Failing to plan is planning to fail
I’ve said a few times recently that last year’s marathon preparation had one major flaw: a distinct lack of marathon pace specific work. My long training runs, whilst perfectly fine for getting endurance training in, weren’t up to the task of getting me around 26.2 miles in a desired time of 3 hours and 30 minutes or better.
When I found out I had bagged a London Marathon ballot place, I decided to put things into place to correct what went wrong. One such feature of this year’s plan was a 20 mile race. There are two 20 mile races that I’m aware of around this time of the year: the Ashby 20 and the Bramley 20. I know a fair few folks who have run both and despite Ashby’s closer location, Bramley won out due to being a much flatter profile. I’m a big fan of training that will closely mimic the conditions of a target race, i.e. training on flat surfaces for a flat road race, and putting in more hill work for more undulating courses. The Bramley 20 would be all about marathon day simulation, looking at my nutrition strategy, pacing and even the clothes and shoes I will ultimately race in. Leave no stone unturned and control all the controllables!
Kev and I are not the same height!
I had originally arranged to run Bramley with friend and fellow running blogger, Dom, though he sadly was unable to make it to the startline. My old uni buddy, Kev Yates (of Lordshill Road Runners), has run at Bramley several times and couldn’t praise the race enough, entering it this year without an actual marathon to train for. And this is the oddity about the Bramley 20 (and probably the Ashby 20) – most people probably aren’t out for a PB or to run themselves ragged; they’re using the race as a catered training run. And let’s face it, most people would prefer to run a 20 mile race as training rather than slog out 20 miles on your lonesome.
Lis and I had spent the weekend in Wales, which proved to be dramatically easier to reach Bramley (near Reading) rather than driving from Birmingham. Arriving in Bramley, we were quite swiftly directed to our carpark for the day. Many runners have taken to whinging and moaning online that the parking facilities were inadequate, taking too long to get processed blah, blah, blah. I’m sorry, but the race booklet mentioned arriving early to avoid queues. Lis and I arrived shortly after 9am after a 2 hour drive, and apart from waiting for the train line crossing, there was no queue for us at all. If you arrive at 10am, you have no excuse but to wait.
I love races and it’s what keeps my eye on the ball when it comes to training. Seeing crowds of other runners ignites a spark inside me, a spark that has been sorely missing for a few months after my autumn season. Arriving at the race HQ (a primary school), we were greeted by plenty of other runners from all manner of clubs. Reading Road Runners were obviously well represented given that they had organised the race. Winchester were also out in force and I spotted a few other familiar clubs like Serpentine, Lliswerry and even a runner from the Birmingham Uni AC. Kev’s club, the Lordshill Road Runners, were also present with a good number of participants.
After a shaky week of poor weather, the running deities saw fit to give us some much needed sunshine for near perfect race conditions. I don’t know what I would have done if the race was called off; probably cry like a little girl…
Kev and Alice showed up with maybe 20 minutes left to go, giving the girls ample time to work out their spectator plans and for Kev and I to make one last toilet visit. We did end up cutting it rather close to the start with mere minutes to go before the gun was due to go off. We ended up creating a gap in the barriers to sneak through into our approximate pace pen.
The Bramley 20 was a great chance to test kit under race conditions
I was looking to run 20 miles at marathon pace of 7:55 to 8:00 minutes per mile. Kev didn’t have any grand plans for the distance so decided to run with me; this was perfect since Kev would be able to keep accurate pace because he would be running well within himself (his marathon PB is 3:02:52). My nutrition plan consisted of carrying a bottle of Lucozade all the way around the first lap and having Lis toss me a second bottle on the second lap. I was also carrying 4 orange flavoured Isogels, mimicking exactly what I plan to carry at the London Marathon. The pre-race info was rather scant on details regarding the drinks stops with only ‘glucose drinks’ to go by, served in cups no less. I’m absolutely rubbish at drinking from cups, so I was willing to take the weight hit by carrying a bottle around; I’ve been carrying 750ml of fluid on my back all winter so it wouldn’t be a major hardship.
We were released to run fairly quickly and managed to settle into our target rhythm without much delay. Unlike in larger city races, this was very much a race organised by runners for runners so there weren’t any dramatically slower runners up in the front to get in the way of others – a major pet hate of mine.
Kev treated the run as a catch-up session for the two of us whilst I used it as marathon simulation. I had to be cautious not to let the pace get too silly whilst being carried away by the crowds. A good number of the people around us that started to get away would be reeled back in in due course. Once I’d settled into target pace, I was happily chatting away with Kev, discussing our various running adventures and lives since university in general.
Kev and I somewhere during lap 1 of the Bramley 20 – photo by Colin Brassington
We both started to warm-up and I was glad I decided to go with a (yellow) vest and shorts combo along with gloves for my hands. Kev was wearing a base layer and was quickly becoming too warm, eventually taking it off and tying it around his waist. I was also conscious that I was carrying too many gels, opting to chuck two back at Lis when we ran past the 10 mile marker.
The marshals out on the course deserve special mention for their cheery nature and motivational enthusiasm; it was like an entire team of Fergals! Kev and I made sure to thank the marshals each time we passed to show our appreciation. The course itself was open to live traffic, though there was only the odd car here or there most of the time. There was one moment when cars had approached from opposite ends of the road, with nowhere to go and no way to turn around. Best of luck to them!
Drinks were indeed served out of cups which I’m absolutely useless at drinking from, with more going up my nose than down my throat. The energy drinks actually turned out to be Nectar Fuel, diluted to the isotonic consistency that happens to be the exact same concentration that I use in training. Drinks were only handed out every 4 or 5 miles I think, so you really couldn’t rely on the race organisers for nutrition. And if you were running the race as a marathon warm-up, you should have been practising your nutrition strategy anyway, using your own supplies of choice.
A few cheeky hills kept things interesting, with me heckling Kev for his deception and claims of the race being pancake flat. Completely unrelated, Kev did tell me that there are plenty of earthworms out on the course due to the moist conditions of the ground. We did see a fair few dead earthworms as we ran, trampled by the runners ahead of us.
Halfway through and still feeling fresh
Eventually, we reached the halfway point where I dumped two of my Isogels and took another bottle of Lucozade from Lis. The 10 mile runners peeled off to the left whilst everybody else continued on to the second lap of the course. The field thinned out considerably, so much so that there were points on the course where there was nobody ahead or behind us for about 30 seconds either way. I almost lost my footing at one point for what would have been a rather embarrassing end to my 20 mile race at only slightly further than 10 miles!
I’m not a big fan of multiple lap courses where the knowledge of what’s coming up almost lulls you into a false sense of security. We both felt great in the first lap but from mile 11 onwards, it was almost as if somebody had flicked a switch inside me and I suddenly felt a lot less energetic. Kev’s knees were aching with this race being his longest run since Christmas.
From about mile 16 onwards, the conversation dried up considerably and I really had to knuckle down and concentrate on the task at hand. The hills from the first lap felt more like mountains to conquer. This will have served as good mental toughness training for the actual marathon where I fully expect to feel the same from mile 20 onwards; the real halfway mark begins at 20 miles after all! Funnily, not my lungs or cardiovascular system ever felt stressed in the race and the only thing holding me back were my legs tightening up; this was a real confidence booster where as long as I can build the endurance and strength in my legs, my fitness will take care of itself at London.
The runners around us remained fairly consistent throughout much of the second lap where sometimes, we were overtaken and at other times, we would overtake and progress ahead. With about 2 miles to go, one chap started drafting behind Kev for protection from the wind. A bit of banter was thrown around between the three of us and I joined in behind our new friend, Dave, to take advantage of the shield from the headwind blowing towards us.
The Bramley 20 tastes like burning…
Kev did some quick calculations and we were within reach of finishing within 2:40 if we picked up the pace slightly. With one mile left, I did what I could to try and empty the tank and leave everything out on the course. That final mile was rather uncomfortable; not only was this my longest run so far of this cycle of marathon training, but it was also my fastest run ever above 13.1 miles! Recognising the return to the finish, we pushed and I managed to muster a short sprint for a finish of 2:39:14 with Kev just behind me in 2:39:15. I didn’t want to go crazy for fear of doing some damage in what was just a glorified training run.
The goody bag was almost entirely made up of immediately edible stuff which is perfect for the distance just covered; there’s only so much toothpaste, shower gel and roast chicken seasoning you can take.
I had a good long stretch to iron out any kinks that had developed out on the course. There wasn’t a peep at all from my adductors, showing they had been properly sorted by the recent sessions of sports massage and stretching. Post-race, I was a little tight but the following Monday, my legs had returned to normal and I felt fantastic.
Meep meep! The Bramley 20 medal
All in all, I was very pleased with how everything went. I wanted to get a 20 mile run in as part of my marathon schedule – check. I wanted to get a long run in at marathon pace, if at least partially – check. I wanted to simulate the first 20 miles of a marathon with nutrition and kit – check. Martin and Tom from Marathon Talk are less favourable of 20 mile races as warm-ups, feeling that they can take too much out of runners if discipline is not applied to pacing. I can totally understand their reasons and am totally on-board with the idea of overtraining or even leaving your race behind in training. But I do also believe that to race at your best, you need to reduce as many of the variables as possible and a 20 mile race gives you a very good opportunity to flex your marathon muscles, without actually having you run a marathon. I am now feeling much more confident about my training and how to maintain and maximise the remaining 7 weeks or so before the big day.
Take a look at the Garmin data for the Bramley 20 here.