Brass Monkey Half Marathon 2018 review

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Fourth appearance at the Brass Monkey Half Marathon

For the 2015, 2016 and 2017 races, please click below:

After injury prevented me from going all-out in 2017, I was back for vengeance at this classically flat and fast race that’s older than me!

Pre-race

Sometimes, even having the will doesn’t mean there’s a way. After an intoxicatingly satisfying Yorkshire Marathon PB, my only PB of 2017 at that, I wanted to put the year’s injury aside and get back to scoring a handful of PBs again. The Brass Monkey Half Marathon is a great way to kick off the training year, so I re-jigged the Pfitzinger and Latter half marathon plan into something that I could work with from early November to January to get me there.

Things started off well enough with a couple of solid weeks behind me and confidence was high ahead of the Sneyd 10 Mile Christmas Pudding Run, except the race never happened. Not only did I lose the best part of a week tapering for a race that would never materialise, but the snow that cancelled the race then also wrote off the following seven days of training. Whilst I managed to recover some of the plan with a few strong runs, Christmas then landed and a mild bout of food poisoning and some more tapering for the Gloucester New Year’s Eve 10 Mile robbed me of yet another week. In all the years I’ve been training with some intent, December 2017 has to be my most disrupted. A further slap in the face was the hacking cough I picked up during the taper week for this very Brass Monkey Half Marathon! At its worst, the sputum-triggered coughs woke me several times a night to leave me feeling pretty ropey throughout the week. So, yeah. A poor build-up for what was supposed to be my A-goal half marathon to kick-start 2018…

I realigned my goals for the day to give my fragile mind a break. My A-goal was a sub-84; my B-goal was a PB of any magnitude (84:54 to beat); finally, my C-goal was to merely equal my PB as closely as possible, which was no mean feat as I was relatively strong across all distances that I raced in 2016.

So, on to race morning…

Lis and I stayed at the Holiday Inn on Tadcaster Road – one of the main roads into York. In spite of its incredibly dated exterior, the rooms inside were modern and, importantly, quiet due to being further out of the city to be less likely to cater for the boozy weekend crowds. I rarely sleep well in unusual environments but would heartily recommend this hotel if you’re in need of accommodation for the race – I’m told England Athletics club runners can expect a discount upon booking, too. The distance to the racecourse was perfect for a 1.5 mile warm-up, feeling much more thorough than laps of the car park I’m traditionally accustomed to.

Carrying a phlegmy-hacking cough, I feared I had some sort of low-level bug inside me; how profusely I was sweating whilst only sitting down after my warm-up did not bode well and reminded me of the fateful 2016 Kenilworth Half Marathon and Telford 10k, with the former not ending well and the latter ending prematurely… I like to have a mantra going into a race, and this scenario strongly reinforced 50% of it: don’t be a hero in the first half – don’t be a pussy in the second half.

Regrouping with Lis, I changed into my race gear and almost forgot to wear the race timing chip on my shoes! Speaking of shoes, I’d packed both my Nike Zoom Streak 6 and Vaporfly 4% due to being unsure of which pair to wear. The recent Gloucester New Year’s Eve 10 Mile left me unimpressed with the Vaporfly 4%, where they felt too unstable and appeared to offer no advantage by wearing them. I almost went for the Zoom Streak 6, but reasoned the flat and straight Brass Monkey course would play to the Vaporfly 4%’s strengths, so a last minute change of heart it was.

Unlike years prior, I wanted a calm and relaxed start to the race without any panic. I was so on point with all of my pre-race admin timings that Lis and I were some of the first people in the start pen! As the crowd swelled, I finally caught sight of Carl Stainton and Shaun Hemmings, the latter who would be running for the first time on the course. Carl shared he wasn’t in good health and Shaun shared he wasn’t in great shape due to December. With me being a bit of Column A and Column B, the three of us had travelled a long way for possible disappointment. Nonetheless, I wished them both well and knew Shaun was still likely to have a good race, me citing the flat course and competitive field playing to his strengths. To my right in the start pen was a guy sat on the grass in the lotus position, trying to find some peace and tranquillity whilst hundreds of runners milled around him and blaring music played over loudspeakers…

We were ushered forward and, with very little warning, released into the south York countryside.

The race

Miles 1 – 3

Starting perhaps 10 or so rows back from the front, the start of the race was never going to be the fastest, which suited me perfectly fine as I had such unreliable feedback of my own ability and condition going in. The 2016 Kenilworth Half Marathon saw me tearing off like a lunatic whilst mildly ill; lessons were learnt, so I merely went with the flow of traffic on this occasion and found myself sitting in at 6:30 per mile pace. On such a flat course and with a descent at the end of the first mile, everything felt almost too easy, so I reminded myself once more of the morning’s mantra: don’t be a hero in the first half – don’t be a pussy in the second half.

The crowd around me was pretty stable, so I’d chosen my start position well. Of course, there were a few outliers that had started too far forward or too far back, but congestion was otherwise the best I’d seen over four years of attendance.

Weather-wise, it was grey overhead and the air was cool to work in our favour. The only fly in the ointment was the 10mph headwind we all ran into for the first half of the course… Even tucked in amongst the masses, I could feel the wind hit periodically as it worked its way through the field.

Speaking of fields… A few guys and I noticed one of the swifter women snake her way across and in front of us, from the left-most side of the course over to the right. At first, we assumed she was just aggressively going for the racing line, but then she stepped out of the race and on to a vacant field. Then, she unexpectedly pulled down her shorts and began squatting to go for a piss! “Fair play,” I thought – no time for embarrassment or self-consciousness when a PB is at stake! Within seconds, she’d finished her business and rejoined the fray by zooming off into the horizon!

As the field thinned, groups were forged and I proactively jumped from one to another as they slowed from the prevailing winds that we faced. The effort still felt low with my very relaxed breathing as confirmation. Pace-wise, I was perhaps a few seconds up on my 2016 outing, but this time with far more participants around my ability to run with.

Miles 1, 2 and 3 came out as 6:30, 6:34 and 6:31 respectively.

Miles 4 to 7

I found myself latching on to a pack that appeared to feature one female club runner being escorted by three of her fellow male club members. After a few minutes of running amongst their group, the reality was she was actually pacing them, based on how relaxed she looked and the blokes sounding like their breathing was more on the uneasy side.

The field continued thinning and there was a growing reluctance from people to swap from one pack to the next as I did, so I increasingly went ahead to surge on my own when I felt the pace slipping. The groups I did join never seemed to last all that long before they splintered and I’d have to repeat the entire process again.

I made contact with one chap who, like me, was running a very stable pace with little to no fluctuation. I tucked into his slipstream, trying not to clip his heels but also trying to maximise the drafting effect at the same time. He seemed to be unphased by me being there, so I cheekily remained but occasionally drew shoulder-to-shoulder with him so as not to outstay my welcome. As one particular strong gust of wind hit us, I shared my hope that we would get a tailwind on the return to claw back some of the damage we were taking. He shared my sentiments and we both agreed that we needed to get out of the wind and join the group ahead – ideally two ahead as it was larger and seemed less transient. I liked Alex’s style and our alliance was set!

Alex turned out to be a York local, living in Bishopthorpe, so we’d actually passed his home on the out leg of the race. He’s a distance guy with several excellent marathon PBs to his name, including an impressive 2:58:04 from the 2017 Manchester Marathon. By comparison, his half marathon PB came up soft at 85:48 from a prior Brass Monkey Half Marathon; I revealed that I was looking to get under 85 minutes again as a minimum and that it was worth us sticking together for as long as possible. As one would expect from a strong marathoner, his pacing was impeccably metronomic and he even gave me a run for my money.

Turning the corner for the southern-most point on the course, we received some relief from the wind and continued to bide our time. Passing the halfway point clock, that was actually a few hundred metres too far forward, I registered 42:10 and shared with Alex that a faster second half without the wind would very likely see us finish with 84:XX. Our discussion startled a fellow participant who hadn’t quite realised how far in we were, so in the zone was he!

Miles 4, 5, 6 and 7 came in at 6:31, 6:32, 6:35 and 6:27 respectively.

Miles 8 to 10

It was incredibly satisfying to finally be rid of the wind. We could instantly feel it as the pace on our Garmins lifted for mile 8, finally settling at around 6:25. Crucially, the pace remained as comfortable as before and our breathing continued to be relaxed from the more conservative first half. We reeled runners in that had gone out more enthusiastically at target pace into the wind, taking advantage of their tiring states for an added boost. We got the chit-chat out of the way and settled into several miles of focus to simply crank out the distance.

We passed one guy that had previously drifted in and out of contact with us earlier on, but made a push at some stage to plough ahead. Some encouragement to tag on to our coattails was offered, to which he momentarily tried but quickly acknowledged it wasn’t going to last as our pace continued climbing. He – Peter – asked if it was my blog that he had read; I confirmed it would have been and he thanked me for the write-up that finally convinced him to give the race a shot.

Alex and I continued to power on, passing most ahead of us with authority. In the distance was a chap in an orange vest that had somehow slipped away from us at the halfway point – one of the very few to do so. We agreed to begin wrapping things up in the final 5k.

Miles 8, 9 and 10 came out at 6:25, 6:25 and 6:21.

Miles 11 and 12

The pair of us continually pushed each other on, regularly reminding the other not to hold back should the opportunity to progress appear. We’d come that far together and neither of us showed signs of slowing, so the alliance continued. The effort noticeably ratcheted upwards by a few notches and for the first time all race, I finally felt like I was working for it. I flipped my Garmin over to show the elapsed time and by my calculations, continuing at circa-6:20 pace for the remaining distance would net me an 84:30 PB or so, and that’s without a finishing sprint.

The little bridge reappeared to signal the “business end” of the race as Alex put it. Spectators began to pepper the course once more as we neared Bishopthorpe again, with Alex’s family out on the course to cheer him on.

Turning the corner for mile 12, we agreed to part ways and would catch-up again in the finish funnel. I steeled myself for the climb over the A64 York Bypass, presenting the steepest part of the course with 24ft of climb, knowing that I not only had to fight the novelty of gravity in such a flat race, but that I also had to keep the pressure applied all the way to the finish… Gah! The effort was ghastly and I began gritting my teeth and more vigorously swing my arms to carry me up over the A64.

Miles 11 and 12 came in at 6:20 and 6:18.

Mile 13 and a bit

In the distance was the racecourse, so I took a dose of my own advice that I’d shared with Shaun earlier that morning to wrap the race up and begin kicking. I sliced my way through the field ahead of me, letting nobody get between me and a redemption PB that grew larger and larger with each faster step. For the first time in a long time, my choo-choo train impression returned as I forcefully attempted to cycle as much air into my lungs as possible. Pair this with a feeling of nausea and I knew I was close to maxing out, if I wasn’t at that point already.

Bizarrely, I didn’t feel like I was pushing for that long because I soon unexpectedly saw runners turning left for the finish area. I crossed the 800m to go sign. “Come on, Andy! Less than 3 minutes to go!” I said to myself, interspersing that with, “Don’t be a pussy! Don’t be a pussy! Don’t be a pussy!”

I crossed the 600m to go sign and began making my way back into York Racecourse, gaining on a few more runners in front of me.

The 400m to go sign appeared and I knew I just had to make it to the end of the path and turn right for the finish line.

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Yu gotta earn the gurn! Photo by Lis Yu

The 13 mile marker came into view as I rounded the corner, prompting me to take one final glance at my Garmin. Wow! A 5:57 mile?! Just 200m remained between the finish line and me; handily, I’d covered this stretch specifically as part of my strides earlier in the morning and knew full well how long it would feel. In the corner of my eye was Lis, capturing the above instant classic of a race photo…

I swung my arms in a bid to catch the closest runner ahead of me, but no dice – he too had some fight left in him and kicked all the way for the line just as I did. 20m. 10m. 5m. Done!

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

I swiftly navigated over to the banked grass verge on my right to hunch over and cough my guts up. Nothing came out, not even all the phlegm that had plagued me for days. I checked my Garmin out and it fed back that I’d finished in 84:12, which was later corrected via the mystery of chip timing for 84:08. A 46 second PB off disturbed training and windier than ideal conditions was not to be sniffed at, though I was slightly disappointed to not have gone under 84 minutes. Had I pressed on earlier in the race, I’m certain I would have found those 9 seconds without much more difficulty, but then I would not have likely teamed up with Alex to make for such a memorable race, speaking of which…

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Alex, me and PBs for both of us at the 2018 Brass Monkey Half Marathon – photo by Lis Yu

He crossed the finish line some 30 seconds after me for 84:39, taking over a minute off his PB. He was over the moon as he was only expecting something around 86 minutes for the morning. Both of us are already discussing a future team-up at the 2019 race to see whether 82 or even 81 minutes is possible!

Peter the blog reader came back in not long after, also netting a sizable PB and thanked me for the write-ups – he too wants to return for a crack at going under 85 minutes.

I caught up with Shaun, Carl and Carl’s friend, Vince. Shaun did incredibly well, leap-frogging sub-80 minutes to go under 79 minutes and also finish one place ahead of the female winner. Carl was obviously under the weather and wisely dialled his effort back to still finish in 80:36.

So, how about some stats? Both Garmin Connect and Strava tell me the following:

  • Fastest 10 miles ever – 63:42
  • Fastest mile ever – 5:46
  • Final 5k – 19:16

Fastest 10 miles ever. That’s pretty insane that a) I ran 35 seconds faster than my 10 mile PB of 64:17 from the 2015 Sneyd Christmas Pudding Run, b) I ran 3 minutes faster than the Gloucester New Year’s Eve 10 Mile from a fortnight ago, and C) that it happened within a half marathon!

Fastest mile ever. Also bonkers that I recorded my fastest mile ever since I originally began recording my runs. At the end of a half marathon, no less, and not within something like a 5k as one would expect.

A final 5k of 19:16. Probably the most eye-opening of the bunch because this was my third fastest 5k since November!

Over 24 hours later and by process of typing up my tale of the race, I remain incredibly pleased with the result and acknowledge that it’s one of the best outcomes I could have realistically hoped for. The race has reignited that spark within me to go and attack all of my aging PBs again. The fact that I was able to pull off a 46 second improvement with less than stellar training and less than perfect health, and to be so close to a 10k PB back in November’s Conductive Education 10k, strongly supports that I’m in better shape than I’ve lead myself to believe. I’d lost touch with racing, especially the half marathon where it was two years prior that I last made a dent into the 13.1 mile distance – here I am only two weeks into 2018 and I’ve already equalled 2017’s PB count!

I’ve always said my best races are the ones that leave me satisfied, but also hungry for more with unfinished business; a poor performance can lead to despondency, whereas a huge breakout performance can lead to laziness and apathy because little can be done for further improvement. Let’s see what I can pull off in March’s Newport Half Marathon…

See you again in 2019, York!

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This week’s running – 1st to 7th January 2018

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Happy New Year at Stratford-upon-Avon parkrun – photo by Stratford-upon Avon parkrun

Let’s kick off 2018 with a few tales of newly visited parkrun events – my 24th and 25th (and also making for three new events in three days).

Stratford-upon-Avon New Year’s Day parkrun

For those not familiar, running two parkruns on New Year’s Day is very much a thing. That’s right – the opportunity to run at two different events and score two additional runs towards your total! I’m not sure of the origins, but I suspect it was borne of events being able to choose a start time of their own liking, creating the possibility for runners to visit more than one in a single morning. New Year’s Day is capped at two runs, though it is possible in some parts of the UK to visit three events, whereas Christmas Day is capped at just one run.

Sometime in December before any of my nearest events had committed to New Year’s Day, my closest two-run combo was Stratford-upon-Avon parkrun at 09:00, followed by Leamington parkrun at 10:30. Despite Brueton and Cannon Hill events subsequently also being possible at 09:00 and 10:30, my mind was already set on some tourism, so the decision was made!

Getting up earlier than otherwise necessary on New Year’s Day was not fun, especially as I was still carrying the previous day’s 10 mile race in my legs; at least the early rise prepared me for getting back into a routine for work! Driving to the Stratford-upon-Avon Recreation Ground was an absolute doddle, made even easier by the incredibly quiet roads. I parked up, paid my £1 and began my warm-up, bumping into Arrow Valley parkrun regular, Dean Clapham; the Arrow Valley organisers were there on tour for the morning, taking many of their loyal congregation with them. Taking place over three laps, I couldn’t think of a flatter course, though sending us over short stretches of grass and with narrow paths at times, I struggled to comprehend where its fast reputation comes from.

I may come across as a weirdo for saying this, but I do particularly enjoy hearing the pre-run briefing at events where I’m a visitor. There’s something about the familiar meeting the unfamiliar that piques my curiosity. It was incredibly welcoming – the norm, I’m not sure, or with added razzmatazz to cheer in the New Year?

Sent on our way, it was incredibly congested as everybody found his or her place in the field. Even if I wanted to go faster, my race-fatigued legs slammed on the brakes and I found myself restricted to a pace just outside of a 20 minute 5k.

The adjacent River Avon had recently flooded due to melting snow from nearby Rugby flowing downstream, causing a bit of a mucky mess in the middle third of each lap.

Reaching the final km, I realised a sub-20 finish was back on the agenda if I could muster some finishing strength. My legs had finally warmed up and gave me access to some pace and stride length. Only problem? The masses of lapped runners I had to cut through… Most were obliging enough and kept to the side of the course as instructed during the briefing, but that still left a large number wearing headphones that were completely oblivious to their surroundings; I witnessed one marshal give up after four or five requests of one chap in headphones ahead of me!

I latched on to a few runners in front that began their kick for the line. We were right on target to sneak under 20 minutes by a second or two, but then came the quagmire of the finishing straight on grass! For 50m or so, I tried and failed to gain power and traction – I felt like a Looney Tunes cartoon character running on the spot! Disappointingly, the slippery stretch meant I missed out by just 4 seconds for 20:03.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Onwards to Leamington parkrun for 10:30!

Leamington New Year’s Day parkrun

Logistics companies speak of the “final mile” of any delivery being the most complex. Postcodes don’t lead to where they should, buildings have names instead of numbers, and you get the idea. Driving to Leamington parkrun was no different and my satnav sent me down several incorrect routes before I’d finally reached my destination. Parking up just outside of the venue, I met a friendly local-regular and jogged the few hundred metres to the meeting point with him. Craig belonged to Sphinx AC of Coventry and this was his only parkrun of the morning, blaming New Year’s Eve festivities on the lack of a double run. He kindly talked me through the course and terrain, which was fearsome for its steep opening mile and faster closing 2 mile descent, all taking place off-road. Thankfully, I’d done enough research and packed a pair of trail shoes to switch into!

A year ago and recently, I got into discussions about parkrun and inclusivity. The gist of the conversations went along the lines of parkrun talking a good game in terms of inclusivity, but how much had been practically done to challenge the white, middle-class, middle-age male stereotype of running? Well, I was positively taken aback at Leamington parkrun to be greeted by a trans-run director with an assistant performing sign language!

Due to a fallen tree and a field that could take no more trampling, an alternative route was utilised and we were walked over to a revised start area that required passing through gaps in a hedge in single file. This exercise alone took a considerable amount of time, delaying the start well past its 10:30 original. I snaked my way to get closer to the front few rows, finally standing next to a regular who shared that the course record was in the low 16:00s – remarkable on such terrain. On the starter’s orders, we were off.

Leamington parkrun takes runners around the outer perimeter of the local golf course, and this alternative route was no different, but would make up for the distance shortfall with a minor switchback in the final km. Expectedly, my legs were well and truly trashed from events prior, with more punishment laid upon them from the uneven and muddy course. As promised, the climb in the first mile hit, and it was the worst kind of climb where it’s steepest at the beginning before tapering off.

Once things flattened out, we were then introduced to the fallen tree and warned to duck our heads. Being vertically challenged, I merely ran straight on!

The course began descending and a few brave runners hurtled down past me; I sat tight and coasted downhill for some recovery until a marshal sent me towards the most southern point on the course for the switcback.

I started to see runners in the opposite direction and reasoned the turnaround point couldn’t have much further away. Drawing ever closer again to the initial climb, I started to fear that I’d missed something in the briefing! Thankfully, only perhaps 50m from the base of the hill, we were sent back on ourselves for the finish. I received a quick cheer from Craig, who wasn’t far behind me at all, and for the second time that morning I attempted to lay on a sprint on mud…

I finished in 21:54 and even if fresh, I don’t think I could have taken much more than another 90 seconds off such a time – that’s how brutal the course is!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Both of us completely caked in mud, Craig and I jogged the distance back to our cars and wished each other well in our pursuits for 2018.

9 miles from work – with detour

Unusually, my legs felt pretty decent even with all that I had put them through, so I continued with my plan of 9 miles from the office in a bid to get back into some sort of routine. With tapering for races that didn’t happen and the Christmas break, I’d gone almost three weeks with having to make things up as I went along rather than follow my P&L plan.

This run from work also provided an opportunity to scope out a detour I had planned. Anybody that’s ever run along the canal towpath via the St James Road tunnel will know how busy it can be at peak times or when simply badly timed. There’re plans to widen the footpath through the tunnel, but the works will take some three months – with pleasure comes some pain, right? I wanted to test out my detour that would take me through Brindley Place on to Broad Street, beneath Fiveways on to Calthorpe Road, before finally rejoining the canal towpath via The Vale. I did get momentarily lost in The Vale (it all looks the same in the dark!), but managed to get back on track without much fuss.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

9 miles from work with fartlek

Having recovered enough from the parkruns at the beginning of the week, I settled on covering the distance for home with some stretches of fartlek thrown in to encourage my legs to turn over faster. The strong winds of late provided a double-whammy of discomfort in the form of increased effort levels and the added wind chill to rob precious body heat.

The novelty of fartlek was most welcome and allowed me to pick and choose my battles with speed wisely. The second half even felt enjoyable once I’d fully warmed up!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Cannon Hill parkrun

Due to frost covering various parts of the course, the alternative three lap configuration was rolled out. I’d only ever marshalled the course on the previous two occasions it’d been utilised, so I was curious to experience it for myself, especially with over 700 runners in attendance from the annual New Year’s resolution boost…

I’ve always preferred the clockwise loop of the Cannon Hill Park, citing that I personally feel like I receive a bigger boost/slow down less with the shallower climb towards the bandstand to follow it up with a steeper descent, rather than the other way around as it currently is in a normal week. The first two laps had me feeling like I’d been propelled, partly from the physical course difference, but also from the psychological difference. In spite of running largely on my own, the pace felt steady and akin to a half marathon effort, which boded well ahead of the upcoming Brass Monkey Half Marathon. And then the third lap hit…

Passing the bandstand for the final time, I found myself in and amongst the peak second lap runners, with many ignoring marshals’ requests to keep right on the course to allow overtaking runners to pass, with those wearing headphones being the worst offenders. I weaved my way through the masses, surging and slowing to time my movements as precisely as possible as and when gaps appeared. It was mentally exhausting for me and I imagine must have been hair raising for those I overtook. The worst pinch point appeared next to the Mac, where a large puddle and a family of three covering the entirety of the remaining width of the path meant I had nowhere to go. I expected to slow down, but Dave Carruthers, mere seconds in front of me in a stroke of quick thinking, took evasive manoeuvres to run up and along the banked brickwork of the Mac building! I followed his line and increased my speed to maintain momentum to navigate the obstacle course of a run without issue.

I finished in 19:47, which was actually 2 seconds faster than my own recorded time of 19:49 – it’s normally the other way around.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Lis volunteered on Saturday, which gets my kudos. I spent much of January and February last year marshalling, so I know how difficult the winter can be as you’re out on the course for potentially a long time in the cold, especially as the average and maximum finishing times have increased over the years; keeping marshals out on the course for just the minimum amount of time, and no longer, should be the precedent. Sadly, an unusual series of events lead to a failure that could have easily been prevented. The penultimate person(s) on the run gave up at some point in the second or third lap, exiting the course. This is normally fine because the tail walker would simply then move up to the next person on the course, except on this occasion, the tail walker went straight back to the finish instead; many of the remaining marshals were still out on the course waiting for the tail walker that would never come by. Some 15 minutes later, it was only passing runners that had already finished that finally alerted the marshals that the run was over!

12 miles with strides

In the winter, like many folks that work in offices, I do not get enough exposure to sunlight. I go to work in the dark, stay inside for the entirety of the working day, then go home in the dark. The weekend really is my only opportunity to get some vitamin D into my system, so imagine my delight when Sunday morning presented me with enough sunlight to temporarily blind me when running into its rays! If only the wind would piss off…

I kept the strides going, not wanting to lose the momentum and neurological connection ahead of race day. One strange observation I made was the huge pile of feathers next to The Dingle towpath exit at Selly Oak – it looked like a goose had been savaged, but there was no body or blood!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

2017 – Year in review

2017

It’s that time of the year again where I look backwards to be able to go forwards. Let’s review what went down in 2017.

2017’s targets and PBs

Ho-hum… I did originally set these targets whilst not realising the true extent of my Achilles injury from the end of 2016, so some of them are quite laughable!

  • 5k: sub-18:00: FAIL!
  • 10k: sub-38:00: FAIL!
  • 10 mile: sub-64:00: FAIL!
  • Half marathon: sub-83:30: FAIL!
  • Marathon: sub-3:00: FAIL!

The closest any of the above came to succeeding was, of course, the marathon goal. I opted to put all of my eggs into one basket, with the view that the other distances would receive undivided attention again afterwards.

Now let’s have a look at 2018’s goals:

  • 5k: sub-18:15
  • 10k: sub-38:15
  • 10 mile: sub:64:00
  • Half marathon: sub-83:30

I’ve purposely softened the 5k and 10k goals, now firm in the knowledge that it will take a lot of work to get back to my 5k best and to run 30 seconds faster than my 10k best.

The 10 mile and half marathon goals remain the same as 2017’s. I would like to put some serious graft into the 13.1 mile distance again, so I’m hoping I can hit the goal by the time the Spring is over.

A softer goal is becoming a member of the 250 parkrun club, of which there are just over 2,100 members in the entire world! I should get there by the end of February.

Mileage matters

My Achilles injury basically wrote off January, February and most of March; even so, I was still able to almost draw even with 2015’s total of 1,612 for 1,594. By my estimations, I reckon I would have broken 2,000 miles if fit and healthy.

Pleasingly, thanks to the marathon training, I broke 60 miles in a single week for the first time and also covered 210 miles in one month – both taking place in July.

Highs of 2017

Once again, the top of this list could only be the mighty Yorkshire Marathon! Sure, I missed my sub-3 goal by just 35 seconds, but the experience from the race will remain with me forever as one of my proudest achievements and happiest memories. For the full write-up, please click here.

2017 was also the year I found joy in simply running for the fun of it. Any of you that have been benched by injury for a prolonged period of time will know what I’m talking about here when you first return to running! I came to acknowledge that solely chasing after times couldn’t go on forever and I’m now firmly in the territory where year-on-year improvement is no longer guaranteed. All I can do is keep training to the best of my available resources and ability, and hope that everything comes good on race days. This newfound serenity handily coincided with developing a taste for parkrun tourism for variety and visiting 9 new courses over the year; compare that with 13 over the course of 2011 through to 2016!

I tried my hand at coaching in 2017, getting Dave Burton across the start and finish lines of his debut marathon. Taking responsibility for somebody else’s training is not to be taken lightly, so I was incredibly pleased when Dave pulled it off with minimal trauma and having looked like he enjoyed the experience.

Lows of 2017

Thankfully, there are few I can think of!

Nursing an injury was obviously something I could have done without, where it looks to have cost me in top-end speed but not endurance.

Falling over on a run for the first time was embarrassing, but will also hopefully be the final time!

Make 2018 a good one!

This week’s running – 25th to 31st December 2017

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Our first ever Cannon Hill Christmas Day parkrun

So, who got a visit from the jolly fat man, and who became a jolly fat man from overindulgence? Put me down for one of each!

Cannon Hill Christmas Day parkrun

This was my fourth year of visiting a parkrun on Christmas Day, and my first at Cannon Hill in all the years I’ve called the venue my home event (there was one way back in 2010). There was a great vibe in the air, expectedly, with many familiar faces making appearances. Simon, Nigel and Dave joined me, with Lis opting to volunteer to help the event get underway.

With Christmas Day falling on a Monday, that meant the pace was firmly to be easy and of recovery in nature. Dave shot off like a rocket, whereas Simon and Nigel held back with me; topics of discussion included Nigel’s and my love of brining turkeys, and Nigel possibly being in the doghouse for nipping off to parkrun (he was actually OK)!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

10 miles with 2 at half marathon pace

Lis and I alternate which of our respective families we spend Christmas Day with. In 2017, we had my parents with us, so we spent Boxing Day and a few additional days with Lis’ folks.

I had intended to visit the University of Birmingham one final time for 2017 before heading to Wales, but it never happened, so I made do with a 10 mile out and back route to Usk with some pace work thrown in.

The route’s largely flat, with a couple of steep climbs thrown in here and there for good measure. Needless to say, I opted to cover half marathon pace on the flat and out of the way of the strong gusts of wind that blew!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Illness strikes again!

Ever since 2012 when I began running with some serious intent behind the training, I’ve picked up a cold or the flu leading up to, or during, the Christmas break. It’s really as simple as it appears; I have more time on my hands, so I do a bit more training than usual to also suppress my immune system; couple that with socialising with all and sundry and I pick up all manner of bugs.

At the time of writing this post up, I look to have sidestepped any colds and flus that have done the rounds this season (touch wood). But! I did unfortunately pick up a bout of food poisoning (dodgy peanut butter) to have my stomach doing cartwheels and leave me being unable to efficiently take on much nutrition from food.

Rogiet parkrun

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Me and Ben at Rogiet parkrun – photo by Lis Yu

For those wondering, it’s pronounced Rog-it and not Ro-jiet as I originally thought!

Rogiet parkrun emerged from the ashes of the former Caldicot parkrun, which you may recall me missing out on numerous times due to cancellations aplenty over the summer. With the Gloucester New Year’s Eve 10 Mile race the following day, I wanted to finally get myself over to this event but absolutely had to hold back and take it easy. Lis and I invited our friend Ben to come and join us, taking in his third different venue since his parkrun debut in October, whereas this became my 23rd.

The Rogiet event couldn’t be any more different from its original Caldicot format! Caldicot formerly took place on a largely flat and straight service road, but unfortunately had to be cancelled due to safety concerns from cars finding their way on to the course. The new event takes place inside Rogiet Countryside Park and is entirely off-road for a much slower paced run.

As promised, Ben and I kept the pace easy and conversational. By holding back early on, we were able to move our way through the field with relative ease as others ahead of us tired and dropped back. The course was a pretty confusing affair, with a couple of switchbacks, a crossroad, and all over multiple laps! Also, the mudbath that was promised delivered; if I were a regular at the event, I could be convinced to buy a cheap pair of cross-country spikes to gain some much needed traction!

In spite of my finishing time of 27:55, I still ended up finishing in 23rd, and Ben achieved his highest finishing position to date with a time of 27:54. Taking first place in 20:35 was a celebrity – CJ from Eggheads. If I’d not had the race the following day, I reckon I could have given him a run for his money for a decent battle out there.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Gloucester New Year’s Eve 10 Mile 2017 review

For the full write-up, please click here.

Gloucester New Year’s Eve 10 Mile 2017 review

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Peak tan line exposure! Photo by Lis Yu

How would poor race preparation, Christmas, strong winds, and food poisoning affect this race? Read on to find out…

Pre-race

Peaking for a race is actually much harder than it sounds, requiring an ability to know when to push, when to back off, and when to hold steady; if in doubt, it’s almost always better to be under-cooked than over-cooked when reaching a start line.

Back on the 10th of December, I was ready to tackle the Sneyd Christmas Pudding 10 Mile, but snow put paid to that and many other races in the wider region. Hanging on to that hard-found fitness was a trial, especially as the snow became ice and subsequently wrote-off much of the following week’s opportunities to train.

I needed a 10 mile race at effort, both as a sighter for the upcoming Brass Monkey Half Marathon and also for its potent training effect. Speaking with Darryll Thomas, we identified the Gloucester New Year’s Eve 10 Mile as a potential replacement race; closer to the Brass Monkey than ideal, but I figured the training would fully soak in over the course of the fortnight in between.

Having already finished work for 2017, I found an abundance of time to stretch myself in training and to adequately recover. I felt fit once more and maybe, just maybe, I’d done enough to offset any damage? Of course not! Christmas landed and even though I don’t drink, the calorie-fest of the festive period took its toll. I felt fat and some of my running kit felt slightly more snug than usual as further confirmation. I even picked up some food poisoning, making it difficult to absorb nutrients from anything I ate – at least I had plenty of calories stored in my new muffin top!

With such a challenged build-up, it was only the thought of the training effect that got me up on race morning to drive the 60 miles for the event. Lis came with me and we soon met up with Darryll Thomas, who was similarly not in the mood due to having already peaked a few weeks prior – only the need to complete his full set of distance PBs for the year kept his enthusiasm simmering.

A shorter than preferable warm-up jog from the race HQ to the start line was more of a token gesture than anything to get either of us into gear. We even ran out of time to get a set of strides in due to one final toilet visit. Nothing went to plan at all!

On the starter’s orders, off we went into the Gloucester countryside…

The race

A fast performance that morning would be hard to come by with ferocious winds howling in the background. Nonetheless, runners were deterred not and everybody charged off at their target paces, including Darryll and me. The effort got the better of me after a mile at 6:24, convincing me to back off to sub-marathon pace.

As Darryll pulled away into the distance, I settled in with a couple of guys that I would spend much of the remainder of the race with. It was fascinating to see such a regionally diverse crowd in the race, with club runners from all four corners surrounding Gloucester in good representation; I saw plenty of BRAT from Birmingham, Les Croupier and San Domenico from Cardiff, and so on.

Miles 2 to 4 came in at 6:31, 6:48 and 6:57, with some rot setting in due to the strength of the wind, the undulations and the big climb up to halfway. Wearing the Nike Vaporfly 4% seemed to make little difference, and in hindsight I should have wore the Nike Zoom Streak 6 instead for some nimbleness underfoot.

As the race progressed, the mile markers grew more and more out of sync with my Garmin. I wasn’t alone on this, as other people’s Garmins also fired off late on each occasion.

Marshals and water stations were plentiful on the course, with the latter appearing on four occasions, thanks to the two lap configuration. It was even bottled water, too, which is a rarity for smaller events of such a nature.

Reaching halfway, it was time to take on a gel. I was incredibly anxious, as my stomach had been unsettled by food poisoning and I didn’t want a guest appearance from the gingerbread man (Marathon Talk gag). I cautiously sipped and nursed it for the remainder of mile 5, which was easier said than done as I was largely charging downhill… Mile 5 was back on form for 6:37.

Somewhere beyond halfway, I was caught by Huw Jones from BRAT. I knew Huw would be running that morning and I’d anticipated staying with him, due to our similar current levels of ability, but I started too fast and he started off by holding back. It turned out he was covering the race at marathon pace, but still provided a solid target for me to chase in the second half to stop me from slacking off. Huw opened up the distance between us before I was able to keep the gap stable at some 20m; shortly thereafter, Matt Gresty, another familiar BRAT member that I was hoping to see that morning, joined me briefly. Both Huw and Matt’s more conservative starts meant they had the power in reserve to drive on, whereas I struggled to reel either of them in. Note to self: don’t burn the first mile like it’s a 5k!

I remained steady, as much as could be done on the windy course; much of the second half splits resembled the first pass, or turned out to be marginally faster. Miles 6 to 8 came in at 6:53, 6:52 and 6:29.

Heading into the penultimate mile, I teamed up with a Forest of Dean runner I’d run much of the race with to chase down Huw Jones. Everybody’s pace lifted a touch and it took the rest of the mile before we finally caught and overtook Huw (mile 9 came in at 6:38).

With just a mile remaining, I wanted to see if I could catch Matt Gresty, who had also kicked on. I gasped for air like a fish out of water, hoping that one of the right turns would eventually be the finish line. More and more spectators lined the course, including Lis, so I knew the end was nigh. Remember the out of sync mile markers from before? They came back for vengeance with all of that cumulatively missing distance being corrected in that final mile, making an already long-feeling split feel even longer! I kicked for the line, even registering 4:08 pace at one stage!

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

I registered 66:42 to be over 2 minutes slower than the last time I ran 10 miles in 2015 on the Sneyd course. Thankfully, I’d made peace with the pace way back in mile 2, so I appreciated the sub-marathon pace work. Darryll had finished minutes earlier but missed his PB by just 17 seconds, falling prey to the distance correction of the final mile. Reviewing the list of results, there were very few PBs attained, which is hardly surprising given the conditions and timing of the race.

Does this race stand up to the repeat entry test? Tough question… Whereas it was cheap enough to enter the race, it did require a 60 mile drive to get to the venue. The route felt preferable to that of Sneyd, with far fewer cars to contend with and more marshals and facilities on course.

There was one additional positive that made the race worthwhile, because afterwards Lis and I ended up at the nearby Gloucester Quays outlet shopping centre, which happened to feature a Nike factory store. Remember a few weeks ago when I bemoaned Nike for having made too many changes to my beloved Pegasus line of shoes? Well, it just so happened that the factory store had ample supply of the Pegasus 32 at reduced prices! Needless to say I stocked up and without a marathon to tackle in 2018, they should last even longer!

This week’s running – 18th to 24th December 2017

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Merry Christmas, you filthy animals!

Merry Christmas, folks! Hope you’re having a good one wherever and whatever you’re doing!

5k recovery

Having completed the fastest 15 mile run of recent times, I knew to take it easy on this 5k recovery run. Also having broken up for Christmas several days prior, both my body and mind felt fresh and I probably could have handled a faster pace if needed.

I sought to get at least a week of over-reaching in, so I respected the easy-hard notion that had to be observed.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

6 x 1km at half marathon pace

What a palaver this day turned out to be!

Normally, I would’ve phoned ahead to check if the Fox Hollies track was in use. Normally, it’s always been available when I’ve wanted to use it, so I didn’t bother to check on this occasion. You can already guess what happened next…

Cutting a long story short, I left the leisure centre disappointed and considered jogging the 5k back for home. I didn’t want to squander the day and further lose out on intensity, so I stuck my thinking cap on and reviewed my options. The nearest track was at the University of Birmingham, though I was under the impression it wasn’t officially open to the public, though a few peers had managed to sneak in via some side entrances. Concluding I had nothing further to lose, I hopped in an Uber and asked to be dropped off in the track’s vicinity. Trying not to look suspicious as I walked into the shrubbery and sidestepped some temporary fencing designed to keep people out, I felt like an explorer that had uncovered a lost city! There were some gardeners tending to the surrounding greenery to keep me company, and not one of them seemed perturbed of my presence, so the session was finally good to go!

Setting foot on the 400m synthetic track, it was immediately obvious how responsive it was from the energy returned with each step, making for an incredibly pleasnt experience.

And the session itself? It felt utterly satisfying to cover each 1km rep. My form was tall and smooth, and my glutes were once again on side to help me glide effortlessly as the intervals counted down. Half marathon pace was a breeze to hit!

Here and here is the Strava data for this session. I’d accidentally triggered a new lap on my Garmin with my butterfingers, so I had to break the session into two.

6 mile recovery

After several weeks of firmly needing long-sleeves, gloves and tights, it made for a pleasant change to be out running in a t-shirt and a pair of shorts! For insurance, I wore a pair of gloves but they came off after just a mile from how warm the conditions were!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

3 x 1 mile at half marathon pace

Sharing my tale of potential trespass with Dave, he also wanted in and thus marked my second visit to the University of Birmingham’s utterly brilliant 400m track. I continued to feel fresh in spite of the higher than normal run volume and intensity – such is the power of ample recovery and sleep.

3 x 1 mile was quite enough for the two of us, making for an especially potent session for Dave – my target half marathon pace is nearer to his 5k pace!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Cannon Hill parkrun

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This was actually pretty comfortable! Photo by Pete Hickman

This day marked six years of parkrunning, comprising of 239 runs and 29 stints at volunteering. Who’d have thought that very first Christmas Eve parkrun of 2011 would stick quite like it has?

I could feel the week’s amped up training in my legs with the freshness of several days prior distinctly missing. My warm-up confirmed as much, with each step and breath feeling a little more laboured than I would have liked.

Starting more conservatively, I was able to tuck into several groups and work my way through the field. I surprised myself by being able to surge ahead whenever I felt groups slowed, once again agreeing with a theory of mine and Dave’s where listless warm-ups correlate against strong main performances, and vice-versa.

I was pleased as punch to sneak under 19 minutes for 18:58 – this year’s second fastest 5k after an 18:56 back from back in July. Also boding well ahead of the Brass Monkey Half Marathon was a new VO2max reading of 67, though this quickly dropped back down to 65 only 24 hours later…

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

15 miles – beyond The Vale and back

There’s a first time for everything. I’m typically a solitary runner that prefers running alone out of convenience, though I fully acknowledge running with others taking the edge off almost any effort.

Shortly after joining the canal towpath, I bumped into Dave and we were then also shortly joined by Paul Shackleton. After Dave left me and Paul, he was then soon replaced by bumping into Toby Close! A few miles later and I was left alone again as I wanted to get some more distance in.

The solo return leg was a real slog whilst running into 16mph headwinds, also not helped by me wanting to stick to sub-8 minute mile pace. Finishing on plan was pretty damn joyous, especially after climbing Fordhouse Lane back to Kings Heath!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

This week’s running – 11th to 17th December 2017

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A post-Sandwell Valley parkrun McDonald’s breakfast is now becoming a tradition…

It’s snow joke when training is disrupted! I’ll grab my coat…

5k recovery

The title’s a bit disingenuous because it suggests I had something to recover from! Snow hitting the Midlands hard meant I’d barely even stretched out my legs the previous day.

At least the snow was still pretty fresh, making for a rather enjoyable crunch with each step!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

10k from work

Temperatures plummeted once more, glazing the snow over into hazardous ice. As I ran through Brindley Place, an older gentleman stopped in disbelief to ask, “You’re running on this?” I questioned myself, too, as I had to carefully choose where to plant each foot.

Whereas I’d planned to cover the 9 miles from the office for home, I was mentally and physically exhausted by about 5 miles and opted to call it quits at Selly Oak for just 10k. Having to be alert 100% of the time took its toll, and my left bum cheek and Achilles throbbed from the unusual gait I’d adopted. Thankfully, there was a no.11 bus waiting at the stop, which bizarrely had no passengers on-board apart from me and didn’t stop once for the entire journey back to Kings Heath! I felt a bit like Harry Potter on the Knight Bus; all that was missing was a shrunken head, sounding like Lenny Henry…

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Sandwell Valley parkrun-ish

Saturday was rather unusual because virtually all parkruns in the West and East Midlands were called off due to lingering ice. One of the few exceptions was Sandwell Valley, where two brilliant volunteers went above and beyond the call of duty, taking it upon themselves to hack up majority of the ice on the course! Car fully loaded with Simon, Nigel, Dave and me, we added to the rabble made up of many familiar parkrun-deprived faces from the region.

An alternative course was utilised, avoiding the worst of the ice that remained and instead sent runners around the lake for two laps.

Wearing trail shoes on this occasion, I had a bit more grip underfoot to help me nail a sub-20 finish; it should have happened back in November, if not for the long course. Unfortunately, I couldn’t sustain the effort, due to a lack of volume and intensity for almost two weeks from tapering and snow. It’s quite remarkable how quickly sharpness can be lost! Rubbing salt into wounds, I also found myself largely running alone to increase the pace versus effort discrepancy.

Frequently checking my Garmin, I could see something didn’t add up as I was partway through the second lap of the lake. Time and distance were way out if we were only to cover two laps, so perhaps the finish had been moved back to its default location? As I neared the turning point to either run another lap or head for the finish, I noticed a runner ahead of me doubling back on to the course after attempting a third lap.

With a little over a km remaining, I was well and truly blown and I wondered how I could possibly hang on at such an effort? It seemed my prayer had been answered, for on the horizon was the finish line, much earlier than anticipated!

I crossed the line, clocking 16:10 and 4km precisely. Many others around me also acknowledged the course was dramatically short and concluded we should have been sent around the lake for a third lap…

Dave and I both reasoned that a simple calculation to add 25% to each finisher’s recorded time would do the trick, but the organisers decided against this, which I’ve since come to agree with. Whereas it wouldn’t make much different to the vast majority of runners, anybody that likes to thrash the first half of 5km would have received a big boost if 25% was added to their time, not reflecting any fade they would perhaps see in the second half. Me, I’m just glad the run has been added to my total, getting me that bit closer to that 250 club.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

15 miles – to Brindley Place and back

The ice had largely receded by Sunday in all but the most secluded of patches. With an A-race half marathon due in mid-January, I needed some distance in my legs to avoid potentially embarrassing myself! I felt like I’d gone back in time by almost a month, losing much of the recent gains I’d worked hard to attain.

In spite of running what felt like a pretty intense 4km only 24 hours prior, my slumbering legs had somehow been awoken. They felt fresh and snappy, and I was pleased to see my glutes also firing correctly for that extra bit of oomph.

Shortly after Bournville train station on the canal towpath was a fallen tree that had likely come down due to carrying extra load from the snow. It was just slightly too high to vault over, so I opted to stop and cautiously climb over it and avoid catastrophe.

Much of the towpath was perfectly fine for running, but a few spots were almost entirely covered in treacherous sheet ice, making for pretty hairy conditions! There was perhaps just a foot’s width of clear path, which was largely fine as me and oncoming walkers stopped to give way for each other; this approach was all well and good until I encountered somebody with a massive golf umbrella, completely oblivious to those heading towards her…

Even with the stop-start nature of the route, I was surprised to see how much pep I had to my pace from how fresh my legs were. Another 15 miler or two of a similar nature would go down an absolute treat ahead of the Brass Monkey Half Marathon!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.