This week’s running – 12th to 18th February 2018

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Can you guess the parkrun event?

A normal week of training felt like a novelty after several weeks racing.

5k recovery

My glutes and calves were trashed after the previous day’s Draycote Water 10k. I did question whether a complete day of rest would yield more benefit than 5k at an easy pace, but routine won out in the end. A colleague who’s just getting into running asked me if he should consider recovery runs; my answer to him was that he should stick to his 3-4 runs a week and to only consider recovery runs once he sees his times plateau.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

9 miles from work with 2 at half marathon pace

It’d been weeks since I last committed to some set distance at pace in training. Strong winds and sideways rain just hadn’t been conducive to more structured stuff, paving the way for my recent flings with fartlek.

Almost like something out of Groundhog Day, the first mile came in at 6:34 just like the last time. Nothing I did could coax any more speed from my legs to hit the 6:23 target. Continuing the Groundhog Day theme, the second mile then came in at 6:17 pace – exactly the same as previous sessions! Whilst it was disappointing to see no perceivable improvement, it was also positive to see there’d been nothing lost, either.

Interestingly, my Garmin 935 optically tracked my heart rate to be pretty damn near perfect, almost like I was wearing a chest strap. It tracks easy and steady runs with no issue, but tends to trip over itself when more vigorous effort is involved. The only thing that’s changed is a recent software update that claims to have addressed reliability – I guess Garmin wasn’t lying!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

5 mile run-commute

Boy, was this unpleasant running the entire way into 15mph headwind. At least I was only going at recovery pace, running as easy as I cared to.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

9 miles from work with strides

The strides continued to work their magic on my glutes, keeping them activated and increasing feelings of how tuned into my own body I was.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Walsall Arboretum parkrun

Hallelujah! A Saturday morning that wasn’t a complete washout! With better than typical conditions available, I took Dave with me to the swift Walsall Arboretum parkrun – home to my 18 month old 5k PB.

Warming up on the course, I’d forgotten how conducive to fast running Walsall Arboretum could be. The ground underfoot is well paved, grippy and consistent to allow for big efforts with confidence. The course is also pretty damn flat, making even pacing incredibly easy over its three laps. Distance accuracy is a little dubious, but a few GPS black spots more than answer that problem.

The run started off blisteringly fast as was to be expected – I registered 3:18 per km pace at a few points! I reined things in a little for fear of a serious blowout later, though wound up separated from the larger group ahead and stuck with several more transient runners. My body and legs were tired from several weeks with a race or race-effort parkrun, and the late Friday night certainly did not help.

I began lapping runners about halfway through the second lap, with a number of them lending me their support. 3km was my slowest of the morning at 4:01, though not too unusual with my fastest runs showing a similar ‘float’ middle split serving as minor recovery. Not the end of the world, considering I ran largely alone for near-2km.

Entering the third lap, I felt like throwing up! The effort inside me began boiling over as I released a few whimpers of pain… The run director made specific mention of runners keeping to the left to allow for overtaking on the right. Almost everybody I encountered obeyed this rule except one, who decided to park herself firmly on the right of the narrow path; not wanting to collide with her, I hollered, “Keep left! Keep left!” My cries fell on deaf ears as she swerved all over the course, forcing me to surge with an undertaking manoeuvre when the opportunity presented itself.

Close to blowing, my choo-choo train impression reared its head with perhaps 800m remaining. A few more friendly runners encouraged me on, clearly having heard my huffing and puffing from behind them.

Even with all that exertion, I was disappointed to find I only managed 18:56. Dave was beaming to have run his fastest 5k in 6 months, also waxing lyrical about how optimal the Walsall Arboretum course is for fast running. So impressed was he that we’ve agreed to return to the venue for an entire month some time in the spring, in the hope that one of the four or five attempts will click into place and produce the goods. It was a nice change of scenery and the event straddled that fine line between being a larger event whilst maintaining a small event community feel.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

15 miles – to the Vale and back

It’d been almost a month since I last covered 15 miles, and my legs felt it especially after the raced parkrun 24 hours prior.

With the St James Road tunnel closed to widen the towpath, I had to bulk up the distance with two laps of Kings Heath Park. Everybody and their dog were seemingly out at the same time on that Sunday morning, with some canine owners more courteous than others. I was glad to be out of there ASAP!

Heading up Fordhouse Lane for the return to Kings Heath, I noticed a fellow runner joining the hill from the opposite side to me. He had some speed to him as we climbed, always drifting into the corner of my eye; not wanting to be left behind and fully warmed up, I opted to inadvertently race him as we tackled the ascent on different sides of the road. He pulled away as the road banked left and I regained the advantage as it banked right. Even with a zebra road crossing, I managed to just pip him to the brow of the Fordhouse Lane climb. I may have won the battle, but he won the war as he crept away on the flat and I had no more gears to shift into. I had hoped to see him on the Strava Flyby, but no such luck…

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

 

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This week’s running – 29th January to 11th February 2018

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Tom Bosworth can frequently race-walk faster than I can run!

Sorry for the delay again, folks. Two weeks rolled into one!

5k recovery

I continued to feel supercharged from the weekend’s speedier than usual running, though I was conscious to play it easy and safe at no more than a typical jog.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

9 miles from work with fartlek

In spite of having climbed the steps several times from the canal near Fiveways to street level, it was still an incredibly jarring interruption that I don’t think I’ll ever get used to. At least the diversion will only be in place until sometime in March.

It was evident term had started again, for The Vale was bustling with students coming and going.

Returning to the canal towpath, the eerie quietness was noticeable from a lack of cyclists. Normally of an evening in the winter, I still spot perhaps 15 to 20 cyclists; there were perhaps just 5 cyclists, so the remainder had probably found other routes to temporarily bypass the canal entirely.

The fartlek bursts felt tremendous and took less of a toll on me compared to previous sessions. My heart rate settled back down far more quickly, so clearly the right adaptations had taken place!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

5 mile run-commute

I kept the strides going in a bid to keep my glutes activated.

I almost exclusively don’t listen to music whilst I run apart from during these recovery paced run-commutes. If I’m lucky, there’s frequently a new episode of Marathon Talk waiting for me as I depart the city centre for home. If I’m unlucky, I normally then fall back on some episodes of movie or technology podcasts (GEEK!). If I’m really unlucky and have no new podcasts, I’ll cue up a new album I’ve been listening to. I did indeed run out of podcasts, so out came The Greatest Showman soundtrack! It’s such an infectious assortment of tunes that I’ve been humming them on a near-daily basis since watching the movie in late December, including during the last couple of races I’ve participated in…

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

9 miles from work

With the Stoneleigh Park Reindeer Run due several days later, I kept the effort largely easy whilst peppering the distance with a few strides to keep things ticking over nicely.

Gradually, I’m finding I can delay switching my headtorch on more and more until it’s truly needed – a good thing on this occasion as I’d forgotten to charge it and it was running perilously low on juice…

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Cannon Hill parkrun

Almost every Saturday since the beginning of the year has been miserable, wet and cold and this particular one was no different. But at least the police were out in the park, which was a fat lot of use as I’m pretty sure all 600+ of us were perfectly safe that morning!

With a race scheduled the next day, I wanted to keep the effort incredibly easy whilst still racking up a further run to edge me ever closer to 250 runs. Simon, who had just returned from a whistle stop visit to Philadelphia in the States, was also in no mood to go fast, so we jogged around at an incredibly leisurely pace whilst catching up about his trip. I was green with envy, as I’ve always wanted to visit Philadelphia, the home of one of my fictional heroes: Rocky Balboa. Of course, Simon ran up the famed museum steps!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Stoneleigh Park Reindeer Run 20k 2017 (2018) review

For the full write-up, please click here.

King’s Lynn 5k

Work had me in the far-flung reaches of King’s Lynn on the East Coast, so naturally I packed some run attire with me. I really should have skipped this run due to how awful I felt, with what felt like the very early stages of a cold, but I didn’t want to back off as I needed one final faster paced run ahead of the Draycote Water 10k due a few days later.

Inevitably, I slept poorly in the hotel so I was up earlier than I would normally be for a regular workday. Laced up and ready to go, I was greeted by the chap on the reception that informed me that it had begun to lightly snow… Stepping outside, there was a definite sharp intake of breath as I immediately questioned what I was about to embark on. This was actually my second ever run in King’s Lynn, recalling that I’d completed a track session in the summer of 2014 at the local leisure centre. The conditions couldn’t have been more different!

The first thing that struck me was how flat King’s Lynn is. Hailing from Birmingham where I’m never more than a few hundred metres away from a hill of some description, it made for a refreshing change. I ran progressively and ended up completing laps of the local high street to get the distance beyond 5k. I chuckled to myself each time I passed the still in business Wimpy restaurant!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Achoo!

So, that cold that I suspected I’d been carrying flared up mid-week to leave me coughing, sneezing and generally feeling sorry for myself. Thankfully, the symptoms were quite mild and paled in comparison to the god awful cold that wiped my Telford 10k out in December 2016. Having been burnt once before, I took several full days off from running, which I’m sure my body was grateful for.

Cannon Hill parkrun

Within 48 hours, my cold had shifted as quickly as it landed; you’d never have known I was ill if you saw me on Saturday morning!

Keeping the trend of wet and miserable Saturdays going, I had a dilemma on my hands as I was that cold and really could have done with a faster paced run for the heat! Dave and I stayed resolute to the plan of an easy jog ahead of the Draycote Water 10k the next day, both commenting that it felt radically different to be in that part of the Cannon Hill parkrun field.

Tom Bosworth, race-walker extraordinaire, was the special guest that morning. Whereas neither Dave nor I saw Tom in action that morning, I did get a chance to have a brief chat with him. He has an eye wateringly fast array of race-walk PBs, some of which are faster than my own run PBs! My burning question for him? How fast could he run the 5k distance if he didn’t have to adhere to the race-walk rule of always requiring at least one foot to be on the ground? He shared his 5k run PB was in the low 16 minutes!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Draycote Water 10k February 2018 review

For the full write up, please click here.

Draycote Water 10k February 2018 review

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Windy when flat and undulating when not windy…

10k season is normally late spring through to the early summer for me, so how would I fare during one in February with no recent practice? Read on to find out…

Pre-race

In a bid to throw everything including the kitchen sink at the upcoming Newport Half Marathon, I entered the February edition of the Draycote Water 10k Series of races for some further pace and race preparation. Historically since 2015, I’ve always struggled to better January’s Brass Monkey Half Marathon until the autumn rolls around; I want to reverse that trend and expectation, especially as the Newport course is not nearly as flat, nor will it be nearly as well attended so some additional work will be required. Dave Burton also tagged along on this outing, citing that he hadn’t raced in a long while and also wanted to address that.

After the previous week’s win at the Stoneleigh Park Reindeer Run 20k, confidence was incredibly high whilst also factoring in the PB near-miss from back in November. Unfortunately, I managed to pick up a mild cold at the beginning of race week! Truth be told, I more than expected it as I’d been hitting both volume and intensity for a number of weeks without any cutback, so it was simply my body rebelling and crying for attention. Thankfully, the cold shifted as quickly as it arrived and I felt right as rain once more come race morning.

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Runners on the out leg of the switchback – photo by Lis Yu

Getting to the Draycote Water reservoir was pretty simple from South Birmingham; for Lis, our chauffer, it was pretty much her daily work commute! Arriving at the venue with 45 minutes to spare, we were met not by a queue to park but rather a queue to pay for parking! There were only so many ticket machines and with some 400 participants, it was what runners trying to remain calm did not want! Thankfully, we had Lis who kindly stood in the ticket queue for 15 minutes so that Dave and I could grab our bibs and visit the toilets before those queues grew as well, due to there simply being too few of everything on site. I really felt for runners that were on their own! It’s understandable why race organisers like using ready-made venues like leisure centres or similar to stage races, but they’re simply not suited to hundreds of runners and spectators arriving en-masse over the space of an hour. What would have been ideal would be several temporary portaloos to relieve the strain from the permanent toilets, and runners being exempt from parking charges or at least pre-paid parking via some sort of agreement between the race organisers and the venue management.

Dave and I thought we’d gotten away with murder on the out leg of our warm-up jog. Everything felt easy and relaxed, and then we turned around… BOOM! We faced the full fury of the strong winds (estimated to be 15mph) from the west! My outlook for the morning remained the same as before, even if the PB wasn’t going to come without a fight.

Toed up at the start line, I suddenly felt very self-conscious wearing even less than a week ago… There were just a select few brave enough to wear vests and shorts, though I did have to fall back and stick a pair of gloves on. Thankfully being huddled close with my peers, and without too much of a wait, we got running pretty swiftly on the sound of the hooter.

The race

One lap of the reservoir is almost exactly 5 miles, so we were sent north-east for a 2km out-and-back stretch. As anticipated with fresh legs from several days without running, the first km felt rather effortless and I found myself having to rein my pace in several times – 3:3X was not uncommon on a few occasions! The wind was also on the side of us runners, though its effects were hardly felt as is usually always the case with a tailwind. The first km came in for 3:48.

Rounding that bollard for the return – wowza! The wind that hit my face made achieving that Elvis impression that bit easier! Thankfully, a timely surge allowed me to take some minor shelter from the headwind via a small group of runners, including a rather tall bloke and the lead woman. Dave, Lis and I discussed the reservoir being the home of a local sailing club, so I can’t say I should’ve been surprised by the ferocity of the wind! Lis overheard a conversation, where a regular at the race series cited it’s rarely ever calm at the site. 2km clocked in at 3:50 to still be on it for PB pace.

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Into the wind! Photo by Lis Yu

Returning back to the visitor’s centre, we began our clockwise lap of the reservoir and were introduced to the first climb of the day. In isolation, it would be perfectly manageable, but facing strong winds at pace and it was a whole different story. The group I ran with suddenly fell apart and couldn’t maintain the momentum up the hill so I was left in no-man’s land to face the wind alone, destroying my pace to leave it at just 4:00 for the third km.

As I did before, I made a tactical decision to surge to a group ahead for some respite from the battering I received. Rolling undulations struck and I sensed the group was at its limit on that pace; every time we went up, I pulled away and I would hope they would catch up to me on the down. Before too long, they stopped pulling alongside me to leave me on my lonesome again. My pace was left in worse tatters than before for the slowest km split of the morning for 4:03. There was at least a friendly trio of women out running on the upper level to cheer me on, so the slowest split wasn’t entirely joyless!

Turning north and out of the strong gusts of wind, I breathed a sigh of relief and shared my delight with a fellow runner that I’d thankfully come into contact with. He’d pulled away from me early on from the start, but had settled into a reasonably stable pace and we likely had similar abilities, otherwise he’d have been part of the large group that was some 150m further ahead. Wearing a jacket around his waist, I wondered how much faster he could have been without the makeshift sail slowing him down. Having somebody to work with once more, I was back in business with 3:53 and reached halfway in 19:37. Some serious work lay ahead of me in the second half to reverse some of the damage… Easier said than done!

6km featured a not insignificant climb to further rob me of yet more time. Even with throwing myself down the descent on the other side, it wasn’t enough and my fragile pace continued slowing to 4:01 for the split. The sole water station for the race appeared during this secluded section, which I chose to pass by and take nothing on.

Out of nowhere, a runner in a charity vest stormed past me and the other guy in front of me. The sudden appearance of this mystery athlete with so much power to his stride shook both of us up and we began our pursuit in a bid to latch on for a brief tow. Brief it was, for it lasted just a few seconds before neither of us could hold on anymore! He continued to pull away into the distance and I reasoned he must’ve adopted an easy first half to be able to zip away in such a manner. 7km came in for 3:53.

As the morning drew on, the sleepy reservoir began waking up and I encountered more and more members of the public using the venue for their Sunday activities. There were, of course, cyclists, walkers and fellow runners not participating in the race. There were also bird photographers with ginormous cameras and lenses, and no sense of how to walk straight, causing the other runner and I to take evasive sidesteps to avoid catastrophe. My pace returned to 3:50 for my joint-second fastest split of the morning, and the final time I would be out of the wind…

Turning the corner for the final 2km, I squared off with my nemesis once more. I glanced at my Garmin for the elapsed time and reasoned the remainder of the race at 3:45 average pace would get me within striking distance of my 38:45 PB, and a kick at the end may nab me a few additional seconds. The wind had other ideas! Leaning into it and pumping my arms with authority, strong gusts nullified any semblance of finishing power I had in my arsenal. I only had the other runner ahead of me by some 5-10m to keep pulling me along for feedback that I wasn’t slowing. Disapprovingly, I couldn’t generate any more than 3:55 for the penultimate split.

Whilst I knew I would comfortably finish in under 40 minutes, that wasn’t enough for me especially as my 10k PB dated back to June 2016. I threw everything into finishing as strongly as possible, but the kick did not come. I felt like I was towing a rubber tyre behind me whilst also wearing shoes lined with lead – that’s how heavy I felt! The finish line was non-distinct and only the crowd milling around the area gave me any indication of its location on the horizon. The large group appeared to have just gone through, so I possibly had another minute or so remaining. The other guy, amazingly, still had his jacket tied around his waist but began slipping from the pace. Sensing that he probably had a little something left, a spectating woman confirmed as much and gave me indication that he was ramping back up for one final kick; I took her warning on board and threw down one final surge for the line. To give you an idea of how strong the wind was, you all know by now that I love to have a fast final split with a big kick at the end. The closing pace for the final km was just 3:59 through no lack of trying!

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

I gasped for air as I finished in front of Lis, hunched over with hands on my thighs and a strong feeling of nausea bubbling away. Thankfully everything was under control and recovery was reasonably swift, aided by a few choice curse words. I had 39:19 based on gun time, which I deemed to be pretty damn close to my own chip time given I was just one row away from the start line. We cheered Dave back in, who looked strong and pleased with his morning’s performance of 41:39.

Just before departing, I caught in the corner of my eye the runner in the charity vest that stormed away. I went over to congratulate him on a strong run, where he revealed he’s normally a high 37 minute runner, but he and several club mates had arrived late to start right from the back.

Goodie bag-wise, the spoils weren’t bad at all. A decent medal, a protein recovery shake, some water, chocolate, Haribo and the choice of a hat or some fleece ear warmers! A final nice touch from the organisers was the provision of on the spot printing of your race gun time, chip time, position and more. I’m aware of this at some triathlon events, but it was my first experience of such a facility at a running event. Normally if lucky, runners are directed towards a laptop to view the live results.

Debriefing with Dave and Lis over lunch, I shared my thoughts of the race. Whereas I was glad to have dipped my toe into the oft-heard of Draycote Water 10k series, I’m not sure I would likely return outside of the need for a 10k race for pace practice. When it was flat, the wind was ferocious and when the wind wasn’t blowing, the course undulated, and that seems to be the norm. The single lap of the reservoir course made the race feel arduously long and hid any sense of progress. Guess I’ll have to wait until May, June or July for better conditions and my next attempt at a 10k PB…

 

Stoneleigh Park Reindeer Run 20k 2017 (2018) review

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A Christmas themed run in February…?

Given the postponed nature of this race, I’ve no idea whether I should be titling it as “2017” or “2018”???

Pre-race

Remember that cancelled 2017 Sneyd 10 Mile Christmas Pudding Run? Well, the revised date was the 14th of January, which I obviously couldn’t attend due to the Brass Monkey Half Marathon. The organisers kindly provided yet another alternative event date by allowing runners to join the also postponed Stoneleigh Park Reindeer Run. Still with me? Good!

5k, 10k and 20k options were available, with the 10k or 20k looking most attractive to me and my future half marathon PB ambitions. If it’s not clear yet, the 10k and 20k options were simply 2x or 4x laps of the 5k route. I registered my interest and then radio silence struck; I’d long ago written off the entry fee for the Sneyd 10 mile race and lost no sleep over it. Out of the blue several days before this race, I received an email from the organisers checking if I was still interested. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to attend anymore as I felt like I needed a cutback period, especially with the Draycote Water 10k the following week. I eventually came round to the idea of the 20k again; covering it at marathon pace of 6:45 to 6:50 per mile would do little harm and would be a potent long run to be more valuable than a 15 mile plod on my own.

Registered, I did some sleuthing of the participants list and it dawned on me that finishing very highly and winning a prize was a potential outcome. I didn’t want to compromise my marathon pace run and push it harder than it needed to be, so if the opportunity of a prize presented itself to me in the closing stages, then I’d compete; otherwise, I was to sit in and not deviate from target marathon pace.

I’d visited Stoneleigh Park many times over the years for its convention centre credentials, but never for a race. It turned out to be a pretty decent venue, with plenty of free parking, loads of toilets for both genders, and a course that afforded spectators many opportunities to see runners. My pre-race research indicated the out-and-back stretch along the north-east of the course would throw most of the undulations for the day, whereas the showground itself would be pancake flat. Whilst it was bitterly cold that morning, the sun was at least out but the wind had to go and ruin the party. Up to 15mph gusts were expected on the incredibly exposed route, especially on the showground’s grid formation that would further funnel it. Unsure of what to wear, I packed for every eventuality! I almost went with a long-sleeve compression top with my signature yellow vest over it, that’s how cold it was! I decided to tough it out and instead opted for the vest with arm warmers, gloves and a neck gaiter – I’d soon warm-up from the effort, especially as the first km contained an uphill climb.

I’ve got to hand it to the organisers, who fully embraced and delivered on the promised Christmas theme from the original December date. There were festive inflatables, loud speakers blaring Christmas songs, and some people dressed as Christmas trees and Christmas puddings.

Due to a last minute loo visit, I was only able to catch the final few sentences of the race briefing, which, ironically, I would have benefitted from as one of the likely first finishers. Looking around my peers, there were perhaps three or four that looked like they could be troublesome. When the race director called everybody forward and for the faster folks to step right up to the line, my thoughts were confirmed as they toed the line next to me. On the starter’s orders, off we went…

The race

Lap 1

Humorously in hindsight, Dave Burton and I spent far too much time analysing the route. We thought we’d nailed it, only for the organisers to shuffle the start and finish points anyway to further confuse me!

The three guys I thought would put up a fight indeed stormed off, whereas I held back to marathon pace with one older chap just a few strides ahead of me. It wasn’t clear which race the other four guys were in, as I couldn’t see their bibs. The wind howled as we climbed to the highest point of the course before rounding the switchback to head back to the showground. I still didn’t get a good look at my competition’s bibs, so I continued in ignorance. It wasn’t long before one of the lead three guys – a Halesowen Triathlon club member – dropped back to also run with me. We worked out we were in the same race as each other, sharing some mutual encouragement for the rest of the morning before he began drifting backwards once more.

The older chap continued to be just a few strides in front of me, so I took shelter in his slipstream to conserve some energy for later. Returning to the centre of the course, I saw Lis for the first of many occasions. A few hundred metres further away was the water station, which handily gave out small bottles of water; whilst cups would have sufficed in the cold temperature, the gesture was most welcome.

I broke the silence and asked the older chap what distance he was covering. He revealed he was in the 10k race; I revealed my hand and shared with him that he was likely to finish on the podium for the 10k, no matter what, as the guy I’d already overtaken was in my race and the girl behind me would go on to finish first in the women’s 10k.

The volunteers that marshalled deserve a mention, as they were incredibly supportive. Some of them were made up of a group of young military cadets, who also manned the water station.

Nearing the end of the first lap, the multi-terrained course earned its stripes for we were sent through an incredibly muddy section. And there I was wearing my pristine white Nike Zoom Streak 6… Being only the fourth person to pass through that section, the mud, thankfully, hadn’t been churned much and I was able to tip-toe through the worst of it.

Lap 2

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One done, three more to go! Photo by Lis Yu

Lis was waiting at the busy interchange, where 5k runners finished by heading left and 10k or 20k runners turned right. For spectators, this was an incredibly good value race as runners were seen multiple times with little legwork required; including the start and finish, 5k runners could be spotted 3x times, 10k runners 5x times, and 20k runners 9x times!

I can appreciate how difficult it can be to clean up after a race, with water bottles and gel sachets strewn all over the place, so I always try and time my gels to coincide with water stations where possible, minimising the distance that volunteers have to wander to clear up my litter. Forgetting that the water station appeared shortly after the interchange, I went and ballsed up my first of two gels… I began gasping for air from chugging down the gel too quickly in a bid to also be rid of my water bottle in one of the designated bins. Whilst I’d kept my litter footprint to a minimum, I’m not sure it was worth almost choking for it!

The older chap pulled away slightly from me as he began wrapping his 10k race up. The first female finisher was still over 50m behind me, showing no sign of wanting to challenge for the male podium as well as the female podium. My pace remained as stable as I could hope for with few people around me to work with or shelter behind when the wind blew.

In the distance over the PA system, I could hear the organisers announce the winner of the 5k race, where it was won in some 23 minutes.

Moving closer to the end of the second lap, one of the marshals identified me as the leader of the 20k race. “Let’s see if I can keep it this way! See you on the next lap,” I shared with my newfound supporter. Leading a race was an incredibly unusual experience, and only one I had ever truly experienced once before at a parkrun back in early 2015. Exciting and nerve-racking in equal measure!

The older chap in the 10k race kicked on towards the finish, whilst I saw Lis once more before turning right to climb towards the switchback again for the third time that morning.

Lap 3

Usefully, lapped 10k and 20k runners grew in numbers before me, providing some interim targets to chase down. It suddenly unfolded on me that I was now the fastest person on the course after the swiftest 10k runners had finished (the winner finishing in 39:34). The same thing must have dawned on some of the lapped runners I encountered as they began encouraging me on. On the return from the switchback, I once again encountered the 2nd place Halesowen Triathlete from the 20k race and we gave each other a high-five of solidarity.

Out of seemingly nowhere, I suddenly grew quite warm and opted to remove my neck gaiter, arm warmers and gloves so that I could deposit them with Lis when I saw her a few hundred metres later.

The water station went on to offer gels to 20k runners, though I passed and only took water on. I felt fantastic and totally at ease running at marathon pace, reeling in an ever-increasing number of lapped 10k and 20k runners.

Passing by my friend the marshal again, he wished me luck going into the final lap and hoped to see me still at the front. I too shared his sentiments!

Returning to the muddiest section of the course, it was now pretty boggy and I was going to get muddy no matter how I approached it. Oh well, whether they were completely or partially caked in mud, I knew I had to wash my shoes anyway, so I just charged right down the middle and stopped worrying about it. Squelch. Squelch. Squelch… Hmmm… Perhaps I should have saved such a move for the final lap and not the penultimate one?

Lap 4

Spotting Lis again, she of course shared that I was still in the lead. Only some 21 minutes potentially stood between me and my first ever race win! I began to feel like I was working, having run out of lapped runners to also begin my climb towards the switchback for the final time.

Rounding the switchback cone, I began timing how long it would take before I spotted the Halesowen Triathlete in second place again. Some 2.5 minutes later, we laid another high-five on each other and I was confident I had the win in the bag. As I dropped back down to level ground, the third place guy – a Kenilworth Runner – began his climb for the switchback; we exchanged encouragement, as I’m sure neither of us 100% expected to be podium finishers that morning before starting.

Moving through the water station for the last time, I took on my final gel as the military cadets gave me a cheer to keep going.

Back in the heart of the showground, I found myself firmly alone to be knocked about by the gusts of wind that were funnelled towards me. Of course, this mattered not, given the circumstances I found myself in!

I encountered the friendly marshal for the last time, getting a high-five from him to power me on to the final km of the route. I still couldn’t get my mind around the metric 20km distance, with it feeling significantly shorter than a half marathon, whereas in reality it was just over another km to make it up to the more traditional 13.1 mile distance. I’d set my Garmin to track distance metrically, but for pace in minutes per mile; perhaps the more regular than usual km splits helped boost the feeling of progress?

Exiting the mudfest section of the course, I had just 200m remaining between victory and me. I could see the marshal waving his arms to grab the organisers’ attention to alert them of my return. As I turned the final corner, there was the finish with people cheering me in! The race director announced my return over the PA system for one of the most surreal race experiences I’d ever encountered. I threw my arms up a couple of times, not really sure of what felt right or appropriate for the situation!

Post-race

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The irony of wearing the number 2 bib did not escape me – photo by Lis Yu

Here’s the Strava data for the race.

I had to pause for a minute or two to catch my breath, with the final solo lap clearly having worked me harder than I expected it would. I finished in 84:12 to be pretty much what I’d anticipated for a marathon pace run, which would have translated to an 88-89 minute half marathon. What I wasn’t expecting was to also be crowned the course record holder for it was the debut of the 20k race option!

I waited to cheer the Halesowen Triathlete back in, where he finished over 7 minutes later; at my average pace, he was over a mile behind me. After that, next up was the Kenilworth Runner, where it transpired he’d actually covered almost 18 miles that morning, using the race as a marathon training run. Impressively, 4th place overall was taken by a female v50 Kenilworth Runner, who obviously finished first out of the women, and only 10 minutes after me.

Whereas the race instructions stated the prize giving ceremony was to take place at 12pm, the organisers kindly saw fit to not make us hang around for an hour in the cold and simply did it there and then. There was nothing particularly exciting in my prize bundle, but the experience of winning a race made the morning completely worthwhile. And to think, I’d almost written the race off at one point beforehand! I’ll be sure to return later this year to defend my course record!

This week’s running – 22nd to 28th January 2018

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Cardiff parkrun, one of the fastest courses in the UK – photo by John Ross

One helluva training week that had me feeling like I was at least close to my 2016 best.

5k recovery

I don’t know whether it’s the additional oxygen flowing through me, but I always feel like I’m more perceptive of little details when I’m running easy. Case in point was how many people there were out and about on this particular Monday evening. Not just fellow runners, but also people simply out for a walk. I can normally count on one hand the number of folks I see on a Monday evening recovery run, but there were easily 30+ souls spotted. Checking afterwards, there didn’t appear to be anything going on in the neighbourhood to prompt so many to be out and about to make for another unsolved mystery…

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

9 miles from work with fartlek

I have a confession to make – I think I’m in love with fartlek! The unstructured nature shouldn’t work with my Type 1 personality that craves symmetry and perfection, but I’ve really come to embrace the unpredictable.

Driven mainly by how strong the headwind can be as I run along the canal towpath to south Birmingham, fartlek stops me from writing speed off simply because I can’t accurately or reliably hit certain paces or splits. When the wind dies down, or I find some brief shelter, it’s an opportunity to rev my legs up. Upon finishing, I felt a real sense of accomplishment to offset the feeling of nausea that struck at the end!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

9 miles from work

On Tuesday’s 9 miles from the office, I was surprised to see the St James Road tunnel closure was not in force yet. I’d even gone out of my way to go around the closure in anticipation, but a chat with a cyclist that came from that direction confirmed it was still open. Heading back on to the canal towpath two days later, you can already guess what happened next…

Yep. The sodding tunnel was closed several days earlier than announced! I had to climb the stairs by Fiveways train station to re-route towards The Vale, though this did mean I had to cross far fewer roads than Tuesday’s detour reccy. At least this is only until March and the payoff will be a much wider path through the tunnel, meaning runners, walkers and cyclists can co-exist in harmony like never before!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Cardiff parkrun

Feeling in good shape post-Brass Monkey Half Marathon, and seeing as I was in Wales for the weekend anyway, I opted to return to Cardiff parkrun – my second most visited event after Cannon Hill. I have incredibly fond memories of Cardiff, where it provided me with my first ever sub-20 and sub-19 performances, along with some great battles with locals, Daniel Luffman and Vince Nazareth. I was thrilled to finally return to my home away from home!

A lot can change in 24 hours… The weather on Friday was pretty damn ideal for running, however it turned wet and blustery come Saturday. Whereas I also felt pretty energetic on Friday, I woke feeling less than stellar on Saturday. My heart rate was elevated and 2 miles as a warm-up confirmed I was a little worse for wear. A performance to test myself with wasn’t going to come easily, was it?

The start is always fast at Cardiff, so I was conscious not to get dragged along with something I couldn’t sustain, which has painfully happened in past outings. In hindsight, I should have pushed a little harder because I very quickly ended up in no-man’s land after just 800m… Just what I didn’t need that morning! The group I wanted to be with was just outside of reach, whereas I couldn’t sense anybody immediately behind for me to even drop back to. All was not lost for my form felt swift and benefitted from the recent regular strides I’ve injected into even the slowest and ploddyest of runs. Also of major help were the Nike Zoom Streak LT3 – my 5k and 10k weapon of choice. They’re my most minimal shoes with just 4mm heel to toe offset to really maximise the spring-loaded effect of my calves. Reserving them for only my shortest and fastest efforts, I find simply lacing them up gives me a mental boost in preparation for battle. 1km came in for 3:50.

Unusually, I didn’t pay much attention to pace despite setting my sights on a sub-19 finish. I knew I had to average 3:48 to 3:50 per km, but I simply went with the flow and concentrated on catching the group ahead of me, featuring Daniel Luffman and Carys Hughes – 1st female regular. Still running alone into the wind, I somehow managed 3:43 for 2k!

Thinking that it couldn’t possibly last going into 3k, I lost almost 15 seconds for 3:57 as I entered the critical “float” stage of the 5k. Up ahead, everybody else slowed also and I reclaimed a few metres from them. Behind me, I could hear somebody coming up fast and it turned out to be the second fastest woman of the morning. I took advantage of the brief tow to finally connect me to Dan and Carys’ group that I’d chased for so long. Positions chopped and changed, but Carys and I eventually took to the front of the pack as we watched the former second place woman creep away for the lead.

With just 1km left to go, Carys began slipping from the pace. I urged her to stick with me; a few well-executed surges from her and she was back in the game to chase down first place once more. The familiar 800m sign appeared and everybody began kicking. The 400m sign appeared and Carys surged once more to draw level with the other woman, throwing in another kick at 200m to pull away and eventually take the win. It was one helluva kick because I gave it everything I had and only managed to pull in some 6 seconds later!

I was pleased as punch to finish in 18:49 for my fastest 5k in over a year. If my resting heart rate was lower going in, I believe I could have taken another 10 seconds, but hey-ho. Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Post-run, I met with my old buddy and former-rival, Vince Nazareth, for a couple of hours of sharing stories and glories from the past year. Since turning 55, he’s been sweeping up all the local age group prizes and has set his sights on a sub-3 hour goal at the Manchester Marathon. I’ve every confidence he’ll do it, as he’s been consistently a few steps ahead of me since we stopped being rivals a few years ago. Good luck, Vince!

15 miles – to Monkswood and back

A week prior, I was running in snow and sleet. A week later and I was like a frankfurter, boiling in my own skin from being overdressed. 3 miles in, I had to stash my gloves in a bush for later retrieval!

Adding to the uncomfortable conditions was the 17mph headwind I ran into for both the out and return legs…

Yet, in spite of everything that should have worked against me, 11 of the miles came in under 8 minutes and 7 of them were faster than 7:45. Everything just clicked into place for some good old flow state.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

This week’s running – 8th to 21st January 2018

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Apologies for the delay, folks – I’ve rolled two weeks into this one mega edition to compensate.

5k recovery

Holy bejesus was it cold!

Strangely, my legs were both tired and spritely from the previous day’s long distance. I was cautious to keep things feeling incredibly easy due to having been on my feet all day building an exhibition stand at work; now what do they say about not trying anything new the week before a race and keeping labour-intensive activities to a minimum?

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

9 miles from work with strides

I employed strides in most of my non-pace specific runs in a bid to keep my legs revved up without overexherting myself ahead of the Brass Monkey Half Marathon. And do you know what? They’d worked an absolute treat!

My form felt swift and my legs felt nimble; my mind also felt sharper and more connected to the rest of me.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

5 mile run-commute with strides

Run-commuting in the winter is especially challenging, mainly due to the sheer amount of kit I have to lug around. In the summer, my holdall looks pathetically empty as I take everything I’ll need for run-commuting into work on Mondays. A couple of t-shirts, vests, pairs of shorts and socks are all I need. In the winter, I’m taking long sleeve tops, t-shirts for layering, gloves and more in. By the end of the working week, I’m currently returning home with several coats, scarves along with work clothes I’ve changed out of at the office! As I said, much easier in the summer, even with the oppressive heat!

Once again, the strides interspersing the slow recovery pace on this run-commute were perfect to keep my legs from getting ploddy.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Brass Monkey Half Marathon 2018 review

For the full write-up on the 2018 Brass Monkey Half Marathon, please click here.

5k recovery

Even with the windier than ideal conditions at the Brass Monkey Half Marathon, I’d say all of us participants were very fortunate, and practically got away with murder, for the conditions rapidly deteriorated only a day later.

In spite of the new PB, my legs felt tremendous and I was clearly still riding that race high. This would eventually end later in the week…

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

9 miles from work

What goes up must come down…

My legs finally began to tire and I was in need of some sleep from all the racing shenanigans. Apart from a couple of splits, most for this run were in the high 8 minutes and I dared not push much harder.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Under Armour ColdGear Reactor kit review

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Thanks to Under Armour UK and Synergy for the review kit – photo by Lis Yu

Back in November, I was contacted by Under Armour’s UK representatives at Synergy with a chance to sample and review some of their winter running kit. I jumped at the opportunity and here are my thoughts for your consideration.

For full transparency, the sample kit I’ve reviewed below was supplied for free. My views are mine alone and have not been influenced by either Under Armour’s or Synergy’s generosity.

Under Armour is a brand I’m somewhat familiar with, already owning a number of their HeatGear vests. As a relative new kid on the sportswear block, they’ve taken on the giants, Nike and Adidas, and are winning in some of the battles.

Starting life as a manufacturer of compression tops, they’ve since moved into a much wider variety of sportswear disciplines, including football, rugby, tennis, basketball and golf. We can also add running to that list. Funnily enough, most of the major sportswear manufacturers aped Under Armour’s compression wear and practically all have something akin to the form fitting clothing.

Under Armour ColdGear Reactor fitted long sleeve

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Initial thoughts

Upon first receiving the top, my immediate impression was that it was too much for the task at hand. It felt far too structured and would be too warm for all but the coldest of conditions.

Inspecting it superficially, it’s certainly well made. The fabric is of a high quality with good construction to it. The cut is what I would call semi-fitted, aided by a slight stretch to sit reasonably close, but not constrict like Under Armour’s traditional compression wear.

Size and fit

The sizing is consistent with the three HeatGear vests I already own, that is to say it’s very long… As you can see from the above photo of me, the hem is ridiculously low and seems to bear little relation to the length of the sleeves, which are surprisingly almost perfect for a small size. Whereas I’m short at only 5ft 6, my height and limbs are not wildly out of proportion; I can only assume Under Armour’s sizing is aimed at taller people, because I could easily lose 3-4 inches from the hem before the top no longer looks like a dress on me. I can sort of understand why Under Armour have gone down this path because it allows them to capture a much larger slice of the population; the top still fits me well across the chest and in the arms, whereas I can forgive the silly length or even have it re-hemmed by a tailor. If you’re slender and tall, you should seriously give Under Armour clothing a try as it’ll likely be a perfect fit.

In use

I’ve said already that I was initially sceptical of the ColdGear Reactor long sleeve. I took delivery of it when temperatures sat at around 10°C, which was too warm for its intended purpose. Even on an easy warm-up run, I was sweating after only 10 minutes of wear and deemed the product to be overkill. That suddenly all changed once the thermometer mercury plummeted and that’s when the top really came into its own…

If you’re a runner that typically feels cold, you’ll love the Under Armour ColdGear Reactor top. For everybody else, I’d say this top is right at home in temperatures of 5°C or lower, or when strong cool winds are prevalent. I dislike layering up when I run, so having a single layer that’s just enough has proven to be ideal. There are are some really nice touches that make this top a great cold weather training companion, such as the raised neck line to retain more of the body’s natural warmth and the technical fabric that’s designed to increase surface area and trap heat without overly increasing weight or bulk. The fabric is pleasant against bare skin with no signs of chafing in the half-dozen or so runs I’ve attempted whilst wearing the top. The underarm area and sides are a mesh to allow for some slight heat dissipation, should things get too warm. What would make the top perfect is the addition of a zip for the neck to the chest as a way to shed heat more quickly, especially during more vigorous runs.

Closing thoughts

I’ve grown to really love the Under Armour ColdGear Reactor top, especially as we’ve gone back into a cold snap in the UK. I’ve found myself readily grabbing this top as my default choice of late, especially on easier paced runs where I’m not necessarily out running for long enough or hard enough to even warm up. Only the odd sizing and the lack of a neck zip stop it from being perfect.

Pros

  • Effective single layer warmth
  • Raised neckline
  • Comfortable
  • Little to no added bulk
  • Wind resistant

Cons

  • Size and fit versus length is odd, unless you’re tall
  • Difficult to shed excess heat once too warm
  • Reserved for the coldest of conditions

Available here via underamour.co.uk.

Under Armour ColdGear Reactor fleece tapered trousers

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Initial thoughts

Whereas I was at first doubtful of the ColdGear Reactor top, I was scratching my head even more upon taking delivery of these trousers…

The first thing that struck me when unpacking and handling the trousers is how bulky they are! The waistline and ankle cuffs are incredibly chunky, where a more is more approach seems to have been adopted. The trousers, whilst claiming to be tapered, look sloppy and baggy – I had to double check they were actually intended for running, where something sleeker and more fitted is the norm from most manufacturers, even for trousers.

Size and fit

The length of the trousers, like the ColdGear Reactor top, measures up on the long side. The overall fit as a result makes me look like MC Hammer in the photo at the top of this review section! I may be wrong here, but I would dare say most runners want something more form fitting; they don’t need the solution to always fit like a pair of tights, but something less bulky and closer to the skin than these trousers would be preferable.

In use

Sadly, the ColdGear Reactor trousers are disappointing in action. There’s simply too much trouser than is needed! I’m not sure about others, but my legs are doing most of the hard work when it comes to running, so they generate far more heat than my upper body, where more protection from the elements is needed and welcome – my legs just don’t need this much protection. Whereas I’ve been readily wearing the ColdGear Reactor top as it’s gotten colder, I’ve not once felt the need to wear these trousers beyond for review purposes.

Even as trousers reserved for warming up before races and cooling down afterwards, they’re flawed because of the chunky ankle cuffs. There’s no zip on the ankle, which makes changing out of the trousers impossible without taking my shoes off first, which isn’t always ideal or possible, especially when outdoors.

Sadly, the positives of these trousers are also marred! There are plenty of zipped pockets for things like coins, keys and a phone, but one of the additional pull tabs on the zips somehow came off in my washing machine and almost jammed in the rotating drum mechanism!

Closing thoughts

Can you tell that I’m not a fan of these trousers? I feel like I’ve fought against these trousers each time I’ve worn them, where they should instead be blurring into the background as I run. If you’re on the tall side and feel your legs frequently run cold, these may be for you, but I think most people would be better served by a pair of more traditional running tights from Under Armour.

Pros

  • Generous length for taller people
  • Lots of pockets
  • Warm for those that need leg insulation

Cons

  • Poor fit that’s distracting
  • Bulky and baggy
  • Zip tabs somehow dislodge in the washing machine
  • Too warm for the majority of people

Available here via underarmour.co.uk.

9 miles from work with strides

I was sure to take in the joy of the simplicity of this route ahead of the planned St James Road tunnel closure. Fewer than 2 miles of the route are covered away from the canal towpath, whereas the detour I have planned from Monday 22nd of January onwards for 3 months will probably double the amount of running on street level to around 4 out of 9 miles.

The strides unfortunately failed to perk my legs up, with race recovery firmly having taken hold…

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Cannon Hill parkrun

With temperatures having dropped, treacherous black ice formed in a few spots around Cannon Hill Park. Due to the rain, it became near impossible to tell what was ice and what was simply water glistening on the ground! Nearby Sandwell Valley and Perry Hall parkruns had already cancelled, but it was deemed just about safe enough for Cannon Hill to remain open for business on the normal route.

Whereas I’d had plans to tackle this parkrun hard, my legs had other ideas – they simply didn’t want to turnover any faster and without any more power than around 20 minute 5k pace. My breathing was, however, perfectly fine by comparison…

With about a mile to go, a Birchfield Harrier youngster drifted into contact with me from ahead. He’d held on to a good pace for much of the run, but it was clear it started to get the better of him. I stepped in and gave him some encouragement to get behind and stay close to me. He eventually crossed the line just a few seconds later, having done well to keep the invisible rubber band from snapping.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

I had to hightail it out of Cannon Hill Park to make my over to the next item of this week’s entry…

The National Running Show

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Susie Chan speaking at The National Running Show 2018

What’s this? A running trade show in my backyard? Why, don’t mind if I do!

Taking place at the Birmingham NEC, this was the debut of The National Running Show. It’d been years since I last visited a running trade show that stood independently of a race (The Running Show, Sandown Park back in 2012), and as a frequent visitor and worker of trade shows, I was curious to see how it would play out.

In tow were Lis and Dave, with the guest speakers being the main draw for them. Reaching the NEC at about 11:15, the place was surprisingly very busy, so much so that we spent some 10-15 minutes queuing to get in! Once inside, it was unbearably chaotic due to the small hall utilised and poor placement of certain exhibitors (I’m looking at you, Saucony).

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Steve Edwards at The National Running Show 2018

Kelly Holmes, Jo Pavey and Jenny Meadows had already given their talks, which I was disappointed to have missed out on, but I did get to sit-in on sessions from Steve Edwards (800+ sub-3:30 marathons and counting), Luke Tyburski (ultra-runner with a propeller hat) and Susie Chan (regular person turned serial ultra-runner). The talks were pretty good, but timings were a mess due to the organisers not budgeting enough time between sessions for changeovers. It’ll be interesting to see which guests appear next year, with Paula Radcliffe already announced.

Exhibitor-wise, the variety was OK and perhaps only slightly worse than what you would typically see at a big city pre-race expo. Expectedly, there were none of the big dogs like Garmin or Adidas that you normally see on the expo circuit; presumably, they steered clear having already agreed their budgets and would wait out the first year before making any future considerations.

There were exhibitors selling nutrition, recovery products, clothing, shoes, and so on. Also present were a number of races touting their wares. I spoke with the guys from Run For All – the organisation behind the Yorkshire Marathon – who were pleased as punch to hear I’d run their race twice and have been spreading the good word ever since. My conversation with the Swansea Half Marathon was, however, far less productive. Enquiring about whether they had a show discount of some sort, they looked at me like I was some sort of buffoon that dared ask such a stupid question, but they did offer to sign me up there and then. I declined and said I could do that from the comfort of my own home once having read the T&Cs… They’d obviously exhibited at the show to ply for more participants, so it was entirely bizarre that they didn’t have something to seal the deal with would-be entrants like me. ABC – Always Be Closing!

All in all, it was an entertaining way to while away a couple of hours. If not for the guest speakers, I’d have easily navigated my way through the event twice in an hour or so to give you a sense of the size and scale.

15 snowy-slushy-rainy miles

Back in 2013 when training for my very first marathon – the London Marathon – I was caught out by a freak drop of snow to coincide with my final long run of 22 miles… I needed the run and had no choice but to head out on to the white stuff. I don’t recall much from the run; not how I felt during or after, so I must have wiped it from memory.

Looking outside today, I let out a long sigh when I saw more snow, albeit just a light dusting of it on the pavements.

Things started off very well, with the fresh snow proving to be no issue at all as would be expected. I regretted not donning my Oakleys with a pair of high contrast lenses; the falling snow would occasionally blow into my eyes, proving to be quite painful. It was good to see so many of my fellow runners out getting the miles in, with everybody proving especially friendly and acknowledging our collective dedication/craziness.

Once on the return leg, things got much tougher. Rain started falling to turn the snow into slush, which proved much more difficult to run on than snow. Each step continually soaked my feet and caused freezing cold water to slosh around in my shoes, adding to my already heavy feeling legs.

Once back at my front door, my hands, despite being gloved, were too cold to rummage for my key from the tiny zipped pocket it lived in! I had to knock for Lis to let me in and duly jumped straight into a hot shower to get some feeling back into my extremities.

No more snow, please!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

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!