Robin Hood Half Marathon 2017 review

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Marathon pace dress rehearsal at the Robin Hood Half Marathon 2017

For the 2016 race, please click the following:

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

Pre-race

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

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

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

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

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

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

The race

Miles 1 to 3

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

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

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

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

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

Miles 4 to 6

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

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

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

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

Miles 7 to 9

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

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

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

Miles 10 to 12

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

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

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

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

Mile 13 and a bit

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

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

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

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

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

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

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

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

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

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Wolverhampton Half Marathon 2017 review

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

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

Pre-race

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

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

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

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

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

The race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-race

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

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

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

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

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

Birmingham Black Country Half Marathon 2017 review

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

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

Pre-race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

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

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

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

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

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

This week’s running – 8th to 14th of May 2017

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Tough day at the Tewkesbury race office – photo by Lis Yu

This particular week led up to the training run that was the Tewkesbury Half Marathon.

5k recovery with Lis

So, just when does a thing become a thing? This was the second time Lis and I went out running together for mutual benefit – I’m getting a recovery run out of it by not going too fast, and she’s getting a solid workout and somebody to pace her.

Lis even encountered that dreaded, “What if somebody recognises me,” when local runner, Ed Barlow, drove past, tooted his horn and waved at us! Teehee…

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

2 miles at LT and 1 mile at MP

That comment last week about improving on marginal gains like sleep? Well, I’m failing miserably by not going to bed early enough… I woke feeling pretty groggy and spent much of the day in a bit of a fog at work.

With the way I was feeling, 2 miles at lactate threshold was not a welcome prospect. It’s no secret I struggle at such a pace and to keep it up for 2 miles in training was tough. Thankfully, marathon pace shortly afterwards felt like a walk in the park by comparison, which obviously bodes well for what I’m trying to ultimately achieve.

Here’s the Strava data for this run. I didn’t realise I’d forgotten to wear my heart rate monitor until several miles in, so it’s incomplete data, I’m afraid…

5 mile run-commute

The sudden uptick in warmth and humidity meant hayfever season was just on the horizon. I felt sluggish, though my heart rate at least correlated to an easier effort.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Cannon Hill parkrun

Wanting to give myself the best chance of hitting marathon pace with minimal distress at the following day’s Tewkesbury Half Marathon meant volunteering at Cannon Hill parkrun.

Even with a significant percentage of regular runners away or volunteering, Cannon Hill still attained an attendance of 919 runners. Simply incredible numbers when you consider the aforementioned half marathon featured only 1,000 or so participants!

Tewkesbury Half Marathon 2017

For the full write-up, please click here.

The road to the Yorkshire Marathon II

A little shaken by the struggle in the second half of the Tewkesbury Half Marathon, but not stirred; I still managed 6 plus miles at pace in temperatures I’m completely out of touch with for the time being.

The next few weeks will centre largely on developing a routine. There’s work to be done, for sure, but I’m not worried in the slightest – training’s only just begun!

Tewkesbury Half Marathon 2017 review

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Final few hundred metres at the Tewkesbury Half Marathon – photo by Lis Yu

The first of several half marathons scheduled in as training runs – read on to find out how things went.

Pre-race

I almost signed up for this race in 2015 and 2016 – the latter especially so because of the PB near-miss at the Cardiff World Championship Half Marathon. For whatever reasons, I opted not to, but decided to give it a whirl this year to kick-start my marathon programme with gusto!

As touched upon recently, I intend to use various half marathons as marathon pace training runs to better prepare me for October’s Yorkshire Marathon. 13 miles of marathon pace as a solo run is quite taxing, whereas it’s far more tolerable in the company of others in my experience. Whether any of these races become PB attempts is completely up in the air at the moment; I’ve no pressure for a half marathon PB with the marathon being the priority.

Taking almost an hour to get to the leisure centre-come race HQ meant leaving Birmingham shortly after 08:00, factoring in race number collection into the mix along with other pre-race admin.

“Chaotic” is how I would best describe the scene as we arrived. Key locations such as number collection and toilets were located in the midst of cars meandering into the field, with general confusion high. Bib collected, I made a bee-line for the already lengthy toilet queue, and this was with just under an hour to go! With a 1,000 expected runners, plus spectators, there were only 10 or so portaloos, with none of the urinal variety to speed up the queue and make things more efficient for everyone. With around 30 minutes to go, the queue had at least tripled in size and snaked around the car park, prompting me to instead seek out a quiet and secluded spot for a pee…

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, I didn’t recognise a single face before or during the race.

Also surprisingly, or perhaps not again, finding a spot towards the front of the start area was incredibly civilised – I’ve encountered more pushing and shoving at parkruns! On the sound of the hooter, we were off.

The race

I’m going to split this section up into two halves, since that’s largely how the race transpired for me.

The first half

Weather conditions indicated I was likely to be in for a rough ride; temperatures of around 16°C and strong winds of up to 12mph hit and meant there was little wriggle room for error. Even at 10am, I was working up a sweat due to the unfamiliarity with the warmth, so I hung on to my bottle of Lucozade to sip on.

I homed in on marathon pace quickly, though did identify the slight uptick in effort required due to above said conditions at play. Lots of runners were targeting a sub-90 finish, so there were plenty of others to run with in a bid to keep the effort low.

Whilst the course was reasonably well marshalled, much of the time was spent on live or semi-live roads with very few closures in place. Jumping from pavement to road grew tiresome, so I quickly planted myself just a few inches away from each kerb for the remainder of the race.

Miles 1 and 2 ticked by for 6:51 and 6:52 respectively; nit-picking, I’d have liked to have been firmly at 6:49, which will be the target to lock in to on the next race-come-training run.

A water station appeared shortly after mile 2. Whilst a touch early by traditional race expectations, it turned out to be rather welcome as it got warmer. Giving runners small bottles was a God-send, where I was able to successfully drink half and spray the other half over myself, rather than fumble with cups.

Runners around me grew sparse, with many falling back as the unideal conditions took their toll. I had to make a few decisive moves to join groups ahead for fear of being left in no-man’s land early on.

Miles 3 and 4 stuck to pace for 6:48 and 6:51 respectively. I could feel the effort to stay on target marathon pace ratcheting upwards, which was hardly surprising as this became my longest stretch of continuous effort at such a pace since January. What the race gave me was valuable, tangible feedback of where I stood in relation to where I wanted to be.

Shortly after mile 4, another water station appeared for yet more welcome relief. Quite why they had 2 water stations in the first 4 miles, I’m not sure – a combination of ease of set-up on the course, and wanting to give runners water early on, I suspect.

Finding a rhythm on the course proved challenging. If it wasn’t undulations that distracted, it was the presence of cars driving alongside and overtaking runners that meant my attention was never fully immersed in either task.

The course began to climb significantly from mile 5 onwards and proved too much for one chap, causing him to start walking. I slowed to check on him, which turned out to be a combination of too much sun and a stitch before he ushered me on.

Miles 5 and 6 were still just about on target, though cracks began to form for 6:54 and 6:51…

The second half

The climb from mile 5 onwards cleared the board significantly and left me with few other runners to work with. All of the compounded factors worked against me for a pretty ghastly time out there as I hung on to marathon pace that was slowly slipping away.

Unusually, I did pass two Italian runners who were liveried up as if they were running a big city race.

The climb finally peaked shortly after 8 miles to produce splits for miles 7 and 8 respectively of 6:55 and 6:59 – not a train wreck, considering the struggle to maintain pace earlier on the flat, though this prominent feature of the course did probably push me over the edge.

Turning the corner, I allowed my legs to loosen up a little to take advantage of the descent. Unhelpfully, I was now following a straight-line route all the way back to the finish with a face full of headwind! I’d picked up a blister underneath my right toe along with a swollen nail, whereas my left foot was seizing up at the arch to make for a pretty sorry time of it all.

Running alongside me was a chap that was the spitting image of Jort from Cannon Hill parkrun, though I knew it couldn’t possibly be him as he was in the Cotswolds with the rest of the BRAT club. This didn’t last long as he crept away to join the pack in front.

Miles 9 and 10 held steady at 6:56 and 6:59, which I probably could have maintained except another sharp climb disrupted my rhythm again whilst going into the final 5k. Mile 11 became my worst offender at 7:22 and that’s when I decided to back it off for good and just coast back into town. I was spent and had little appetite to slog it out and prolong my recovery.

A random spectator on the side of the road shared that it was all downhill back into town, leaving me with just the headwind to frustrate. The group ahead were some 20 to 30 seconds away, with roughly the same behind. The crowds swelled on both sides of the road to cheer me on, so I reciprocated with a few waves and thumbs up for their generosity.

I steadied the ship for miles 12 and 13 to come in for 7:09 and 7:11. Even at the very end, there was little desire to sprint the remainder, where I almost sauntered in to cross the line…

Post-race

I finished with 1:31:15, so some 75 seconds lost exclusively in the second half. Being kind, I at least covered 6 miles at marathon pace. Being charitable, you could even say I covered 10 miles at marathon pace with the warmth, climbs and headwind factored in.

Those three challenges above will need some work. Becoming better heat acclimated will take care of itself; we’re entering summer shortly and there’ll be no shortage of hot and humid conditions to train in. The climbs and headwind will take a little more elbow grease to crack, perhaps with some 800s at pace on long inclines. I lost a lot of strength from my left leg due to the injury, and it was already the weaker of the two when I was in peak shape, so possibly some additional strength work with weights may yield results.

There’s no sour grapes over yesterday – only onwards and, hopefully, upwards!

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

Brass Monkey Half Marathon 2017 review

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Apologies for the late report!

A late change in focus shook up this annual staple of a race from becoming yet another item on my growing list of recent setbacks.

For the 2015 and 2016 races, please click below:

Pre-race

Regular readers will know I’ve had a particularly troublesome time of late – first with two bouts of illness, and then injury. This naturally meant 2017’s Brass Monkey Half Marathon would be the first without an eyeballs out PB attack on the agenda. So very, very disappointing, especially on such a fast and flat course!

Dave Burton was once again in tow on mine and Lis’ now bi-annual jaunt to York. We also covered his race entry fee as a 50th birthday present for him – only runners could possibly get away with giving a gift that’s equal measure pain and joy! Sadly, Dave didn’t feel like he was in PB shape, either, even after last year’s surprise sub-89 performance from him. With neither of in great condition, we opted to simply aim to get under 90 minutes with as little distress as possible.

Then out of the blue, an interesting request came my way. It seemed Carl Stainton (also racing) and Darryll Thomas both have a mutual friend that was participating, with hopes of going under 90 minutes for the first time. Madeleine had a 90:50 to her name, so certainly within reach without overstretching.

Reaching York Racecourse, we proceeded to set up camp and went on our warm-up. Dave had to confirm whether the 10 minute mile pace he was seeing was correct, and indeed it was. I hadn’t run in over a week by this point, and doubt quickly entered my mind. How reliable a pacer would I actually be at crunch time?

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Does my bum look big in this? Photo by Lis Yu

Warm-up completed, none of us had spotted Carl. Dave Johnson, a fellow runner from Birmingham who we see more often in York than Birmingham, also eluded us. Having run out of old tops to throw away, I opted to break out an unused poncho from the Cardiff World Championship Half Marathon to keep me dry and warm whilst waiting for the race to start. The thing was huge – don’t believe the lies that one size fits all! With time pressing on and not wanting a repeat of last year’s fiasco of trying to go against the horde of runners exiting the Ebor Stand, we made our way to the start area.

We soon spotted Dave Johnson and Carl, who introduced me to Madeleine. We made our way forward to seed ourselves into the correct place, though noted there appeared to be many more people ahead of us than in previous races, even factoring in that we started a few rows further back.

The race

Mile 1 to 4

Stood further away from the start line than normal, it took Madeleine and me some 20 seconds to cross the row of timing mats. Congestion was clearly present, but not of major hindrance; I did have to concentrate on where my feet landed and did come into contact with one guy that seemed insistent on running right next to me at an identical pace. With the opening mile being largely downhill, too, the temptation was always there to go haring off in the hope of gaining a few extra seconds. I reminded Madeleine to stay calm and relaxed, letting those around us get their adrenaline surges out of their systems.

Only having been introduced to Madeleine minutes earlier, I broke the ice and got to learn a little more about her. She’s a big fan of marathons (and a fellow Marathon Talk listener) and I was in awe of her 3:10 marathon PB – a time that would beat most men at the London Marathon, let alone the fairer sex.

My pacing strategy was to start off conservatively, allowing us to ease ourselves into race pace over the first mile or two. Mile 1 came in exactly where I wanted it for 6:52, and with the descent, factored in, it would have felt even easier and more like a 7:00.

I could still see both Daves ahead of us by some 50m. I knew it couldn’t be long before we at least realigned with Dave Burton, pacing for sub-90, too. Madeleine pointed out a training partner-come-rival of hers, also ahead of us in the distance and in a similar situation to us.

Mile 2 clocked in at 6:49 for an imperceptible uplift in pace, avoiding any sudden surges as much as possible.

The crowd began to thin a little in places to provide a bit more breathing space. I couldn’t help but notice how laboured some runners around us sounded already, and we were only on the approach to the third mile! Madeleine appeared to be running well within her capabilities, and her ability to converse with fully formed sentences confirmed as much. Looking inside myself, I also felt pretty damn good in spite of the dramatic drop in training mileage and intensity due to illness and injury of late.

Mile 3 produced a 6:48 and continued to feel really comfortable for the two of us.

Conditions would have been perfect, if not for the surface water left behind by the rain. Whilst cool, this iteration of the race was by far the warmest of the three I’ve run. The arm warmers I wore were completely unnecessary, so I rolled them down to my wrists. One could only imagine how warm Carl was in his compression shirt with vest on top!

Madeleine and I finally reached the two Daves somewhere within mile 4, but only Dave Burton stuck with us. Dave Johnson had participated in a Parkrun and also some cross-country action only 24 hours earlier, so it was no wonder he didn’t have the capacity to maintain the pace. This particular split came in at 6:46, so by all means still pretty static, though we continued to reel in and overtake runners as they flagged.

Mile 5 to 9

I tucked into my first of two gels, whereas Madeleine stuck to just the water offered out on the course.

Whilst our pace remained pretty resolute, the feedback from our Garmins was skewed by the trees lining the southernmost section of the course. We found GPS reception was dampened somewhat, presenting a pace that was typically nearer 7:00 than 6:50, with mile 5 eventually settling on 6:47.

That rival of Madeleine’s? Well, we passed her at some point early on during mile 6, coming in again at 6:47 – I did say my strategy was to run steady! I had a weird sense of déjà vu and recalled she was one of the two women I found myself running with and overtaking at exactly the same point on the course, two years prior.

Passing the halfway point, the clock read 44 minutes or so. Madeleine was still running superbly with no labour at all to her breathing. Dave, who was regularly just behind us by a couple of steps, chimed in that we were both making a sub-90 attempt look far too easy with the level of conversation we had going on… We did, sadly, lose Dave at some point during mile 7; a combination of a perceived pace slip that wasn’t actually there and the tree coverage spurred us on to an uncharacteristic 6:43.

My companion came clean and admitted that she was beginning to feel the effort ratchet upwards slightly, recalling that the stretch between mile 8 and 10 in a half marathon were usually her downfall. I did my best to dispel any doubts that we wouldn’t make it back in under 90 minutes, and we agreed to keep chatter to a minimum. I, too, was feeling the uptick in required effort but donned my best poker face. The lack of training and intensity also began catching up to me, but at least my Achiles was holding up without a peep from it at all.

Miles 8 and 9 produced 6:47 and 6:44 splits, respectively. Noticing the mile markers were beginning to grow increasingly out of sync, I directed Madeleine to hug each and every turn or corner in an attempt to recover a few precious metres and seconds from the route.

Miles 10 to 13.1

The crowd grew sparser as we progressed back towards Bishopthorpe. We maintained our pace whereas many of those around us dropped off theirs, providing us with a powerful mental boost. Whilst Madeleine’s breathing grew a little more laboured than before, she continued to show little struggle in keeping up with me.

Being there to help, and not hinder, I had already been warned not to say, “Just a Parkrun left to go” at mile 10, so I kept schtum whilst a Cheshire Cat-sized grin grew across my face. Didn’t stop other people around us from using the phrase, though! Miles 10 and 11 remained steady for 6:45 and 6:46.

Approaching the second of just three total climbs, Madeleine shared that she would slow slightly on the ascent but would reclaim it on the other side with a slight surge. Amusingly, I was struggling to keep up on the descent as somebody that’s dreadful at running downhill…

Spectators began to litter the sides of the course as we returned to civilisation, providing welcome support and the villages offering a change of scenery.

As we made the left turn back on to Bishopthorpe Road, I knew the ghastly-in-context climb over the A64 would soon be upon us. I told Madeleine I needed her to “dig deep” because there wasn’t much of a drop afterwards to compensate for the damage from the ascent. Helpfully, a chap that we had tracked for much of the latter miles of the race was still just a few metres ahead of us as we climbed. I told Madeleine to focus on him and to not allow the gap to grow any larger. She tackled the climb wonderfully as I spouted all sorts of encouraging nonsense. The mile 12 marker came into view, and even with two climbs to conquer, became our fastest split so far of the morning for 6:41!

With only a mile remaining, we continued to pick off runners that had faded on our return to the race course.

I switched to elapsed time on my Garmin and continued to spur Madeleine on. She was increasingly checking her own Garmin, which I told her to ignore and to keep pressing for the finish. The numbers confirmed we had a healthy margin in place from the consistent 6:45 to 6:47 paced miles, and it even looked like a sub-89 finish was within reach. I wasn’t sure if Madeleine knew how close we were to such a target, so I sneakily began recalling the time but withheld the preceding minute – 1:45 became just 45 seconds, and so on. Nothing like the panic of failing to eke out a little bit more effort! The pace continued to rise and we rounded mile 13 off with a 6:39.

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And she said she didn’t have a sprint… Photo by Lis Yu

Once on the finishing straight, I gave the orders to kick and boy did she kick. My Garmin averaged 5:48 for the remaining distance, with a peak of 5:22!

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for the race.

I came in just a step behind Madeleine, who threw her arms up in victory once over the line. Her grin quickly turned to a look of revulsion as she proceeded to throw up in the finish funnel; for a few seconds, I thought I’d pushed her too far… She, thankfully, bounced back quickly enough and was thrilled by the race outcome. Forget about dipping under 90 minutes; we made it back in under 89 minutes with change for 88:43 and 88:44 respectively, and some 2 plus minutes hacked off from Madeleine’s former PB.

Dave Burton followed shortly after, finishing in 89:38. We didn’t catch Dave Johnson, but later found out he finished in 1:35:10, causing a few winces. Causing a few more winces was the news of Carl’s battered feet en route to his stunning 76:31.

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Madeleine, Andy and Dave – all under 90 minutes. Photo by Lis Yu

Congratulations and farewells sorted, Dave, Lis and I made a beeline back to our B&B and for some grub. Capping off an enjoyable weekend and race, we were then greeted by a car breakdown of all things… Whatever happened to karma, eh?

I’m now taking a break from running for a few weeks to give my Achilles a chance to recover. Weekly blog updates will obviously be a bit light on content, but will continue – I’ll still be found volunteering at Parkrun – either Cannon Hill or Cwmbran.

2016 – Year in review

2016

Plenty of ups and downs during 2016!

Let’s use Clint Eastwood’s 1966 movie, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to filter through this year’s ponder over 2016.

The Good

2016’s targets and PBs

I purposely softened a few of 2016’s targets after some of 2015’s became too ambitious to chase. The good news is I achieved all of my goals, with some by quite a margin!

  • 5k: sub-18:35: SUCCESS!
  • 10k: sub-39:00: SUCCESS!
  • Half marathon: sub-85: SUCCESS!
  • Marathon: sub-3:15: SUCCESS!

And the below are the associated PBs:

Now let’s have a look at 2017’s targets:

  • 5k: sub-18:00
  • 10k: sub-38:00
  • Half marathon: sub-83:30
  • Marathon: sub-3:00

These days for me, any 5k PB is welcomed with open arms. Finding those 15 seconds to get from 18:14 to sub-18 will not be easy, though breaking it down to just needing to shave 3 seconds per km makes it much easier to stomach.

The 10k goal is around where I should have been at multiple points in 2016, but just didn’t come good. It taunts me and is more a case of luck rather than ability.

My half marathon goal remains in line with 2014’s through to 2016’s estimations of 90 to 120 seconds improvement per year; hopefully more likely the latter due to only one half marathon PB in 2016.

The big-Kahuna that is the sub-3 hour marathon goal doesn’t need much introduction or explanation now. By late spring, I should have a very firm idea of the sort of shape I’ll be in and what work will be necessary to get me there for the autumn.

Mileage uplift

2015 saw 1,612 miles covered.

2016 welcomed an increase to 1,737 miles. I basically ran an additional month’s worth of mileage in the same amount of time, no doubt helped by the marathon focus. The total would have likely broken 1,800 miles had I have not also moved house during April.

Memorable races

This one’s easy and couldn’t be anything other than the Yorkshire Marathon. There are no guarantees in running; you simply do the work required and hope for the best on the day, whilst not doing anything too foolhardy in the race. I placed my heart and soul into the preparation and was met with an incredibly rewarding outcome. If I suddenly had to give up running or chasing the marathon, I think I could be satisfied with that performance despite my next goal of going under 3 hours.

Notable mentions also go out to this year’s Brass Monkey Half Marathon and Walsall Arboretum Parkrun.

The Brass Monkey Half Marathon defied my own expectations of what I could have produced that day, and like all good breakout performances, still remains out of reach almost a year later. Perhaps the 2017 edition of the race will finally jump start my half marathon development once more?

Similarly, the 5k PB at Walsall Arboretum Parkrun came from nowhere. The morning was wet and miserable, the field was sparse, and I was fatigued from being elbow-deep in marathon training. I’ve not come close to that performance for months!

 

The Bad

Races I’d rather forget

Eugh. The Kenilworth Half Marathon really should have been cut and dry, but was marred by illness. But I at least finished the race! I didn’t dwell too much on the outcome, mainly because the race was just a stepping stone towards a greater goal.

The Cardiff World Championships Half Marathon was also a let-down due to the weather gods unleashing a monstrous storm at around 9 miles during my race. Up until that point, I was in contention for a minor half marathon PB, which would have at least made the race’s £60 entry fee more palatable!

 

The Ugly

The race I’d rather hadn’t taken place

This last spot can only go to the Telford 10k. A stinking cold and the resultant DNF that followed made for incredibly bitter pills to swallow, thusly continuing the trend of why my 10k PB is so far out of line with the rest of my performances.

Illness

I’ve said enough on this topic recently, but felt I had to include it for posterity. What I would give for a boosted immune system right now!

 

Make 2017 a good one

Whether you’re just starting out as a runner, or chasing after elusive goals, I hope 2017 comes good for you!