Signing up for the Coxhoe Trail event a few weeks before the event, meant I had a chance to try a trail run before the day. Preparation went well running a 5-mile trail around Beamish with over 250-metre elevation, which I knew was a lot more than the Coxhoe Trail.
Looking at the forecast, the day before the event, I noticed it had to be a good day and there was no sign of rain. An early morning rise at 5 with my 18-month-old daughter, then a nice 20-minute walk with the dog followed by my running ritual of porridge, put me in good stead ready for the run.
At about 8 am, in Sacriston, the heavens opened and I was hoping it wouldn’t last long.
I arrived at the event at about 830, enough time to sort everything out. Once I collected my shirt and number, it was the waiting game for over an hour and what I hate most is waiting. So I chatted for a good 40 minutes to another runner, an ex Durham County Cricketer Paul Burn. We both headed up to the event in good time, me not realising it took a good 15 minutes to walk.
Once there I jumped in the Elvet Striders team photo and headed back to the start and a chat to a few of the team.
I didn’t realise I made a big mistake until the race set off and I was behind about 50 people and the runner who I was going to stay near, Stuart Scott, was way ahead already after about 200 metres. I had some ground to make up as I like getting a quick start, so once we got on the downward hill, I tried to weave in and out of people the best I could on a narrow section of the course.
I managed to get caught up once we reached the woods section and had him in my sights for the next few kilometres, just keeping a decent pace behind him. I had in my mind under 40 minutes for the race and was determined to stick to it.
All was going well after 4 km and was under 16 minutes which was well on time, between 4-5km was the hardest on the course and steepest incline and it really tested me and I am guessing all other runners. Once we reached the loop near Quarrington Hill, I made ground on another Elvet Strider, Graeme Watt, and for some reason I found more strength going up the hills and made better ground. At one point I managed to overtake Graeme but this did not last for long. On the way back towards Kelloe he found extra acceleration on the downward hills and powered off into the distance.
Between 5-9 km I managed to keep an average pace around the 4-minute per km mark and knew I was on target. Then I realised the last part of the race was the steep hill at the start of the race. Both Stuart and I nearly took the wrong direction as we had a choice of left or straight ahead and thankfully a steward behind shouted which way. The hill took its toll but I was glad to be able to power up it at a decent pace even though it seemed to be never-ending.
Once at the top, around 10 supporters were cheering runners up the hill and onto the final stretch. It was back along the straight for a few hundred yards, then a sharp right into the woods for less than a minute to finally see the finish line out of the woods and three Striders, who had already made it back in the distance. A time of 39:51 and a 10th place finish made it all worthwhile and I was pleased to see a number of Striders in the hunt for a top 20 place just behind me. An excellent day all round and a very good first trail race which all in all was well signposted and stewarded to make the day even easier.
It had finally arrived, somewhat later than expected. You see I had entered my first 10K race back in May, however, due to injury I was forced to defer my place until 2019.
Over the last few months, I had entered various 5K races, which I felt ‘comfortable’ with and was confident I could finish. However, I didn’t feel completely challenged. Then in July after only recently joining Striders, a last minute place became available for the Willow Miner Race (something to do with a football match!!). This was my biggest challenge so far, distance and terrain! I loved it!
So on the morning of the 23rd September, I arrived ready for the Coxhoe 10K Trail race. I was feeling excited and surprisingly confident. I think the confidence was partly due from completing the Willow Miner race and also meeting some fellow runners the previous Wednesday at training. It was the first race I had worn a Striders vest and as people were milling around before the race they would pass with a “hello”, a smile. It was like immediately making lots of new friends.
Registration was shockingly early for a Sunday – 8am-9am, especially as the race didn’t start until 10 am. Yes we were hanging around a while and it was freezing (summer was long gone), however, we bagged parking spaces! My advice would be to get there early, park, register then wait in the warm car with a takeaway coffee till the last possible moment. It’s about a 10 mins walk up to the start from the Active life centre or a nice little jog as I saw several people warming up early.
We arrived at the finish area…so early. It wasn’t even finished! After helping put up the banner ready for a team photo it was time to head to the start, which meant taking off my hoody, wearing a vest with no thermal underneath! How I regretted that at the time. So with extremely cold arms and hands, we trotted off to the start line, raring to go. The buzz was electrifying. 200 other, mainly club runners, all huddling close to keep warm. With no chip timing, I was told to get closer to the front.
And we were off and straight down a stony track. At this point, there were tonnes of runners trying to get ahead. I would say this was the most nerve-wracking part. Trying to watch my footing, keeping up a decent pace and not being knocked over by a sea of runners. I would definitely say it pushed me on to run a bit quicker than I had originally planned to.
The next few km were along old railway lines, softer terrain and flat, however, this is where I struggled to get into a rhythm, partly due to a cold so struggling to breathe and maybe because of the quick start. Before long we were climbing and as I turned a corner there was the water station. I wasn’t particularly thirsty, however, I was worried it would be the only one, so even though it was very early in the race, I thanked the marshal and took several gulps of water before pushing on.
As we approached some downhill, I glanced to my left and could see some runners ahead of me turning up some steep gradients, so I headed down knowing in the back of my mind what was to come! The hills started and they were fairly steep. I power walked most of them but my breathing was heavy. The poor girl I was behind must have been fed up of me heavy breathing down her neck. I remember thinking I’m only at 4km not even halfway, can I keep going for another 6km?! But then as I passed another Strider lady (I would pass her, then she would pass me and vice versa), I saw with relief, a sign for the halfway point. It was at this point that the race changed for me.
We were higher up with lovely views and I remember thinking we must be going downhill soon. It was at that moment that I found a new lease of energy. My pace picked up and I started overtaking the same people that, earlier on, I had struggled to keep up with. I didn’t pay much attention to my Garmin and wasn’t set on achieving any particular time, however, I had approximated before the race that I might finish around the 1hr 15 min mark due to my pace history. But as I glanced at my watch I realised I was running faster and as the km interval beeps appeared on my watch, each km average was quick! Not quick for others but for me it was fast!!
The downhill felt great, through a wooded area and leaping over a stile at the bottom. I felt like I was flying. Then on over a few roads crossing where the marshals were doing a great job at keeping us going. But then I hit the long flat railway line, which seemed to go on forever. It was at this point that I had to really mentally keep going. I was still fairly speedy (for me) but you could see it go on and on in the distance and I had now exceeded the 8km mark so I was in new distance territory.
I started trying to avoid looking ahead and instead kept aiming my sight at some objects in the near distance, using them as targets, all the while remembering about the steep stony track we had come down at the start and thinking, this is going to be the final challenge.
As I approached the last marshal at the end of the railway line I crossed onto the track and hit the stony incline. I pushed on trying to keep at a steady jog pace as well as recalling what the run leaders had said about hills during previous training sessions. And then it turned to a walk, “keep breathing and moving” I kept repeating in my head. I could see several people at the top of the hill, this pushed me to start running again as soon as I reached the summit. In reality, my body wasn’t quite ready for that and I could feel my legs turning to jelly, but I kept moving determined to continue.
As I passed a few runners (they had already finished) along the track towards the woods I could hear shouts of encouragement, in particular from Rebecca Talbot who was stood in a ditch searching for conkers having already finished in a solid time.
As I struggled through the woods I could hear the noise from the finish line in the distance. I started to panic, my breathing hadn’t quite recovered from that final hill. I stood still for the first time in the race took some deep breaths and then pressed on. As I turned the corner I could see the finish, Catherine Smith, Anna Seeley and Kerry Anne Barnett all smiling and shouting encouragement. I turned that final push into a sprint finish, putting my time at a very surprising and pleasing 1hr 7mins, way below what I had expected.
So, looking back it was a lovely first 10K to do, fairly low key, friendly and definitely challenging. It has definitely given me more confidence and as I head into my first Trail Outlaws race this coming Sunday I’m full of excitement and determination but also, I’ve decided not to worry about time as I seem to perform faster when I’m not clock watching. Time will tell. One thing I’m certain of is that I have started a love affair with trail running!
After a spring of chasing Elaine Bisson around the fells in preparation for her Bob Graham Round, pacing on her and Stuart’s rounds and completing a few local fell races, I thought I might move up to the big league and try a Lake District Race. The Grisedale horseshoe starts in Glenridding and takes in Catstycam, Helvellyn and St Sunday crag; by far not the biggest, longest or hardest route the Lakes has to offer but a sure step up from the North York Moors and the Esk Valley Summer Series.
It is not a difficult route to navigate and I know the area quite well, but I like to be confident of the route and what to expect on race day, as generally, by the time the map comes out, chances of a good placing are gone. I took Jack and headed over a few weeks before; whilst he had a fantastic time I complained all the way to the top of Catstycam about how steep, or grassy, or hilly, or hard work it was… just about anything I could think of, I moaned about. We took a map and loaded the route on to my fancy new Garmin watch and found that we used the map plenty, and the GPS track not much!
On race day, I picked up Geoff and Stuart who were also taking part, and Sam who fancied a day out in the fells. Registration and kit check took place in the village hall, before nervously hanging around outside watching lots of tough looking, mostly male, runners warming up along the track where the race started.
Off we went, the first half-mile or so is a fairly flat track past the campsite which helped to settle into a decent position for the climb, and being faster on the flat bits, I found a decent place and expected to be overtaken on the climb, so didn’t worry too much when people passed me. Nearing the top of Birkhouse Moor, Stuart and two ladies overtook; I kept the same pace, knowing that there was a nice runnable section coming up before the next ascent to Catstycam. I caught one lady and had Stuart in view as we started on up Catstycam on what seemed to be the worst way up to me – straight up the side through the long grass. Is the path a hundred feet away really that much slower? I saw Stuart ahead using his hands as well as his feet on the ground – that’s how steep it was! I kept reminding myself that I was here voluntarily (why??) and that the climbing would have to stop eventually. The top was in cloud and rather windy, I shouted my number at the marshals and headed off to Swirral edge, to the lovely rocks that are much easier to negotiate!
Up and over the top of Helvellyn, then follow the BG route to Grisedale Tarn, easy enough – except coming off Dollywaggon I decided that the people ahead of me heading down sooner than I expected must have known something I didn’t and followed them for a while. Turns out they came off too soon and I was once again negotiating that boggy tufty grass that makes up most of the fells, while Stuart sped past over to the left on the actual descent, laughing at my poor route choice (I had caught him up somewhere along the top). Past the marshals at the tarn and I overtook Stuart once again as with a shout he fell waist deep into a bog/stream/river.
I had caught the lady in front on the descent and having warmed up nicely by now, stuck on her shoulder on the run-up to St Sunday Crag. The climb was much less steep and therefore more enjoyable than the previous climbs. I thought she might be fading a little so didn’t worry too much about overtaking yet and waited until the summit checkpoint before heading off down a nice rocky path. She and a few others followed – I’m not sure they thought much of my route choice as they dropped back quite quickly. The long descent through Blind Cove into Patterdale is lovely and a few runners commented that I seemed to be having too much fun as I slid down through scree, mud, bog and plenty sheep muck. Through a field at the bottom to an audience of huge cows, a splash through the river at the bottom and onwards towards the last hill, nearly home!
I think Patterdale is one of my favourite dales, it’s very pretty and apart from race day, always appears to be deserted. I commented as much to the man running next to me and he just looked at me like I was mad, perhaps I am.
The final climb back up to the Helvellyn tourist path is brutal, and not so short – a definite ‘hands-on-floor’ ascent. I counted the steps until I got to around 700 before losing count, and was still nowhere near the top. However, I didn’t seem to be losing any places and everybody else was struggling in a similar fashion. One man cried out when he realised we had only reached a false summit; I reassured him that it really wasn’t far now!
Trying to muster up a run along the easier parts, we finally reached the last checkpoint and the start of the descent. Some friendly runners told me to enjoy the run back down; there was no need to rush as the next lady was still back in Patterdale somewhere. Someone opened a gate for me when I couldn’t work out what side the hinges were on and ushered me through. When we got to the bottom track there was a shout along the lines of ‘go on lass, go get the rest of them!’, and back to the village hall, sweaty handshakes all round and lots of tea and sandwiches.
Stuart came in sometime later, followed by Geoff and we waited around for the prizes – wine and chocolate (Aldi special!) for the category winners, first fell race, a lady whose birthday it was and the children of some runners! It’s a generous sport, and a challenging few hours out for the grand price of £5 and on the day entry.
Sometimes, words are not necessary, and numbers will suffice. The pertinent numbers here are, as above, 14 and 6000. That is, 6000 ft of ascent and descent in 14 miles or, to be precise, 483 ft of ascent for every mile run. For perspective, to be category ‘A,’ a fell race must have 250ft ascent per mile, so the Sedbergh race effectively is basically meeting the grade, then sticking 233 ft/mile on you for fun. Why? Because.
Unsurprisingly, both times this race has been in the club GP it has only attracted a handful of Striders, despite its relative proximity to Durham and the ease of entry; I suspect the numbers above are relevant to this. That said, it is as pure a fell race as can be found, in that the tarmac content is a couple of hundred yards at the start and finish, navigational skills have to be deployed and the scenery, whilst not Lake-district spectacular, bears witness only in fits and starts to the hand of mankind. When one can see it, of course, which wasn’t really the case for Geoff D, Mike B, Nina M and I, Mike and Nina having merely to get round to wrap up the fell category in the GP for the season, having found the time to run enough of the other races, and the form to run them hard, to be certain of their victories as long as DNFs were avoided.
The race this year had a field of c120 runners, and due to conditions we were advised that the two cut offs, at Arant Haw (2m in) and Black Force (7m) had been extended to 45 minutes and 1hr55m respectively; clearly the organisers expected some navigational mishaps. A quick 3-count set us off, the first stretch on slightly uphill tarmac, bending right, into a farmyard, then onto the slopes of Winder, skirting the peak to the east, climbing on gradients that permitted stretches of slow running between stints of walking as fast as grip and incline permitted. Already, within 10 minutes, I was sweating and had lost sight of the leaders, visibility limited by the low cloud which seemingly sat at around 350m throughout the race. Having missed the top of Winder, the course drops briefly into a saddle, from where the fairly runnable southern slope of Arant Haw takes you to CP1, the marshals well-wrapped and with tent and flasks evident. This leads to a nice grassy descent where the legs can be let rip, as there is a good trod and nothing technical for a mile or so; I let fly here and gained a couple of places, feeling ever so pleased with myself until it occurred to me that I now had to try to remember where exactly to break off the trod and veer north-west to hit Chapel Beck where it forms at a Y-junction of streams. Reader, I guessed, and the lack of knowledge of 5 or 6 others showed in that they went with me too, even though it transpired I’d gone a little too early and the first water I saw on breaking through the clouds was one of the feeder streams. That said, it acted as a nice visual marker in that I just had to keep going downhill and left to know I’d be back on track, the other confirmation coming from the stream of more accurate runners descending slightly to the west. The beck this year was not the trickle of 2 years ago, and the force of it swept a leg from me as I crossed, resulting in a face-plant into the water, so it was probably a good thing that the climb out, to CP2 at Castley Knotts is a hands-on-knees beast; strictly no running here. From the control comes a section that should be fairly quick, and started so this year until the visibility meant that I lost the path that largely contours round to Black Force, descending sooner than I should and having to pull myself back up wet slopes, through temporary springs erupting from the hillside, runners above me who’d kept to the trod, runners below who’d miscalculated worse than I – at one point, a runner glimpsed in the valley bottom, seemingly intent on working his way back up the stream bed of Black Force. I regained the trod, dropped at speed into the stream junction that forms CP3, stopping to take the waters deliberately this time (cold, with the delicious sweet tinge of peat that you never get from the tap) before moving on to the section that broke me 2 years ago.
Between CP3 and CP4, which is at the confluence of Hazel Gill and Bowderdale Beck, is a mere 2.5-3 miles of eastwards running. The sting is that it is pathless, and takes 3 climbs and descents to get there. The first, Docker Knott, was relatively simple and permitted a bit of a run with only a little walking before a fairly easy descent and a climb out to the south of Simon’s Seat, hand-railing a stream in a re-entrant up to a saddle then dropping again, the handful of runners in sight providing no clues as they were all taking different lines to each other. from the saddle a trod seemed to lead the way, but my compass said otherwise, so I trusted it and dropped on a bearing due east, down a steep, wet, grassy and uneven fellside, to be met by the welcome sight of 2 more streams in spate, again meeting. This was my marker, and I aimed directly at it, went through them both, the water thigh-high in places, then up and out to climb/traverse Hazelgill Knott, aiming not for the summit but to cut around the northern slopes and then SE to CP4. Here, I picked up on a couple of runners as we hit the cloud again, and tailed them as I walked the last few hundred yards of climbing, reasoning that at about 9 miles in it was not unreasonable to break out the sugar, in the form of Kendal Mint Cake (brown). Shoving this, and the map and compass back into my bum-bag, it was with relief that I crested the slope and started to descend to CP4, life just getting better when it appeared exactly where expected and the marshals had thought to strew a handful of plastic beakers next to the beck for refreshment purposes. Two cups duly drunk, it was with enthusiasm that I laid into the next section to CP5 (The Calf), which the PB Sports map describes as ‘all runnable,’ a statement that doubtless applies to the elite but which, I had to accept was not true for me; the first mile, heading due south with the beck I managed, the second, climbing steadily to the calf I confess to having slipped a couple of little walks into before resuming a run as things started to flatten towards the top of The Calf; that said, I managed to overhaul the pair I’d tailed to Bowderdale Beck and got another couple of runners into my sights, intermittently. From here, navigation was easy and the gradients kind, progress from CP5 (where Jan Young had emerged from the mist, as always heard before she was seen) to 6 being relatively rapid along rough but clear tracks and relatively shallow rises and falls; it was another 2.5-3 miles to Winder, but they did not compare to the CP3-4 section in any way. Winder trig, CP6 came, the post being touched and the descent commenced with glee, all the more so when I broke out of the cloud to see Sedbergh below and DPFR and Bingley vests to chase down. The former was caught, only to evade me as the greasy wet slope got steeper and steeper, leaving me on my bottom too often and sliding a good 100m in one go at one point. I got him back in sight on the road, but he was too far ahead to catch, and I had to settle for 25th (3hrs, 2mins), admittedly a big improvement on 2 years ago, when an ankle had gone at 8 miles and the remainder had been limped, slowly.
A quick shower, a bottomless teapot in return for a donation to the MRT, and life was good again, all the more so when Mike, holding ribs cracked on the final descent, Geoff and Nina all arrived in short order, all sub-4hrs. Similar tannin therapy and they were vaguely restored also. As races go, this is a bit of a beast, and the numbers act as fair warning that this is probably not a first fell race for anyone. However, like so many things, and people, in life, treat with respect and the rewards are immense; although, with no Striders being in the prizes, said rewards were not, on this day, financial.
Berlin Marathon 2018. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong if you underestimate that you are still running 42.195 kilometres.
Short version/General info:
Pros: Fantastic fast course, not a lot of sharp bends so you can really go fast. The route goes through some of the most iconic places around Berlin, crosses the Wall, as well, a few times. Plenty of refuelling stations. Very well organized with info arriving on the day at their app. Hundreds of volunteers to help you. Spacious showers and changing rooms afterwards plus the unlimited (non-alcoholic) beer at the finisher’s village. Lots of big names always participate and you can meet them if you like, either at the expo or at the afterparty. The expo is huge and has a lot of things to do and spend money on (not sure this is a positive). Berlin is a lovely city with lots of historical sites to visit, very good food and everything is easily accessible by means of public transport.
Cons: Too expensive (100 euros). Not always suitable if you are aiming for a time because of crowding, however, the roads are wide enough to overtake. Hydration is a problem as they use really wide plastic cups so you practically have to stop running to drink. Timing is done via shoelace chip and not by a chip on the bib. Support is okay throughout and tremendous towards the Brandenburg Gate.
I have to say in advance this is more of a calendar entry on how the race went for me rather than a detailed race report. I decided to put my name in the ballot for the Berlin Marathon sometime last October, having only done one Marathon prior to that (Manchester). I was hyped as I was running the Athens Authentic Marathon 2 weeks after my entry into the ballot and I wanted to make sure that I kept this self-harm addiction (sorry I was meant to say long distance running) going! So, 6 weeks later I got an email saying that I got a starting number for the 45th Berlin Marathon in September 2018.
Now I want to set the scene for what happened in Berlin. Between my signing up and being on the starting line, I ran two more Marathons. One in Athens (3:49) and one in Rotterdam (3:40). Thus, my secret hope and goal had become to aim for a sub 3:35 and a dream goal of sub 3:30.
I decided to follow a harder training schedule this time. I am using Matt Fitzgerald’s 80-20 running book which has proven to be very helpful in setting up a schedule, etc. So, I went with the top level programme this time, considering myself an “experienced marathoner”. That was mistake number one. I should, by no means, be considered an experienced marathoner. This schedule included 3 x 20 milers, and its peak weeks averaged about 70 miles a week. I never managed to completely stick to any of those two parameters. I injured myself twice during my 4-month training period: once something that felt like a stress fracture on my left leg and I was not able to walk properly for a day or two; and, once some really serious shin splints. This resulted in me doing four 16.5 milers and an 18 miler as my longest runs.
The night before the race, I slept really well and I made my call. I was going to try and break 3:30. Go conservatively the first 2-3 miles, follow an 8-minute mile pace until the halfway mark, then go for a 7:55 until the last three miles and then go all out. And that was mistake number two.
Skip to the starting line, in a 40 thousand long crowd of people ready to run the marathon distance. I had stated my only marathon time at the moment of signing up which was a 4:06 in Manchester, which put me in the second to last pen (about halfway through the crowd). I knew if I was going to go for what I was planning I was going to have to overtake a lot of people. Thankfully the roads were wide enough that this did not prove to be a major issue.
We watched the start of the elites through a big TV screen in the middle of the crowd and the roaring screams that came out of everyone when Eliud Kipchoge stepped up gave me goosebumps. Everybody was discussing it, that he was going to do a WR, and somehow, we all felt a part of that.
The gun went, the elites left at 9:15. Our start was at 9:35 so we sat there and watched the first 5k of the elite race, cheering for Eliud. Now mistake number 3 for me was to get overly excited by all of this and decide that somehow, I could smash my own 3:40 PB and celebrate joining the 3:20something club. In terms of nutrition, I had decided I would be doing an SIS gel every 4 miles and water at miles 6-10-15-20-22.5-25.
When the race started, I indeed, went conservatively for the first two miles, doing an 8:34 and an 8:11-minute mile respectively. From then onwards and until mile 14 I started averaging 8:00 (sticking between 8:02 and 7:55). The course is very flat and offered a great chance of sightseeing around Berlin. You pass around the Reichstag Building, where the Soviets declared victory in WW2, you cross the Spree River a few times on several really pretty 19th-century bridges and you get to see parts of the Berlin Wall. If you decide to do this race, look out on the road for diagonal black brick lines (two bricks wide) with the words Berlin Maurer on them. It is where the Berlin Wall used to be. Kind of asks you to ponder along the road how many great things human beings are capable of (like a marathon) and equally how many terrible things we are capable of as well.
Back to the race, at mile 6 (km 10) I decided to have my first water-stop. That is when I realised that water was delivered in plastic cups. This created two problems: a) the cups were too wide to drink water from, so it splashed in your face mostly and b) the route for 200 metres, after the stops, was wet and littered with plastic cups which make for an ideal slippery surface. I didn’t mind too much as I only needed a few sips, but I did not think of how that would affect my later race. When I got thirstier, by mile 10 I had to slow down to a fast walking pace for 10 seconds in order to get the water down. And this is where the problem started to manifest itself. Not noticing this was mistake number 4. A bit later after that, we heard on the speakers the last 30 seconds of the WR attempt. Everybody who was racing started clapping (even the non-German speakers after asking “did he do it” and finding out the answer, was yes and the time was 2:01).
My water problems happened again in mile 15 which was basically the final nail in the coffin. After that followed an 8:27, an 8:52, an 8:47 and an 8:40 mile which was basically a first mini-wall. If I had the option to drink water from a Camelbak or a bottle at that time I think I would have saved it a bit. However, once again at mile 20, I had to stop and drink and then get going again.
And that is where it happened. In my first marathon, I remember hitting the wall mentally and slowing down to 10-minute miles between miles 18 and 24. However, it was just mental. What I felt this time was nothing like it. This time it was physical. I started getting stomach cramps, which made it impossible to get the gels down (my body got them back out again) and started heading towards collapsing. The last six miles of this race was the toughest thing I have ever ran physically and mentally. I could feel my body giving up, my stride was now a hobble and the pain in my stomach almost brought me to tears.
Up to mile 25, I managed to keep at least jogging, stopping for water when necessary. I did that because I had decided that even if it meant collapsing at the finish line, I would not forgive myself for going above 4 hours.
Knowing my walking pace is around 16 minutes per mile and when I started flailing around and getting blurry vision at mile 25, I decided I was going to start walking. It was the most dreadful feeling in a race ever. I felt I had let myself down, I had let my Club down, the people who came to cheer for me, everyone was going to be disappointed at what I was doing (not gonna pretend I did not get a bit emotional that few minutes).
But suddenly at km 41, I could hear a roar from the distance and I knew the Brandenburg Gate was approaching. Let me just say that finishing under that, is an amazing feeling. Finishing under that when 2 hours ago Eliud Kipchoge has done 2:01:39 is even more amazing. I realised suddenly I was running on that man’s footsteps. I was in the same course that the greatest road runner of our time had just smashed a WR by a whole minute and brought the dream of a sub-2-hour marathon ever closer. That picked me up even more. What gave me the final push was actually seeing the Brandenburg Gate in the distance and hearing a roaring crowd boosting me on. A really nice touch by the organisers at this point was that they had a guy with a microphone reading people’s names from their name tags and especially people who were obviously struggling (uhm, me). 10 meters before the gate I saw my girlfriend with her brother and her best friend cheering for me. I had told them to not come with the crowds just in case something went awfully wrong, but seeing them literally gave me the strength to go and run another 10 miles (okay maybe 3). So I went and gave her a hug and a kiss. They drove 8 hours in the middle of the night on Friday from the Netherlands to Berlin to see me run for 10 seconds in front of them so I felt this was the least I could do. Past the gate and then through the finish line in 3:54:55. My 5k splits until 40 km were: 25:49, 24:47, 25:19, 25:13, 25:46, 27:03, 29:03, 33:42 and the last 2.2 km were done in 18:18.
That is the magnitude of how slow I got towards the end.
However, although I had gone through hell and back in the last few kilometres, I finished quite happy.
I had been reminded that there is a reason it is considered an unforgiving distance and that it is no easy task what you are called to do when you line up at the start. I had run on the footsteps of a world record, I can say I was in that course. And instead of all of this making me sad, it made me humbled. Also, even if the race went really, really bad for me I still want to go and do it again. Just to prove that having learned my lesson, I will not underestimate the distance again and I will learn to plan ahead (and actually read the website for once and check if they do water bottles or cups).
Trails and Tribulations – How to be a Very Amateur Athlete
Since joining Striders 3 years ago and getting in to this running lark, I have often questioned my self as to whether I am an athlete or not.
I am often the recipient of letters and emails from various sporting organisations addressed to ‘Dear athlete’, and note on race applications and results lists, that athletes are participating in the same event as my self. But the fact is I just don’t see myself as one of the tribe.
A definition I have found describes an athlete as:
A person who is proficient in sports and other forms of physical exercise
However, my experiences this year whilst preparing for and taking part in races hardly demonstrates proficiency in sport, and in reality is more like a long list of complete cock-ups. Having said that, I think with the Vale of York Half Marathon, I am starting to crack it and may be on my way the being a proper athlete. I will now try and explain:
For me, an athlete must have a six pack, muscles in the right places, a square jaw and absence of numerous chins, look the part with all the right gear, and demonstrate excellence in their chosen sport. This goes back to my youth when sporting athletic hero’s looked the part and delivered. People like Brendan Foster, Linford Christie, Sally Gunnell, Kelly Holmes and Alf Tupper were in their prime, and achieving sporting greatness, and are the role models on which I measure what an athlete should be.
I conversely don’t fit in to that mould.
Firstly, my body has a bit of wear and tear, consisting of a series of sporting and work related injuries, held together primarily by scar tissue and lumpy bits. Getting out of bed in a morning, any form of sudden movement, or just walking the short distance from the bed to the loo, is always accompanied by a soft ‘Oooooh’ or “Argghhhhh’ as I manage the aches and pains and delicately try to get things moving. Once I get going, I’m fine, but the getting going gets harder with age.
Secondly, my list of athletic achievements remains short. Admittedly, I was a joint winner at the Maltby Church School wheelbarrow race (1973). I competed in the Inter-house schools cross country (1981), finishing around the back of the field limping in and ending up in hospital having 3 stitches after falling over in the mud at Roche Abbey. I completed the Raby 10k and was awarded a prize, but could not collect it as it was for 3rd finisher in the W60 section having taken a hand me down entry off a friend. I was 32 at the time.
Quite simply, I could not see myself as either athletic or an athlete.
However, things changed a little at the beginning of the year when I retired from work. With more time to focus on training I vowed to improve my running and compete more effectively in races, working to more of my strengths to help improve my fitness.
With very dodgy knees, which are painful in a morning and after longer distance runs, I simply could not risk increasing running mileage. Therefore in addition to the usual weekly runs, I focused on working very hard in spinning classes, 2 sometimes 3 times a week, and cycling in general. This helped me enormously, both aerobically and strength wise, and helped feed my competitive urge when I started to see some improvements.
A failure on my part was not to have a training plan as such. In my mind, if I worked harder, then there should be some improvement. However, as a training aid I have bought a Garmin Run / cycle / swim watch, which I have to admit is brilliant. Apart from trying to run a route, which writes my name on the Garmin Mapping Package, the advantages of the Garmin are many fold. I now know what different running paces feel like rather than second guessing, I can see performance improvement in the stats, I can see what times mates have run and rub it in that they should be faster than me by virtue of age.
In December last year, with little specific training I completed a half marathon for the first time in around 25 years in Sunderland. It killed me, and post race I could hardly walk around, with stiff legs, hips and other bits. However, I had set a marker PB, which I vowed to beat when I next competed in a similar race at some point in 2018, and the VOY Half Marathon was my target.
In the meantime, I had to do more races leading up to VOY to iron out how to do it properly, with out messing up. With that in mind, I have learnt some interesting lessons through competition:
1) Pre Race Food
Running magazines, wise wisdom and other top tips seem to advise that Carb loading is a good idea the night before a race, with a nice pasta dish being a meal of choice.
That’s all well and good, but I have a great recipe for a Chilli and baked bean sausage casserole, which I made the night before the Trail Outlaws Penshaw Monument half Marathon. As hills were expected in this race, I washed the meal down with a bottle of Wainwrights Beer.
The problems started at about 3am with some stomach gurgling.
Having taken appropriate measures I was ok until the moment 20 minutes before the race when I had a distinct need to complete a 100m dash to the toilets. I was pre prepared having taken a role of Andrex™ Best from home, but the main issues was not my ablutions, but the fact I fell off the toilet as the screws holding it to the floor came away and tipped me off. Unbeknown to me, the plumbing from the cistern was now detached, from the toilet, so when I flushed the loo, 10 gallons of water flooded the men’s toilet block. I managed to do some plumbing repairs,, but the cubicle was a mess. I’m sorry if this affected anyone at the time, but I did report it, and it wasn’t my fault, but it was a lesson learned, make sure you eat the right food before a race.
2) Pre Race Ablutions (and Post race ablutions)
The motto is be prepared, and go regularly so that the system is clear.
I thought it was clear on the Gateshead trail 10K at Blaydon, but about a quarter of the way around I had that stomach gurgling again. Whether this was pre race nerves affecting my system or what I’m not sure. The effect was that as the race went on I was running with very tense muscles, and was very close to making a dash to some tree cover to seek relief. Counting down the last kilometres was desperate. However, I eventually managed to get over the line, grabbed my medal and continued at 4-minute mile pace to the toilet cubicles.
That was another lesson learned on my way to being an athlete.
This is a real problem for me. Not the fact that I need to take water on board, but how to take water on board at water stations. Race organisers seem to think up different innovative ways to soak me rather than feed water in.
a) Paper cup – Water split all over the place and trying to drink whilst on the move always ends up with water splashing dribbling down the side of my face
b) Water Bottles – Always seem too big, can’t find the opening and I have to tilt my head back, missing my mouth and again dribbling water all over the place
c) Water pouches – As used at the Durham 10k. This was a real hard one to master, as I simply could not get the water out whilst running, so gave the damn thing a really good squeeze, resulting in a jet of water in the face and up my nose, missing my mouth completely.
My agreed approach now is that I simply don’t care, and as long as I take water on board, I’m happy.
4) Jelly Babies and other race nutrients
Race organisers like to give out nutritional treats at feeding stations, particularly Jelly babies, which in the right circumstances are great.
Personally, I bite the heads off and chew them, but the dilemma is how many do you take from the box,? And can you select the red berry ones, and ditch the green ones without losing time?
At a Trail Outlaws race I just grabbed a handful as I passed the feeding station, but had too many to eat at once with out feeling sick. Rather than chucking to them away, I decided to keep a few back, only for them to create a horrible sweaty and sticky goo in my hand.
Is it race etiquette to grab a handful, or just take a few selected ones to nibble at?
I have not worked this one out yet, so it’s work in progress..
5) Race Strategy
I’m always being given helpful advice on race strategy. Whether that relates to the pace for the race, (start out slower and finish faster; start out faster and finish slower; just hang in there for grim death), or make sure you get near the front at the start.
The reality is that I fail on race strategy on the day, other than by adopting an approach that I must beat Runner X to the finish line. Runner X being a friend from the dark side, otherwise known as Durham City Harriers.
So far it’s 2 all on the races we have caught up with each other, with me taking the 10k races, and him the half marathons. I tend to start fast and gain a lead, then he gets me as a die close to the finish line
I need some coaching on race strategy.
This is a completely new concept to participation in sport, both in training and at events.
It never ceases to amaze me that so many photo opportunities exist. The only problem I have, is that I have a great face for radio.
From photos I’ve seen, I seem to manage to pull a tremendous gurning race face, look like a burglars bull dog chewing a wasp, or generally look half dead, even when I’m stationary and not even started the run.
Once I’m up and running, strategically placed photographers always manage to capture me looking as if I’m in the mid throws of collapse, or dealing with trapped wind.
A recent article in Runners World stressed the virtues and benefits of running with a smile, and the evidence of this is everywhere in photos of others, happily running with a happy carefree smile and striking new PBs.
I’m just going to have to smile more when running in order to achieve my goals.
With these observations in mind, I made my way to Sherburn In Elmet for the VOY, with a view of trying to get a new PB for the distance.
On arrival, the first thing to notice at the race start, was the total absence of Crocodiles, Father Christmases, Dinosaurs, Hen & Stag parties and runners carry fridges on their backs.
What was obvious was the number of club runners sporting their club vests. A smattering of north eastern clubs were represented, but I guess the GNR drew in many from our region. However, the race was dominated by clubs from Yorkshire, such as Steel City Striders, Grimthorpe Harriers, and Royston Vasey ACC. With the promise of a flat fast paced course, the race had clearly attracted many runners intent on going for a good time or PB.
Getting to the start was simple. The only local celebrity available to start the race was the Mayor of Selby, who thanked everyone for coming and set off the race with his air horn.
I’m pleased to say the execution of my plans went well:-
1) Pre race food
Pasta, and no negative after effects.
2) Pre Race Ablutions
Got to the start in good time, and completed without issue.
No problems, I just saved the hassle by pouring it over my head.
4) Jelly Babies
5) Race Strategy
Got near the front at the start.
I went out far too fast, died at 8 miles as I turned in to the wind, but managed to keep things going and got over the line in a new PB.
Runner X got to the finish line 11 seconds ahead of me after a last ditch overtake, and that’s not got to happen next time.
Having said that I had the moral victory as he is 10 years younger than me, but I wasn’t able to articulate that well to him after the race, plus he wasn’t listening.
Smiled all the way around, with evidence from the event photo gallery.
Its fair to say that I have learnt my lessons, shown improvement and despite several previous mishaps, have become a little more proficient in this chosen sport. If that makes me an athlete, then I am a happy runner, and role on the XC season.
Vale of York Half Marathon was my first race at this distance back in 2015 and I loved the event, so wanted to pay it another visit. It’s based out of the aero club near Sherburn-in-Elmet (between Leeds and Selby), so it’s a bit of a drive to get to (about 1 hour 30 minutes from Durham), but not outrageous for a half marathon. I’d arranged to give a lift to David Browbank and Georgie Hebdon, partly to be a bit greener and partly to have company on the drive. It was a smooth journey down the A1 as one might expect for early on a Sunday morning, only punctuated by the seemingly never-ending road works in two places. Sherburn in Elmet is only 10 minutes or so off the A1, so really easy to get to.
We knew that the road to the car park was also part of the race route and the access was being closed at 9am, so setting off at 6:40am to get there just after 8am seemed like enough contingency for any travel problems; it was plenty. As we arrived, we chuckled at the apparently over-zealous marshalling in the car park as we headed over to the portaloos and registration (in that order, got to get your priorities straight). We were early enough that both queues were limited and the loos were still in a decent state, so there was an added benefit to being early.
For some reason, the aero club seemed to be a centre for the local wasp population, so once the car park entrance was closed and the announcement went up to head over to the start we trotted over to shake them off and made use of the runway for the rest of our warm-up. Conditions were cloudy and reasonably mild (mid to high teens celsius) but breezy; looking back, we had much better overall conditions than the Great North Run competitors were “enjoying” that morning. The start was scheduled for 9:30am but was delayed for about 10 minutes for people arriving late at the start. After a couple of short announcements, we were off.
The course was slightly modified for this year but started in a similar way to my previous experience – we went most of the length of the runway and looped back before following the aero club roads out onto the surrounding lanes. I set off at 8 minute mile pace as that was my plan and what I intended to hold for the first half of the race. Once I’d settled into my pace, I switched to keeping tabs on my heart rate, since I know from experience how best to manage my effort through the race.
One of the big attractions of the course is that it’s almost completely flat. There’s one rise in the form of a bridge over the railway line which we reached just after 3 miles and appears again on the return. I eased off the pace coming up the slope and picked up a little coming down the other side before settling back into my pace.
The camber of the roads is, shall we say, interesting. In places they’re pretty flat, in others they distinctly roll off to one side or another, so at times I had to pick my line carefully to avoid running across the slope. The beauty of the smaller field (limit of 2,000) meant that after the first couple of miles it was possible to pick whatever line I wanted.
After the railway bridge, there was a stretch through Bishop Woods, which was also where the first water station was set up. The road continued along to a crossroads shortly after 5 miles where a left turn started the loop of the lollipop-shaped course. Just after taking the turn I started on my fuelling – jelly babies – which I know I benefit from and have tried in training before. I find them less uncomfortable on my stomach than gels.
I’ve heard people describe the course as dull, but I think the area’s very attractive, with lots of open countryside, occasional housing and some variety to the views. A lot of the people who live in the area come out to watch the race and support the runners, some at junctions & turns, some at the ends of their drives. It’s a welcome boost all round the course.
Just after the second water station, about halfway round the loop, I started to pick up the pace a little – about 7:50 per mile, sticking to the plan – which lasted until about the end of mile 8, when the wheels started to come off. My legs were numb and I had to ease my pace off to around 8:20 per mile just to keep my heart rate in check; I knew that if I tried to push on at the pace I wanted I would blow up way before the finish, and I had a feeling that breeze was going to play a bigger part towards the end. I gritted my teeth and concentrated on plugging on, keeping my heart rate progression where I wanted it. Over the next 3 miles or so, I managed to keep up at between 8:10 and 8:20 pace, ignoring the last water station in the woods and measuring my effort over the bridge – easing on the climb and accelerating downhill again.
That breeze I mentioned had mostly been at our backs, cross-winds or sheltered in places by the wood or the hedges. As we turned back along Bishopdyke Road, just after 11 miles, it was full in our faces and a fair bit stronger than it had been on the way out. There was still two miles to go, no prospect of shelter from the wind and dead legs. This was purgatory. Even turning a 90 degree left turn towards the aero club at 12 miles didn’t seem to help. Nothing for it but to focus on trying to keep form and cadence, dig deeper and just get to the finish. It was great to get shout outs from faster Striders who’d already finished, like Chris Callan, and other Strider supporters on the run in. From my previous running of the course, I knew where the finish was so I was able to time my final effort. I hadn’t used any of my fast-twitch fibres up to that point, so managed a respectable kick over the last hundred metres or so, but that was my lot. I left everything out on the course and that’s all I could ask of myself.
If I’d managed to pull off what I’d intended in my planning, I would have achieved a PB compared to Sunderland 2017. As it was, I came in 2 minutes slower at 1:46:55 (chip time), but beating my previous time on this course by 3 minutes. I could try to blame the wind, but I reckon it only took about 40 seconds out of me over those last two miles. The truth is that my training wasn’t enough to support my aspiration. The important thing is I’m going to take the experience and see how I can adapt my training to achieve it next time.
Georgie was already back (a long time before me!) and David was right behind me – I was still trying to stand upright without feeling like I was going to fall over when he emerged from the goody-bag distribution. Some of the other Striders arrived too, including Simon, Stephen J & Vics and Steph. We had a chat about the race and watched the prize-giving, proudly cheering Stephen collect his prize for 3rd male. By this point, we’d cooled down and agreed it would be a good idea to be ready to escape the car park once they re-opened it. We knew the access was being shared with the race route, so might need to be patient.
From where we sat in the exit queue, we couldn’t see what was happening but the shouty marshals who were there when we arrived were curiously absent. Eventually there were signs of movement but mostly behind us rather than ahead as people bolted for a different exit. We eventually decided that was the better option and joined them. Once we were out, it was a smooth run back home.
The following day there was an email from the organisers which explained what had happened and why the start and parking arrangements were different to previous years. In short, they’d been denied access to a piece of land they had previously used and the aero club had stepped in at the last minute, which allowed the race to go ahead. The exit arrangements were always going to be a challenge, but were compounded by someone ignoring the road closure and then getting their car & trailer stuck in the entrance gate. The organisers have promised to learn from this year’s arrangements and improve them for future years, and I’m fully confident that they will.
Apart from the parking problems, which for us were only a minor niggle, the only downside with hindsight was that none of us thought to organise a Striders group photo before the start. I’ve tracked down some excellent photos from John Ashton, amongst which I humbly submit my own Race Face and Flying Feet nomination for this year.
I’m told the course has a lot in common with the Brass Monkey – mostly flat, one bridge, a loop to turn, a common start & finish. Perhaps with the right adjustments to my training over the next few months, that might be where I could try again to recover those lost minutes. Before I get carried away I’ll see if I can get an entry first!