Chester Marathon

It’s been two weeks since High Peak 40, and what have I learned?

I’ve learned that two weeks is exactly how long it takes my achilles tendon to stop hurting with every step I run after completing something like the High Peak 40.

I’ve learned that two weeks is about the time it takes for a footful of blisters to heal and peel.

Two weeks is long enough for your legs to start feeling like normal, but it is not long enough for the (somewhat misplaced) feeling of invincibility to subside.

So it was with that sense of invincibility, plus the fact that I had surprised myself with how fit I was at Warrington Half, that I lined up for the Chester Marathon.

If you only know one thing about running marathons, know this: If you think you’ve started too fast, you’ve started too fast; if you think you’ve started too slow, you’ve still started too fast.

Unless of course you’re a surprisingly fitter-than-you-thought-you-were ultra-marathon runner. In that case, feel free to decide on a pace comfortably inside your PB, then start out even faster than that!

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, not the weather for a start. Clear blue skies but still not too warm (it being October) meant the conditions were perfect for running a marathon.

Not the course either – Andy and I had done a recce of the final mile the previous day, and studied the map that comes with your race number, and it looked fantastic. The only small section that wasn’t being run on beautiful country roads around Cheshire went straight through the historic and picturesque city centre.

ImageAnd not the company. I’d met Catherine at a few races before Chester, but never run for more than a few yards with her. For the first mile, we could even see Mike (right) twirling around for the crowds as he prepared to pace Simon to a hefty new PB (Mike had set his own 16 minute PB the week before at the Robin Hood Marathon in Nottingham!).

In fact, for the first half, nothing at all could go wrong. Chatting away, the miles flew by.

In no time at all (or 51:12 to be more accurate), we had gone through 10k.

Before we knew it, the half way mark approached with 1:49:24 on the clock. More or less on target for the 3hrs 40 marathon I’d decided I was capable of.

And then a wobble. Not much of a wobble, but a wobble nonetheless. A slow mile that hadn’t felt at all slow until we saw the split come up on our Garmins.

Having joked that I needed one of Mike’s twirls to take my mind off things, I decided to try my own. And guess what? It worked! The sheer relief that I had (very) narrowly avoided falling flat on my face took my mind right off my legs and we were back on pace.

Another 5k disappeared under our feet and we were both feeling good. So when we got to Holt – where I can only imagine every man, woman, child and pet in the village had turned out to cheer runners on – I was riding the crest of a wave.

ImageUnfortunately, the wave that was carrying me soon crashed against the rocks and spat me out because by the time we got to Farndon and the crossing of the River Dee, my legs were beginning to send messages that they weren’t for keeping this pace up for another nine miles.

And in case they were in any doubt, this was the point where the route entered its ‘undulating’ section – better known in the flatlands of Altrincham as ‘hilly’.

Catherine kindly waited at the top of each rise, reminded me that it was all in the mind, and cheerfully skipped over what were, to her, no more than molehills.

When the 3:45 pacing group then overtook me (remember – 3:45 is the new cut off for Good for Age for Catherine, and was a target that must be hit, even if the main goal 3:40 was missed) I knew I had to let her go. Slinking into the crowd, I knew that when Catherine turned around – probably to check why I had finally stopped talking! – I’d be gone.

And so began the last eight miles. The last, hilly, hot and slow eight miles.

I’ve never hit the wall, but in every marathon I’ve run, I have gradually run out of steam – the pace not so much suddenly falling as dropping mile by mile until, sooner rather than later, I was shuffling more than running.

And that’s what happened here. With every drink station I gulped down water or Lucozade until I felt full, only to feel thirsty within seconds of discarding the bottle.

From around mile 20, I adopted High Peak Technique – walking purposefully up the hills.

I even grabbed the hand of one fellow runner who was about to stop and made sure we both kept running up one particular incline … only for her to quickly refind her feet and leave me in her wake! That’s gratitude for you.

The goal of 3:40 had long gone, as had the 3:43 that would have marked a new PB. My ‘silver’ target, therefore, was to dip under 3:53 to record my second fastest marathon.

As we closed in on the city centre, I knew it was going to be close.

Running along the river, I got to the section Andy and I had walked the day before: 5 minutes to go. My silver target was still possible.

Approaching the racecourse car park: 2 minutes to go. It’s now or never.

Digging deep, I found that last bit of energy I thought I’d left around mile 23. I sprinted round the corner and down the finishing straight. I suddenly felt good.

And then I crossed the line. 3:54. I’d missed that silver target by a whole minute! The results later showed I’d overtaken 23 people in the final 2km, but the fact remained: I set out with three targets, and had missed two of them.

Sub-4hrs felt, briefly, like scant consolation.

I say briefly because it was not long before I reminded myself that 4hrs had in fact been my goal when I entered after completing Manchester Marathon in 4:36 in April.

I also knew that, had I run more sensibly, I could have got my silver target comfortably. And I was happy to miss out on silver because I had (rather recklessly, as it happened) gone for gold.

I had had a great run. For 17 miles of it, I had run in great company. And at the end, I got to hear about a lot more great efforts: Andy’s 3:05, Andrew‘s sub 3:30 and PBs for Catherine (3:40), Simon (3:34 – paced by Mike) and Gia (3:31).Image

And I had finished my rather daft 79 miles of racing in a month. Each race had been amazing in its own way, and each one I would do again in a heartbeat, but something had definitely been lost by doing them so close to each other.

The past month’s running had seemed rather aimless – almost every run was either a recovery from or tapering down to, a race of some description, and not enough runs were actually enjoyable in their own right.

And surely that’s the point. For as wonderful as they are, running isn’t about the races for me. It’s about the training that goes into making them. It’s as much about the 400m intervals in the dark and the rain at 6am before work as it is about the days in the sunshine running through Cheshire. It’s about the Sunday runs with neighbours, and runs home from work with colleagues. It’s about all the hard work that makes race days so enjoyable.

If the races become more important than the training, then the cart is before the horse. Something has to give.

But then, I’m not always good at learning lessons or being sensible when it comes to running.

Will I opt for two out of three in 2014? Or will I compromise each one by running all three … again? Time will tell, but I’m making no promises.

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High Peak 40

In August 1997, I felt I became a ‘runner’ when I took part in my first race, the Liverpool Half Marathon.

Cloth badge
Cloth badge

In April 2000, I became a marathon runner at London.

In 2013, I became an ultra-runner.

The most common reaction when I told anybody (seasoned ultra-runners aside) that I was preparing to run 40 miles around the Peak District was simply: “Why?”.

I didn’t have much of an answer.

Even my good wife thought I had finally taken leave of my senses and was now firmly part of the extreme #nutter brigade, willing to risk life and limb for a target that wasn’t just beyond most people we know, but even beyond their comprehension.

Why?

Looking back, the truth is that High Peak 40 didn’t feel in any way ‘extreme’. It felt like a nice day out with my mates – which, of course, is exactly what it was.

Given the chance to do whatever they choose for a full day, most people who go to the pub, have a hearty meal and watch some football. My wife would opt for a day shopping between glasses of wine. I chose a day catching up with friends in beautiful countryside … running.

Doesn’t sound so extreme, really, does it?

I don’t want to downplay the achievement of running 40 miles in one day, but it really did feel like a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a day. And that was the surprise.

As we lined up in Buxton at 8am, I was apprehensive to say the least. Forget how well I thought my training had gone in advance of Warrington Half. While this was only two weeks later, it was a whole different ball game. My longest run in training had been an accidental 23-miler in France, which was also the only week I’d only clocked more than 50 miles.

In contrast, among the many friends I was with on the start line (itself a misnoma – it was more of a start huddle with no ‘line’ in sight), Gia had rather casually done a 100-mile week, while Simon had seemingly spent a month charging around his section of the Peak District like a goat.

Let’s face it: I was hopelessly under-prepared.

What little running I had done (relatively speaking) had been around pancake-flat Altrincham. A hilly run was one with more than two bridges, and I hadn’t done many of those. I felt no better prepared to climb almost 5,500ft than I was to swim to the moon.

Fortunately, we had barely left Buxton when I learned my first lesson of off-road ultra marathon running: it is perfectly acceptable, if not positively encouraged, to walk up the hills. “Walking with purpose!” shouted Trevor. “Walking on purpose,” I muttered to myself.

Before I knew it, we were at the first checkpoint, just south of Fernilee Reservoir, and my second lesson about the world of ultra-marathons: Food.

Not gels, jelly babies or some synthetic-tasting sports drink. Actual, proper food. Cakes and flapjacks. Orange squash.

There was also the matter of checking our numbers as we passed through.

“69” shouted one of the female marshalls to a colleague as I approached. “Not right now, thanks,” I replied. How we laughed.

Passing the 1,000 mile mark
Passing the 1,000 mile mark

Still running in a decent-sized pack at this stage,  the miles flew by. I paused briefly to tweet as we passed mile 11, which for me marked that I had run 1,000 miles in 2013. But at some point in the following few miles, and with visibility down to 50 metres or less, our group was down to three.

As Simon, Matt and I started the long climb up Rushup Edge towards Mam Tor, it didn’t feel like we’d just lost the rest of our crew, but all civilisation. It was hard to imagine we were still in a race as we couldn’t see anybody in front or behind. A school party was on the top of Mam Tor as we approached, but had it not been for them, I think we might have even missed the triangulation point. So much for the views of Edale I’d been hoping for.

Top of Mam Tor
Top of Mam Tor

Before we knew it, we were heading into Castleton, the 20 mile checkpoint and, most importantly, lunch. Our support crew had a car seemingly full to the headrests of flat coke, flapjacks and pork pies. We did what all well-intending passer-by would and lightened their load as much as we could.

Any concern I had about my stomach churning with so much food as I started running were misplaced. Our route out of Castleton was straight up and there wouldn’t be any running for a mile or so yet.

Before long we were motoring again: checkpoints seven and eight passed by and it didn’t seem like long before we were descending into Tideswell for our next rendezvous with our support crew. As we passed the marathon mark in a fraction under six hours, I was an ultra-runner. Cue high fives and, more importantly, a 10-minute pit stop for more tea and cake.

From here, a riverside path took us all the way onto the Monsal trail and to checkpoint nine. It was here that we found out we were in positions 98, 99 and 100. With 10 miles to go, it suddenly became important, if not essential, to finish in the top hundred. Although we were passed on the path, checkpoint 10 gave us the opportunity to retake our positions as we turned onto tarmac for the three mile slog to Chelmorton.

I actually didn’t mind the road, nor the long, featureless straight that others had christened the Road to Hell before we started. As we saw our support crew for one last stop, I even managed to put in a bit of faster running to arrive ahead of Matt and Simon.

Little did I know what lay in wait.

Me descending into the abyss
Me descending into the abyss

I’d spotted Deep Dale while studying the maps in advance (which I needn’t have done, the course being so well signposted throughout), and I’d read other people’s descriptions of The Abyss. But even that didn’t prepare me for the prospect of, having already run 37 miles, scrambling 100ft down a deep gorge only to promptly claw my way up the other side.

Mentally, that was the final nail in the coffin. My Garmin had long since given up – complaining of low battery from around 30 miles then going entirely blank around 34 miles – and I started wondering whether it had had the right idea.

Picking myself up for the final 5k into Buxton would have been impossible had it not been for the fact that we had to stay ahead of two women who, probably unwittingly, kept threatening to steal our places in the top 100. They shall not pass.

And so it was that, nine and a half hours after setting off, Simon, Matt and I ran up the driveway to the school that marked the finish. Having assumed that the rest of our crew would be at home by now nursing their own tired legs, I was overjoyed not only to see them waiting, but to hear them all clap and cheer as one as the last of their ‘team’ made it to the finish.

There are no medals on offer for completing HP40 – they go for a nice cloth badge instead – but that wasn’t going to stop Philip. Having already spent half the week in Tesco loading up our our support crew’s supplies for the day, he also bought and had engraved our own special medals for the day. Thanks again, Philip – someone else will have to pick up that baton next year.

That’s right: “next year”. This was very much my first ultra, and certainly not my last.

#TeamNutter
#TeamNutter

For the record, I ran in my Karrimors – full review coming soon.

English Half Marathon 2013

ImageTo those not familiar with the English Half Marathon, it is in Warrington. In fact, I’d say that the Warrington Half might be a better name for it.

Even at my most grumpy, however, that’s the only bad thing I can say about this run.

This year was the third time I’ve run ‘Warrington’, having missed it in 2012 due to that pesky Achilles of mine.

At my first Warrington, in 2010, I was soaked to the skin and had puddles in my shoes before I even crossed the start line. But even that couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm for a race which is largely flat, definitely well organised, is close to home, and until this year, finished on a running track inside Victoria Park.

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(c) Warrington Guardian

I’m told the track is currently being relaid, so this year’s finish was relocated to the path, but all the rest still rings true. If anything, the organisation appeared slightly better this year with the runners lining up at the start being treated to an RAF parachute display for the first time (left).

To add to that, this year was my first as a Gold Runner. That basically means I’ve paid up front to enter every staging of the race until I die, but as well as choosing my own number it also entitled me to free parking, together with a massage and hog roast from the good people at QHotels’ Crewe Hall at the end.

And unlike 2010, the weather this year was also perfect – still, sunny but not too warm and, most importantly, dry.

So no excuses if anything goes wrong.

Thankfully, nothing did. My main targets this autumn are the High Peak 40 later in September and Chester Marathon on October 6. As a result, I had been running 20 miles or more for each of my long runs for the last month, so the distance was never going to be a problem.

Without having done enough speed endurance runs, however, I had little idea what pace I could sustain for 13.1 miles. Based on one run on holiday and a couple of ‘sprints’ home from work, I hoped I might be able to muster the 7:38/mile needed to break 1hr 40mins. If I couldn’t, then at least I’d have fun trying.

Travelling there with my next door neighbour (who ran 1:40 at Chester in May but seemed less confident this time around), we met up with fellow Twitterati, @HaggisAdele (who I ran Sheffield with) and @TraceyJ81 before the start. While for Adele, this was a training run for New York in November, Tracey clearly fancied a stab at her 1:41 PB. With that agreed, she, Richard and I set off together in search of 1:40.

I said the route was largely flat, but what climbing there is all falls in the first half.  With that in mind, I was pretty pleased to reach half way slightly ahead of schedule due to a fast first mile and running bang on target even up the hills.

I remembered from 2011 that, after about 7.5 miles, there are some reasonably gentle but long downhills as we wound through park footpaths towards Dudlow’s Green.

While I knew that we still had to cross the bridge over the Manchester Ship Canal at mile 12, I was still feeling fresh so decided to let my legs go, lean into the hills and find out how much time we could make up before hitting the flats.

Running for the first time with Richard and Tracey slightly behind me, we tore down the hills, clocking 7:21, 7:34, 7:03 and 6:45 for miles eight to 11.

The last two miles saw our trio split, with Richard gently stretching half a minute into the distance, with Tracey around the same distance behind. But that didn’t matter. It still meant that when we crossed the line back in Victoria Park, Richard and Tracey had both obliterated their PBs, while stopping the watch at 1:37:23 meant I’d run my fastest half since Wilmslow 2003.Medal

As well as elation and relief, the only other feeling that rushed back at the finish was the slight pain in my hamstring that had come on around four miles in. A quick prayer and quarter of a mile of slightly longer strides (as advised by Tracey) had taken the pain away sufficiently for me to forget all about it, but it was there at the finish and was enough to persuade me to get that free massage my gold number entitled me to.

So what had helped me notch up my best run in a decade when I had started thinking that getting within 90 seconds of the 1:38:53 I managed in 2011 would have been a great achievement?

The biggest factor is doubtlessly the fact I’ve had four injury-free months since Sheffield. There’s also no questioning that I’d had a couple of good weeks’ training on holiday in France.

But two other things have changed the way I’ve been training since Manchester Marathon. The first is that, three days after Manchester, I decided to see if I could put a #runstreak together. At first, my aim was to beat my previous best of 10 consecutive days. Then, it was to run Every Day in May (I’m a sucker for rhyming headlines). Quite coincidentally, the 13.1 at Warrington arrived on Day 131 (and even matched the number I’d chosen – 131 – when signing up as a Gold runner more than a year ago).

Getting into the habit of running every day has helped me increase my mileage steadily and fit in a greater variety of runs each week. But most of all, it has helped me catch my running mojo again.

I can’t say that I enjoyed every run working up to Manchester – in fact, quite a few of the runs leading up to it were among the most miserable I can remember. But since then, I can’t recall a run that I haven’t enjoyed – on some level at least.

I also need to give credit to The Art of Running Faster by Julian Goater and Don Melvin. I’ll post a proper review another day, but the past few months have seen me seriously working on my running form for the first time ever, as well as adapt some of my training sessions as well.

Although still a work in progress, I’m really pleased with the results so far. Not least because I still maintain that I’m not as fit as I was in 2012, just running better. If that’s true, there could be some even better times around the corner – which would be amazing.

In the meantime, however, I’ve got my first ultra-marathon to get through in a few weeks and hope to break four hours at Chester a few weeks after that.

Sheffield Half Marathon 2013

Only two weeks since Manchester Marathon, and I’m back on the start line again.

The two weeks have been good.  Instead of dragging myself out for training runs that I didn’t enjoy and when my running didn’t seem to be getting better, at Manchester, I refound my mojo. Apart from one day when the marathon left me barely able to walk (Tuesday Legs!), I’ve run every day since and am now looking forward not only to races, but to just getting out of the door and running again. Happy days.

It all feels very apt to be back where my running all began. In 1998, I was a student in Sheffield, every run was a hill session and I was setting PBs that I’ve only rarely come close to breaking. For most of the 20+ halves I’ve done since first lining up on the Don Valley track, I’ve not come close and I won’t be coming close again today.

Back then, I was in such good shape that, as I sprinted down the home straight to clock 1:34:14, I was slightly disappointed. A few months later, I’d be in the stands at the same stadium to cheer on Roger Black as he flew down that same straight in his last ever professional race in the UK.

Fast forward to 2013 and, once again, I’m sprinting down the straight. Sheffield halfOnce again, Don Valley is home to a legendary British athlete – Olympic champion Jess Ennis trains here – but that’s where the similarities end. Later this summer, Don Valley will be demolished. Neither Jess’s training nor my 1:34 triumph were enough to save it.

Unlike 1998, there was no disappointment for me today. Today’s run was never going to be a record-breaker, but was always going to be a great social event. As well as being a chance to meet (at long last) @martinbown, @steve_run, @rustyw5 and @traceyj81, I renewed acquaintances with @mazymixer, @mikew30, @philipjkelly, @gos75 and @TeamB_O_B, and I got to run every step with @haggisadele. And great fun it was too.

I’m not sure when my next race will be. Whenever it is, I doubt I’ll be setting any PBs like that first Sheffield Half back in 1998. I probably won’t meet as many friends as I did today. But if I can enjoy the training as much as I have in the past two weeks, I’ll be doing OK.

Manchester Marathon 2013

Manchester Marathon 1
Manchester Marathon 1

What a day!

My fourth marathon, and while not my best (nor my worst) it was the one I’ve enjoyed the most by far. Without the pressure of chasing a time, I was free to meet up with some friends, soak up the atmosphere, thank as many of those who cheered me on as I could, and smile for most of the 26.2 miles.

It used to annoy me when TV commentators talked about “fun runners” as it always sounds so condescending. But (as you can see here) this was fun!  Chatting and laughing with other runners as we all tried to help each other round the course, even having to persuade one that I was “on the telly” because of the numbers shouting my name, and generally playing the fool to those who’d turned out to support me.

This was another side to marathon running, and one I’d forgotten about since first crawling around London in 2000. The other two have all been about the time, about the battle with myself to beat my own personal goals, especially over the last six miles. This was the carnival that Kathrine Switzer was referring to when she said: “If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.” And I watched it from the inside.

Manchester Marathon 2But I’ve learned that marathons aren’t about the three, four, five or however many hours it takes you to get round. They’re about the countless hours in training; the 5:45 alarm calls even at weekends; the snow, sleet, hail and wind; the good runs when everything goes right but also the bad ones where you want to give up after just a few miles; the bugs and niggles,   the bleeding nipples, the DOMS and the bonks.

Part of what made Manchester Marathon 2013 so special was that I’d had all of those and more. Yes, there were also a few glorious sunrises on country lanes and leisurely runs with friends, but this spring has been about graft – and yesterday, it all paid off.

For me, Manchester Marathon – and the idea to write this blog – started back in August 2012, sat beside a pool in the Vendee. My knee had been giving me a bit of trouble for a few weeks, and after a short holiday test run, I was resigning myself to a few weeks’ rest.

At the same time, I was reading Keep On Running by Phil Hewitt and reliving the pleasure and pain of last year’s ‘Manchester’. The unexpected pleasure of reading somebody else’s marathon experiences got me thinking. I decided to start blogging again, with the aim of writing one post for each race I ran, covering the day itself and the various training tales that went with it. The first posts would be for the English Half Marathon in Warrington in September, then the Chester Marathon in October.

Or so I thought.

When I got home from France, I decided to take my sore knee to the GP, who diagnosed achilles tendonitis in the opposite leg. Without even realising, I’d overcompensated to avoid one niggle and ended up with something far more painful. But while the knee cleared with a couple of weeks’ rest, the Achilles didn’t.

Foolishly, it took me another few months’ rest before I finally went to see a physio and it was only at Christmas that I was given the green light to get running again – building my miles up slowly and doing lots of stretches and exercises in between.

By then, though, the damage was done. I think my pace had been the first thing to leave, followed by all the stamina from all that mileage (1,000 miles between Jan and July last year), then the time (all those little windows of time I’d found in my daily routine had long since been filled by other things, mainly work), and finally, the mojo.

That’s because when I was told I could start building up the mileage again, the enthusiasm to get my trainers back on lasted no more than a few days. The thought of all those hours training when it would take months and months to recapture the times I was setting last year was not in the least bit appealing. I had no inclination to run half marathons in 2hrs 30 when I’d been clocking 1:37 last year, and shorter races were even worse: more than 25 mins for a 3-mile training loop that I last ran in 20:09 – and every bit as hard.

So with pace no longer a friend of mine, I decided to go for distance; a marathon is an achievement no matter how long it takes.  But even with a target, the motivation didn’t return. Several long runs were aborted with declarations that I was giving up on this marathon lark – but four months on, I’ve got my medal.Manchester Marathon medal

The 26.2 yesterday was definitely the easy bit.

After yesterday, the mojo is most definitely back. My next race is the Sheffield Half on May 12, scene of my 1998 PB, and I can’t wait. While I won’t run it as fast as I did 15 years ago, and I doubt I’ll enjoy it as much as Manchester, at least the road to the start line won’t be anywhere near as long.