the aforementioned offices of convenience struck me with fear – they were enormous!  I made a quick scan for what liked the shortest and proceeded to fret increasingly with each passing minute as the queue diminished frustratingly slowly. I finally made it into my cubicle with less than five minutes to the start. I did what I had to do, leaving myself just three minutes to find the start and the first wave of runners where I should have been standing, waiting for the gun to fire.

A frantic run ensued, dodging runners, spectators, bollards, dogs and pushchairs. The starting gun went just as I made it to the opening for the back of the first wave of runners. Without stopping I was suddenly crossing the start line and beginning the race, losing around 15 seconds had I lined up at the front where I’d arguably should have been.

The plan before the race, as practised at the club handicap 10k earlier in the month, was to run with the HR averaging around 172bpm with the intention of running at, or around, 5:40 per mile. This was an ambitious plan which, if successful, would see me finish in under 1:15. All I wanted was to break 1:16:47, the plan being the old trick of go out hard, try and build up a time buffer and hang on as best as possible as you died a slow death in the final miles. I hate racing this way, always preferring to start a little slower and finish strongly, but I felt it was now or never to try this alternate strategy of going out hard from the gun and sustaining pace as long as possible.

Starting a little further back than planned slowed me initially but it wasn’t long before I was into my running and at the pace and HR I’d planned. I passed the first mile in 5:39, the average 169bpm, spot on what I’d hoped for and quite a relief given that a few minutes earlier I thought I was going to miss the start completely.

The Opening Mile
The Opening Mile

It turned out I wasn’t the only one with pre-race dramas. Fellow Kenilworth Runners Connor Carson caught me just after the mile and we exchanged pleasantries as best you can when running almost, but not quite, flat out. It turned out he nearly missed the start too, stuck in pre-race traffic. We ran together through to 3 miles which I was very happy with, I knew that he was hoping to run sub 1:15, although I wasn’t totally sure what form he was in. I went through the second mile in 5:39 (HR average 172), the third mile 5:37 (173 HR average). The conditions at that point were perfect, the roads flat, running well, feeling great. Then, just after three miles, Connor stopped, heading into the awaiting Portaloo. Clearly his pre-race dramas had meant the lack of time to complete the simplest human act had now ruined his race. I felt bad for him but had no time to dwell – 5k was completed in 17:37 and if I kept this up the PB was on.

By the fourth mile the field was well spread out and it was harder to find pocket of runners to run with. I slowed a touch to 5:44 but the HR average was steady at 172 so all I could do was just keep running as best as possible. The fifth mile is a little odd as it takes runners through the large headquarters of Boots the Chemists. It’s sparsely populated by spectators save for the security guards monitoring the property and a few race officials. There was little to entertain but it was interesting to pass a number of traffic speed signs – the ones that flash up your speed, normally as you drive past. For me and the group of 2-3 runners it read 11 mph. This was simultaneously pleasing and disturbing at the same time. 11 mph is usually around the top speed on a half decent gym treadmill. I’ve not been to a gym for several years, but that sort of speed was reserved for the top end efforts that I could usually only sustain for a minute or two. Now I was planning to keep that sort of speed up for 13.1 miles. It seemed a big ask, too big, so I tried to forget that nuance and worked on the slightly more comfortable target of 5:40 per mile, or by now, just faster than 5:50 per mile (The pace required to beat 1:16:47). The fifth mile was the slowest to that point – 5:46, but the final part, when we left the Boots complex, saw the steepest climb on the course, albeit only a crossing over a bridge above a railway line.

Mile six was bad patch as, I’m regularly told by Brendan Foster on any televised distance race, everyone goes through. It was on the run towards the University that I began to flag. Out came the emergency gel, quickly consumed, and it was then I had a little saviour in the form of Coventry Godiva runner Scott Hazell, who passed me, but I was able to cling onto as we headed up the most significant climb on the course, up and literally through Nottingham University campus. It was over the top of the hill and back down the other side where we passed firstly through 10k – 35:36, somewhat scarily just one second slower than I ran the Summer Solstice in June – and then half way – which was around 37:50.

The trip through the campus is scenic but a little tough going as it mostly on dry gravel. Feeling like I was leaving my bad spell I clung onto Scott and ran alongside. We began to talk briefly, when Scott mentioned he was running the marathon and not the half. This took me by surprise – running this fast for 26.2 miles! He was hoping to run about 2:34, so when we spoke we were just outside his target. I decided the best thing to do, with other runners few and far between, to try and stick with him as best as possible, which I managed to do until the half and full marathon courses went their separate ways at around 11 1/2 miles.

At 7 miles that was some way in the future. After mile 6, the slowest of my race (5:54), the feeling that I had rallied was borne out in the mile splits – mile 7, through the campus, was 5:45, mile 8, back on the roads and not the pavement as we had done on University Boulevard in previous years, was 5:43 and mile 9 was 5:51 – but it did feature the last hill of the race, a longish drag up before plunging down to a roundabout and a trip back towards the city centre. It was here I appreciated the quietness of the totally closed roads in contrast to how they’ve been when I’ve visited frequently in previous months.

The tenth mile saw us briefly retread some of the roads we took in the opening miles of the race and it suddenly became evident that I was feeling much worse than fifty odd minutes ago. The legs were heavy, I began to feel shivery, with goose bumps appearing which I took to be a sign of dehydration. The warmth of the day which I’d done my best to ignore now became impossible to forget and it became not just a physical battle but a mental one – pushing body and mind to keep going when it wanted to slow and stop. This was Rotterdam revisited, but time running 30 seconds a mile quicker and closer to maximal pace and ability.

Despite the suffering it was clear I was still running well, 5:42 for the tenth mile, with 57:50 or so on the watch, I had come very close to matching my 10 mile PB. I was now really using the crowd to keep me going, finding it harder to maintain form in the occasional quiet pockets, trying my best to cling onto Mr Hazell. With some relief I passed 5:46 for mile 11 and it was more encouraging that the distance on my Garmin was more or less tallying with the mile markers on course – it had been spot on for the opening miles, lost its way a touch through half way but was now only around 0.1 mile too generous. This I meant I knew that the 5:43 on the average wouldn’t necessarily mean a big PB, but I was confident at least I could get one.

When we split with the marathon runners and onto the footpath beside the River Trent, initially I had the toughest bad spell of the race. A mile and three quarters suddenly seemed too far away. Fortunately the knowledge that I knew this stretch reasonably well from running a five mile race here a couple of months ago – albeit in the opposite direction – helped. Moreover I was catching a runner who was around 30 seconds up the road. I caught him at 12 miles, which was a 5:52 effort. Knowing I had just one mile to run definitely rejuvenated me – doubly so when we turned 180 degrees and ran back on the road towards the finish. We even had tree cover for part of the mile which helped mitigate the effects of the sun.

We turned left on to the grass and finishing chute a little earlier than anticipated and I began a long painful sprint for home. This section was longer than the past two years and it seemed to go on a long time. I didn’t look at my watch at the time but I went ran the thirteenth mile in 5:40 and I was running faster than that as I turned left 90 degrees and towards the finish line. I heard the PA announce my name to the crowd and there was a generous round of applause from the spectators. As I spotted the finish clock and saw it read 1:15:30 I knew the PB was mine and a sub 1:16 was on. I sprinted for all I was worth but at the same time breaking into something of an anguished smile.

I think I passed the finish line at around 1:15:50. I was made up. Then I stopped my watch and looked at the time – 1:15:31 – even better! I’d forgotten it had taken me a little time to cross the start line. I collected my finish medal and bag and happily took the finishing foil – usually a waste in warm conditions, but still feeling shivery, very welcome. I stopped for a moment’s reflection then left the finishing area and found a grassy bank to collapse and slowly recover. Around 15 minutes later I was recovered enough to take a small recovery jog.

I hung around to see my club mates at Kenilworth Runners and Grantham Running Club finish, culminating with travel partner Scott coming home in a new PB over the marathon. I had enjoyed standing at 25 1/2 miles cheering home the runners in the closing stages. It wasn’t long though before we were heading home. That evening came the official results and the great news that my official time was a couple of seconds quicker than I’d though – 1:15:29. That gave me a new age graded PR of 81.09% which topped a highly successful day.

Robin Hood Half Splits
Robin Hood Half Splits
Race Analysis
Race Analysis

Notts AC 5 Mile Road Race–Wednesday 23rd July 2014

After the calm prediction of a personal best the night before, I woke on race morning alarmed to find I could barely walk. Not struck down with flu or any viral malaise, instead the tops of both hamstrings were unfathomably tight.

I thought long about what could have caused this bizarre turn of events and concluded it was almost certainly the dynamic forward lunges I’d done as part of the Strength and Conditioning program in the morning the day before. Although at the time they felt fine, I imagine they’d just strained some muscle fibres enough to give this overnight reaction. I should have known better, similar afflictions have struck me twice before when doing these lunges – I just shouldn’t do them, especially the day before a race.

For the best part of the day I really didn’t think I’d be able to race. I went out at midday for a one mile new trainer foot pod calibration / fitness test. The trainers (A new pair of Nike Lunar Racer) felt great; the legs less so. It wasn’t a showstopper couldn’t run at all affair, more a I can really feel this and it doesn’t help with the running issue.

I spent the rest of the afternoon fretting over whether to run. I began to prepare at 5pm to leave at 5:30pm. At 5:35pm I decided I wasn’t going, when my wife texted me to wish me good luck. It was then I decided the very least I could do was go along, warm up, and see what happened. If it didn’t feel good I wouldn’t race, I’d sit back and enjoy the others run whilst I enjoyed the sunshine.

And so I left for Nottingham, enjoying the glorious weather in the car that would not make for quite so idyllic racing conditions, with temperatures still in the mid twenties Celsius and a blustery breeze that would slightly cool, but slow us too when exposed.

I arrived in good time, happening to park just ahead of the start line. I changed into my running kit, gently stretched the hamstrings and began to run. Slowly. A slow shuffle with both hamstrings not wanting to work and only wanting to hurt. After a couple of minutes I stopped to use the official race toilets – inside the Riverbank Bar & Kitchen. It was a little surreal to see a stream of runners using the facilities of what is quite a swish establishment, certainly the first time at a race I’ve got to wash my hands using cocoa butter enriched hand wash.

Whether that luxury hand wash permeated its magic to my hamstrings I doubt, but when I began running again, the hamstrings were a little less tight. For the warm up I ran most of the 2.5 mile loop that formed the course. After a mile I began to do some strides and surges and the legs felt as though they would cope. The race was on! I also noted that the return leg along the Victoria Embankment saw the headwind grow and grow in intensity as we curved around towards the finish line. Something to note for the race which would commence in twenty minutes time.

I was very relaxed at the start line, as though all the pre-race angst had been used up many hours earlier when I was fretting over whether to race. A little humour ensued as a credit card was found at the start line, a relieved member of BRAT sheepishly came up to retrieve his plastic from the race starter, declaring that post race drinks would very much be on him. I lined myself up next to what looked like the strongest ladies in the race and a gentleman who looked like he was determined to be up front for the first 200 meters at least before the inevitable severe and prolonged fade for the remaining 4.8 miles.

The starting pistol fired and we were off. As predicted some went off too exuberantly. I was steady but not slow, the hamstrings still a little tight but thankfully loosening off all the time, so that after 2-3 minutes of racing they were hardly a factor. The race, which was relatively small with just under 200 starters, was soon strung out and I found myself quite quickly running alone, albeit with runners not too far in front of me and behind. The first mile took us out on a loop away from the Embankment and then back on it. I went through the first mile on the watch in 5:25 – just a second quicker than at the Summer Solstice the month previous. I felt strong to the turning point half a mile or so later, where we headed down onto the footpath by the River Trent and enjoyed the support of the local fishermen and other hecklers – albeit the heckles were mild in tone and arguably supportive.

I knew this was a crucial point in the race. I was running alone but around 20 meters ahead was a group of five runners. If I could catch them in the next couple of minutes I could sit in the pack and take shelter for the 3/4s mile or so when there was the testing head wind. A short burst of sub five minute mile running and I was in the pack. I felt good, it was tempting to push on as I felt the pace was not quite as I could have managed, but I figured the shelter from the wind and the energy saved could probably result in bigger gains later on in the race.

And so I sat at the back of the pack whilst a pair of well built athletes provided an excellent wind break. The pace inevitably dropped, for a short period we were running at around six minute miles, but I kept calm and stuck with the plan. Mile two I went through in 5:29, the average pace for the third mile slipped to 5:45 as we completed the first lap and turned 180 degrees to begin the second.

Without hesitation I picked up the effort and the group disintegrated around me. I left them and pushed on closing down rapidly on my old friend from Coventry Godiva Harriers, Namir Batavia. I first raced with Namir back in the 2008 Coventry Half Marathon when he was clearly a talented, but very inexperienced, young runner. He stuck in my mind because he would furiously sprint up all the hills during the race, then slow to a jog at the top, where I would catch him up and we would recommence racing together. I thought he’d have no chance of making it to the finish, but earned my eternal respect when he did, and beat me comfortably too. Since then we’ve both improved – he has posted some quicker times than me, especially at the start of the year, with a low 27 minute five mile race performance, so it was a big mental boost when I surged past him just before three miles.

Although the Garmin was a bit up on the official mile markers, I knew that with the 5:34 third mile and 5k on or around 17:00 minutes I was on for a good race. The wise words of a 15 year old I’d read about in Athletics Weekly at lunchtime rung in my head: the best races are always the ones that feel the easiest. This is so so true, and tonight was one of those races. It felt pretty easy. I knew by my heart rate that it was no picnic in the park, I was pushing pretty close to my maximum, but it felt comfortable.

Two more miles – ten more minutes or so – I thought, to a good time, so I pushed on again. I went through the fourth mile in 5:28 and as we turned at the top of the course for the second and last time to run back to the finish, I had the lead lady, Juliet Potter, around 10-15 seconds ahead of me. I’d have no chance of sheltering from the head wind on this second lap, it was just a case of giving it everything and minimising any losses. I focused on Juliet ahead and steadily reeled her in, catching her with around half a mile to go. I thought for a second about tucking in and recovering but felt it would be best to surge on ahead, going for a long sprint for home.

Juliet doubled her efforts and stuck close to me as the wind made the going tough in the closing stages. The five mile split came up on the watch (5:23) and we were some way from the finish. I wanted to know what elapsed time was but I kept missing it on my Garmin as it scrolled through its four pages of data (My choice, it wasn’t ideal today). Then I could make out the finishing clock as it read 27:20. The PB was assured, clocking a sub-28 performance wasn’t. I pushed on again as the seconds clicked by, the finish line taking forever to appear. Finally it did, I stopped the watch. 27:53 it read – a PB by 26 seconds! I shook the hand of Juliet, who came in just four seconds later, then waited for Namir to come home and a Grantham runner I’d seen from afar during the warm up.

I was obviously delighted with the PB but there was no real euphoric outpouring. More a contented punch of the fists, then on with business. I find that’s often the case with midweek summer evening races, the atmosphere is usually far more relaxed than at a weekend race. Races are run, runners disperse and head home.

I was surprised to find I finished eleventh, far higher than I expected to be. Then came the two mile warm down, where the hamstrings showed how tight they were – not enjoying in the slightest this final hurrah in the fading sunlight. Still I didn’t care too much – the gamble to race had paid off, another PB achieved, this one an unexpected surprise.

A good evening.