Magor 10k 2018 review

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All aboard the pain train! Photo by Robert Gale

Between this and its sister-race – The Gwent Race for Wildlife – this course is now my most frequented race.

For previous races, please click the following:

Pre-race

I had reasonable confidence of a PB opportunity going into this event. Only in 2017 did I fail to bag a PB, due to focusing my efforts on marathon training and acknowledging I’d lost too much top-end speed from injury earlier in the year.

If there’s one thing runners will remember from 2018, it will be the weather. We’ll all look back in years to come and ask ourselves whether the snow or the sun robbed us! Going into this race, there was yet another elemental foe I was concerned about it for it wasn’t the sun, but rather the wind… Checking the forecast with great interest in the days beforehand, I watched aghast as the wind speed increased from a challenging 12mph to an all-bets-are-off 19mph! Given how flat the course is, facing a stiff headwind for much of the first half of the race would be akin to slotting in a climb or two, nullifying the otherwise perfect profile.

In the days leading up to race day – a Saturday – I felt like I’d picked up the beginnings of something. I felt drained with no get-up-and-go to me, so I took the decision to sharply taper with no running at all for four whole days. The unscheduled break did me a world of good, for I felt pretty reasonable once again come race morning.

Staring outside the window, all I could see were grey skies, swaying trees and rain to literally put a dampener on things. Over breakfast, I mulled over my race approach of pigheadedly going out at PB pace and hoping for the best, or going out conservatively into the windy first half and trying to claw back some of the damage in the second half with tailwind? The decision was yet to be determined and I decided to wait and consult with Darryll Thomas, who I’d cajoled into attending, for his outlook on conditions.

With Lis and my mother-in-law in tow, we headed over to race HQ, which was once again a church and hence the Saturday race. The weather did not improve, for when Darryll and I went for our warm-up, we were almost brought to a standstill at times from the gusts we faced… I reasoned aiming for under 39 minutes would give me enough wriggle room to either ramp things up or dial things back, covering any eventualities.

Assembling for the start, and almost by divine intervention, the poor conditions eased off dramatically for a break in the wind and rain. On the starter’s orders, we were off into the south Wales countryside.

The race

In those crucial few opening seconds, I opted to be pig-headed and went for it, seeing 3:24 per km flash up on my Garmin from time to time! After a few hundred metres, I scaled things back to PB pace and slotted myself into a small group of similarly paced guys. Just a few metres ahead of me was Darryll, doing the same. The effort was undeniably fast, though still felt just about in control, paving the way for an opening split of 3:46.

A few guys from behind crept past me and I was left with just another chap. Thankfully for me, he had just a touch more strength at his disposal, so I was able to take shelter in his slipstream and allowed him to dictate the pace into the wind. The next group ahead included Darryll, though they were just a little too far from reach to reel in quickly without doing damage to ourselves. My companion agreed with me that we should have taken the opportunity to go with them when the gap was much, much smaller.

Being the no-nonsense kind of race that it is, the only real novelty of the course is its flatness. As such, there wasn’t really much of anything to report on for 2km to 4km, other than the splits coming in at 3:50, 3:53 and 3:54.

Reaching the return at Redwick Village, we felt the full force of the wind and boy was it ghastly! It was at least brief with a water station to take the sting out of a tricky km, coming in at 3:51 and halfway clocking in at 19:15. Hallelujah, for I was still in business! Another 19:15 and a modest PB was all mine!

With a tailwind for some assistance – and you never fully receive back what was taken away by a headwind – the pace began escalating once more. Also helping to pull me along was the guy I spent much of the first half with, though he continued to just marginally creep away and eventually ended up with the remnants of Darryll’s small group before it broke apart. Speaking of Darryll, he found solace behind one of the (tall) guys that scooted past me from much earlier in the race. 6km and 7km were almost identical for 3:47 and 3:48.

I could easily identify the effort was right up there to be 9/10. The sun had come out overhead to further add more stress to the mix. Prior to race day, I was going to have my father-in-law kindly be on standby with a few bottles of water at around 7km for Darryll and me. Based on that morning’s forecast, it was to remain wet and windy, so his services were not needed. The guest appearance from the sun was both welcome and unwanted in equal measure. I was kicking myself for turning down the offered assistance, for some water would have most definitely made the remainder of the race more tolerable.

Approaching the out and back section, I saw second and third place exit just as I entered, with first place having already cleared through. I gave Darryll some encouragement to keep pushing, estimating him to be some 15 seconds ahead of me. Rounding the cone, I prayed that it was in the correct place and not overly wrong in either direction. One iteration of the race in its Race for Wildlife guise back in 2015 was short by almost 200m; I left empty handed that day, despite the certainty that I still would have recorded a PB over an accurate distance. Inevitably, the switchback cost me by a few seconds, due to the turning and the direction change back into the wind. I gave Tony Cover, a Strava buddy and a participant I drafted behind for much of the 2017 race, a high-five to break up some of the monotony. 8km and 9km came in at 3:54 and 3:53, so that break in momentum really did cost me some 10 seconds or so.

With just a km remaining, some mental arithmetic reminded me that I was still just in contention of a PB if I could ramp up the pace, and if the distance was not overly long. 2017 clocked in at almost 70m too long, most likely due to the switchback cone being placed too far out.

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Will or won’t I PB? Photo by Robert Gale

Alone, I began reeling in those ahead, including Darryll who had slipped from the pace ever so slightly. Anguish was written all over my face as the effort skyrocketed. I willed the right-hand turn to appear for it meant only some 300m remained. Lis and my mother-in-law appeared for some encouragement, shortly before my Garmin beeped with almost 50m remaining. Acknowledging that my finishing kick isn’t quite what it used to be, I thrusted my arms forward and threw my legs behind me as far as they would go for the finish line. It was nerve-wracking stuff!

Post-race

Upon finishing, I let out a few exasperated cries in a bid to ease the momentary suffering. I shook the hand of the guy I drafted behind, who had finished some 10-15 seconds ahead of me. And my own finishing time? 38:35 for a very modest 5 second PB on the DK10K from early May under far more clement conditions. Were the distance closer to 10km on the nose, I’d have likely had 38:15 to 38:20 to my name; Darryll was just 5 seconds shy of a PB, so I mustn’t complain. What I can complain about is the 38:45 I ran in the 2016 race; without such oppressive heat, who knows what I could have run back then…

A warm-up jog with spectators clapping and cheering both Darryll and me on wrapped up a satisfactory morning. I still greatly dislike the 10k distance, where it’s just too far to go out hard and hang on like it’s a 5k, but not going out hard enough also means you can’t approach it like a half marathon that can be eased into.

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

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Wythall Hollywood 10k 2018 review

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Would 888 bring me luck?

For previous years’ races, please click below:

This was my sixth outing at this race, making it the most attended event from my personal running history.

Pre-race

A common trend in 2018 will be remembered for weather conditions wreaking havoc on race plans. In March, it was snow and freezing temperatures. In June and July, it’s record-breaking warmth. Here’s a little fun-fact for you readers: only 20% of the energy we use in running goes towards motion; the remaining 80% is expended as waste heat. This is obviously welcome in cooler conditions as it’s free central heating, but in warmer conditions, it’s a double-whammy energy cost as we use precious calories to also shift the unwanted heat that we generate from running.

The recent warm Wilmslow Half Marathon left me feeling well conditioned to the heat and I was pretty confident a fresh 10k PB was mine for the taking; after all, this was my PB course from 2016 until only a few months ago! Rather than get greedy and potentially blow-up, I had my sights set on a very modest finish of only 38:30, with a slower first 5k and a faster second 5k to better suit my racing style.

Arriving at race HQ with Lis, Dave and Simon in tow, it was good to see the race in rude health. This was the first iteration with chip timing and by the organisers’ own admission, they’d also outgrown the previous registration room to spread out more widely across the venue. I collected bib number “888”. Ahead of time, the organisers invited people to pick bib numbers of their choice from a certain range; 171 was unavailable to 10k runners, so I went with “888”, which is considered very auspicious in Chinese culture. The logic is the Mandarin or Cantonese pronunciation of “8” sounds like the word to strike it rich. By contrast, “4” is considered very unlucky because it sounds like death. Would the bib bring me luck or only misfortune?

There were many familiar faces dotted around the place as is typical for a race that borders upon several local running club stomping grounds.

Simon and I split from Dave to complete our own warm-up. Whereas I normally like to cover 2 miles before a 5k up to the half marathon, the heat was incredibly noticeable at only 08:30, prompting me to chop it down to just a mile. Staying cool became the new goal!

With chip timing in place, there was no need to pitch up on the start line like in years’ past, but I guess old habits die hard. Huddled together, the air was thick with anticipation or perhaps it was just the humidity?

The race

Even at 09:15, the mercury had already reached 22°C and with nary a cloud in the sky. Off the line, I could already tell I was working harder than I wanted to be. One could almost cut through the air with a knife as it entered my lungs, and my legs were heavy despite a lighter second half to the taper week. Most of my peers hared off into the distance, but as tempting as it was to go with them, self-preservation for the first half was the aim of the game; an average of 3:50 per km was the target to allow for the above said modest 38:30 PB.

Shortly after turning the first corner, everybody almost came to a standstill when a flatbed truck, with what looked like a cement mixer on the back, partially blocked the route and prevented the lead vehicle from going any further! Cries of, “Keep right,” filled the air as we tried our best to nimbly pass the blockade. I spoke with the 5k winner after the event, who ended up making a wrong-turn with no lead vehicle and fewer marshals on hand, many having relocated temporarily to get the flatbed truck cleared off.

The first km came in as expected at 3:51, though it still didn’t feel as easy it should have for the opening split of a 10km, especially when I purposely held back…

The dreaded second km signalled the first of two not-insignificant climbs on the course. This was my opportunity to draw a little closer to the groups that had formed ahead of me, especially as I hugged the racing line of the course, though by consequence ended up running clear of any shade on offer. 4:14 popped out, whereas I’d targeted closer to 4:05; it was at this point that I decided chasing a firm time was no longer sensible in such conditions and I withdrew to largely running by feel.

Over the brow of the hill came the instant relief of the fast downhill stretch all the way to the Phoenix complex. It took a little while, but my legs began turning over more quickly to capitalise on the descent. Even with gravity on my side, I could still only manage to push out a 3:55 split, confirming my thoughts that a scaled back effort would pay dividends in the second half. Average pace hovered at 3:59 per km, so it was still uncertain if I could even break 40 minutes on such a warm morning!

A number of years ago, I was interviewed for runABC Midlands and I waxed lyrical about this particular race. One stand out feature is the gentleman with a hosepipe to cool runners as they pass the Rose Bank Stores & Saddlery premises. “Full blast, please,” were my words as I neared him, to which he kindly obliged to give me a thorough drenching. Ah, bliss! A momentary lapse in concentration from the relief meant I only had enough time to target the final cup of water from the nearby volunteers. Guess what… We both fumbled it! “Shit,” I cursed. Thankfully, a chap behind had grabbed a spare in time and handed it over – my saviour! Down the hatch it all went until the next scheduled water stop within the Phoenix complex.

As I entered the Phoenix premises, exiting was Damian Cartland, giving me a cheer in the process. 4km came in at 3:52, so the pace was finally starting to come to me.

On the approach to halfway, I finally caught Barry Fallon. Without even looking back, he knew it was me. Like a Bond villain, he mused, “I was wondering when I would encounter you, Andy.” It must’ve been my cadence, because Barry wasn’t the first and won’t be the last to recognise me from my pitter-patter footstrike. I told him to focus on reeling the lead woman in (she turned out to be a 5k runner), who remained just 10m or so ahead of us.

A little further on was Lis waiting for me with a par-frozen bottle of water. Whilst in years past, such a bit of assistance was a welcome nice-to-have, this year it became an essential. Cracking the bottle open, I glugged some of the refreshingly cool water down for immediate relief. I offered it to Barry and the others in the vicinity, though there were no takers, so I poured the remnants over myself. Right away, I felt super-charged from the cold water and I was able to power on to halfway, netting a 3:57 km and a 19:51 5k split.

As several runners made their way towards the finish for the end of the 5k race, I veered left for another lap. This was the first time in all the years I’d run this race where I looked longingly at those finishing the 5k in envy – the warmth changed everything. I also found myself running solo, with Barry’s group behind me and Andy Piddington way off into the distance.

Unexpectedly, a sudden rush of strength enveloped me. The effort, in spite of running alone felt manageable. I would even go as far as saying the fifth and sixth km were the most comfortable of the entire race! 6km clocked in for 3:57, remaining steady.

Turning for the climb once more, I steeled myself to graft. Andy Piddington was still ahead, but his margin on me had decreased slightly from before. I repeatedly told myself that each step I could close on him was additional time chipped away to get under 40 minutes, which was still not a guarantee at this point with only 3:58 average pace on my Garmin and the knowledge that the course measured slightly long from past experience. Slowly, I worked my way up to Andy; neither of us had ever met before, but we both knew of each other and shared some pleasantries. 7km came in at 4:06 to be, annoyingly, just a second outside of my 4:05 best. One year, I will get under 4:00 for the exclusively uphill km…

I continued to stick with Andy for some company, hoping that he’d take advantage of the descent and push the pace on. Ahead of us was a pair, clearly working together to drive onwards. Whilst our pace did rise, I wasn’t satisfied it was fast enough so I went it alone and broke off from Andy partway through the split for 3:50.

Passing the man with the hosepipe once again, I made the same request for a full blast once more. Grabbing a cup of water was faultless on the second occasion.

Gradually, I drew closer to the two runners in front of me. Bad timing struck as I wasn’t fast enough to get clear of them before the switchback in the Phoenix complex, and nor did I want to purposely slow to avoid clattering into them. With mere metres remaining and without a single word from me, they both parted for me to run through and be first at the switchback! I thanked them both as I tried my best to navigate around the cone with my Titanic-esque turning circle. There really isn’t an elegant method on this part of the course, due to the narrow path and the lack of anything physical to swing around. 9km came in at 3:45.

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Hot, hot, hot at the 2018 Wythall Hollywood 10k – photo by Lis Yu

Exiting Phoenix, I knew I had fewer than 4 minutes to tolerate before I could stop. Barry and Dave were on the other side of the road, both receiving cheers from me to keep plugging away. I began encountering lapped runners and a bicycle paramedic who insisted on incessantly getting in my way, just as I wanted to up my tempo. In the distance by no more than 100m was somebody in a white t-shirt, who became my final target to try and pull in; I was reasonably confident I had enough gears to shift up to in my pursuit before running out of road. Lis continued to lend her support, providing a few brief moments of welcome distraction as the effort notched upwards. As I closed in on the finish, I came to the realisation that the guy I tried to chase down had also increased his pace for the gap between us to be frustratingly maintained.

With fewer than 200m remaining, I kicked in the hope he had no response. Whereas he took the wider line around a straggling 5k runner, a small enough gap on the race line remained for me to creep past her in a bid to close the precious few metres. I received a few cheers from the Kings Heath Running club volunteers on hand for a welcome boost. Sadly, this also alerted the runner to how close I was to keep the pressure applied in his kick for the line, beating me to it by just one or two steps!

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

Despite this being easily in my top 3 warmest races, I finished feeling not too shabby at all – I guess that’s the result of me capping the first half’s effort. I finished in 17th place with chip time coming to 39:21, which I was pretty pleased with in light of the conditions and how my peers fared. runbritain rewarded me with a handy -0.7 performance based on the 2.2 condition score (1.0 would be considered average conditions for those of you unfamiliar with runbritain’s handicap system).

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Thankful for no hosepipe ban! Photo by Neil Croxford

I caught up with Damian afterwards, sharing my revised race strategy of basic survival before I sat down in a makeshift shower to cool down.

I’m confident I would have achieved a PB that morning under cooler temperatures, though I’m serene about the outcome. The heat easily cost me by about a minute, so here’s hoping the upcoming flat Magor 10k is much cooler, otherwise that’s it for my spring-summer season.

Depending on how things go, I may be a no-show at the 2019 10th anniversary race due to potentially racing at the Swansea Half Marathon. Without the clash, I’d be there in a heartbeat – it’s such a good event!

Wilmslow Half Marathon 2018 review

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Warmest half marathon I’ve ever run

The pattern of a race every fortnight continued. Read on to find out how things went on this particularly warm outing…

Pre-race

First of all, I can already see many of you asking the following:

Where is Wilmslow?

According to Wikipedia, it’s a town south of Manchester and happens to be one of the “most sought-after places to live in the UK, after central London”. Apparently, many footballers live in the locale.

Some of you may recall this as one of the races cancelled by snow back in March. Rather than issue refunds, the organisers went down the route of postponing the race and inviting people to resell entries if they could no longer make the new date. Having bought a place from somebody else before the snow fell, I was determined to make use of it rather than write the race off, especially after I felt a wee bit short changed at the Shakespeare Half Marathon.

Also wishing to prove his mettle was Darryll Thomas. Over the past several years, we’ve both proven to be close in ability and even went into this race sharing the same 83:39 PB, albeit set at different events. The goal was to break 83 minutes, with either of us accepting a new PB as satisfactory.

Lis and I bundled this together into yet another weekend away to make the most of our pre-baby time, spending the previous day in Chester (lovely city – well worth a visit as a day out). Staying very close to race HQ, we arrived with plenty of time to beat the crowds. Upon registration, I was surprised to be given a brand new bib number when I had originally been designated 683 from the cancelled March race. There was no proof required that I had legitimately entered the race, so chancers looking to enter that morning could have very easily bagged a free place with nobody any wiser.

Once Darryll arrived, we embarked on a gentle 2 mile warm-up to scope out the start and finish. Also confirmed was the worst outcome we could have hoped for – clear blue skies overhead and still conditions… We agreed to continue onwards with plan A in a bid to seek out a sub-83 finish.

Due to the relatively compact nature of the race HQ and immediate start area, the 2,200 or so runners easily felt more like double that number. I had been warned beforehand of a need to get into a desirable start position early; due to last minute toilet visits, we ended up having to fight our way through hordes of runners, starting with the 2 hour pace group, then the 1:45, pace group 1:30 pace group and so on. Surprisingly, the race provided pacers for 85 minutes, 80 minutes and even 75 minutes – such is the depth and strength of the field attracted. We positioned ourselves in between the 80 and 85 minute groups, identifying those around us to try and stay with for the duration of the race. Darryll decided to get a few glute activation exercises in, attracting some odd stares from runners and spectators. My own felt dormant, likely from the sharp taper I employed, and I hoped a set of strides would wake them up from their slumber.

We waited for the countdown, and after a test shot of the starting gun, the race started proper at bang-on 10:30.

The race

For a few hundred metres, we got caught up in the group swell like it was the beginning of a 10k. It didn’t help that it was such a densely populated field, flush with strong club runners from the immediate and wider region.

At 10:30, it was already warm and would only grow warmer as we drew closer to midday. How do you manage heat whilst also going for a new PB? I’ll give you a clue: you can’t…

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Darryll and I, almost perfectly in sync – Photo by Mick Hall

Going into the race, Darryll and I devised a crude plan of him pacemaking for the first half, playing to his strength of downhill running, and then switching over to me for the climb back to the finish for the second half. On paper, this sounded reasonable enough, but how hard do you push so early on? I historically fare much better with an ascending first half, followed by descents, so this course tested my abilities.

The strides I completed before starting did nothing to activate my glutes, adding to my general feeling of missing power, even on the descent. Darryll had the last laugh, with his start line glute activation workout clearly worth the strange looks he may have received!

Not long after starting, a female Wilmslow Running Club member – one of the fastest women of the day – joined us. We all began to use her for pacing, such was her strength, but she wouldn’t even make it on to the podium due to the deep field that morning. Browsing through past results, this particular race attracts a lot of talent, irrespective of gender. All of the local and slightly further afield clubs were in attendance, even on this scorching day.

The first 3 miles clocked in at 6:16, 6:22 and 6:17 to be not far off from where we wanted to be. A sub-83 finish was no longer likely, though a new PB for both of us was still possible. Whether it was the added stressor of the heat or lack of ability, or both, I never really felt at ease due to the aggressive approach. Adding to the unease was the deceptive course profile. Conducting some research beforehand, all of the elevation charts I studied suggested a gentle descent all the way to halfway; the reality was an undulating route that gently rises and falls, never really allowing for a rhythm to develop or feeling particularly advantageous.

Anticipating a tough morning and reviewing my Shakespeare Half Marathon experience, I decided to carry 4x High5 Isogels on my person. 3x have usually sufficed in tough half marathons previously, but I was left wanting another sugar hit in the closing stages of the Shakespeare race. No problem if I didn’t need the extra gel as I could have just left it holstered, though I ultimately did consume all of them.

The first of three official water stations arrived just before 4 miles and never before had it been more welcome! We were lucky enough for bottled water to be provided rather than trying to drink from cups and risk potential waterboarding in the process. Despite a slight slowdown through the water station, the water reinvigorated everybody and the pace began to rise, with miles 4, 5 and 6 coming out at 6:11, 6:12 and 6:18. The effort to maintain such a pace, even on a gentle descent, ratcheted upwards – how long could it last?

Whereas timing mats at regular intervals are very much the norm in marathons, they’re less common in shorter races. Whether they’re for the athletes or for spectators, I’ll let you decide. Quite unusual, to me at least, was the provision of timing mats at 10k and 10 miles. Darryll and I went through 10k in 38:52, which was just 13 seconds shy of 10k PB territory for me – that’s just how soft my best is over the distance. Not long after, I declared to Darryll for him to push on as I concluded the effort was no longer sustainable. He tried briefly talking me out of it, which kept me going temporarily, but it was to no avail. Darryll was in much better form than I was, with more recent warm race experience than me to boot. He slowly edged away into the distance though would still glance backwards from time to time, just in case I was still in range.

Disappointingly, subsequent water stations after the first were cups. I needed water and somehow managed to up my game, pouring it in my mouth without fuss before grabbing another cup from the next nearby volunteer. Maybe I’ve cracked this drinking from cups malarkey?

Thankfully, for a race with such a deep field, I was able to drift in and out of contact with various runners – many of which I started out with. Everybody was suffering, though some simply suffered less. And those that suffered more? Well, I lost count of how many people had dropped out with a few requiring medical assistance. Looking on Strava at other runners that finished in a similar time to me, there was one poor soul who collapsed at 10 miles to receive an ambulance ride back to the finish. Whilst he was delirious, he had enough about him still to ask the paramedics to stop his Garmin for him! They declined, so he ended up with some bizarre looking splits and a complete GPS trace following the actual race route, even whilst in the ambulance.

Mile 7 was the last of the downhill miles before the work really began… In cool March, the change in elevation is probably a minor-to-moderate inconvenience. In warm June and approaching midday? Yikes! 20 seconds minimum was added to each uphill mile for me! I had no C-goal after both A and B-goals had expired, so motivation also dried up. I was able to reclaim a few places from people that had gone out harder than I had and blown, but all I was capable of was steadying the ship and not doing anything to delay my return to the finish. Miles 7, 8 and 9 came in at 6:13, 6:33 and 6:40, respectively.

As the race and my body wore on, each subsequent mile seemed to stretch and drift further and further away. Around the mile 10 checkpoint, a sole volunteer stood with a couple of bottles of water to hand out. One cack-handed runner ahead of me went for one, and whilst he successfully grabbed a bottle, he also went and caused the volunteer to fumble and drop the rest! As I edged closer to the volunteer with his back turned whilst he picked up the remaining bottles, I tried to get his attention for one, but it was no use – he turned around and got back on his feet just as I passed by and missed out.

More and more runners were dropping like flies, having overcooked their races earlier. I, too, felt gassed and my only objective was to make it to the finish in one piece. The field became more strung out and I increasingly found myself in isolation. Darryll had disappeared entirely from view on his quest of a fresh PB. Occasionally, I was able to overtake runners who, on paper, had half marathon and marathon PBs faster than my best by minutes. The results table with its 10k and 10 mile checkpoints makes for eye watering viewing, with some runners going through 10k almost 2 minutes faster than me, 10 miles at a similar pace to me, and crossing the finish line some 3 to 4 minutes after me!

I wanted the race to end, as I’m sure many of my peers did. I was treading water and continued willing each mile marker to appear sooner. Miles 10, 11 and 12 came in at 6:49, 6:39 and 6:53 respectively. It was positive to see me reverting to (sub-3) marathon pace when I was hurting!

I’m told the race is incredibly well supported in March, with many of the locals coming out to spectate and cheer runners on. Even in the 2017 washout event with pouring rain and howling wind, the route was supposedly still lined with well-wishers. With the splendid spectator-friendly weather on offer, the crowds didn’t disappoint and helped to keep me chugging along. As I neared the finish line, the crowds swelled to cheer everybody in. I got to that point of desperation in most races where I frantically searched the horizon for any glimpse of the finish line. Darryll and I had encountered the finish area on our warm-up, though I couldn’t visualise how the course would play out. What didn’t help was much of the final mile being made up of one very long straight, followed by a right turn into another long straight…

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The other guy was almost 2 mins ahead of me at 10k… Ouch – Photo by Lis Yu

Turning the corner, my grimace lightened up as I realised I was still in with a chance of a sub-85 minute finish and a shot at my third fastest half marathon. There were a few guys ahead of me in the closing few hundred metres, giving me some targets to chase down. One of the guys I overtook on the finishing straight was an example of somebody that had gone through 10k almost 2 minutes faster than me in the pursuit of a sub-80 finish; he had no response to my kick and his face says it all as to how broken he was. Finally, I crossed the line and I could stop running on such a torturous morning!

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

Eugh. I felt incredibly ill upon finishing and borrowed a seat from a volunteer for a few minutes to sit down and recompose myself. Those first few steps when I got back up were a doozy!

Checking my Garmin, I’d recorded 85:04, later confirmed as 85:01 via chip time to become my fourth fastest half marathon, and only seconds away from being my third fastest, originally recorded under perfect conditions on a pancake flat course.

Regrouping with Darryll and Lis, I began gulping down provided water and energy drinks like there had been a drought. Darryll went on to run a superb 84:04, only losing sight of a PB in the closing 2 miles due to succumbing to the warm conditions whilst climbing. Both of us ended up with sizable runbritain handicap performances from the race, with it now ranking as my strongest performance relative to all others.

My feelings are confirmed that the course profile in itself isn’t fast and the downhill first half just isn’t conducive to fast times when you need to traverse much of it, uphill, back to the finish. What does make the race fast is the stellar field it attracts. I finished 91stout of almost 2,200 runners that morning, and in cooler conditions I would have likely ended up outside of the top 100 with faster runners better able to tolerate the demands of the race.

As ever, would I compete in the race again? Probably not. I entered originally out of desperation when several target half marathons and back-up races were snowed out. Even in March, I’m not sure it would be worth the trip when there are several closer alternatives available. The exception to this applies to faster runners, where having other athletes to work with would more than compensate for races with more optimal course profiles, but more shallow fields.

Aldridge 10k 2018 review

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Yes… I forgot my yellow vest… Photo by Lis Yu

Fourth outing over the years at this hilly 10k. Read on to find out how things went.

For the 2013, 2016 and 2017 races, please click below:

Pre-race

The fairly recent DK10K surprised me with its very minor PB; had I have taken the race more seriously and dug in a little deeper earlier on, I’d have likely gone sub-38:30. I did achieve a PB back in 2013 at the Aldridge 10k, and 2016 saw me narrowly miss a PB by only several seconds because my heart wasn’t in it. It all depended on how soft I felt my 38:40 had become post-Shakespeare Half Marathon and Cotswold Hilly 100.

Rocking up with Lis in tow, horror struck as I realised I had somehow left my signature yellow race vest at home! Due to some carelessness, I didn’t pack it into my bag; I warm-up before races in a t-shirt, so it was too late by the time I came to notice. Coincidentally, I was wearing the 2013 Aldridge 10k race t-shirt, so I was at least not out of place… You could argue it’s just a vest and would make little difference, and perhaps there’s some truth to that, but I may as well have been running without racing flats in my mind. Pre-race rituals and familiarity are so important for that mental edge; I simply couldn’t focus, especially as the conditions began hotting up overhead…

There were plenty of familiar faces about, including Simon Rhodes, and Nathan Warren & Ashley Fawke – 20% of the Cannon Hill Crusaders. Simon Bull was also in attendance, taking great pleasure in mocking my temporary lapse in race preparation finesse!

Warmed up, it was now my mind that wasn’t in it. I felt I was at a disadvantage, especially as the warmth continued to escalate and I wasn’t dressed for such conditions. I wear a vest when training in warm conditions, so what would racing in a t-shirt with the sun overhead do to me?

Simon and I assembled on the start line. “Blind” Dave Healey was the morning’s starter, who chose to joke about with the countdown and reminded me of the time Tony Audenshaw pretended to fire a starting hooter, only for all the race participants to expectedly dash off ahead of time…

The race

PB pace equated to 3:51 per km; not impossible if everything worked in my favour, which the morning certainly wasn’t shaping up to be! Whilst the pace came initially due to the start line scramble, it very quickly dissipated within a few hundred metres and I found myself hovering at around 4:00 per km. The pace wasn’t coming to me and I couldn’t figure out why. It’s only on post-race reflection that I realised the route climbed for much of the opening 3km!

Just slightly ahead of me was the lead woman along with a couple of packs that had formed, no doubt in pursuit of a sub-40 finish. In the distance and creeping ever further away from me were Nathan and Ashley, both working together to crush the testing reputation of the race. Oddly, I couldn’t hear anybody immediately behind me to conclude that I brought up the rear of those looking to finish in fewer than 40 minutes… Really not my morning!

Arriving at the first of two significant descents, I was conscious of the need to increase the effort down the hill to make up for damage from elsewhere on the undulating course. I ended up in a small group consisting of a Boldmere Bullets runner and a guy in an aquamarine coloured t-shirt, both remaining close to my pace.

Reaching halfway, I was warm and couldn’t stop looking enviously at those around me running in vests! In fairness, the humidity was reasonable and I could have been a lot worse off whilst racing in a t-shirt. Nonetheless, I had Lis waiting at The Croft with a bottle of cold water for me to throw over myself and to take a few sips from. For the second time in as many weeks after the Shakespeare Half Marathon, this race also provided sponges for runners to cool themselves down with, though I declined once more to take one.

The second downhill section of the course followed, with everybody kicking it up a notch to capitalise on the free speed on offer. The Boldmere Bullets runner took serious advantage of the situation to put around 5m between me and the chap in the green t-shirt. Slowly being reeled in on the horizon was the tall figure of Simon Rhodes – would I be able to catch him, or would I run out of road?

The aggressive downhill running irritated my left foot to result in some tightening of my arch. What else could the race mock me for?

Turning the corner, I very quickly caught up to Simon through a combination of me surging slightly to make contact and him losing pace. I gave him some encouragement to keep plugging away, also recalling that it was the exact same spot where I overtook him a year ago. It appeared neither of us had changed our approaches to the race!

Time-wise, I had around 30 – 40 seconds in the bank to go under 40 minutes, largely dependent on how I tackled the monstrous final climb that lasts for almost a mile. Fortuitously, a runner drifted backwards towards me to sit just inside my slipstream to keep the pressure applied. I tried to break free from him, only for him to creep up behind me each time.

In spite of having run the course several times over the years, my memory of the route is spotty and vague at best. Reaching the brow of the hill, I’d convinced myself that the turning for the field was just around the corner… A number of corners came and went! Finally, we were ushered into the field, marked out with snaking tape taking us all over the place – all that was missing was Benny Hill music to complement the situation!

I could sense the other runner was no more than a few steps behind me; I took advantage of my lead to claim the race line around the numerous turns, forcing him to go around me if he wanted to overtake. I spotted Lis on the final corner, taking a few snapshots to add to the collection. With only 50m remaining, I thought I had the other guy beat, but he surged for the line to narrowly take me by the finest of margins!

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

I finished feeling not too shabby, confirming my own feelings that my body was quite happy cruising at the pace it did for the race. Checking my Garmin, I finished in 39:25 to be only 2 seconds slower than 2016, which benefitted from the wet and cool conditions to dissipate any heat I generated. Oh, and the wearing of a vest would have been advantageous, too!

Following behind me some 30 seconds later was Simon Rhodes – the final runner to go under 40 minutes that morning. My own estimations earlier on when I found myself at the rear of the sub-40 group weren’t so far off, after all.

Meandering through the finish funnel, I was stopped by a volunteer – a member of Aldridge Running Club – who informed me that I’d won a spot prize for wearing the 2013 race t-shirt! Every cloud has a silver lining and all that. The prize turned out to be a 1 day pass to use the gym and spa facilities at the Village Hotel for two.

Not a spectacular day for me, but as people keep telling me, it’s a blessing that I had a poor start to the day at what can largely be considered a training run with faster 10k races coming up later in July.

Cotswold Hilly 100 2018 review

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Young to Yu! Photo by Lis Yu

Many of you will know of my long-time resistance of joining a running club. The reasons why are long enough to be part of another post, so won’t be discussed here, but I will talk about my first foray into team running. Read on to find out how things went in the Cotswolds…

What is the Cotswold Hilly 100?

Organised by Stratford-upon-Avon Athletics Club for over 25 years, it’s a 100 mile team relay race that starts in Stratford-upon-Avon before winding its way through the Cotswolds, eventually finishing back in Shakespeare’s home town.

Clubs can enter a number of teams consisting of men, women and mixed genders. Each team can contain a maximum of 10 members, each running an approximate 10 mile leg. Teams are expected to support their own members with navigation, marshalling, hydration, and nutrition.

As the race’s name suggests, it’s not flat! Some legs are trickier than others, though it’s safe to say none are considered easy when everybody’s racing for position.

Leamington Spa Striders and Kenilworth Runners have dominated the male team rankings, finishing first and second respectively in recent years.

Who are the Cannon Hill Crusaders?

And how did I come to come to run for the Cannon Hill Crusaders?

If I had to best describe the Cannon Hill Crusaders, I would liken them to Marvel’s Avengers. Common to both The Avengers and The Cannon Hill Crusaders is the occasionally evolving line-up, dependent on the situation. Whereas members are typically from the BRAT club, there are also members from Bournville Harriers, Bromsgrove & Redditch AC, Shabba Runners of Walsall, and those who are unattached. The common link is that everybody is a regular at Cannon Hill parkrun.

I’ve known several of the Crusaders for a number of years and I was actually asked to participate in a race with them on a previous occasion, though declined due to non-compatibility with my then schedule (it was the Equinox 24). Fast-forward to earlier this year and I received an out of the blue message from team captain, Andy Young, scoping out my feelings of participating in the Cotswold Hilly 100. The date of the race fell 2 weeks after the Shakespeare Half Marathon, so I figured I would be in decent shape and it would serve as another opportunity to keep the pot boiling ahead of summer racing.

This was the team roster for the event:

  1. Jort van Mourik (15.8km, 47m ascent)
  2. Paul Shackleton (15.9km, 292m ascent)
  3. Steve Dunsby (17.1km, 191m ascent)
  4. Nathan Warren (15.9km, 229m ascent)
  5. Ashley Fawke (15.5km, 121m ascent)
  6. Andy Young (16.3km, 217m ascent)
  7. Andy Yu (16.5km, 97m ascent)
  8. Huw Jones (15.4km, 94m ascent)
  9. Adam Western (15.6km, 166m ascent)
  10. Toby Close (16.3km, 108m ascent)

Pre-race

I requested a mid-morning to mid-afternoon slot, so ended up with leg 7, which also seems to be the leg that everybody has experience of as former participants. Whilst being one of the less demanding legs of the day, it still includes 97m of elevation gain across 10.3 miles, and features nearly 2 miles of climbing from 5.5 miles. Leg 7 thankfully ends with 2 miles of steep downhill, though it can only be truly taken advantage of if one hasn’t blown to bits on the preceding climbs…

Andy Young took care of much of the team’s organisation, such as availability of support cars, estimated timings of baton handovers, and more. I was estimated to begin running at circa-13:30, though I assured I would be in position from 13:00 onwards. Being the bank holiday weekend, I sold the race as an opportunity for Lis and I to explore a bit of the Cotswolds, namely Stow-on-the-Wold and Moreton-in-Marsh which are leg 7’s respective start and end points. Whilst I would have liked to have witnessed and supported on some of the other legs, I wasn’t sure how useful I would be as the newcomer to the team, so I simply did as I was requested without adding further complication to be factored in.

Lis and I spent a charming morning in Stow-on-the-Wold before making our way to the leg 7 start point. What we needed to bear in mind was the approximate nature of the maps provided by the race organisers, and Google Maps’ translation into postcodes for navigation. After a few wrong turns, we eventually located the handover point with plenty of awaiting runners and their support teams ready to spring into action.

It was interesting to observe how the different clubs and teams approached the race. Some were very much in it to win it (Leamington Spa Striders and Kenilworth Runners), whereas others were there for fun and the challenge. Kenilworth Runners had a people carrier with green and white balloons attached for the avoidance of doubt for their faster team members. One core requirement is that all teams must have finished by 18:00 that day, so everybody is given the opportunity to start at 05:00, 06:00 or 07:00, and explained why there was so much traffic going through, with slower teams starting earlier.

I received real-time updates from the rest of the team out on the course, which proved to be rather exciting. Ashley Fawke took us from 7thto 4thall within leg 5 for a tremendous performance. Sadly, the Massey Ferguson club fielded a very strong runner for the 6thleg, overtaking Andy Young to put us back into 5thplace. To give you an idea of just how strong their runners was, he completed his leg in around 59 minutes; back when 10 mile races were far more common, a sub-60 minute performance in a flat 10 mile race was and still is a good club runner standard – to run 59 minutes within a Cotswold Hilly 100 leg is some good going! Two Stratford-upon-Avon AC members from separate teams arrived next, after some cock-up with their end points to leave their team manager spitting feathers on the phone wondering where they were.

In the distance was Andy Young, sprinting towards me with everything he had to pass the baton (a 10cm long piece of plastic drain pipe). It was time to show my team what I had!

The race

Fully warmed up and mildly tapered, I was bursting with energy as I propelled down the country lane. I wanted to rein the pace in a little, especially as I was initially running downhill and had to leave something for the undulations and climbs that followed.

Knowing how poor my sense of direction can be at times, I elected to trial a new feature of my Garmin 935 – turn-by-turn navigation! Before the race, I plotted the leg 7 course via Garmin Connect and uploaded it to the 935. When you’re in position, it presents the route as a green line and the current position as an arrow. The trick is to keep your position arrow on the green line! Accompanying the display is an arrow for North and another arrow pointing towards the finish (useful for ad-hoc shortcuts). I was happy to test the feature because I knew the Crusaders would be out on the course to marshal me at major junctions, so there was no risk if it failed. And do you know what? It lived up to its promise and was flawless! Sharp turns were alerted in advance with a corresponding left or right arrow, whereas gradual turns simply had you follow the green line. The only downside is you’re not presented with a map and only a green line on a white background – for true maps, you need the Fenix 5X with its larger, higher resolution screen. This is largely not a problem on simple junctions, though could prove to be an issue on complex roundabouts with multiple exits within close proximity to each other; you would only know you’ve taken the wrong exit once your position arrow no longer lines up with the green line on the other side. Aside from that, it’s golden!

With the above bit of technology proving to be a little miracle, I opted to keep my Garmin on the route face to leave me running largely without data feedback. I knew not of my pace or distance covered apart from when my Garmin triggered a 1 mile interval alert. I was racing to feel and hoping that I’d pitched the effort correctly… Heck, even if I wanted to rely on the data, I’d accidentally hit the lap button on my Garmin to become an OCD sufferer’s worst nightmare!

As promised, some of the guys were waiting at the bottom of the junction for me, with the rest further on at the next one. Adam Western – the team’s other new member – offered me water, whilst the others held on to two gels I’d given them just before the start of my leg.

Whereas Birmingham was being drowned by torrential rain and flash flooding, the Cotswolds was sunny overhead and warm. I did wonder if I was overcooking things as I rapidly got up to what felt like race effort, with my breathing at perhaps 8/10 in terms of intensity.

At the next major junction was the second half of the team. Whilst an unusual situation for me, I 100% appreciated the regular, albeit brief, company I received from the Crusaders. The team and Darryll Thomas had both warned me beforehand that it can be a very lonely run and that it’s unlikely I would see other competitors out there. The support I received continued for the next couple of miles without any change, barring Lis who tried to follow the route to also provide a few additional cheers alongside the guys.

The sun was really starting to beat down on me, so the regular water provided was mana from heaven, with more of it going on me than in me for instant relief from the warm conditions. I eventually zoned out because the countryside is the countryside, whether you’re in the Cotswolds or Wales. To further add to my own confusion and disconnect, I received the first of my gels at what I thought to be mile 4 as requested, though it was probably nearer 2.5 to 3 miles.

Turning at a sharp corner, I was presented with a view of the two Stratford-upon-Avon AC runners that had started minutes before me. Chasing them down became a new objective, though neither of them were much trouble and I’d reeled them both in over the course of several hundred metres. This is where the story takes a humorous turn, for I’d taken a bottle from team member, Adam. Not wanting to carry it until the next time I saw the team, which could have been minutes or miles, I heard a car approaching me from behind and reasoned it to be either Crusader car 1 or 2. As they pulled alongside me, they grabbed the bottle and that should have been a job jobbed. But no. It turned out to be the team manager for Stratford-upon-Avon AC! “Don’t worry, your team will be along to pick it up,” she said, before tossing it on to the grass on the side of the road before driving off into the distance. The Crusaders were only just behind by perhaps 10m and none of us could figure out what had just happened. The rest of the team thought it was Lis in that car, because why else would she have taken the bottle? All very befuddling…

Having overtaken two of the host club’s runners, I received a boost and new motivation to keep pushing – critical, as the near-2 miles of climb had arrived. Whilst I had survived the many short climbs up to this particular point, the heat now made things especially daunting. I normally have a quick cadence at my disposal, but for the first time in the entire race, I felt like I was running through treacle and making little to no progress upwards, but I continued pushing. As the latest member of the team, I couldn’t face being the one to let everybody down! And besides, I also had Barry Fallon’s 2017 leg 7 performance to keep me plugging away! It was also on this particular climb that I first met fellow team-member, Ashley Fawke, supporting me with some water and some encouragement.

Post-climb and at one of the following team support stations, Jort van Mourik shared some new intel with me. Catching me off-guard, he revealed I’d managed to reduce Massey Ferguson’s 6 minute lead down to just some 2 minutes. With a little over 2 miles of the leg remaining and all the climbing completed, was I able to reduce the gap any further? I’m unsure if the delay in the progress update was intentional to maximise potency, or just a coincidence of the timing; nonetheless, I treated it as the former and ploughed on with chipping time away.

Turning the corner for the steep downhill descent into Moreton-in-Marsh, I caught a glimpse of the Massey Ferguson runner who’d started minutes before me. I was instructed by my team to run facing traffic on the right-hand side of the road, much like I’m wont to do on the country lanes of Wales. The Massey Ferguson runner, either through ignorance or on purpose due to chasing shortest line, ran on the left with high-speed traffic coming up behind him… By this stage, I was pretty tired and the heat had taken a toll on me; I’m not sure I was able to truly capitalise on the downhill stretch and I prayed for my quads and what condition they would be in over the following day or two.

Once the course levelled out, the team were there again with rousing support and two final details to keep stoking my competitive fire inside. The Massey Ferguson runner ahead of me had been chopped down to just a minute’s lead and, crucially, held third place for his team. Like a red rag to a bull, this was all I needed to hear before firing up the afterburners to give chase with everything I had.

I returned to running on the pavement to eventually overtake a female Kenilworth Runner, fully laden with a hydration pack; I could only guess she was on a team with less strategic support to have to carry her own nutrition during the race. I’ve since heard of stories of some runners having to walk their 10 mile legs in reverse to get back to their own cars! If a team can’t provide a support car for their runners, then should they really be fielding a team?

Being reeled in ever more was the Massey Ferguson runner, by this point probably only some 30 seconds and a few hundred metres away from me. Seeing my team for the last time before the finish of my leg, they offered water once more to which I declined for fear of it slowing me down and breaking my stride. I was firing on all cylinders and I hoped that I wouldn’t run out of road before I could catch my target! The path that lead into Moreton-in-Marsh was not designed for competitive running, for it was pretty much single file; I had to bellow a number of times to alert other users that I would be passing, to which they all kindly obliged and gave way to me. Sensing only a few hundred metres of the leg remaining from the increasing number of cars parked and in traffic, I laid on a kick in a last ditch attempt to grind Massey Ferguson’s 6 minute advantage down to zero. He was now only some 60m away from me, but the sight of Lis and the team confirmed my fears that I had run out of race; I kicked with what was left to hand the baton over to Huw Jones to continue with leg 8, confident that I had made a worthwhile contribution to the Cannon Hill Crusaders that afternoon.

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for leg 7. I neglected to stop my Garmin correctly due to following a course, so I’ve had to crop the Strava performance to an approximate level.

Dehydrated and feeling nauseous from the heat, I dropped to one knee and couldn’t stop panting as I tried to cycle as much air into and out of my lungs as possible. Adam gave me some water to spray myself down with and congratulated me on my efforts, as did the rest of the team. Ever the perfectionist, Andy asked me if I could have somehow found another 12 seconds inside me to have drawn neck and neck with Massey Ferguson; I retorted in jest and asked if he could have finished his leg 12 seconds faster to have given us the same net result. My Garmin reported a 5.0 maximum aerobic effort and a 72 hour recovery window; in other words, I’d wrung myself dry out there!

Lis and I parted with the team, who went on to support Huw on his leg. Humorously, it was later revealed that Huw and Massey Ferguson were locked in a stalemate battle, with neither conceding much to the other. Whilst Huw was the stronger of the two on the climbs, Massey Ferguson’s runner was better at capitalising on the descents, with the 12 second deficit remaining constantly intact.

The Cannon Hill Crusaders made their marks during legs 9 and 10, where we ended up with an advantage of over 3 minutes to finish third place on the men’s podium!

I thoroughly enjoyed my time, albeit brief, with the Cannon Hill Crusaders. This was probably one of the most challenging races I’ve ever competed in because it was more than just about timing and pacing, but rather actual racing. Never having run for a club before, let alone a team, it was an entirely new experience to compete not only for myself, but also for the greater good of others relying on my performance. I’ve already shared that I would be keen to compete again at next year’s race!

 

Shakespeare Half Marathon 2018 review

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Woo hoo! Not cancelled!

My fourth attempt at racing a spring half marathon after many cancellations. Read on to find out how things went.

Pre-race

Newport Half Marathon – cancelled (twice!)

Coventry Half Marathon – cancelled

Wilmslow Half Marathon – postponed

It’s with plenty of irony that the only half marathon I’d successfully been able to run in 2018 up to this particular race was the Brass Monkey Half Marathon, which was actually pretty reasonable in terms of weather conditions in spite of its name!

Feeling like I’d failed to truly capitalise on the opportunity presented to me in above said race, I’ve long felt like some sort of redemption was in order. I’d done the training, consisting of near-weekly bouts of 15 mile long runs, time at half marathon pace and a couple of what felt like near-maximal parkruns. Throw in the recent PB at the DK10K sans any specific 10k work and the odds of a credible PB performance were moving in my favour. Sub-83 was the target for the morning…

Whilst May half marathons aren’t my thing, especially after 2017’s Tewkesbury Half Marathon sweat-fest, I had few options available to me that were optimal for a fast time with a decent field. I was also flying solo at this race; Lis had a prior engagement and I knew not of anybody running the half marathon, though there were familiar faces I was aware of in the marathon.

With a 09:00 start, it meant an even earlier departure from Birmingham for me. I’d budgeted some 45 minutes for the drive, giving me over an hour beforehand for various pre-race admin, such as warming up, toilets and so on. I counted my lucky stars as I’d seemingly arrived before the masses with my pick of spaces in one of the car parks located roughly halfway between the runner’s village and the start line. With time to kill, I’d opted to head over to the runner’s village to scope things out. Bumping into a volunteer who seemed too eager to help, I asked if the “village” was straight ahead. “No, that’s not the village,” came her confusing reply. Looking around, there were plenty of runners heading in the direction that I pointed in. “That’s not the runner’s village?” I quizzed. “Oh, yes it is. I thought you meant Stratford-upon-Avon town centre.” I know we’re not supposed to judge volunteers too harshly, but…

The runner’s village was located at the same spot as where Stratford-upon-Avon parkrun takes place. Despite warnings of limited parking spaces, cars were backed up in the queue trying to get in. I did a quick reccy of the grass finishing straight to confirm my own fears that I couldn’t rely on a finishing kick like usual – I’d have to make a bigger dent during the body of the race.

Returning to the car, I embarked on a 2 mile warm-up with a set of strides thrown in for good measure. Whilst it was only 08:15 or so, I was already breaking out in a sweat and my heart rate was elevated. Form didn’t come easily, likely due to a slightly too heavy taper.

Back at the car for the second time, there were still plenty of spaces available. If you’re reading this ahead of the Shakespeare races, do yourself a favour and park at the Bridgeway multi-storey car park. Payment is made on exit to save you a few minutes, unlike the runner’s village car park that requires payment up front. Furthermore, there are plenty of toilets at one of the exits. OK, 20p was required, but judging by the length of the pre-race queues adjacent to the start, I’m sure many would have happily paid up if given the option!

I bumped into BRAT member, Rob Dowse on my way to the start line. We both agreed we were too far back in the field and began navigating through the crowds to be nearer the front – advice I’d been given beforehand. All of a sudden, we found ourselves in a clearing almost on the start line itself! The familiar faces of Simon Rhodes, Orlando Corea and Peter Dimbleby of Birchfield Harriers were in attendance, helping to make the time ahead of the start fly by. Steve Edwards of 1,000-targeted marathons-fame was the guest race starter for the day. Rather clumsily, they had to somehow allow him to enter the race from his starter’s position, requiring a few barriers to be moved aside… Go time!

The race

Miles 1 to 3

Sometimes you don’t get a feel for a race from a simple overhead map view. Studying the route, I noted that there were several sharp right hand turns in quick succession through the streets of Stratford-upon-Avon town centre. After turning right a couple of times, I had no idea which direction I was running in anymore! Also, if it weren’t for all the turns, I’d have probably gone even faster than the 6:14 I registered as an opening mile (this was the fastest of the day)!

Runners very quickly found their positions and surprisingly held them with little chopping and changing. I clocked a Halesowen Triathlete (who looked suspiciously like the guy that finished one place behind me at the recent DK10K) and a woman in a purple vest (third place) just slightly ahead of me by 10m – no matter what I did early on, the 10m between me and this pair remained constant. Undulations added some slowdown for mile 2 to come in at 6:23.

The first of many water stations appeared quite early on, for which I was grateful for given how warm the morning was getting without the forecasted cloud cover. For the first time in a race, I was offered a wet sponge, though declined. Wanting just a bottle of water, I went towards the volunteer on the right, to follow the race line; out of the blue, he stepped over to the other side for some unknown reason whilst his hands were still full of bottled water, leaving me without! Panicking, I quickly went wide to grab a bottle from the final volunteer, with much chuckling behind me… Mile 3 came in at 6:21 to average out at 6:19 – sub-83 was still on!

Miles 4 to 6

The Halesowen Triathlete and the woman in purple remained elusive in spite of my best efforts to reel them in. As we approached the first of two significant climbs on the half marathon route, I hoped the hill would send them back to me, but sadly not. Thankfully, I was able to join and detach from a number of small groups to rarely be running on my own. Within one group, somebody was horrified to learn that he was actually running at closer to 83 minute pace when all he wanted was an 86 minute finish…

Even though I chose to wear my Nike Vaporfly 4%, they seemed to perceivably offer less benefit than in previous races. Comparably, the lack of propulsion was akin to how they felt during the Gloucester New Year’s Eve 10 Mile; by the end of this race, they’d have over 80 miles on them to be pretty much at their half-life before severe decline kicks in.

Miles 4, 5 and 6 held steady for 6:24, 6:23 and 6:23. Were it not for the undulations, I’d have hit the required 6:20 per mile pace for a shot at a sub-83 finish.

Miles 7 to 10

Somewhere on the approach to 7, the Halesowen Triathlete disappeared from view suddenly; one minute he was there and the next, he’d drifted backwards in the blink of an eye. The woman in purple began to wobble slightly as the course began climbing. “Keep at it. There’s a nice downhill stretch at 8 miles,” I shared with her to try and keep her motivated and ahead of me. There was no response and within the few hundred metres that followed, she had also drifted behind me.

Luckily for me, the second place woman was just ahead on the horizon. Through a combination of the climb slowing her down and a small surge from me, I was able to work my way up to her over a few hundred metres. I revealed to her that the woman in purple was not far behind. She let out a response of surprise, for she had been stalking Nicola Sykes of Bournville Harriers for much of the race, whereas there was a race for second place going on right behind her. Miles 7 and 8 featured plenty of climbing for 6:27 and 6:35 respectively.

Cresting the hill, it’s a pretty steep descent all the way down! My left quad is shot as I type this report out and I’m pretty certain it was travelling downhill on this particular section that’s done it. A cyclist joined Jo behind me; I had no idea whether he knew her or not, but I did pick up snippets of his dialogue including some encouragement and confirmation that she was indeed in second place before he shot off. An additional set of footsteps joined us from a Kenilworth runner I’d shared some dialogue with during the opening mile, though he seemed quite transient and drifted backwards again once the descent flattened out.

Working with Jo was like mana from heaven. We managed to recover some pace damage to get miles 9 and 10 to 6:16 and 6:17 respectively. I did what I could to keep Jo motivated to chase down Nicola Sykes in the hope that she could tow me to a faster time and a higher finishing position. She was well aware of Nicola’s ability, recalling that she went on to win the race a year ago. I’d originally assumed Jo was a Birchfield Harrier from her all black vest and shorts, but she turned out to be an unattached runner like me.

Just when I thought we were at the beginning of a subtle kick for the final 5k…

Miles 11 to 13.1

…the Greenway struck!

What is the Greenway? It’s a straight as a die path that makes up the majority of the final 5k of the Shakespeare races. It’s a disused railway line that’s been filled in; it’s pancake flat barring a few very subtle rises and dips. Unfortunately, the top surface of the route is a fine and loose dirt to cause some traction loss. Coupled with its seemingly never ending nature, the Greenway caused both Jo and me to lose some 10 seconds per mile despite our effort remaining the same. It was an incredibly jarring experience to abruptly transition from running on the paved road to such a surface. Miles 11 and 12 came in for 6:28 pace.

We tried to keep our spirits up and had successfully chipped away some of Nicola’s lead to be only 20 seconds or so behind.

For the first time in a long time of racing half marathons, I wished I had another gel to slurp down. Three didn’t feel like enough on this day, especially with such a focused effort on a PB with no cloud cover – energy expenditure was always going to be high.

After what felt like a lifetime on the Greenway making no perceivable progress, we were finally sent back on to the road for a welcome return to traction. The only downside? We were instructed to stay inside some cones, akin to the final few hundred metres of the DK10K. There was little room to manoeuvre or overtake; I was caught behind a tiring runner when all I wanted to do was press on! I waited for the main road to clear before I stepped outside of the cones to briefly surge forwards. The Kenilworth runner followed and we both slotted back into a gap that presented itself. The return to road running was short-lived for we were sent 180° and single file on to another section, off-road.

We now had hedges on either side of us, which is not what you want in the final few hundred metres of a race! Returning on to a paved path in the recreation ground, I tried kicking but nausea took hold. My stomach churned as the effort ramped up significantly. “Keep going,” the Kenilworth runner encouraged. I knew I was at my limit. “You go on,” I snatched. Passing the mile 13 marker, I went through in 6:18 to be ages away from the sub-6 ultimate mile I ran at the Brass Monkey Half Marathon back in January. Before long, I’d made it on to the grass finishing straight; I was at least thankful I’d wrung myself dry as the grass would have been frustrating to run on if a finishing kick was required. Nearing the finish, the compere called out my name. From the crowd, a female voice cheered me on by name to confuse me; I wasn’t aware of anybody I knew spectating, but it turned out to be Trudie – a Kings Heath Running Club member Lis has run with on a number of occasions. I hurtled for the finish because on the other side was a chance to stop and recover!

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

There is one benefit to the finishing straight and funnel being on grass – you can simply collapse in a heap with a soft thud! The disadvantage to finishing with a thud on grass is grass stains… I took a few sidesteps to my right so as not to be in the way of other finishers. A paramedic rushed over, just in case, though I reassured him I was fine and just needed a few moments to recover. The friendly paramedic helped me back up on to my feet when I was ready. “That was a strong finish back there. Well done!” “Thanks. A PB of 30 seconds or so. Thank you for your help!” Officially via chip timing, I finished in 83:39 for a 29 second improvement; I was a little disappointed as I had hoped to go under 83 minutes, or at least low 83 minutes. I lost around 30 seconds out on the course with the climbing and the traction issues on the Greenway, so I’m pretty confident I’d have done it on a flatter road course.

I caught up with Jo, who wasn’t able to kick with the Kenilworth runner and me upon leaving the Greenway. She confirmed her second place finish, though shared she was around a minute off from a PB due to the London Marathon that was still in her legs. Phenomenally, she revealed she completed London in 3:01, and had a 2:52 marathon PB to her name from 2017! I was in awe and had no idea I’d run with such esteemed company!

A few more familiar faces came through, including Alex Parker of Birchfield Harriers and Rob Dowse who I’d bumped into before the race. Rob was outside of his sub-90 target and also blamed the loss of traction and motivation on the never-ending Greenway. We both reasoned that such a running surface shouldn’t be as devastating to pace as it is, with plenty of fast parkrun courses taking place on similar terrain with no qualms from runners.

A couple of stats and facts for you:

  • Equivalent to more than 4x sub-20 5ks, back-to-back
  • Equivalent to more than 2x sub-40 10ks, back-to-back
  • Fastest 10 miles ever – 63:41
  • Bloody left nipple

My next crack at sub-83 will be the postponed Wilmslow Half Marathon in June, which I will be tackling with Darryll Thomas for a joint-PB-busting effort. Part of my issue was the transient nature of the groups and runners around me; except for Jo, there was nobody else that I was able to reliably work with and downplay the exertion. It’s a realisation I will have to come to terms with that I as I grow faster, there will be ever diminishing numbers of runners to work with except at races with the fastest of reputations.

Would I do the Shakespeare Half Marathon again? I’m undecided for now. It was easy to get to and pretty well organised, with plenty of water on the course. Irrespective of my PB that morning, I would not consider it a fast course due to the undulations and that damn Greenway. The climb at mile 8 could be brutal if you go out too hard and can’t hang on. Many people I know were at least a minute or two from their 13.1 mile bests to give any would-be runners a better idea of what to expect.

Next up: the Cotswold Hilly 100 team relay!

 

 

DK10K 2018 review

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The DK10K – not the easiest of 10k races

First 10k race since July 2017, and first in any real anger since 2016! Read on to find out how things went…

For the 2015 and 2016 races, please click below:

Pre-race

Once May rolls around, there’s no shortage of 10k races, both at the weekend and mid-week. The DK10K takes place on the first Wednesday of May, often just before or just after the Great Birmingham 10k. At £16 with chip timing, a t-shirt and water, it’s almost half the price of the Great Birmingham 10k and continues to be popular in spite of competition. I missed this gem of a race last year due to coming back from injury and tapering for the Tewkesbury Half Marathon, though ran it in 2015 and 2016. It’s not the fastest of courses with near-constant undulation, though it does attract a decent field, especially from 36-45 minutes; ideal if you’re the sort of runner that needs contact with others in a race.

Taking the afternoon off from work to facilitate a stress-free build-up, two questions remained at the top of my mind: what should I eat beforehand, and when? Don’t judge me for this, but I ended up wolfing down 2x chicken & mushroom Pot Noodles and 2x jam donuts… A concentrated beetroot juice shot helped wash all that down. In no way do I recommend this concoction!

Traffic on the way to the race HQ (Dudley Kingswinford Rugby Club) was horrendous as it always is, especially when living on the wrong side of Birmingham in this case. Simon Bull and I travelled separately, but were both caught up in various tailbacks, roadworks and breakdowns that are atypical of British roads from 16:00 to 18:00 during the week.

Arriving on site and parking up, it was perhaps 60 seconds before I bumped into Chris Harrison – the first of many familiar faces – such is the local running community nature of the DK10K.

The weather had been incredibly unpredictable all day. Wearing a full tracksuit, I began my 2 mile warm-up jog in a bid to try and awaken my slumbering legs. Within some 800m, I concluded I was overdressed. I anticipated the warm-up would feel sub-par and it didn’t disappoint. I regretted my choice of pre-race fuel, feeling bloated with everything sloshing around inside, and this was despite 3 hours having passed already! Thankfully, my stomach was convinced to cooperate and began digesting its contents more effectively after 2 miles.

Upon ending my warm-up, my Garmin flagged up my condition score: +4! Somewhat dumbfounded, I began considering my options. I’m lucky if I see +3 usually, so would covering the race at planned half marathon pace be selling myself short? The following week’s Shakespeare Half Marathon is the A-goal and the DK10K was always supposed to be just a training run to get 6 miles at pace in. A stiff headwind blew from the west, which would impact the first 3 or 4km, putting any PB attack into jeopardy early on. “Stick to the plan,” I reassuringly convinced myself. There would be plenty of 10k races over the spring and summer to make a dent into my 10k PB.

Meeting up with Simon, more familiar faces from the West Midlands running scene came into view, including Craig Watters (a rival from Great Run Local at The Vale) and his daughter. Because you can never be too warmed up, Simon and I embarked on another few hundred metres around the rugby pitch with a set of strides. Conditions had rapidly improved from all the rain that battered the region earlier in the day – it was bone dry underfoot, even on the grass!

We were ushered over to the start line along a back route rather than via the rugby club’s main entrance as per previous years; this detour was likely to allow the road outside to remain open for a little while longer and to keep local residents sweet. The slow-zombie shuffle over to the start line ensured we were all like tightly wound springs, ready to launch at any moment. Simon and I seeded ourselves accordingly into the start field; in spite of the chip timing as standard and the wide road ahead of us on offer, there was the usual assortment of clowns that decided to park themselves into the first few rows. Start where you think you’ll finish in the field! A near-inaudible safety briefing was given, which nobody paid any attention to, followed by a very abrupt starting order. Go time!

The race

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Start of the 2018 DK10K – photo by Brian Smith

Expectedly, due to the flat-come-subtle-downhill nature of the opening km, everybody around me went hooning off like it was the start of a 5k race. I had my eye on certain individuals who were likely to finish at around my target time, yet they were quickly drifting away into the horizon… “Stay calm,” I said to myself. This was a test of half marathon pace and if I wasn’t able to finish 10k feeling comfortable, then there would be no way I could finish 13.1 miles at the same pace. I ended up overshooting my target of 3:55 per km (6:18 per mile) to end up with 3:50 per km (6:10 per mile). The pace felt too easy and effortless!

During 2km came the significant climb of the course. Inevitably, many of the people that shot off from the start line came back to me, providing ample drafting assistance from the headwind that blew. Whereas many around me were already huffing and puffing, my breathing remained near-silent. I dropped down a gear to 4:03 for the km with the knowledge that a high-speed section followed shortly afterwards to make amends.

Surprisingly, even with the steep descent, not a single person overtook me on this stretch or for the remainder of the race for that matter. I allowed my stride to open up and for gravity to carry me to the bottom, almost bounding with each step. 3km came in for 3:45 to be the second fastest split of the evening… So much for half marathon pace!

The route took runners left into a tree-lined portion of the course. Whilst undulations continued, one could consider this the next flattest stretch after the opening and final km. I continued to reel runners in, including the third place female – a Tipton Harrier. I’d already overtaken Craig’s daughter, which gave me a big dose of confidence as I’ve always finished behind her on previous encounters. Approaching the sole water station of the race, I signalled to the volunteer I wanted, only for her to drop the cup just as I went for the grab! I quickly signalled to another volunteer, only for him to grip the cup too tightly, resulting in both of us crushing it and leaving only a small sip of water behind… Oh well, at least it wasn’t a warm evening!

Passing through halfway, there was no clock on this occasion. Checking my Garmin, I’d just ticked over to 19:26 to be slightly outside of 10k PB pace. A modestly faster second half would see me through to a cheeky PB, maybe. I took a look inside for some feedback. My breathing remained calm and steady. My shoulders and posture were relaxed. Conclusion: I felt great and with no struggle! I dropped the third place Tipton Harrier girl and progressed onwards to a small group consisting of the second place female – another Tipton Harrier – along with male Aldridge and Wolverhampton & Bilston club runners. I sat steady at the back of the pack, especially as they were running so metronomically to result in 5km and 6km splits of 3:53.

Remaining in the tree-lined section of the course, I wondered if it would ever end? Having only run the race twice previously, my memory was somewhat hazy of the landmarks and how long certain portions lasted. Sensing the pace was slowing, I gave some verbal encouragement to try and rally the group together into a shared goal. The pace continued slipping, so the Tipton Harrier and I allowed the Aldridge and Wolverhamton & Bilston runners to drop off whilst we pushed on. The monotony of the landscape began taking its toll on me, resulting in 7km at 3:56 and my second slowest split of the evening. Was everything about to fall to pieces?

Turning left on the course, it was freedom at last! We exited the tree-lined stretch and moved straight into a climb… The Tipton Harrier really struggled to keep the pace up, forcing me to run wide of her so as not to take my foot off the throttle. I took advantage of the shallow descent on the other side to regain some of the damage from the slow 7thkm. This split was spent largely running solo, with the next guy ahead too far to reel in quickly. Facing the east, I was able to enjoy a very slight tailwind to facilitate a 3:52 for 8km.

Glancing at my Garmin’s elapsed time, I’d clocked in at just shy of 31:00. Wow. Definitely on PB pace, even if only by a few seconds. I reasoned that another steady 3:53 km and a fast finish would perhaps net me a sneaky PB. Spurred on, I eventually caught the runner ahead, also with thanks to a short but steep descent. The effort rapidly mounted upwards with my breathing reflecting the uptick. A grimace formed on my face as I ran through the metaphorical treacle that we all encounter in the late stages of a race. I thrusted my arms more vigorously in the hope that my legs would go with them – fortunately they did. With nobody immediately behind or ahead of me, the cheers and encouragement from the Navigation Inn were solely mine. I lapped it up, especially as I had yet another short climb to tackle! 9km came in for 3:53.

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Sprinting for a PB – photo by Brian Smith

I began feeling a little queasy from the effort and possibly all the food I’d previously eaten. Taking another look at my Garmin, I noticed it ticking over to 35:00. I just needed a 3:44 or faster and a shiny new 10k PB was available for the taking, despite not setting out for one originally. Two Halesowen club runners bobbed up and down some 50m in the distance. Despite my best efforts to reel them in, they too began wrapping their races up to leave us in stalemate. The aptly named Mile Flat created the illusion of lasting forever with no change on the horizon. My face was strained; closing my eyes periodically on the long and predictable straight helped soothe some of the burn. Passing the gate that we all exited to reach the Mile Flat, I began my kick, and so did the Halesowen runners for the distance between us remained at approximately 50m! Staring into the distance, my eyes were trained to detect anybody turning right. There were some flashing lights ahead, which belonged to the lead car parked on the corner. Runners indeed began turning right to begin their re-entry into the rugby club and for the finish. Back in 2016, the barriers and narrow space the organisers had set aside for runners to follow caught me out; I wanted to kick harder, but I was boxed in by other runners on that occasion. Not so this time! Whilst I’d reclaimed some distance from the Halesowen runners, I still had ample berth to get my sprint on. Back in the rugby club, I was spurred on to throw down one final kick for the line. I pumped my arms and lengthened my stride to increase my speed. The cheers from the crowd grew louder with each step; the compere mentioned my bib number and name for one last incentive to leave nothing behind as I charged through the line…

Post-race

I gingerly took a few steps through the finish funnel, whilst chugging down as much air as possible. A quick glance of my Garmin confirmed all I needed to know – 38:41 (38:40 courtesy of chip timing) meant a new PB by just 5 seconds! This was significant because the last PB was achieved on a pancake flat course, albeit on one of the warmest days of the year.

I found a quiet spot on the finish funnel floor for a few brief minutes of recovery whilst shaking the hands of those I ran with during the middle of the race. Once recovered, I joined the spectators to cheer a few familiar faces back in, including Andy Wadsworth of Sparkhill Harriers, Rich Turvey of Halesowen Triathletes (and runner-up of the Stoneleigh Park Reindeer Run 20k), and of course, Simon. Stopping to chat with Andy and Rich, Simon asked if we would ever do a race where I didn’t at least know somebody. “Only in Iceland,” came my reply – the first place I could think of which fit the bill!

24 hours later and upon reflection, I’m reasonably confident I could have probably run 10 seconds faster for only marginally more discomfort. I felt at ease for much of the first half of the race, and I know I can suffer a lot more in the final stage. This not only bodes well for the plethora of 10k races I have scheduled for the summer (Aldridge 10k, Wythall Hollywood 10k, Magor 10k, maybe even more), but primarily next week’s Shakespeare Half Marathon. 82:XX suddenly doesn’t look so foolhardy anymore!

Here’s the Strava data for the race.