Yorkshire Marathon 2017 review

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Marathons never get easier. Goals just get loftier!

For the 2016 race, please click the following:

First things first, I promise this year’s write-up of my Yorkshire Marathon experience won’t be nearly as long as last year’s edition! Congratulations to all who ran and I hope this race account inspires those of you yet to run your autumn marathon.

The build-up

3:03:05 from the 2016 Yorkshire Marathon was incredibly satisfying to achieve, especially as my two previous attempts at the 26.2 distance left me feeling cheated. The London Marathon is the marathon for many, but not for me, so Yorkshire Marathon 2017 it was. Of course, being so close to a sub-3 hour marathon meant the next attempt had a very firm finish time in sight. I’ve repeatedly said of late that running more marathons doesn’t mean they get easier – the goals just get loftier!

So, what would it take to run under 3 hours? That’s 26.2 miles at 6:50 to 6:52 pace, give or take a little bit of error either side. I decided last year’s modified P&D Advanced Marathoning 22 week plan would serve me well again, with a few more modifications here and there; a very modest uplift in mileage and more opportunities to run at marathon pace, for example.

Training went incredibly well up until mid-August when Lis and I went away to Crete on holiday. I’d racked up some strong training runs and even broke 60 miles in one week for the first time. Returning from our break, I soon picked up a nasal infection that robbed me of two or so critical weeks in the plan. Once healthy again, it soon became apparent that I’d gone off the boil for too long (three weeks including the holiday and illness); my training paces slowed slightly and I lost some resilience, forcing me to begin dropping easy runs in favour of rest days.

All was not lost, however. I hit my long run goal of breaking 100 miles spread across five runs (103 miles in total) and marathon paced training runs at the Wolverhampton and Robin Hood Half Marathon indicated I was in good aerobic shape, but that I absolutely had to stick to the script of just sitting steady at 6:50 to 6:52 per mile in the main event because my body was unlikely to react well to anything faster.

Maranoia – it’s real!

Leading up to race day, I did what I could to stay healthy and illness-free. Judicious and frequent hand washing, backed up with liberal use of antibacterial gel became the norm. So, imagine my horror when symptoms began manifesting less than 24 hours before the race!

Once more, Lis and I checked into York for a two-night stay in a bid to ensure I at least had a chance to acclimatise to the unfamiliar bed and surroundings. And yes, leaving nothing to chance, I did take my own pillow from home, again.

Unfortunately, I slept dreadfully on Friday night and woke feeling groggy and dazed on Saturday morning. By mid-afternoon, I began to feel weak and flat and was ready to head back to the hotel for a nap. Post-nap, I felt no better and struggled to get food down over dinner with a constant feeling of wanting to throw up. I suffered from cold flashes, where everybody in the restaurant appeared to be fanning themselves to cool down, whereas I was struggling to stay warm!

In a complete reversal of roles, Dave Burton, who I’ve been coaching to run his own marathon, became my mentor. He suggested it was all in my head and was merely the fight versus flight mechanism kicking in. I was in unknown territory, recalling only ever feeling as such the day before Lis and I got married. Races don’t make me break out in a cold sweat, or so I thought! Reading through the Wikipedia article on the subject matter, I had almost all of the textbook symptoms; this did nothing to reassure me of the horror that unfolded and, ashamedly, for somebody that’s normally incredibly positive and upbeat about running and racing, I began re-evaluating my options and jacking the race in suddenly became a very real and inviting prospect. If the symptoms were not psychosomatic and I really was coming down with something (bad luck happens to everyone – just look at Therasa May), attempting to run 26.2 miles whilst ill would be a very bad idea and I could do without another DNF to my name.

Another early night it was in a bid to shake off whatever it was I was going through…

Pre-race

Unhelpfully and unsurprisingly, I had yet another poor night’s sleep due to what played on my mind. Adding to the anxiety was the comparison to the 36 hours before the 2016 Yorkshire Marathon, where everything went according to plan.

But! Many of the symptoms appeared to subside and only the queasy feeling in my stomach remained a concern. I managed to force some breakfast down whilst still contemplating my options. I agreed with Lis that we would rendezvous back at the hotel, whatever happened…

Suited and booted, I made my way over to the race village at the university. I began running through different mantras in my head, but the only ones that seemed appropriate to quell the feeling of nausea were “Keep cool” and “Stay calm”.

Firmly on university grounds, I spotted a runner wearing a sombrero hat, looking lost. I approached him to see if he was looking for the baggage tents, and indeed he was. I immediately began making small talk with David, querying whether he planned to wear the comically large hat for the entire race. He assured me the hat would be discarded shortly after starting the race and that it was more of a prop, where he and another friend would be guide runners for their blind comrade (the Three Amigos, get it?) Chatting with David did me a world of good, calming my nerves. Reaching the baggage tents, we wished each other luck before going our separate ways.

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Yep. I’m that guy from the race guide…

I was on the lookout for one Dave Johnson, whom I only ever tend to see in Yorkshire despite both of us living within a mile of each other. But, no joy on this occasion – he was nowhere to be seen. I did spot a Bournville Harrier and we both joked we were an incredibly long way from home, with neither of us feeling particularly well. Whilst getting my stuff prepared for storage, one chap asked if I was the guy featured in the race guide. Sheepishly, I acknowledged it was me and quickly interjected that I wasn’t feeling in race-form that morning. Incredibly, he too was also from the West Midlands, namely Walsall. Unsure of his ability, Ross did say he was capable of sub-3 pace at up to 11 miles in training and would attempt to keep me in sight for as long as possible. I wished him well and said I would keep an eye out for him on the course.

Bag checked in, one final toilet visit beckoned and I was pleased to see the organisers had once again provided urinals. It’s the little things that make or break races and the Yorkshire Marathon organisers are absolute pros at this – many other larger races could learn a thing or two from them!

In the start pen, I felt like I had a bull’s eye on my back and couldn’t shake the feeling that everybody was staring at me. I felt like a fraud from the interview I gave for the race pack guide. A few people did come over to say “hello” and to thank me for my write-up of the 2016 race, citing it as a useful reference. One such guy, Ian, stuck with me and we continued to chat. He, too, wore the Nike Vaporfly 4% in the same colour as me and also sported a Garmin 935. Behind me, I could see the sub-3 hour pacer a good 20 rows or so back and I wondered just how soon it would be before I was swallowed up by them and left for dust?

I continued to straddle the line between a daze and reality, paying no attention to the countdown. It was only when the hooter fired that I realised it was go-time!

The race

Miles 1 to 3

I was incredibly conscious I had not warmed up, opting to conserve as much energy as possible, and so had to use the first mile to ease myself in. Thankfully, the generous descent from the university to the main road helped to keep the effort relaxed and comfortable whilst cold starting.

“Keep cool,” I repeated to myself as people charged off. Before I knew it, mile 1 came and went in 6:57. Faster than the year prior by a few seconds, so perhaps all was not lost…

Approaching mile 2, the thunderous footsteps of the sub-3 hour pace group roared past. The group was huge, though they somehow managed to navigate around me without so much as a bump or nudge. I latched on to the coat tails of the pack, joined also by Ian, who I spoke with in the start pen. Mile 2 was clearly boosted by the sub-3 group to come in with 6:49! “Keep cool,” I continued to whisper to myself!

Passing York Minster, I completely missed it due to trying to concentrate on those around me during this narrow section. Noticeably, compared to a year ago, there were definitely more runners about, and not just because of my closer proximity to the sub-3 hour goal time. Once the road widened up, I was able to more freely run my own race line and positioned myself to catch Lis shortly after the 3 mile marker. Mile 3 continued to be swift for 6:48.

Miles 4 to 9

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Mile 3 of the Yorkshire Marathon – photo by Lis Yu

Spotting Lis, I soaked up her support until I was due to see her once again at mile 24.

Ian and I came back together and we both remarked how the sub-3 hour pacer was without a doubt going too fast, even factoring the slightly more undulating second half. We agreed that anybody that was on the cusp of running a sub-3 hour marathon would be pushed too hard at such a pace. Mile 4 returned to target pace of 6:51.

Bizarrely, I found miles 5 and 6 slipping from the pace for some unknown reason. Wind was low and both Ian and I commented how spectacular the morning was for racing. Even a high-five from the famous high-fiving vicar was not enough to lift the pace, resulting in 6:55 and 6:57 for miles 5 and 6 respectively.

Looking behind me, a decent sized pack of perhaps 7 or so of us had formed. I took on the role of tour guide, explaining how the course would pan out, where drink stations would appear, and so on. Ian and I remained chatty, helping the miles to fly by. He turned out to be an ultra runner with some impressive multi-day 100 mile events to his name. I commented that 26.2 miles would be a breeze for him, but he was absolutely right to correct me that any distance at race pace would feel difficult. As we conversed more, it quickly became apparent that he had a very similar outlook and mindset to myself when it came to running – it was almost like my personality had been transplanted into another body and I joked we were like brothers in arms! Another member of the group revealed that his only other marathon was dressed as a banana… I don’t want to come across as overly sentimental, but the group I found myself in was exactly what I needed that morning. The positive energy of the pack was practically tangible!

Miles 7, 8 and 9 came in at 6:53, 6:53 and 6:59 respectively. I regularly reassured the group that we were doing just fine, pace-wise, and that we had to remain calm and patient up to halfway.

Miles 10 to 13.1

Entering the heavily tree-lined section of the course, I reasoned that the pace was likely to rise and fall due to fluctuating levels of GPS signal. Also not helping with pace stability was the undulating terrain underfoot; I reassured everyone that there was a high-speed downhill section on the approach and to just let the pace flow at that point, rather than applying the brakes.

By now, we had completely lost sight of the sub-3 hour pace group, with the field ahead and behind growing incredibly sparse. The group remained encouraging and positive, firmly in the knowledge that it was likely to be a lonely race if anybody fell from the pack.

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Me and the less aggressive sub-3 group

Miles 10, 11 and 12 came in at 6:52, 6:58 and 6:50 to still be on the cusp of sub-3 hour pace.

As we neared the halfway point, I reiterated the importance of staying calm and patient. We only needed to skim under 90 minutes to leave ourselves in the best possible shape for the second half. Passing the halfway clock, we registered 6:49 for the mile and 89:56 for a perfectly executed opening half. Nonchalantly, Ross revealed that he’d never gone under 90 minutes for a half marathon before!

Miles 14 to 17

Approaching the first of two switchbacks on the course, the crowd support swelled and was most welcome after a couple of quiet miles. I mentioned to Ian that this was now officially the longest run I had undertaken at such a pace to date; he shared my sentiments and we acknowledged the effort beginning to ratchet upwards.

Unfortunately, the pack we’d spent much of the first half of the race with imploded due to the change of pace from the switchback and the mild headwind we ran into. Only Ian and I remained and he suggested we take turns at blocking the wind for each other. This guy really was reading my mind the entire way!

Some of the fastest runners of the day appeared on the other side. As with last year, there were no African runners, so the winning time would be slower (2:24:13) than at many larger races.

Ian and I found ourselves connecting with another runner going at roughly the same pace. The wind increasingly picked up at this point, so the three of us opted to form a chain gang to take the edge off the gusts that blew. Mark revealed that he was running purely to heart rate, as instructed by his coach. I commended him on the sterling effort, recognising that the effort skyrockets somewhere beyond 18 miles. Mark spotted the Autobot tattoo on my leg, to which I apologised for not being able to transform into a car. “If you could transform, it would only need to be a 2-seater. You’d be the car. One seat for me and one seat for [Ian]!” He shared that he was looking forward to seeing his wife and son somewhere out on the course; I concurred that I was greatly looking forward to some much needed support from Lis at mile 24.

The first of two gel stations appeared and I lucked out when they offered me a caffeinated Isogel – exactly what I was carrying on my person!

Physically and mentally, I was fully aware of needing to graft all the way to the end. For a stark contrast to only several hours earlier that morning, I felt alive for the first time all weekend and was committed to staying on target for as long as my body and mind would allow. I was reminded to stay cautious; on the other side of the road was one of the lead women, convulsing on the floor in the arms of a medic as they comforted her…

Miles 14, 15, 16 and 17 came in at 6:48, 6:53, 6:50 and 6:50 for a modest uptick in pace.

Miles 18 to 20

Approaching the second and final switchback of the route, Ian and I clocked the sub-3 hour group on the other side of the course; they were a good 1.5 to 2 minutes ahead of us and, incredibly, still appeared to be as large in numbers as before.

Rounding the turning point, I noticed Ian beginning to slip from the pace by a couple of steps. I slowed on the shallow descents to allow him to regroup with me, but it was never long again before he slipped backwards by a few strides. I pointed at the floor below my feet and urged him on to get back to me. At the same time, I had my other eye on Mark who was powering on in front. Ian urged me on as he drifted backwards…

Somehow, Mark found a boost from seemingly nowhere as he ploughed on ahead. I fixated on keeping the 5m or so between us static, at least until the left turn at mile 20. On the other side of the course approaching the second switchback were various members of my pack from the first half; I cheered them all on in deep appreciation of the company they gave me earlier that morning.

With Mark’s aid, we reeled in an increasing number of runners that had splintered off from the main sub-3 hour group ahead. The effort to hold pace became really quite noticeable and I began questioning how long I could possibly hang on for. Rubbing salt in was the direction of the wind, which had reverted back into a headwind, forcing me to increase my own pace to keep up with Mark and use him for drafting assistance.

Miles 18, 19 and 20 came in at 6:44, 6:48 and 6:58 to still average out as being on target.

Miles 21 to 22

Turning the corner beyond mile 20, Mark somehow slipped from the pace and began going backwards from me. Up ahead, it was very quiet with few other runners to latch on to and work with. A lone Harrogate runner was my closest target, so I worked up to him and sat steady. I began counting to 100; so tired was I from a lack of sleep that I even messed that up and skipped out whole sections of numbers!

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Teeth gritted. Time to dig in!

I’d reached the second and final energy gel station of the course and, quite conveniently, they’d marked out which flavours they were providing on either side of the road. I opted for a banana gel with the knowledge that the flavour change would help perk me up after slurping down nothing but orange and berry flavoured gels all morning. With the sun also making a guest appearance, I grabbed two bottles of water – one for drinking and the other to throw over myself; the shock of the cold water did wonders to wake me up and took my mind off my ever tightening body and limbs.

In the distance on the left, I could see a flag flying in the air. Getting closer, I realised it was the sub-3 hour pacer’s flag and he was walking! I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. As I neared, I asked if he was OK; he looked defeated and simply replied with, “Yeah. I’m fine.” He looked quite different to the published photo of the 3-hour pacer from several weeks ago and I immediately wondered whether it was the same guy at all, or whether the organisers had to find a backup pacer for whatever reason?

Runners from the 10 mile race began to come into view. Looking for any brief bit of distraction, I began encouraging them, many of which were walking by this point.

Miles 21 and 22 came in at 6:51 and 6:55, respectively, so still on target, but only just.

Miles 23 to 25

Reaching mile 23, I could see my pace was drifting in the wrong direction and for the first time during the race, my Garmin displayed a pace starting with a 7… The average pace ticked over from 6:52 to 6:53 and I knew it was now make or break; did I have the courage, strength and desire to invite the pain and fatigue in and get back on to 6:52 pace? I tried treating the section as a fartlek run with mini injections of pace for a few seconds to try and reverse the damage. The problem, at such a late stage in the race, was that everybody around me had slowed and that messed with my brain’s perception of speed. What felt like a casual jog earlier when everybody else was running at the same pace as me now felt more like a sprint!

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Mile 24? More like mile 24.9! Photo by Lis Yu

As I neared mile 24, I began to look forward to the sight of Lis out supporting. I needed a friendly and familiar face after having lost all of the comrades I’d started the race with at numerous points earlier. The mile 24 marker came and went, but no sign of Lis. Puzzled, I wondered what had happened. We’d spoken about a nearby pub beforehand, which would have made for a good base of operation with toilet facilities and what not. Perhaps she was in the toilet and I’d missed her? A big part of me died when I realised that may have happened, especially after waiting for so long to see her again. Well, readers – fear not! It turned out to be some confusion; Lis was unsure if she was actually at the right pub or not, so relocated further up back on to the route (24.9 miles…) to be certain!

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In my own personal hell of my own making – photo by Lis Yu

Any semblance of a poker face to mask the torture I was going through was long gone. My IT bands and hips were tight, restricting the stride range I had access to. My shoulders and neck were also knotted, and my arms were doing the tyrannosaurus-rex claw thing once more… Not a strong look at all! Running in a straight line became increasingly difficult and I drifted from left to right on occasion; so long as I continued to move forward at the same time, my form mattered not!

On the approach to mile 25, the crowd support began to swell once again. More and more runners also began drifting back into contact with me, giving me interim targets to work towards and jump from one to the other. As I’d remarked on earlier, there were definitely more runners out in the field, especially so close to the 3 hour time, whereas a year ago, I was largely running alone and in between groups going for a London Marathon Good For Age time of 3:05 or sub-3 hours. Unexpectedly, the Harrogate runner found second wind and pulled up alongside me to then move ahead! This was exactly what I needed and I followed him in pursuit.

Miles 23, 24 and 25 came in at 7:07, 7:01 and 7:09. The sub-3 game was up and I knew I couldn’t bust out a 6:20 mile at the end of a marathon. My goal immediately switched to finishing as close to 3:00 as possible. At least I could then say I’m a 3 hour marathoner!

The final mile and a bit

I’ve frequently said before that unless you’ve absolutely rinsed yourself out on the course, the final mile kind of looks after itself.

In the distance, I could see the petrol station that signalled the left turn back towards the university. And that hill. I knew it was going to sting this year, much more so than 2016, due to the more aggressive overall race pace on this occasion. Over 50 feet of elevation spread across 400m at the end of a marathon… To my left was a bloke who just suddenly stopped running and began to walk. Out of nowhere, his two teenaged sons came to his rescue and began spurring him on. “Don’t stop now, Dad! You’re so close! Come on, we’ll run with you up the hill!” Brings a tear to the eye, doesn’t it?

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Once at the brow of the hill, I knew I had a descent all the way to the finish, so I picked up my stride. I could hear the compere announcing names of finishers coming through, but there was no mention of time or the sought after 3 hour cut-off point on the clock. I knew I was outside of target, anyway, and simply sprinted for the line in a bid to finish as strongly as possible. I received a mention over the PA system, prompting me to raise my arms in victory, firm in the knowledge that I still had a generous PB to my name.

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

I immediately dropped down to lie on my side, inspired by another chap lying on his back. A marshal rushed over to check I was OK, to which I told him I just needed a breather. Once recovered, I checked my Garmin out and I had finished in 3:00:34. Not the sub-3 hour goal I originally set out for, but it was still a 2 minute and 31 second PB over last year. And yes, I can now legitimately call myself a 3 hour marathoner!

I waited in the funnel to cheer in the various faces that I’d come into contact with over the duration of the race. First back in was Mark, who had dragged me on through the 18 to 20 mile section. Next up was Ross, followed shortly by Eric, both from the pack I belonged to for much of the first half. Finally, there was Ian, my brother from another mother for the day (for his account of the race, check out his blog here). Whilst we’d all PBd (and half marathon PBs for some!) by decent margins, I did have to break it to them that I’d missed sub-3 by just 35 seconds…

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Ross, me and Ian – marathon PBs for all!

A stroll back to the baggage tent with an alcohol-free beer to celebrate the achievement is not a bad way to end a race at all!

Thoughts and conclusions

So, the sub-3 hour marathon remains elusive. But really, I’m not disappointed at all because I did everything within my power to finish in the time that I did. Sure, if training had gone more to plan, or if I hadn’t lost two to three weeks from illness or my holiday, I may have made it, and maybe I wouldn’t have. Equally, if I had a perfect night’s rest before the race with no feelings of nausea or anxiety, I may have been fresher to squeeze out another 1%. With all that had happened in the 24 hours prior, I’m absolutely delighted with my finish time!

Stats-wise, things look very interesting (2017 versus 2016):

  • Total campaign mileage: 894.94 miles vs 843.52 miles
  • Average weekly mileage: 42.12 miles vs 42.14 miles
  • Positive split difference: 38 seconds vs 35 seconds

Total campaign mileage-wise, the ambition was to modestly increase overall volume. I also hoped to increase my average weekly volume; my largest weeks had grown even more compared to a year ago, but conversely, my lightest weeks also became lighter, where I found I was in need of rest instead of recovery. This resulted in the incredibly similar average weekly mileage results above. Finally, I originally assumed I had a larger positive split in 2016, but that’s not so. I’m coming around to thinking that I’m unlikely to run a negative split and that another sub-3 hour attempt will require banking perhaps 30 to 45 seconds in the first half, anticipating such a slowdown in the second half due to fatigue.

Will there be another roll of the dice for the sub-3 hour goal? Not for 2018. My mind is frazzled from the past few weeks of marathon training and I need to recalibrate and get back to baseline. I want to regain some of my speed and revisit shorter distances like 5k, 10k and half marathons, running them in anger once again. Taking the rather crude marathon prediction calculation of doubling your half marathon best, and adding 10 minutes, only gives me an 11 second margin of error; getting my half marathon PB below 84 or even 83 minutes will be time well spent for any future outing at the 26.2 mile distance.

Very few successful marathon outings happen because of one sole runner alone. There’s often an invisible team behind the performance, all playing their part to get the most out of an individual. You all know who you are, even if you don’t think you’ve helped all that much, to which I’m incredibly grateful.

With that, we’re at the end of another marathon campaign. Many of you will be embarking on autumn marathons of your own very soon, which I wish you the best of luck with.

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Robin Hood Half Marathon 2017 review

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Marathon pace dress rehearsal at the Robin Hood Half Marathon 2017

For the 2016 race, please click the following:

Darryll Thomas and I took advantage of our golden ticket prizes from last year to once again run this race for free! Read on to find out what happened in Nottingham.

Pre-race

Covering this race at marathon pace in 2016 did wonders for my confidence before going into the Yorkshire Marathon only a fortnight later, so I looked to repeat this strategy in as similar a fashion as possible. This was very much a marathon dress-rehearsal, using all of the clothing and kit that I plan to utilise in the main event. Including the Nike Vaporfly 4% shoes (more on this later).

Arriving in Nottingham, it was immediately apparent that the race organisers had managed to boost numbers. Compared to a year ago, there were now significantly more cars on the road and dramatically more runners in the race village with over an hour before the start time. Everything felt chaotic, especially with the well organised and recent Wolverhampton Half Marathon still in memory.

Due to logistics, Darryll and I got separate warm-ups in. My legs felt incredibly disconnected from a very light week of running; co-ordination was severely lacking, though thankfully began to return as I neared the end of a 1.5 mile jog, with 200m of strides helping significantly.

With more than 20 minutes remaining until the gun, I wondered over to the start pens only to find serenity incredibly lacking. Spectators got in the way of runners trying to make their way into start pens, not helped by the narrow path. A mother with a pushchair repeatedly rammed into the back of my ankles! The organisers really need to cordon off the zone immediately adjacent to the start pens from non-runners, at least until the race has started.

Once in the start pen, I learned my lesson from a year ago and ensured I was positioned far enough ahead of the sub-90 pace group for an unimpeded start and opening 5km. I even spotted Richard Whitehead mingling with the crowd, but no sign of Darryll Thomas. The pen was filling fast and given we’re both short, it made spotting each other difficult. I fretted not as we’d both eventually connect on the course from covering sub-3 hour marathon pace.

Further adding to the mayhem of the morning, there was no countdown or warning before starting – simply, “Go”!

The race

Miles 1 to 3

As anticipated, everybody charged off, including me! The Vaporfly 4% shoes felt sooo good on my feet, I actively had to drop the anchors when I saw I was creeping into 6:20 mile pace territory… I had a decent lead ahead of the sub-90 pace group, which I wanted to maintain all the way to the climb to and from Nottingham Castle; everybody slowed significantly at that point a year ago to make for a massive pinch point so early on in the race.

Storming past me was a chap wearing red cotton jogging bottoms and a thick cotton t-shirt, puffing like a steam train. He continued to pull away and whilst I thought he couldn’t possibly last, I don’t actually recall ever seeing him again for the rest of the race.

Mile 1 came in a touch faster than target at 6:44, but I learned from last year that the Robin Hood course is quite tricky to pace evenly and wasn’t something to get worked up about.

Approaching the castle whilst also climbing, I purposely ran wide of the race line so as not to get caught up in the shenanigans of people slowing. Mile 2 came in a touch slower at 6:54 to factor in the ascent.

Many people will have blown their races during mile 3, almost exclusively made up of climb with several twists and turns to really disrupt pace. Most of the race’s 522 feet of elevation occurs in the first 5k, so it really isn’t a PB chaser’s course. Mile 3 came in for 7:07, which wasn’t too bad considering.

Miles 4 to 6

A very steep descent was most welcome in mile 4. You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief from everyone! Once again like last year, water was served in clear plastic pouches. Whilst I found them quite novel previously on a cool day, I was less enthused at having to use them whilst the sun was beating down on me. Chewing a bigger hole through the packaging ended up wasting half the water, though allowed for more water to flow out, providing much needed immediate relief overhead.

I’d been consciously looking behind me a number of times to try and catch a glimpse of Darryll, but to no avail. With the knowledge that he’s much better at running downhill than me, I estimated he would likely make contact with me before too long; my gut was correct and he made himself known just as the route flattened out again. It turned out Darryll had become caught up in the sub-90 pace group, though shared how good a job the pacer was doing of communicating the plan and strategy to his runners, unlike last year’s pacer who went off like a bull in a china shop to try and outrun the damage from the early climbs. Mile 4 and its near-freefall resulted in 6:28 to recover some damage.

It boded well that we were able to keep up with marathon pace whilst casually chatting away and with the sun above us. Time was flying by and due to our shoulder-to-shoulder formation, quite a few runners dipped in and out of the slipstream we provided. Mile 5 (correcting for the incorrectly placed marker) clocked in right on target of 6:50.

A long, false-flat in mile 6 was the last of the big climbs for the rest of the course, leaving only minor undulations here and there to contend with. Mile 6, thankfully, occurred on a tree-lined street, affording some welcome shade. 6:58 popped out, becoming our second slowest mile of the race.

Miles 7 to 9

A short but sharp climb up to Wollaton Park paved the way for a nice, gentle descent for the remainder of the mile, again under tree cover. Awkwardly, the set of large gates in the middle of the park were once again locked and required runners divert on to grass temporarily to go around! That being said, I recall mile 7 feeling so easy and effortless, with a split of 6:41 confirming as much.

Mile 8 was completely unmemorable, but must have been quite easy to produce 6:43 on the clock.

Reaching the mile 9 switchback, we both recalled the moment we caught glimpses of each other from a year prior, almost like déjà vu. Speakers blaring out Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” pushed us on to our fastest split of 6:40, before slamming on the brakes to regain control…

Miles 10 to 12

With how warm the morning had become, we counted our lucky stars that an impromptu water station had been created, using the remnants of the mile 3-4 water station. Two volunteers handed out what was left of the water pouches, but due to some bad timing, Darryll and I passed just as they’d run out and reached into the box to replenish stocks… Neither of us were willing to stop mid-stride to grab one and I caught sight of the lady’s horrified face as she realised what had happened. It was going to be a very hot and sweaty final 5k, indeed!

Sometime shortly after last year’s race, both Darryll and I were contacted for our feedback concerning the course. We shared our dislike of the two switchbacks occurring in miles 9 and 10 in quick succession, along with our utter dislike of introducing so much climbing in just the first 5k of the race. Well, the organisers sort of listened to us and sort of didn’t. The switchback in mile 9 and the early climbing obviously remained, but they did re-route mile 10 to eradicate the second switchback. Unfortunately, the adage of, “give with one hand, take away with the other” held true, for the replacement featured several jarring undulations instead… Comparing the two splits side by side, the 2016 switchback version was a good 12 seconds faster (6:40) compared to the 2017 non-switchback version (6:52). Be careful what you wish for, folks!

Mile 11 was unmemorable and sat steady at 6:48.

We found ourselves in a small group that had remained consistent for the last couple of miles. Nearing mile 12, I told people to push on as it was almost completely flat from that point to the finish. It turned out all of us were either treating the half marathon as a marathon pace training run, or were in the marathon and wanted to sit steady – a nice bit of camaraderie to wrap up the race. Mile 12 clocked in with 6:46.

Mile 13 and a bit

Returning to base, we continued to sit steady, though I could sense Darryll was beginning to falter by falling behind by just a few steps. Turning right for the start pen area, I slowed a touch to allow him to reconnect with the group, but he opted to hang back, citing an overwhelming sensation to throw up as what was slowing him down. I continued on with Jason, one of the guys from the group covering the race at pace ahead of the Chester Marathon.

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Who wears short shorts? I wear short shorts! Photo by Lis Yu

We saw Lis on photo duty. I think I look even happier than a year ago!

I’d somehow forgotten that the final 200m or so took place on grass, so I was thankful a sprint was not needed, especially in the tall off the ground Vaporfly 4% shoes…

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

I knew I would be close to last year’s finish time. Turns out I was officially just one second faster with 89:21!

Jason and I shook hands as I waited for Darryll to come back in. We collected our goodie bag spoils and loitered with intent, hoping that we would get lucky again with this year’s golden ticket promotion for free entry into next year’s race, but no joy.

Recovery-wise, my Garmin quoted 67 hours, whilst Strava concluded with a 300 point suffer score – last year, under much cooler conditions and with nobody to gas to, only came to 189 points!

I’m incredibly pleased with how comfortable and casual marathon pace felt, giving me more confidence that having a crack at a sub-3 hour marathon in Yorkshire won’t be a fool’s errand. With a thorough taper and carbohydrate loaded, I’m optimistic that it can happen, albeit with the finest of margins.

Wolverhampton Half Marathon 2017 review

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A glass medal from the Wolverhampton Marathon, Half Marathon and 10k

As is now customary in my marathon plans, Wolverhampton became the lucky venue to serve as a glorified pace session in the build-up to the big race.

Pre-race

After last year’s dreadful Kenilworth Half Marathon experience, marred by illness, I had little desire to return there. I hasten to add the race was well organised, but I simply wasn’t able to capitalise on it due to being under the weather. The alternative – the Wolverhampton Half Marathon – became Plan A, backed also by Lis’ debut in the 10k race.

Rather than put myself through unnecessary suffering and potentially delay recovery again, I opted for caution and limited my goal to just marathon pace, or a touch faster, so as not to pile on too much stress in the remaining crucial weeks ahead of race day. A short taper beforehand gave me a fighting chance of success. Dave Burton was in tow for similar reasons, whereas Darryll Thomas, and Shaun Hemmings who we bumped into, were in the pursuit of some new PBs over 13.1 miles.

With a 09:15 start (Lis’ 10k kicked off at 09:40), we made sure we were firmly on site in West Park with an hour to spare to take care of any necessary pre-race admin. For the size of the event, the organisers actually did a damn fine job; toilets were plentiful and they even had urinals to ease some of the congestion. Warming up in the park was also a novelty, where so often it’s incredibly difficult to find space immediately next to the race village (I’m looking at you, Bristol).

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We’re about halfway through the photo on the left – photo by Express & Star

Once in the start pen, it was all very civilised with plenty of space and no sense of panic. The majority of participants were there for the half marathon, which we later discussed would make for a rather lonely race for the marathoners going on to do their second laps.

The race

With such a small field, getting away from the start line was smooth and unimpeded. I dialled into my marathon pace target of 6:50 almost immediately, with the effort feeling incredibly easy in light of the blowy conditions we runners found ourselves in. Groups of runners quickly formed and whilst I instinctively wanted to speed up to join them for the wind break they offered, another part of me reasoned that I needed to stick to plan for the pace practice, and organically attaching or detaching from groups was the best approach. Mile 1 beeped in for 6:49 to be right on target; rather than bore you all, I’ll only make reference to pace or mile splits when they dramatically deviated from the norm.

In the distance, I could see a rather large group had formed with local BRAT runner, Mark Ince, leading the way. He looked far too relaxed and steady to be racing, so I reasoned he must’ve been down for the marathon. Mild spoiler: he ran the marathon as a long training run and won it in 2:53!

I was warned of the many twists and turns through Wolverhampton suburbia. I was readily reminded of the Sneyd Xmas Pudding run and I could only imagine how soul destroying such sections of the route will have been for those caught in no-man’s land in the marathon. Mile 2 benefitted from a nice downhill stretch for the fastest split of 6:43 for the morning.

For miles 3 and 4, there were few around me to run with. I bought into the idea early on that if I couldn’t handle marathon pace for long stretches alone, then what chance would I have come race day? Thankfully, marathon pace continued to feel incredibly relaxed, and with the strong gusts of wind factored in, confidence was high. Dave being his usual meticulous-self had studied the course map in great detail, highlighting a few novel sights to us beforehand. Such novel sections of the route included the local sewage refinery (which we passed no fewer than three times) and some random detour through a school.

Looking at the time, Lis was due to start her 10k race debut. The last couple of miles of both the half marathon and 10k course converged and we roughly figured we would all come into contact in the closing stages.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was caught off-guard shortly after mile 5 when we entered what appeared to be a long and narrow park that ran adjacent to the canal. The path narrowed and I latched on to a runner ahead for a break in his slipstream. His breathing was incredibly heavy at not even halfway, so I prayed for him that he was only running the half marathon. Mile 5 slowed just a smidge to 6:52.

Continuing the theme of unexpected course elements, I was directed to make a sharp right on to an unpaved off-road section of the route where it was largely a case of running single-file, or running on the grass to overtake… Whilst I was already in a bemused state, I then found myself being paced by a cyclist and one of the official race motorbikes! To their credit, they maintained a very steady pace ahead of me for much of this section and took themselves off the course when they identified they could no longer overtake ahead and would only slow me down. The crazy as a box of frogs mile 6 clocked in for 6:47.

Leaving this section, I merged with a group of runners that managed to creep away from me earlier on in the race. I most definitely did not speed up to reach them, so they definitely slowed. To further disrupt their pace, an up-down-up-down set of underpasses appeared, leaving only me and one other still on it. Marathon pace continued to feel comfortable, especially in refreshingly cool conditions.

My memory gets a little hazy at this point for miles 8 and 9. Mile 8, in spite of featuring liberal doses of twists and turns through housing estates and a sharpish climb, still managed to produce a 6:45 for the third fastest split of the morning.

In spite of what the elevation graphs depict, mile 10 was not nearly as steep as one would imagine. Having said that, it proved no less challenging due to where it appeared on the course. I accepted the 6:58 to 7:00 pace that appeared on my Garmin and reasoned the descent on the other side would get me back on track for a 6:49 average.

Somewhere between miles 10 and 11, the 10k route merged with the half marathon and a stream of additional runners came into view. Psychologically, this was quite welcome after long stretches of running alone as it introduced bite-size chunks of progress. I kept a look out for Lis in the distance and finally spotted her just after mile 11, running alongside what looked like the Grinch that stole Christmas… Giving her a cheer and some encouragement to stay strong for another 2 miles, she shared that she’d already seen Darryll go past minutes earlier, so I knew he was on to something big. I alerted her to Dave’s incoming presence that was likely to be no more than a minute or two away. Doing some quick mental arithmetic, I was travelling at almost twice Lis’ speed, and with 2 miles remaining, I would have plenty of time to finish and get back into the crowd to see her.

The number of 10k runners swelled with some running on the pavement and others on the road. Just in front of me, a very vocal runner that cheered on many of the 10k participants came to a stop when orange wedges and sweets were being offered by a family. Unsure of whether he was in the 26.2 or 13.1 mile race, he re-joined the course just behind me and continued his cheers. “You’re making this look far too easy,” I joked with him. “I’ve got another lap to go! Gotta keep my spirits up,” was his jovial response. Advising that I should have been “kicking on”, I revealed that I was out on a marathon pace training run. “Ahh! Well, in that case, you’re looking like you’re bang on pace. Keep it up!” I thanked him for his encouragement and wished him well – he wasn’t even at halfway yet…

Straddling the outskirts of West Park, I could see and hear the commotion of the finish line. Frustratingly, the course took runners away from the park momentarily to bulk out the distance to make up 26.2, 13.1 or 6.2 miles. Darryll and I researched typical recorded distances beforehand and we were both confident the race would measure very precisely with very little to no excess. With so few other runners around me, I had run a very clean race line and was upbeat that I wouldn’t have to put in a mad sprint to make it back in less than 90 minutes.

On the approach to re-enter the park, a trio of 10k runners got to the narrow gate just ahead of me. “Sorry! Coming through,” I had to holler to avoid clattering into them. On the grass finish straight, I knew I would finish on target with change. I got a mention over the PA system and gave a few thumbs up, feeling very much like a fraud. Mission accomplished!

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for the race that wasn’t a race.

89:11 in 22nd place were my spoils to leave me pleased with the morning’s efforts.

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Darryll (84:23; PB), Dave (1:33:23), Lis (1:12:42; debut), Andy (89:11)

I collected all the finisher’s paraphernalia on offer and made a beeline for a gap along the finish to catch Lis coming back in. Unsure of whether Dave had finished already, or not, I was just able to catch him finishing in 1:33:23. He and Darryll (84:23 for a PB) soon joined me to cheer Lis finishing her first 10k race (1:12:42). Bumping into Shaun as we were leaving, we learned he had also PBd with 81:48 to finish 6th overall.

In all, I was very satisfied with the event and organisation. It did exactly what I needed of a build-up race in that it wasn’t too expensive, there were more than sufficient water stations and facilities, and the distance was damn near perfect. Whilst Wolverhampton can’t compete with the raft of other city races on offer in the autumn, I’m not sure it necessarily needs to because it does what it does incredibly well.

Magor 10k 2017 review

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Final 200m of the Magor 10k 2017 – photo by Lis Yu

My fourth outing at this flat and fast race.

Pre-race

Regrettably, this would be the first year where a PB was nowhere near happening. I’ve had several significant runs on the course, including my first ever sub-40 in 2014, so it was a real shame that I wasn’t in the right shape to capitalise on the opportunity. That’s not to say I’m unfit, just that training specificity now counts even more than ever before. What I was determined to do was to get a good threshold session out of the race, with anything in the region of 39:15 to 39:30 being satisfactory

I could not fathom why this race was moved from its traditional Sunday fixture to Saturday, but when I received the communication that the race HQ had also changed from Undy Athletic Football Club to a church, it all made sense. Some positive changes to come with the location move was the much wider start area for a cleaner dispersal and chip timing, though oddly only just for the finish; in essence, it was still a gun-timed race, but finish times were automatically logged.

Rocking up at the temporary race HQ in good time, there were already plenty of people about with some from as far flung as Chippenham; clearly the reputation of the flat course has spread. We also had Lis’ host family from her time in Spain in tow, showing them how we typically spend many weekends of the year.

Conditions above were overcast for some relief compared to a year ago, but my warm-up did confirm a 10mph headwind would hit during the first half of the course, so my game plan was to approach the opening 5k in just under 20 minutes, and then treat the remainder as a 5k race and take advantage of the hopeful tailwind.

Toeing up at the start, I did notice one chap wearing the new Nike Vaporfly 4% for the race; they already looked like they’d had some training wear on them, so I asked him for his thoughts. “Yeah, they’re really comfy,” was his not so helpful response, but at least we can all be safe in the knowledge we’d be comfortable wearing them in a race!

On the starter’s orders of “3-2-1-Go”, we were off.

The race

Keeping the race casual, I purposely positioned myself a few rows further back than normal to ensure I had plenty of people to deflect the gusts of wind blowing. Sure enough, I was tailing two guys that seemed reasonably reliable at pacing to allow me to make it to halfway feeling fresh. I’m normally conscious to never overstay my welcome when drafting, but I had no qualms on this occasion to simply sit in and let the mules do all the work. So reliable were they that 1km to 3km came out as the following: 4:01, 4:00, 3:57.

Gaps began to form as people tired around the group. I decided to stay put and remain calm in the knowledge that I could handle a faster second half with little issue once out of the wind. Whilst not warm enough to need water, I still took some on-board at the station to further slow the fourth km to 4:03.

Leaving Redwick village and the turning out of the wind, I took a sidestep out from behind my impromptu pacers and set my sails free to take advantage of the tailwind. Of course, tailwinds never return as much as headwinds take, so its effect was very subtle…

Working on my own, I gradually chipped away at the distance between me and the next group to begin reeling them in. 5km to 7km came out as follows: 3:54, 3:52, 3:53.

Nearing 8km and the switchback, I was finally within striking distance of the group I stalked and I planned to use the exit from the turnaround point to pounce. Sure enough, their momentum slowed and I was catapulted forward to gain two positions. Not being ungrateful, I gave some encouragement to one of the guys I’d used as a windbreak as we faced each other; the other chap was nowhere to be seen, so I figured he couldn’t have been far behind me. 8km expectedly slowed a touch to 3:56.

On the approach to 9km, I heard footsteps and heavy breathing coming up quickly behind. Pulling up alongside me was the other guy I’d used as a windbreak! He’d obviously had a similar strategy to me with negative splits, albeit more smoothly spread out throughout the second half of the race. 3:54 for the penultimate split.

Running for the finish, the two of us swallowed up a flagging club runner. Rounding the final corner, the two of them made a breakaway with me in chase. The newly located finish was leagues ahead of the 2016 equivalent that took runners down a narrow alleyway; now wide an unimpeding, I pushed out a minor kick on the new finishing straight to ensure to I made it back in under 39:30, not accounting for the additional 70m or so nearly everybody seemed to acquire en route (likely due to that switchback being too far out).

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

39:27 was my finish time to just make it back under target. That additional 70m cost me some 14 seconds, so I was thankful I wasn’t in PB shape, else I’d have been spitting feathers! runbritain has given the race just a 0.8 condition score, and looking at the results, many still PBd despite the additional distance.

I thanked the first of my two windbreaks and congratulated him on a nicely paced run, before moving my attention on to the other windbreak, who bagged a new 10k PB and his first sub-40 by with just a second to spare.

All in, not a bad morning’s work. Whether you go by my Garmin’s splits or the official splits, I achieved a negative split of around either 30 or 45 seconds between the first and second half, neither of which are to be sniffed at.

 

Birmingham Black Country Half Marathon 2017 review

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Final few hundred metres of the Birmingham Black Country Half Marathon – photo by Lis Yu

A mass participation half marathon? On canal towpaths? What madness is this???

Pre-race

Sadly, I have to start this write-up on a downer. Some of you will already know that there was a breach of data protection from the organisers in the build-up to this race. Nothing nefarious or as sinister as being hacked by another country, but rather just a good old-fashioned cock-up.

So, what happened? Some 100 participants (likely the first 100 by start allocation time) received an email from the organisers (StuWeb) with an attached spreadsheet containing the personal details of all 1,700 race participants. The data included such things as home address, phone number, email address, date of birth, next of kin, medical notes, and so on. Five days after the accidental data leak, there is still no apology or explanation from StuWeb, where it now appears they’re burying their head in the sand in the hope that runners forget and move on. Future participants of this race, you’ve been warned!

Several years ago in a bid to diversify my training routes, I opted to try and mimic the Birmingham Black Country Half Marathon. All started out well as I commuted to Wolverhampton city centre, navigated to the canal and began my run back to Birmingham. Then, I came face to face with a closed off tunnel somewhere in the middle of the route, needed to backtrack and ended up re-joining the canal much further away, adding another 3 miles to my long run…

Memories fade and with a distinct lack of locally accessible races during the summer, I made light of this opportunity for a training run at marathon pace, with Dave in tow. We bumped into Barry Fallon at New Street station whilst commuting, and a few other BRAT guys beforehand to emphasise the local feel of the race.

The intention was to simply cover the distance at marathon pace for both Dave and me. Recalling where I was roughly a year ago in the training schedule, 13.1 miles at 6:50 per mile would be a big ask, especially on the uneven terrain of the canal towpath route. The longest I had successfully run at marathon pace up to this race was the Aldridge 10k almost a month ago. I was also carrying some fatigue from several weeks without a cutback, along with this Saturday race robbing me of an extra day of recovery I would normally enjoy from a Sunday event. Further to my tale of woe, the organisers were unwilling to bump me up to a slightly earlier and faster wave, meaning I was likely to be one of the fastest of my grouping and likely to be running long sections without company…

I decided to break from tradition and this was one of the rare race occasions where I did not don my yellow vest and also decided to carry my own drinks. Not trusting my own ability to drink from cups on the course, I didn’t want to leave myself exposed and potentially prolong recovery.

Assembled, Dave and I were close to the very front of our wave’s safety briefing. Unknowingly, we were mere metres away from the start line and were both somewhat caught off-guard when we were released on to the canal for our journey back to Birmingham.

The race

Very quickly, I zoned into marathon pace and found myself in the top three of my wave, trading positions with the second place guy periodically. The effort felt manageable, given I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice a week of training in exchange for being fresh for the race.

Within a mile or so, the second place chap dropped back as his breathing grew heavier, leaving me in chase for first place in my wave. Shortly after moving into second place, I closed in on first place and sat steady for a while longer. Miles 1 and 2 came in at 6:45 and 6:48 respectively.

With no additional effort, I began edging closer to first place as he slowed. Practically drafting behind him, he urged me on to pass him as we made our way towards mile 3. The pace held steady for a 6:49 split.

I’ve got to give some applause for the volunteers acting as marshals and manning the water stations – the support was fantastic and well received, especially once I began running solo.

After some time, I spotted two runners in the distance, clearly together. I began wondering whether they were part of the race, or not, with some doubt thrown in given how far off the pace they were to have made it into wave B (1:29 to 1:26 target finish time). Any of you that marshal large parkrun events will know how increasingly difficult it becomes to gauge whether runners towards the rear of the pack are actually part of the event, or simply out on a solo run. Some that aren’t part of the event get really offended when you begin cheering them on! Well, it turned out they were part of the race, after all, and moved into single file whilst encouraging me onwards.

Increasingly, I began encountering more stray runners from the back of wave B. The worst offender wore headphones on the narrow path, despite being asked to only have one ear plugged in. “Passing on your right,” I hollered several times, with no reaction. As I crept around her, she began freaking out, clearly surprised that I was there. My annoyance that I wasn’t allowed to be bumped up to wave B increased. Grrr…

I’d finally arrived at the infamously long and dark tunnel within mile 5. There were a few lights attached to the hand rail, but nothing significant enough to illuminate the uneven ground beneath my feet. I adjusted to a mid-foot strike, allowing for as much ground contact as possible, just in case. Meeting a lady at roughly halfway into the darkness who slowed to a walk, she allowed me to pass. “You’re braver than I am!” she shared with me. “Nope. I’m just more stupid!” was my reply, as I tried to minimise any slowdown. Amazingly, some of the fastest finishers are completing the course in some 71 minutes, so they’re either dramatically faster than that and slowing to safely get through the tunnel, or have balls the size of grapefruits and charge through hoping for the best. Surprisingly, my Garmin remained locked on and recovered the pace reasonably well. Miles 4 and 5 came in at 6:51 and 6:58 respectively.

The narrow, untamed path continued to be a problem and frequently offered no more than 40cm of width to run on and overtaking required anticipating and choosing the right moment. Bridges also took their toll, with the jarring, sharp and short gradients forcing me to break stride. Mile 6 produced a 6:54 to signal the beginning of the pace slip…

The swell of runners from the back of wave B grew, so much so that I lost count. I was struggling to concentrate and I couldn’t get into any sort of rhythm, though still managed to hold steady with mile 7 to 10 splits of 6:54, 6:58, 6:58 and 6:56.

Mile 11 unexpectedly broke me. I run that section of the canal twice a week after work and I looked forward to that familiar stretch to get me through to the end. Unfortunately, that section of canal also throws a couple of bridges in quick succession, which just isn’t great on tired legs. Unhelpfully, the course also took runners on to the unpaved right-hand side of the canal back into Brindley Place, whereas I’d expected the newly paved left-hand side to be used. Miles 11 and 12 came in with 7:03 and 7:14 respectively.

With less than a mile to go before reaching Brindley Place, fellow run-blogger Shaun Hemmings and I spotted each other. Out spectating with his daughter, my red t-shirt and ultra vest threw him off and it was only my running style that confirmed it was indeed me!

Sensing I was near the end, I finally saw Lis on the other side of the canal, waiting for both me and Dave to finish. With just a few hundred metres to go, I picked up my cadence for the finish, which suddenly veered off to the right for another unexpected and literal turn.

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

It was a pretty gentle finish by my standards, with very quick recovery before shooting over to the other side to cheer Dave in.

Due to a need for convenience of start and finish points, the race historically measures long and I clocked 13.29 miles, so kudos to anybody that can score a half marathon PB on the course. I recorded a finish time of 1:32:25 and an average pace of 6:56 per mile, which is a little off from target, but would have been worse if I’d have attempted a solo outing.

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Dave and me at the Birmingham Black Country Half Marathon – photo by Lis Yu

Dave finished pretty much on his target marathon pace, which bodes well at not even the halfway point of his training.

A good litmus test of a race is whether you would consider entering again; I’m still undecided, several days later as I type this. Locally in the summer, there are few half marathons that I have access to as training for an autumn half marathon, as opposed to the abundance of half marathons and 20 mile races available in January, February and March before spring marathons. Yes, I got the training run I wanted, but the admin and organisation of the race beforehand has left a bitter taste in my mouth. A race that’s so careless to release your personal details and then offer no apology or explanation, formal or otherwise, does not deserve my recommendation.

Wythall Hollywood 10k 2017 review

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Fifth outing at this no longer well-kept secret of a 10k – photo by Lis Yu

For previous years’ races, please click below:

Pre-race

Covering the recent Aldridge 10k at marathon pace felt like the right thing to do at the time, but the race felt somewhat hollow and unsatisfying. I’d worked hard over the years to get to a sub-40 10k performance, and last year looked like the first time where such a finish time was unlikely to trouble me expect on the most hilly of routes.

By comparison, the Wythall Hollywood 10k carries a much gentler profile, even with it’s two 1km long climbs over 2 laps. Last year was the first time I ran sub-40 on the route, also sharing the joint-honour as my 10k PB course (the other race is the Magor Marsh 10k). With this week technically classed as my cutback week, a sub-40 performance would dovetail nicely as a lactate threshold session to try and widen my arsenal of paces. Darryll Thomas, whom I first met at the race three years ago, also wanted a sub-40 performance, and so the goal was set!

There’s a lot going for this race and I can’t stress enough how much there is going for it. It seemed others have also finally caught on to it, because it looked like there was a new attendance record at almost a thousand based on bib numbers – perhaps this will persuade the organisers to give chip timing a shot next year, which really is the only thing that lets the race down, especially for those caught up in the middle or back of the pack.

Bib collected from race HQ, I recognised sizable representation from BRAT, Bournville Harriers and Kings Heath Running Club, with a couple of other clubs also in attendance.

Arriving slightly later than originally planned for, I made a beeline to get my warm-up in, which probably could have been at least another 0.5 miles longer in an ideal world. Nonetheless, I breathed a sigh of relief to have gotten all of my pre-race admin completed with a little time to spare to catch-up with a few local faces I recognised. However, there was still no sign of Darryll Thomas…

It was time to assemble on the start line and with just minutes to spare, Darryll finally appeared for our joint-venture to share the sub-40 effort. We noticed we’d somehow positioned ourselves behind several kids, so a wide berth off the line was factored in. “3-2-1” and the beginning of circa-40 minutes of lactate threshold hell had begun…

The race

We both settled into race pace early on and commented that we would reel plenty of people in who had taken off at what was more likely their 5k pace. Confusingly, this may have actually held true for those in the much smaller 5k race. I pointed out a couple of faces to Darryll who we likely wanted to keep an eye on as ability barometers that typically aligned closely to us; worryingly, Barry Fallon had built up quite a lead of some 200m in a matter of minutes, so he was off the radar, though a Bournville Harrier that’s always a couple of steps ahead of me at all distances continued to track closely. 1km came in at 3:58 to be precisely on target.

The course throws a lengthy climb in, lasting a little over a km and needing to be tackled twice. Darryll and I both commented that attendance was noticeably up on previous years, where we’d historically finished in the 41 to 42 minute range to find ourselves running in no-man’s land. On this occasion, there were plenty of people around us with positions often chopping and changing. Whereas we’d agreed for me to do the heavy lifting on climbs, Darryll kept pace with me much of the ascent, with the split slowing to 4:10 and staying firmly to plan.

Our plan had us taking advantage of the high-speed downhill section after the climb to recover some of the damage, and to also buffer a little time for the second lap. Darryll took the reins and paved much of the way on the descent, with me in tow. With a 3k split of 3:50, we were back on target and eased off slightly for some recovery.

The ever-present chap with his hosepipe was once again on the scene to cool us runners down. The sight of him and access to multiple water stops got me thinking that, despite the total 2km of climbing, the course is conducive to fast times. Athletes are able to better manage the heat of racing, with several people and me citing the course as home to their 10k PBs. I’ve run much flatter 10k races historically, but as single lap events with a single water station, it becomes much harder to continue red-lining when you’re overheating at just halfway.

One of the kids from the 5k race was able to stick with us, and regardless of the very wide and traffic-free route, decided he needed to run through the two of us. “Out of the way,” he said, precociously! In no rush of our own on this steady split, we parted and allowed him through, only for us to overtake him as we exited the Phoenix complex. 4km clocked in for 3:51 for more time in the bank.

I spotted Paul Harris spectating, rather than running this year, for a welcome morale boost. Shortly afterwards on the bridge, I had Lis hand me a bottle of water as she does every year – another one of those little things that allows this race to be faster than its profile would normally allow. Unlike most years, the bottle needed to thaw out a bit more because there wasn’t much water to be had from it! A few sips between Darryll and me didn’t allow much left to be thrown over our heads, so it was fortunate that we weren’t running in the amped up temperatures from a week prior. 5km came in at 3:58 for the split and 19:46 at halfway.

The Bournville Harrier I’d pointed out was narrowly drifting away, such was the level of his ability relative to ours. Barry, however, loomed ever closer with each step. 6k registered 4:03 for some definitely slow-down, likely due to the undulations from the country lane.

Turning the corner for the second approach of the climb, I took the lead whilst Darryll and a Leamington Spa Strider, who’d remained with us thus far, sat in behind me. I’d reeled Barry in and gave him some encouragement to latch on to our group, but it was to no avail. His ambitious first half had come back to bite him, though I was still confident he could break 40 minutes with a re-focused final 3km. The climb had definitely knocked some of the wind from our sails the second time around, producing a 7k split of 4:14 and 4 seconds down compared to lap 1.

We took advantage once more of the near-2km long descent, with Darryll moving into position and taking the lead, whilst I followed to gain some recovery. The climb had taken a little more out of me than anticipated, and even with running downhill, I couldn’t get my legs to turnover any quicker. The 8k split also slowed a tad to 3:54, though still within acceptable limits.

Passing my man with the hosepipe, I requested an absolute drenching, which instantly freshened me up for the remainder of the race. Entering the Phoenix complex for the final time, I continued to bring up the rear of our three man pack before moving back into the lead. The 9k split produced 3:51 to match perfectly with lap 1.

I switched up my Garmin to elapsed time and began giving real time updates. As I called out, “36 minutes” a little on from 9k, a whole host of runners all crept out nowhere to surprise me, Darryll and the Leamington Spa Strider! Renewed interest in a sub-40 finish? Hiding in nearby bushes and skipping out a lap like I used to at school cross-country? Who knows…

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Final 500m of the Wythall Hollywood 10k 2017 – photo by Lis Yu

Passing Paul and Lis once again, I was spurred on to begin wrapping up the race. I continued to give minute by minute time updates as I led the charge back to race HQ and the finish. My legs had recovered from earlier and I found myself able to open up my stride and push on. Returning to race HQ, I was cheered on by a few kids, shouting out my race number, and also Cannon Hill parkrunner, David Carruthers, stood on the final corner. There was no need for a mad sprint as I knew I was on the right side of 40 minutes!

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for the race.

Coming back in with 39:42, that was possibly the most comfortable end to a sub-40 10k I’ve ever experienced. I caught my breath back within seconds as I got to see a flurry of runners crossing the line, including Darryll for 39:43.

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Mission accomplished – photo by Lis Yu

The two of us are pretty damn pleased with the performances, after very little respective work at lactate threshold pace outside of parkruns and maybe the odd session. As I keep reiterating to myself, this season is all about one almighty goal, so I’m about where I want to be concerning 10k pace. If I’m feeling a little sharper by the time of the Magor Marsh 10k in late July, I may see if something in the region of 39:15 is possible.

Congratulations go out to Alex Mold for another second place podium finish in the women’s race, and Steve Dunsby for another 3rd place podium finish in the men’s race.

A 5k warm-down rounded off a pretty satisfying day, with not nearly as much suffering at lactate threshold as originally envisaged!

 

Aldridge 10k 2017 review

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Third outing for me at the infamously hilly Aldridge 10k.

For the 2013 and 2016 races, please click below:

Pre-race

It’s a dangerous thing chasing after past glories. A year ago, I ran 39:16 in utterly dreadful conditions, and possibly could have gone harder if the appetite was there that day. As satisfying as it would be to equal that performance, I knew it simply wasn’t going to happen without the right training behind me. To save myself from failure, I pivoted the race’s outlook to simply cover the distance at marathon pace; a chat with Simon Rhodes of Birchfield Harriers beforehand gave me some solace that he, too, was suffering from marathon pace robbing him of speed over shorter distances, so I wasn’t alone.

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No torrential rain this year!

After the recent pre-race chaos at the Tewkesbury Half Marathon, Simon of the Bull variety and I decided to set off earlier to factor in potential delay with parking, bib collection and so forth. As it turned out, we breezed through traffic, found a parking space immediately, and collected our bibs without delay! With plenty of time on our hands to kill, we took on a gentle 2km jog that largely covered the opening stretch of the race; oddly enough for a race that I’ve run thrice, and Simon twice, neither of us could picture much of the first half of the route!

Waiting for the start was a completely different experience to that of last year’s wash-out. There was no need to huddle underneath anything for shelter; aside from a strong breeze and looming dark clouds, conditions actually looked quite favourable. On the Mayor’s count of, “3-2-1”, and the hooter, we were off.

The race

My urge to resist charging off with the crowd failed miserably; I found myself covering the first few hundred metres at 6:24 per mile, which would equate to a sub-40 10k, rather than the prescribed 6:50 per mile for marathon pace… I gradually applied the anchors and eased back into marathon pace, which really highlighted how much chopping and changing there was in the opening km. Just to confuse you guys, I recorded splits in km, but was pacing by miles: 6:51 was the recorded pace.

There was a fair bit of pavement hopping due to the race not taking place on closed roads. The organisers made specific reference during the briefing that earphones were not permitted for safety reasons, to which we both quietly chuckled at the sight of a woman trying to be ever so discreet whilst taking hers off and putting them away in her non-existent pockets… But, at least she took them off, because just in front of me was a guy that was very clearly wearing them and rather oblivious to those around him. The organisers did say they would be disqualifying those they caught wearing earphones, which really is the only deterrent, because it’s pointless having rules that can’t or won’t be enforced.

Anyway… I got caught up in a small group with the earphones guy and a Bournville Harrier, which persisted for much of the race. With the undulations in place, maintaining marathon pace was more challenging than I was used to, courtesy of the flat canals I’m accustomed to. I sense some training modifications coming up! The second km clocked in at 6:47 pace.

Remember when I said that Simon and I both struggled to recall much of the first half of the race? It could be entirely because of a sharp-ish climb somewhere in the third km, though there is a fairly enjoyable downhill stretch in the fourth km for compensation. Largely by the numbers, the third and fourth km splits came in at 6:38 and 6:42 pace, so I was beginning to speed up ever so slightly.

Just before halfway was another sharp climb to test me further before the water stop. It’s rare that I don’t take on some water during a race, so my hydration tactics of late must have been working. Be that as it may, I was growing increasingly warmer as the race progressed, largely due to the undulations but also from the sun that peaked out from behind the clouds – some water to go over my head was most welcome. As I neared one of the volunteers handing out cups of water, I stretched out my hand only for her to pull the cup of water away! She had one job to do and failed spectacularly! I had to sidestep and thrust my arm in to prise the cup from her hand, or go without; good thing I wasn’t thirsty… 5km came in at 6:33 pace, largely due to some benefit from some downhill stretches.

The Bournville Harrier and I continued to chop and change places, where he tended to lead on descents and I gained on the climbs. 6km steadied itself for 6:38 pace.

The seventh km was exclusively downhill and I recall making massive gains on this portion of last year’s race. Runners were completely exposed to the sun at this stage with no shade, so it was a blessing that the descent was so effortless to result in 6:19 pace.

Turning the corner, I knew full well that it was pretty much a mile of climbing to the finish. I could see Simon Rhodes on the horizon as I crept closer and closer to him. He, too, was covering his marathon pace of circa-7:00 minutes per mile, so must have seen some red mist to be that far ahead of me. The Bournville Harrier managed to gain a decent lead from the preceding downhill stretch, but he was also being reeled in. 8km showed the first signs of slowdown for 6:43 pace.

Moving into the final km, I overtook Simon and offered some encouragement, though not too much because I knew he had another 5 miles to cover to get back home for 18 miles in total. Shortly afterwards, I’d also regrouped with the Bournville Harrier to share a bit of banter before continuing my charge up the lengthy climb. 9km slowed to 6:52 pace and my slowest split of the race by less than a second.

Near the top of the climb, I finally saw another competitor and powered past him on my way to the finish, which seemed to take a lifetime to reach. I could hear the PA system being used to call out runners’ names as they went through the finish line, but it was several minutes and several hundred metres before it came into sight. Passing one of the final remaining marshals on the course, he offered me a cheer of, “Looking good, no.139. Or should that be 171?” Just 24 hours prior, I was joking with the coffee gang after Cannon Hill parkrun about my “171” tattoo causing confusion in races, where people assume I must be really into triathlon, or similar.

Final corner turned, I found myself firmly back on the playing field where Simon Bull and I had completed 200m of strides before the race. There was a chap just metres ahead of me, who I was impressed to see covering the most efficient racing line through the snaking remainder of the course, marked out by tape on posts. There was no desire or need for a sprint finish, so I simply maintained pace across the line and even got a mention by name over the PA system.

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

I could get used to the non-sprint finishes; recovery was swift and I regained my breath within a minute or so to cheer Simon Rhodes in and to shake hands with the Bournville Harrier. Collecting the medal and goody bag, one of the volunteers congratulated me by name to confuse me, somewhat. A blog reader, perhaps? Or maybe they simply caught it via the PA system as I finished, which was most likely.

Whilst I recorded a finish time of 41:27, my official chip time came in at 41:24, so I must have been premature starting my Garmin crossing the start. Over 2 minutes slower than a year ago, which only highlights how robbed I was of a representative 10k PB in 2016; the pancake flat Magor 10k took place on a blisteringly hot day, causing me to collapse from heat exhaustion, and the Telford 10k was a DNF due to carrying a bad cold. The 10k distance remains my nemesis, so it’ll be so, so sweet when I finally conquer it!

I ran over to the 300m point to cheer in Simon Bull. He wore his “Bull Fit” t-shirt, prompting me to shout, “Come on, Simon! All the way to the end! Bull Fit! Bull Fit!” I did then wonder whether anybody thought I was shouting, “bullshit”, instead… I urged Simon on to take a few scalps in the remaining 200m, of which he claimed 5 with a sprint for the finish.

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A bit parched afterwards!

Once back at home, I bulked out the day’s distance with a 5k warm-down to make up 10 miles.

Thoughts and conclusions

Marathon pace over 6 miles accomplished, and with no negative side effects. My Garmin reported a recovery window of just 23 hours and a boosted VO2max reading from 61 to 62 (63 is my record high, achieved only once).

With the Wythall Hollywood 10k in two weeks’ time, I’m in two minds about covering it at marathon pace, or to have a bash at creeping in under 40 minutes for old times’ sake. I’m conscious that there’s benefit to both approaches: increased exposure to marathon pace ahead of the big day, or improving my lactate threshold, which is pitiful right now. I also have the Birmingham Black Country Half Marathon six days afterwards, which needs factoring in.