Yorkshire Marathon 2017 review

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Marathons never get easier. Goals just get loftier!

For the 2016 race, please click the following:

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

The build-up

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

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

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

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

Maranoia – it’s real!

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The race

Miles 1 to 3

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

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

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

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

Miles 4 to 9

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Mile 3 of the Yorkshire Marathon – photo by Lis Yu

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

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

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

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

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

Miles 10 to 13.1

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

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

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Me and the less aggressive sub-3 group

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

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

Miles 14 to 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miles 18 to 20

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

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

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

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

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

Miles 21 to 22

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

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Teeth gritted. Time to dig in!

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

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

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

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

Miles 23 to 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final mile and a bit

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

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

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

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

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

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

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Ross, me and Ian – marathon PBs for all!

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

Thoughts and conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Robin Hood Half Marathon 2017 review

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Marathon pace dress rehearsal at the Robin Hood Half Marathon 2017

For the 2016 race, please click the following:

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

Pre-race

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

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

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

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

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

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

The race

Miles 1 to 3

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

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

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

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

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

Miles 4 to 6

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

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

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

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

Miles 7 to 9

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

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

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

Miles 10 to 12

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

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

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

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

Mile 13 and a bit

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

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

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

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

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

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

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

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

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

This week’s running – 24th to 29th of July 2017

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Home away from home

Week 12 of the 22 week marathon schedule. After never having raced on a Saturday until recently, along came another Saturday race in quick succession!

5k recovery

In spite of running my furthest since my last marathon on the day prior, my legs did not feel shabby at all whilst out on this recovery run.

I even spotted Graham Lawrence of Cannon Hill parkrun fame to make for a novel change on the otherwise monotonous route.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

14 miles from work

A year ago, I took the day off from work to complete this run, such was my belief that it would not do me any favours covering it after a day at the office. No such opportunity this year, so I did whatever I could to prevent it being a disaster. This included eating a giant pizza the night before, along with a hearty lunch several hours before, topped off with the odd cookie throughout. I did not forget to pack my water bottle, either, so well prepared was I.

And do you know what? It was a success without any trauma!

To bulk up the distance, I covered two laps of the Soho Loop and three laps of the lake at The Vale before returning to my normal route to just tip me over into 14 miles. 37 miles in just three days was not bad going!

I have wondered why the P&D plan decides to build runners up to a mid-week medium-long run of such a distance and then returns to normal distances of 9 to 12 miles. Perhaps it’s a stepping stone to help better prepare runners to take on the 20+ mile runs yet to come?

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

5 mile run-commute

Carrying more stuff home than usual, I was thankful the temperature was also a few notches lower than of late to at least make this run less taxing.

Effort was kept incredibly low to best ensure I arrived at the Magor 10k in reasonable shape to make the most of the flat and fast race.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

5k recovery with strides

Running is an incredibly cheap hobby, if you want it to be. To run short distances, you only really need basic kit and it doesn’t even have to be running specific. As we develop, we begin amassing more kit; some necessary, and some less so. One such case in point is shoes – I have 7 pairs of running specific shoes on the go, and two pairs boxed and waiting to be rotated in when the outgoing pairs are beyond their useful lives. This recovery run played host to just that, where I broke out my new pair of Adidas Adios Boost 3s to replace a knackered pair of Adios Boost 2s.

A 5k recovery run with some strides thrown in was the perfect test to break-in the new pair of Adios Boost 3s. The outgoing pair of Adios Boost 2s were a nightmare from day 1, requiring excessive levels of break-in, by which time a third of the shoe’s lifespan had already been used up. The Adios Boost 3s are comfortable straight out of the box and flew when they were subjected to a few bursts of strides.

Specifically, these will be used as tempo shoes, so things like marathon pace runs, casual parkruns, speed work, and so on. Basically, they’re a workhorse shoe to take the stress away from my race-specific shoes, where they’re even more fragile due to being at the cutting edge of performance. There’s a psychological benefit to having shoes you only break out for big performances, and I wish to keep that trick in my arsenal.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Magor 10k 2017 review

For the full report, please click here.

10 miles – to Usk and back

With a Saturday race, Sunday presented the option of some top up mileage to round the week off and get it over 40 miles. That was the dream, but the reality was a bit trickier…

On the surface, the Magor 10k seemed to have taken a bit more out of me than originally thought because the first half of the 10 miles did not feel right at all. Even at a modest pace, the effort felt totally off and I was left sweating a lot more than anticipated. I bided my time and began chipping away progressively at each mile by a couple of seconds; giving my brain something achievable to focus on got me to halfway, where everything was right with the world again and I’d perked up.

Negative splits and running progressively. It’s the future!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

The road to the Yorkshire Marathon II

Using the race as an analogy, I feel like I’m entering that stage where significant progress has been made, but now no-man’s land beckons; too far from the beginning where feeling fresh is now just a distant memory, and still too far from the finish to be able to properly assess what the likely outcome will be.

Reviewing last year’s blog entries reveals similar themes of ebbing and flowing; some weeks felt like a real struggle and other weeks carried great momentum. Without becoming too romantic about it all, the marathon and the training that comes before it are both great literal journeys; there’s no such thing as an easy marathon, and nor is the training supposed to be easy, otherwise the achievement would not be celebrated quite as much as it is, whether you’re a beginner, improver or elite-level.

Things will be just fine. Trust me. I work in marketing!

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 – 19th to 25th of June 2017

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A week of two halves!

Week 7 of the 22 week marathon schedule.

5k recovery

If you have a particular route that you cover time and time again, but in only one direction, I suggest you give it a shot in the opposite direction. I did just that on Monday’s 5k recovery run, and it was quite remarkable how different it felt. The route suddenly felt new again; I noticed new details on houses I’d passed dozens of times before, climbs became descents, and so forth.

Elevation-wise, running the reverse route felt slightly more challenging, where formerly shorter, sharper climbs had been traded in for more gradual, longer upward drags.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

10 miles with 4 at marathon pace

With the amped up heat and humidity, I opted to break the 10 miles down into a separate warm-up, 4 miles at pace, and warm-down. I wanted the spirit of the prescribed run, whilst diluting it just enough to make it achievable.

Part-way into the first mile at marathon pace, I noticed how much more effort it was taking in the tricky conditions, so I slotted in an additional 10 second buffer to make it more manageable. The adjustment felt about right, allowing all 4 miles to each sneak in at under 7 minutes.

Unsurprisingly, the canal was especially busy. Along with another runner and 4 guys walking, we all failed miserably as we attempted a 6 way pass, though were in good spirits afterwards as we all apologised profusely to each other for the en-masse clattering!

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

5 mile run-commute

I always find run-commutes in warm and humid conditions particularly challenging. Wearing a bag on my back means I’m continuously sweating for lack of airflow, and running at a slower recovery pace means I’m spending longer on the activity. Factor in a rushed departure from the office and less than ideal hydration over the afternoon, and the result was a pretty messy 5 miles.

Adapting to the heat is entirely trainable. An online buddy of mine from hot and humid Atlanta in the US recently returned to London, where the 10° drop in temperature for him allowed for some pretty stellar training runs, whilst Blighty began suffering with our relative 10° increase.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

10 miles from work

Wanting a change from slogging it out on the canal towpath, I decided to re-utilise some of the route I adopted last year whilst there were closures between the university and Selly Oak to install new stairs and bike ramps.

Indeed, sometimes a change is as good as a rest. In spite of the undulating second half, the change of scenery served as a pretty good stimulus and kept things interesting on this staple weekly medium-long run. Also positive was the fact that I didn’t have to detour half a mile away from home with the goal of bulking out the distance – something I will try to adopt moving forward, especially for the monstrous 20+ mile runs.

Here’s the Strava data for this run.

Wythall Hollywood 10k 2017 review

For the full run-down of this ever-present race on my calendar, please click here.

The road to the Yorkshire Marathon II

Despite it being a light week on my schedule, I still clocked up just 200m shy of 40 miles in total and feel no worse for it. I would like to be in a position so that most of my light weeks end up close to 40 miles, with more dramatic cutbacks utilised sparingly where absolutely necessary. Conversely, I’ve planned for my biggest weeks to just hit 60 miles, and all other weeks in the middle to hover around 50 miles.

The outcome at the Wythall Hollywood 10k was rather pleasing, where there was a real possibility of it not coming to fruition in the days prior, such is how out of touch I was with 10k pace; my lactate threshold has always been my weakness, so I’m frequently conscious not to ignore it completely. I have one more 10k race as part of the marathon schedule in late July; if things continue to track well, I think a 39:15 is a realistic prospect on the pancake flat course, so long as the weather plays ball!

This coming week is another unusual one, featuring the novelty race that is the Birmingham Black Country Half Marathon, to be completed with Dave. The plan is for us to cover the race at our respective marathon paces for some benchmarking to see just where we’re at.

Aldridge 10k 2017 review

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

For the 2013 and 2016 races, please click below:

Pre-race

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

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No torrential rain this year!

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

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

The race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-race

Here’s the Strava data for this race.

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

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

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

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A bit parched afterwards!

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

Thoughts and conclusions

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

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

 

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.