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!

 

 

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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.

Draycote Water 10k February 2018 review

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Windy when flat and undulating when not windy…

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

Pre-race

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

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

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

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

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

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

The race

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

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

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Into the wind! Photo by Lis Yu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

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

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

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

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

 

Stoneleigh Park Reindeer Run 20k 2017 (2018) review

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A Christmas themed run in February…?

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

Pre-race

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

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

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

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

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

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

The race

Lap 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lap 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lap 3

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

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

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

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

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

Lap 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-race

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

Here’s the Strava data for the race.

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

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

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

Brass Monkey Half Marathon 2018 review

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Fourth appearance at the Brass Monkey Half Marathon

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

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

Pre-race

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

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

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

So, on to race morning…

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

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

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

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

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

The race

Miles 1 – 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miles 4 to 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miles 8 to 10

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

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

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

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

Miles 11 and 12

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

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

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

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

Mile 13 and a bit

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

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

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

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

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Yu gotta earn the gurn! Photo by Lis Yu

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

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

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you again in 2019, York!

Gloucester New Year’s Eve 10 Mile 2017 review

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Peak tan line exposure! Photo by Lis Yu

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

Pre-race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

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

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

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

Conductive Education 10k 2017 review

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Just a few hundred metres left – photo by Yvonne Morgan

For the 2016 race, please click the following:

Second outing for me and second ever 10k for Lis at this gem of a local race.

Pre-race

I’d heard of this race for several years from friends, but only took notice of it and first participated a year ago. Run almost entirely within Cannon Hill Park, the route naturally shares several similarities with the various parkrun courses of yore, so will be quite familiar to many. Naturally, there were many, many faces from the local running community, both participating and volunteering. Lis continued her focus on 10k events and also signed up, with her parents in tow to spectate.

It’s a charming little race, with the proceeds going to the NICE charity, helping children with movement disorders.

A year prior, I ran this race feeling like I’d barely worked. I was in much better all-round then, with results proving as much. From 5k up to the marathon, I felt like I could put out respectable performances without too much forewarning, such was the magnitude of the training improving all of my energy systems and paces. Recent parkruns have felt tricky, with a distinct difficulty in moving up to and staying in higher gears. A morning’s target of simply finishing in under 40 minutes was fine by me! My race strategy? Just dip under 20 minutes for the first half and race the second half like a 5k. Speaking with Chris Callow beforehand, he too sought after a sub-40 finish, not having done so since 2016’s Telford 10k, which I’d so miserably DNFd at.

The race

I’ve not done many races with fast downhill starts, so the novelty has yet to wear thin. Expectedly, everybody went bananas and used the advantage to bank a few valuable seconds early on. Once the course flattened out, I had to do a double take when I saw 3:29 per km pace being covered! I shared with Chris that I was dropping the anchors to pull back a touch, getting back on my plan of covering the first half of the race in just shy of 20 minutes. The 1st km with its generous descent came in for 3:50.

So early on in the race, there were plenty of people around me to run alongside, and coupled with my consciously scaled back pace, it all felt rather effortless. The next 2km were coasted along at 4:05 and 4:01 pace as the race took runners to the furthest point of the course.

My ability to negotiate switchbacks had not improved, especially when it involves running around a bollard! Even at a more controlled pace, I ended up grabbing the bollard with both hands to swing myself around in an attempt to not lose too much momentum for the return. Whilst my switchback talents left little to be desired, it seemed everybody else’s ahead of me was worse, because I found myself closing in on a few that had escaped me earlier.

With such a narrow path back into the main park, everybody was forced to run no more than two abreast in both directions, making for quite a useful slipstream for me to take shelter from the gusts that blew. Feedback from the other side from Neil Muir and Lis indicated I was roughly in 15th place. As the group I was following slowed and splintered, I began to move from runner to runner, resulting in a not un-welcome uptick in pace to pave the way for a 3:53 4th km. Unexpectedly, I was tailing Zack Minchin, who I hadn’t seen at Cannon Hill for months. He proved to be a reliable pacer, dragging me to halfway with a 3:51 split and 19:43 for 5km.

When those around me tired, I continued to jump from runner to runner to keep the pace from dropping too much. By my estimations, I’d moved up to 12th or 13th; placing in the top 10 was another goal alongside finishing in under 40 minutes.

With the course somewhat slick from prior rainwater, I struggled to maintain traction on a number of the tight twists and turns that were thrown my way, especially as fatigue mounted. Wearing the Nike Streak LT3 racing flats certainly required nimble feet that morning as I nearly discovered their limits a few times! 6km came in at 3:55.

Back on the long straight and heading out of the main park for the final time, I got a good glimpse of those immediately ahead of me and the leaders returning on the other side. Carl Stainton was firmly in 2nd place, with too much of a gap in front or behind him to likely change his podium position. Shaun Hemmings was in a small group for 4th, with a chance of climbing to either third or dropping down to fifth. Up ahead of me, I could see I was closing in on Darryll Thomas and the difference between us had likely reduced to just 30 – 40 seconds or so compared to the first lap.

Rounding the switchback, I once again swung myself with both hands to slingshot me for the return. Unsure of what was taking place immediately behind me, I pressed on to claim two scalps ahead. Conflicting feedback from the other side suggested I was either 7th or 8th, or just outside of the top 10. My pace sat steady and did not drift from 7km onwards for 3:54.

Just ahead of me was a BRAT runner, where the distance between us grew and shrank like an accordion. At one point, I was within 10m, and at other times, he easily had more than 50m on me.

The finish for this race was awkwardly located within some of Cannon Hill Park’s inner paths, making identification of the actual finish line and big sprint finishes quite a challenge. I’ve lost a lot of finishing power this year, and with nobody immediately in front or behind me, I could only muster a half-hearted attempt despite cheers from the side lines.

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

I finished feeling pretty damn good and certainly better than recent parkruns at a reduced pace!

Darryll came over to share that he scored a PB by some 30 seconds or so, continuing his triumphant year of achievements (including an unexpected 1st v40 prize). It was only when he commented that I must have been close to a PB that I remembered to check my finishing time. 38:47 stared back at me – just another 3 seconds would have secured a fresh 10k best! I really had no clue I was so close, especially as I’d consigned myself to just wanting a sub-40 finish and a top 10 position, which I just sneaked into with 10th.

Carl finished in 2nd place as anticipated, agreeing that there was too much of a gap either side for a major podium shakeup. Shaun finished in 4th, improving upon a year ago by 3 minutes. Lis improved upon her 10k PB, originally set at the Wolverhampton race by some 4 minutes. Despite her protestations, I keep telling her that she’ll easily go under an hour with 2 months of consistency behind her.

Post-race thoughts

I care not that I just missed a PB by such a fine, unknown margin. I had a thoroughly enjoyable morning in the company of some fine members of the local running community, who I’m pleased did achieve PBs and prizes. Lis knocking 4 minutes off her 10k best meant the Yu household was not devoid of PBs to be celebrated.

What this race has highlighted is that I’m not in bad shape at all after the Yorkshire Marathon. Targeting 83:30 or better in January’s Brass Monkey Half Marathon doesn’t look like it’ll be a fool’s errand, with plenty of time between now and then to capitalise on the improvements from a change in stimulus, namely a focus on lactate threshold and half marathon pace. The next upcoming race will be the Sneyd Christmas Pudding 10 mile, which should prove to be a reliable gauge of potential as well as being a potent stimulus in and of itself.