It’s that time of year again when we start making an exhaustive list of races that we want to do, or at least that is true for me. My list is usually starts about 10 races long, and most are unrealistic in at least one aspect (hundreds of miles away, child’s birthday, an ultra. You get the idea). So this year I have decided to set a couple of targets. While out training I was listening to a Marathon Talk podcast and the topic of setting targets was discussed – and also how to commit to them. The easiest way to get yourself to commit to something is to tell people about it, but I don’t to be banging on about how I am going to be doing this, that and the other to anyone that will listen, I don’t want to be that guy (because nobody likes that guy!). In an effort to prevent me being the person everyone avoids in the pub, I have decided to keep my list of sporting confidants to just a few people (the lucky bastards) – and also the faceless masses of the internet.
The first target is a yearlong one, mileage. Last year was my biggest running year, totalling 829km – up on the 655km I ran in 2016. So this year I am going to aim high (for me) and hit out for 1600km. I know that’s quite a jump from last year, but why set a target you can reach by October? In my head the maths works, I am looking to enter a couple of marathons this year, along with some half marathons and one or two in-between – see first paragraph for race list caveat. So with the increased training that marathons require a thousand miles could be possible. Maybe.
The second target is more difficult to commit to. Predominantly this is due to not being entirely sure if I can achieve it. I have entered Boston Marathon (Lincolnshire, not Massachusetts), which was my race of choice for a couple of reasons. One being I can tell people I have done the Boston Marathon; and the second, its flat and living in Devon I don’t race – or even train – flat. The South West is a lot of things, including beautiful, but flat it most certainly is not. With the topography of the Boston marathon being what it is – flatter than a witch’s tit – the question of time comes up; are you going after a quick time?
So, what is a quick time? To qualify for a good for age place at the London Marathon I would need to run a sub 3 hour 05 minute marathon and that is not going to happen, even if the race was entirely downhill. With ‘good for age’ out the window, what would make a good time for me? What time would I be happy with? Obviously, as with any race, my first concern is getting around in one piece. Putting this to one side for a moment, what time would I be proud of? My current marathon personal best (and only marathon) is 4 hours and 16 seconds, set at the not so flat Eden Project Marathon, in Cornwall.
I am going to lay my cards on the table. I would love to run a 3 hour 30 marathon, but only time will tell if this is possible. I don’t know if I can knock 30 minutes off my marathon time. To put it into perspective my half marathon best is 1 hour 36 minutes, which only leaves me 18 minutes of ‘fade time’. I feel like I’m talking myself out of it as I write, but I’ll be dammed if I’m writing this again.
I entered my half marathon best time into the Runner’s World Race Time Predictor, and low and behold it predicted a 03:21:26. I aslo took a look through my Eden Marathon training log; I did a Yasso800 session, which uses a series of 800 times to estimate a potential marathon time. That time was 3 hours 25 minutes. So project THREE:30 it is.
To quote the great Bill Nicholson “It’s better to fail aiming high, than to succeed aiming low”, he does go on to say “And we at Spurs have set our sights very high, so high in fact that even failure will have in it an echo of glory” and as much as I love that quote (being a Tottenham Hotspur fan), it feels a bit rich for a blog about trying to run a three and a half hour marathon.
So this weekend saw the curtain come down on another year of racing. A season ranging from cyclo-cross and beach racing earlier in the year, to triathlon in the summer; then to the muddy mayhem of off road running to round out the year. All with an off road sportive with my daughter as the cherry on the cake.
The season ended in Mothecombe, just outside Plymouth, at Pure Trail’s ‘Race the light’, an eight and a half mile twilight odyssey – encompassing estuary crossings, hills and mud. Lots of mud, but more of that later. The race started at 3.30 meant that you were all but guaranteed to be running in the dark, meaning a head torch was mandatory for the race.
After the usual pre-race double queuing to register and then for the toilet, we make our way down to the estuary for the race start. I say we as I entered with a friend of mine, Tom, whom I have been running with for a few months. We seem to run at the same sort of pace in training, so it was going to be interesting to see the effects of racing completeness on our compatibility.
At about 3.35 (we started a few minutes late to allow the back of the toilet queue to get down, and as someone who has missed the start of a race because of the loo queue I thought that was a nice touch) the klaxon goes and off we go across the estuary. Once again I start too far back, but Im not likely to ever win a race and if I am honest I rather like passing hordes of people over the first few kilometres.
We cross the sand and head for the first water crossing. Maybe it was because I hadn’t warmed up yet, or more likely because its December but crossing the river Erme is bracing – to say the least – and going by the collective groans I am not the only one feeling the water’s cold bite.
Once the icy waters of the Erme are negotiated we run up the slipway and continue up a track for about 500 hundred metres before taking a tight left, through a gap in the hedge and across a field and into the Flete Estate. Once out of the field, the fun (read mud really begins).
The route is flattish to undulating for a while as we follow dual track out through woodland. Despite the lack of real hill thus far the conditions under foot mean its anything but quick, as we constantly need to move across the track to find areas with the best traction.
I won’t lie, I was pleased when I got to the point where the route splits for the lollipop loop and I hadn’t seen the head of the race coming back the other way. From this point the route continues to climb gradually to the checkpoint.
As I head towards the checkpoint I cross what can only really be described as a mud lagoon. The first two or three strides the mud pit is only just over ankle deep. The next step sees me stopping dead in my tracks with the mud well past my knee. This wouldn’t be too much of an issue except Tom is just behind me and nearly runs straight over me. I can only imagine he saw an opportunity to use me as some kind of walkway to avoid the worst of the mud.
Once our timing chips have been dipped in the transponders, and with legs heavy from Lake Fuckloadsofmud, we are faced with a monster of a climb. It is a real grind which is only made worse by the lack of traction. As a result, the group I am in becomes a single file line, which internally I dubbed ‘The Pain Train’. As we climb, I really hope the right-hand turn is the top, it isn’t. I honestly think I would have just unhitched from The Pain Train had Tom not been there, but my ego couldn’t allow it. Not in a race. Not with witnesses.
We top out and slalom through the woods as we start to descend, before the trail opens up again and I try to hold on to the coat tails of the faster descenders in our little group. I don’t really manage this, but as the route continues to drop down Tom and I have a little chat while we can.
The route retraces the way out for a while, and as I’m feeling good (relatively) I try to set the pace for a while. I continue to do this for a couple of kilometres. We reach the foot of the second big climb, where I conspire to trip over a branch that I had seen and made a mental note to avoid, but still managed to run into.
Muddied, but unhurt, I am puled to my feet by Tom and once our rhythm has settled down I find myself at the front of the second pain train. This time it all seems less grim as I set the pace and concentrate on trying to reel in a few runners a hundred metres or so ahead. I don’t quite manage it, but it certainly helped having something to focus on other than the burn of lactic acid.
Once at the top its downhill nearly all the way back down to the estuary. As we pass through the woodland paths we must hurdle fallen trees and roots and duck lower level branches. One of those environments that test your concentration and reactions as branches suddenly appear in your sphere of visibility. This is reinforced when a guy about 10 metres ahead fails to see a tree root and just crumples to the ground before he has a chance to brace himself. Luckily, he is straight back up again and appeared unhurt.
Once back down to the estuary we cross the river again, this time it is almost like therapy for stressed muscles, but the rippled wet sand is anything but therapy for the ankles. The race started down at the bottom of the slip way, but Race the Light had one last trick up its sleeve. The race finished up at The Schoolhouse, and while finishing at a pub is always welcome the hill might have been less so. Thankfully my legs still have enough to get me to the top without having to resort to walking and I do my best to chase people down all the way up. Finally, I turn off the road into the field and over the finish line at The Schoolhouse. I finished in 1:18:43, which was good enough for 46th out of 273 finishers. I’m fairly happy with that, especially as I spend most my time feeling like I am running through treacle.
After running with Tom for the whole race we went our separate ways as he has to resort to a power walk up the final climb (sorry for ratting you out). Now, I never used to consider myself as very competitive, and certainly not with other people – claiming that I race to get the best out of myself, which is true – but I’m pleased to have beat Tom. I really enjoyed racing with him, and I didn’t have any ambitions to try and drop him at any point, but I didn’t want him finishing before me.
This does leave me in a bit of a dilemma, he doesn’t know that I write a blog, and if I tell him he’ll know how I feel about beating him. I’m pretty sure he would have wanted to beat me too, and if he had I would have been happy for him. That doesn’t mean that I want him to know I really wanted to beat him.
I had a really good time racing into the twilight through the beautiful Flete Estate. The route is a challenge without being too much, even with the seasonal mud. It was a great way to end my season, and I will be back again. I think I may have found my annual season finale.
Picture credit: 3rd picture taken from the Pure Trail Facebook page.
I have been consciously trying to get my children – and my daughter in particular – into sport at an early age. Not to be competitive – instilling that it should be fun first- but to create a lifestyle with sport as a part of it. The stats for school leavers stopping all sports – somewhere in the region of 70% – are staggering. For girls however the stats are even starker, and even from a younger age – only 37% of 7 year old girls get the recommended amount of exercise (compared to 63% of boys). Anecdotally, this is compounded when girls move on to secondary school. I am a fair bit older than both my sisters (10 and 12 years older respectively) and both were actively into team sports, both stereotypically “girls’ sports” like hockey and non-stereotypically like football. Both enjoyed playing and were good at their chosen sports. Their participation however curtailed when they began secondary school. A recent government paper (I say recent, it was published in 2014) seemed to identify 2 main areas that cause the decline in girls taking up sports in school. The first focuses on the school environment – the lack of choices and over competitive nature of the school programme. The second area has far more nuance, and can’t be changed with a restructure of the sports education system. Over a third of the girls stated that a lack of confidence is a major factor, and a whopping 75% said that body image was a sport inhibitor, which can’t be helped by being forced to do sports they don’t like in front of a group of sniggering boys. Now, I was a boy once and I can state with some confidence that boys can be arseholes. The government report also stated that 51% of girls were put off physical activity in general due to their experiences of PE in school. I find this stat heart-breaking as someone who looks back at PE, and team sports, with fond memories – I always tried to have PE at the end of my parents evening, so it could end on a high.
Women and girls who take part in sports are far more likely to partake in individual sports, such as running, and although they may enter mass participation events they are more likely to train alone (or with friends) than to join a club or formal group. I don’t want this for my daughter; I don’t want it for anyone’s daughter. Sport should be something enjoyed, not endured. As a result, I have tried to give them a range of memories that include physical activity. These have ranged from spending long summer’s days out exploring on our bikes and micro-adventures with wild camping to mass participation running and cycling events. Initially it was just a way to spend time outside with my family, but increasingly it is also about trying to create a positive reinforcement that sport is a good thing, whether it’s something done with friends and family or competitively in a mass participation event or in a team environment.
It’s been two years since my daughter and I did the Santa run in Plymouth city centre, and after messing up the entry last year I was determined not to make such a mistake again. The main difference to two years ago is that after years of “why can’t I come too?” my son was now old enough (he would have been last year) to enter, so it was now a family excursion. We decided to try somewhere new and entered the Santa run at the Eden Project, rather than returning to laps of Plymouth city centre.
The route starts up by the entrance to the Eden Project, and slowly drops down to the biomes. There are a couple of hundred Santas at the start and we end up splitting into pairs to make it a bit easier to keep track of each other. As the route slowly makes its way down I chat with my son, trying to stop him from going full gas from the get go.
Once the route reaches the bottom we head through the main entrance to the biomes and make our way, or fight our way, past bemused bystanders and visitors and into the Mediterranean biome. We complete our lap through the biome and exit through a side entrance rather than through the main entrance – which was far easier than the route in, before we begin our zig-zag ascent back to the finish line for a medal and a chocolate bar.
Having taken my daughter out for a few training runs before our first Santa Run, I was much more relaxed about their ability to run the 2km route, and decided that there would be no need to train for it. They proved this was the right decision, getting most the way round before the need to stop to have a drink – and tend to a stitch.
I, and hopefully the rest of my family, really had a great time. Really can’t go wrong with a run with a family and then going to see (the real) Santa.
If interested, the government report can be found here:
My season – if you can call it that – has taken a bit of a twist towards the end of the summer. For a variety of reasons (the main one being my 8 year old daughter wants to do an off-road sportive with me and I couldn’t afford to enter both) the end of year triathlon I have been eying up has been shelved.
As a – and I don’t want to use the word, but – consolation I entered a trail race just outside Plymouth. I found the Armada Autumn Trail race as I was looking for some races to do over the winter to compliment the cyclocross races I’ve got my eye on. I noticed this race – which happened to be on the same weekend of the aborted triathlon – and entered it at a fairly late stage.
The race is set in Newnham Park, which is a fantastic setting for this kind of race. The race starts in a meadow, looking out on hills clad in woods – it’s hard to believe that the city of Plymouth is just behind you. As the race begins we run along the meadow past the parked cars and towards a gate on the far side. I start the race a bit further forward than I usually do, but I still spent this meadow section trying to pass people, while being mindful not to go too hard too soon. Out the meadow we take a left and make our first river crossing. The weather in the build up has been typically wet and as a result the river is going as a fair rate – and also about knee deep. I opt for a brisk walk, rather than run, through the water and get going again on the other side. We then go back along the other side of the river on a gravel fire trail, before crossing it again – returning to the meadow – this time the river is getting up towards my mid-thigh (I reckon if I had fell I would have ended up in the sea before I knew it).
We repeat the meadow stretch; however we turn right (and head up) as we head through the gate. The first proper climb of the race isn’t too technical as it rises through the woods, but it is steep enough (up to 25% if you believe Strava) to get the legs working. This climb only really digs for a few hundred metres at most before slackening off again, as we leave the trees we contour across a field above the meadow and the start finish line, gradually dropping down as we cross it reaching the bottom as we get to the far side. At this point we cross the second river crossing in the other direction and after just enough time to squelch the water out of my shoes the climbing starts again in earnest. As we join an estate road the route rears up right in front of us. Ahead there is a line of people; some who have gone too hard too soon have to resort to walking from the bottom. I move over to the far side of the road and just plod away, concentrating on my breathing – and trying not to look up and see how far from the top I am. This section of tarmac is only about 500 metres long, but that is certainly enough to hurt. As we turn off the road the gradient eases a little. The climbing continues for another kilometre before a slight drop and then further climbing. The surface along here is a combination of hard packed dual track with muddy puddles and muddy dual track with muddy lagoons. As we get toward the top of this section I move away from a fellow runner I have been alongside for the majority of this climb, and enter another section of woods – and mountain bike single track – on my own.
The climbing continues as the single track begins, and I target a group of three runners about 150m ahead of me. As I slowly reel them in one of them goes off the front of the group, just as I get on the back. I run with these two runners as we negotiate the single track, and I try to use the berms to keep as much momentum as I can on the tighter turns. As we join a forest track, the route ramps up steeply for a while and we catch and pass the runner who was with the group previously. As we top out we pass the second water station – I grab a cup take a quick swig and chuck the rest on my head. At this point our trio becomes a pair, before we begin to descend slightly along the forest trail. Once we leave the woods the path becomes a narrow, rutted in places single track. This is where I begin to struggle. I don’t do a huge amount of trail running, and what I do I tend to concentrate on going uphill, so once the runner in front begins to distance my I can feel myself beginning to get a little tense as I over think what I am doing. Once the gradient lessens I begin to feel a little more comfortable and once back on the gravely fire trails I begin to try to push on again. We stay on this fire trail for about 1½ km as we drop down towards the meadow for the final time. I try to catch my companion from the woods for the length of this track; I manage to reduce the gap, but never actually manage to get back to him.
All of a sudden, the route takes a hard left for the final river crossing – this on is deep enough for the supporting mountain rescue team to put a rope ‘hand rail’ across it. Back up a steep bank and a right hand turn and I am back on the meadow. Time to open up the tap and see if there is anything left. There isn’t much, but it’s only 400m to the finish line and I manage to hold on – just.
When I entered this race I wanted to use it as an indicator of my fitness, or lack thereof. After a summer of holidays and long days at work covering other people’s holidays my training had taken a bit of a hit and I wasn’t expecting too much. So much so that I forewent my usual prerace meal of pasta for pizza and a movie with the family – I did however stop short of having a beer.
The only problem with this plan was that I’m not too disappointed with my time. I’m capable of going quicker, but with how disjointed my training has been – that and the associated holiday/long work day dietary decisions. All in all I really am not too disappointed with 58:43 (good enough for 36/272).
Credit where it’s due: Photographs 1 & 3 Plymouth Sports Gazette (plymouthsportsgazette.com), photographs 2, 4 & 5 Louise Shipton (via Armada Athletic Network’s Facbook page)
The alarm buzzes annoyingly. Its 6am, it’s a Sunday, and its race day. Like any other race day, I get up feeling a bit nervy; wake up the rest of the family. Then flap about, eat porridge, drink coffee and leave the house about 20 minutes later than I had hoped to. Except this isn’t like any other race day, I’m not racing, my 8-year-old daughter is. It’s her first race without me, and the nerves are just as strong if not worse than if it was me racing. But as I tell her ‘if you’re nervous it means you care about it’. And, I certainly care about it.
We arrive at The Hoe with a few minutes to spare, and find her classmates. I think this is the point it sinks in that she is running without me and begins to get some doubts. Luckily this doesn’t last long, and the excitement takes over. Photos are taken and she is taken with her group into a massive holding pen. Part of me remains relieved that I wasn’t asked to help with the schools’ challenge; the noise coming out of the pen – containing something like 300 excitable 6-10 year olds – was unbelievable. Must have been like trying to herd cats on amphetamine at a rock concert – but less fun.
Once they are in the pen we scamper over to past the start finish line for a good view as she comes past. All the runners have been given the same red top, so picking out individual children is nigh on impossible – in fact I know people who didn’t see their kids at all. I resort to trying to spot her teachers, then who is running with them. It works; I see her teacher from last year and there she was running next to her chatting away. We cheer, take lots of photos and then try to get across to the other side of the route for a second shot. This time we are less successful as we can’t get very close and don’t want to miss her crossing the finish line. Missing the second photo opportunity we dash back across the finishing straight. As she comes into view she is still with the same teacher – beaming from ear to ear even if she is chatting a little less.
She crosses the line and disappears into the hoards past the finish line. After a few minutes, we find her school’s spot in the pen, sat with her mates – medals around their necks rummaging through the goody bags. I can confirm that goody bags at kids’ races are also full of crap that no one wants. After what feels like an age, the schools begin to file out. We head around to the drop off point to scoop up my running champion. Once the crowds disperse we find a patch of grass with a few of the other parents. The kids run around for a while enjoying the late morning sun.
As our parking runs low, we head off and go for a celebratory brunch. It feels right to make a big deal of her accomplishment and she is overjoyed when the waitress takes an interest in her medal and how she got it.
My grasp of the English language fails me when I try to describe how proud of her I am. It’s not that she ran the mile. Its far more than that. Running isn’t something she finds easy or that comes natural, but she persists at it and works hard. She has a stubborn streak in her – not always in a good way – and a stoic determination that even if she has to walk she will get to the top of the hill.
I have wanted to ride Battle on the Beach for a few years, but unsuitable dates and inappropriate bikes have meant that this is the first year I have managed to enter. The race is Britain’s only beach race, and the course is designed to be rideable on Fat, Mountain and Cross bikes with sections being unsuitable for each bike, it’s a real melting pot of cycling cultures.
Battle in the Dark:
There were a whole host of firsts ticked off in 10km on a bike: first time trial, first race on the beach and first ride off-road in the dark – what could possibly go wrong?
Riders are set off at 10 second intervals; I start middle to back of the 100 plus riders. I set off, but I’m off again after 200m to run the 150m of soft dry sand at the top of the beach. I lose a big chunk of time to riders on fat bikes and fattish mountain bikes, but once on the wet sand I’m back on the bike and off. I put down the power in an attempt to get some time back. I settle into what feels like a sustainable effort, looking down I am pleased to notice I’m sitting at over 32kph. I pass the people that had me while I was running, two of whom are treating it as a two-up TT, and also my 10 second man. I keep the power on until I notice a rock groin across my path. I slam on my brakes, dismount and shoulder the bike – in my mind this is one fluid elegant motion but in reality I expect to looked like a drunk giraffe ice skating. I pick my way past the first line of rocks over the soft sand centre and back out the other side of rocks. Back on the bike and back on the rivet – again.
The end of the beach leg is marked by a series of stakes with red lights on the top, off again to run up a steep, deep ‘v’ section cut between the dunes and back onto the bike about 55m later. Here the more technical section of the route begins, and where the night aspect of the race begins to change the dynamic. On one level being in the dark is a hindrance, not having an idea of what to expect much more than 50m away – making gear selection and speed into corners a bit of creative guesswork. On a more positive note, not being able to see too far ahead meant that I was less likely to bottle it on the more technical sections (I’m not an awful off road rider – but by no means great – but I tend to run out of bravery before ability). The first half of the technical section is quite close to the beach, so there are a number of areas where the path gives way to sand pits, being on a cross bike I try to skirt around the edges of these keeping on the grassy peripherals where at all possible. Where I can’t do this I keep pedalling and try not to fight the handlebars and let the bike find a route. One section in this area is particularly tricky, for a man of my abilities, it involves a short but sharp decent on soft sand into a tight right hander. I don’t notice it until the last moment – as I overtake another rider – but manage to use the side of the sand pit as a berm missing most of the sand on the descent. Rather lucky, but duly noted for tomorrow’s race. Then it’s into the forest, with a series of diggy little climbs and steep rutted descents. Not long into this section I am either caught by or catch another rider on a mountain bike, and I try to keep up with him using him as a route finder for the best lines in this unfamiliar territory. Before I know it, I have come out of the pine forest and out onto the grassy lawns of the country park. I decide it would be bad form to dive past my pilot now, and follow him around the final corner and roll over the line. It’s at this point I realise there is a third rider behind me.
I finish in one piece; pleased that I have put in a reasonable effort without ruining my legs for the main event the following day. I finish 66th out of 124 riders – I’ll take that.
Having registered the night before, it’s a rather relaxed morning for a race. No early alarm, no mad dash to get everyone in the car to get to register hours before it closes, only to faff with a last minute ‘something’ and get to the start line moments before the race is due to begin – or even after its begun on one occasion.
I make my way to the start line about 20 minutes before the race is due to start, which is probably 20 minutes too late, as I am so far back I can’t even see the beach – never mind the start line. We start to walk forward; I assume we have been called forward to the start line. As the beach comes into view I can see people cycling and running across the beach. I then realise the race has started, but there is nothing I can do until the 100 or so ahead of me can get going so we just shuffle forward until we can really start to race.
Like the previous night’s time trial I had to run the bike across the soft sand before I could start racing. Once on the bike all I could see in front of me was a mass of cyclist snaking its way all the way to the horizon. I make my way to the left hand side of the mass of cyclist (the sea-side – that may even be a deliberate pun) and try to give myself a bit of room to react/avoid other people. I see the aftermath of a collision, I didn’t think it looked too serious but I hope all involved are OK. As I get a bit more confident, I move closer to the pack to get a bit of shelter. As I come towards the end of the 6km beach straight, I move to the right hand side of the mass of fellow racers so I can assess the route off the beach without being squeezed.
Off the bike, to cross the soft sand, and back on again. The next section of the route starts with a stretch of sandy, grassy dual track. It’s not especially technical, good surface with the odd smallish sand pit. It is reminiscent of a BMX or pump track with lots of little rollers – which will burn the thighs if you have gone too hard on the beach. Along this section I notice how quiet everyone is, usually you get a bit of banter between riders, but for whatever reason whether it was back of pack nerves or just concentrating on the shifting sands of the racing surface chatter is a miss. This long straight continues for a while before a few gravel fire tracks before we hit the first single track. The group I’m in file down and we tick over in single file until someone ahead either falls off or stalls as we grind to a holt and have to resort to walking for a bit until we get past a steep sandy bank. We are now on the bit of the route that is covered by the shorter night route. The pattern for the rest of the lap follows this template, single file and flowy but likely to find a bottle neck at the more technical sections or steep climbs.
Back onto the beach, and back on the throttle. By now I have realised that I can get a bit of recovery over some of the single track so I can continue to give it some on the beach – also making the most of where the CX bike is at its best. As on the first lap I continue to pass riders along the beach section, trying to pick up a bit of a draft as I approach groups before swinging out to pass them. This is one of those rare occasions where you feel like you are in fast forward when everyone else is playing at normal speed – probably a bonus effect of starting too far back. Again I drift to the right as we approach the exit from the beach.
Off, run and remount. By now the riders have thinned right out, so I pick off and chase down solo and small groups of riders across the rollers and the gravel roads and join a small group as we hit the single track. I’m at the back of the group and we rattle along, as we approach the sandy climb that I had to walk in the first lap I hear the clanking of gears – we are going to have a go at getting up this and I change gear accordingly. We get two thirds of the way up and a rider in front has an issue and stops. I brake, but seeing a gap I go again.
I don’t go again. After a nasty noise, no more drive. I look down – expecting to have dropped my chain. No such luck. I’ve only gone and broke my bloody chain. At this point I don’t feel angry, or upset, or anything for that matter. Just empty. And here’s the rub – as I had forgotten my pump I decided not to take my saddlebag as ‘I would just be carrying an inner tube for the sake of it’ with not a second thought to the multi tool which is the inner tube’s bed fellow. Fuck!
So I embark on the long walk back. I have no idea how long the walk took, but it felt like a while. As I walked and began to get bored I had two songs, or lines from songs, going around in my head: Inspiral Carpets (This is how it feels to be lonely, this is how it feels to be small…) and upon seeing a photographer or GoPro Newton Faulkner (Don’t take my photograph, cos I don’t want to know how it looks to feel like this). This was occasionally broken when passing riders offered their condolences. This makes me feel better for a moment, but only a moment. As I approach the start/finish line I cut through a gap in the hedge and cut across the camping field to get to my car before the lap is over – I can’t face crossing the finish line.
After I put the bike on the car, it’s off to find the family. Once I find them I go to give my timing chip back with the kids. The chip box is right next to the marshal giving out the finisher’s medals. That stung a little. After chatting to him for a minute, I go to leave and as I do he very generously gives my kids a medal each. They both put them on as we head over to some space to have our picnic. It is at this point that my son (who is 6) misinterprets my disappointment about the afternoon’s proceedings as being disappointed about not getting a medal and after giving me a hug tries to put his medal on me. Then comes the awkward moment trying to tell him that his wonderfully thoughtful gesture just makes me feel worse.
I did however find one of the 25 missing rubber ducks, meaning I got a spot prize of a Lezyne rear light, a pair of Surly socks and a Surly hanky.
Despite its premature end, I really enjoyed my day out at the Battle on the Beach. The mixture of packed wet sand, dry sandy tracks and forest single track offers something to challenge whatever you’re riding. I found the wet beach sand the perfect environment for the CX bike, just get low and get pedalling. The sandy single and double track was great too, trying to pick a route so that you don’t lose too much momentum in the sand pits and the BMX style rollers. But where I struggled was the rutty sections within the forest. I wasn’t brave enough to really attack it, and struggled with some of the descents where I wanted to be on the drops for the extra braking power but on the hoods too to get my weight over the back of the bike. It wasn’t so hideous to make it feel unbearable, but certainly a challenge.
I will be back. Hopefully better. Hopefully finishing.
Picture the scene, if you will. It’s a cold November evening, the fire is on and I have a cup of tea in one hand and the British Cycling website on the laptop. The enter button is clicked, and I will be racing ‘cross this season. Fast forward a number of weeks and I’m stood in a cold, damp field in Gloucestershire about the give cyclocross racing a go at Lovecrossed, set in the grounds of Chavenage House near Tetbury.
As I am about to set off for a test run around the course I over hear – actually I am down right eves dropping- a marshal and an elite looking racer talking and the phase “definitely not a course for novices”, which is great as novice is exactly where I am at.
So off I go, up the main straight over the finishing line and is followed by a drop and climb into the woods. This section is tight, twisty and technical. It’s also narrow and occasionally rooty. To get out of the wooded section there is a steep drop – with a rut at the bottom – followed by an equally steep climb and a tight left hander before the first un-rideable section – a steep, muddy off camber drop – right hander – steep muddy climb combo.
Once back on the bike and into the open grassland, a couple of left handers a hairpin around a tree and then on to the hurdles. After that, a spaghetti bowl of lefts and rights leading to the second steep down and out before a long off camber out and back with a huge, steep – and quite frankly horrible – terraced decent with a few off-camber corners and a bloody steep run back up the get back to the off-camber return. After that the long drag of a climb back to the start line.
By the time I finish my practice lap the Women’s’ and Veterans’ race is about to start, so I grab a coffee and enjoy the action.
After the Women’s and Vets are done there is just enough time to attempt a warm up in
the in field. Once onto the course, the gridded riders are called forward, then the rest are called forward. I hang back and take up a position right at the back – much at the annoyance of my two kids.
The klaxon goes – I think it was a klaxon, but it may have been a whistle, or even just some fella yelling “go” – and we are off to the soundtrack of shoes clipping in and crunching gears. As the back of the field finally moves on, a gap opens in front of me, and instinctively I go through it. Within the first 200 metres I had already noticed how much the surface had deteriorated. It feels like I continue to pick up places as we drop down and then climb up into the woods. It’s all going well until a moment of inexperience. The rider in front of me has a wobble and I instinctively grab a handful of front brake, as I do it washes out the front wheel and I just about manage unclip and catch it before I fully spill it. Having chatted to another racer on my recon mission earlier in the day, I had been advised to consider running down the technical hills if its crowded. That wasn’t necessary for the down and out at the end of the wooded section, but it was a very definite case of holding my line and hoping for the best. Once out of the trench it was a case of following wheels and trying to keep out of trouble. Once past the traction free, gravity multiplying off camber slime bowl, it is a hard push to the hurdles and then on to the first technical decent, which is now stupendously muddy. I’m still in a crowd, but again I try to ride it having got past it on the practice lap. Once again my inexperience is plain to see and after seeing riders in front slide about I hanker onto the brakes and away I slide. Again I don’t completely fall, but I do feel the warm embrace of the nettles at the edge of the course. I run back up again, remounting without losing too much time. Once out past the off camber out section I have finally given up hope of effortlessly descending so dismount for the final decent of the lap. Once I’m down the hill that grip forgot, it’s a run back up before the steady climb all the way to the finish line. This section of the course seems to suit me as I drop the rider on my wheel.
And on to another lap. As the field spreads out it gets easier to pick lines and find areas where there is more traction. It would seem the couple of weeks’ panic watching YouTube
videos has given me at least some idea of what to do. One thing remained a constant for the remainder of the race is that I ran the two steep technical descents. If truth be told I may have run them even if it was backed dry and had a modicum of traction, but with it quickly becoming the land that friction forgot there is no way I was going to ride them. I was, however, lucky enough to be lapped at the point I reached the last of these descents. Watching this guy just glide down a hill I could barely walk down was unbelievably impressive. I can’t believe I just wrote that I am lucky to have been lapped. That really stings the ego I like to pretend I don’t have. The point being these guys have a grace on a bike that I can only dream of.
As the laps tick by a pattern emerges where I pick up places or close gaps while I’m on my bike, particularly the long drag up to the finish line. But I am losing them on the technical descents, which tells a story of where some work is needed.
I thoroughly enjoyed my day out at lovecrossed, and I am totally hooked on the sport. When the results came out I was a little disappointed – 39th out of 49. On reflection it gives me something to work with, and having started flat last that’s a gain of 10 places. I just need to work on my bike handling, running with the bike and do more intervals work and I could be a contender – well maybe not a contender but certainly quicker.
I dare say it happens to all amateur athletes at some point, probably around this time of year. Possibly even every year.
This year however, it feels far more acute. This, I think, is mostly down to having a plan laid out to follow. I’ve been working with Laura at Fryfit for 12 weeks, and I am, genuinely enjoying the increase in focus and structure. That is once I get myself out the door and actually doing it.
I get my weeks plan on a Thursday or Friday, and I will quickly make a mental plan of how it will fit it – usually swimming on Tuesday and Thursday, run at lunchtime and evening turbo on a Wednesday and weekend run and ride. I feel that this gives me a good blend of family time and training time. The problem is come Tuesday evening – usually quite late after getting the kids to bed after my daughter gets home from Brownies – I just can’t be arsed. I will just sit on the sofa having an internal battle and then re-jig the week in an attempt to justify having the evening ‘off’. I just seem unable to get myself going until I really have no option other than to either do it or drop sessions.
Typically, this coincides with another loss of discipline – eating. It goes something like “Im too tired/it’s too late/I can’t be arsed to go swimming tonight… I may as well have some biscuits with that cup of tea” or “Ooh, fish and chips for dinner?” (Laura, if you are reading this, I am NOT eating biscuits – or fish and chips – while writing this). I definitely find that this is a secondary issue, and once I sort out my training mojo the eating habits always come into line fairly quickly. But that doesn’t help now.
But, and this is the crux of it, how do I rediscover that mojo – that spark. Initially I have given myself a break – if I’m not feeling it I’m just not feeling it. I just need to deal with the training guilt in a way that doesn’t include custard creams. There is little to be gained from forcing myself out in December if I’m still resenting training come April. But I can’t live in this training hiatus for too long – see previous custard cream statement.
Fear not, for I have a plan – he tells himself. Usually I would just enter one – or a few – cross country races. It isn’t quite that easy at the moment, I’m having a few issues with a knee niggle which has been hampering the time and millage I can committee to running at the moment. This leaves one option, the bike. And one bike in particular.
At this time of year, for road cyclists, it’s all about cyclo-cross. My plan is to enter one pure out and out ‘cross race, the Lovecrossed in Gloucestershire. What awaits is an hour of mud based threshold suffering (in the best possible way) in the grounds of the country house in Poldark, with the added bonus – and potential argument fodder – of a couple’s race. The second race I’m eying up to kick start my training hunger is the Battle on the Beach held in Pembrey Country Park. It differs from a standard cyclo-cross format in a few ways, primarily the time spent racing. This is far more of an endurance event, comprising of around 45km of racing over sand, single and double track. The idea of the event is that whichever bike you choose (mountain, cross or fat) there will be sections where your bike is perfect, others where it is less appropriate. I have read a race report from a previous year where a guy on a fat bike barrelled into a puddle in the single track section of the course. The puddle however was far deeper than he anticipated – about a foot deep. The extra air in his tyres caused the bike to stop abruptly ejecting the poor rider into near orbit.
So, with a couple of races I mind, I really hope that I reignite my fire. Before the custard creams and fish and chips have irreversible negative effects on not only my fitness, but also before my clothes shrink too much more. And if my knee sorts its shit out I may be able to race a bit of cross country too. What? A man can dream.
Happy Christmas all, I hope you get all you hoped for, be that presents, family time, lots of food or your mojo back.
This spring has been quite busy for me. For someone who usually enters 2-3 races a year having two in spring felt rather congested. The two races, The Forest of Dean Spring Half Marathon and Plymouth’s Half, had very different objectives.
First up was the Forest of Dean. This is a mostly trail half making use of the old mining train lines making most, not all, the gradients steady with the added bonus of a beautiful forest backdrop. The objective for this race had been to run with my youngest sister and my dad, but unfortunately my sister was unable to get the time off work so it became just me and my dad. This seemed to concern him. I say seemed, he was quite vocal about it. Having not run consistently for about 5 years, he was planning on running until my sister had to walk, and then walk with her. That plan was now redundant. The new plan: run, and when you can’t run then walk.
From a personal point of view my training for this race has gone ok. I am using this as a dial up for the Plymouth half a few weeks later so I haven’t got all the speed endurance in my legs but I am building towards it, including a new course PB at my local parkrun a few weeks before.
In typical fashion, we turn up with a bit of time to spare, but leave it too late before joining the pre-race toilet queue. As a result we manage to miss the start of the race by a few minutes. We are not the only ones; we were by no means at the back of the line.
Don’t panic, DON’T PANIC. No mad dash, just go at our pace and we begin to pick up the back of the pack. We do just that, and then try to pass people as and when we can, but as we hit the trails for the first time about 1 km in this becomes a little trickier. The first 5 km or so are all either flat or down hill, giving us a chance to warm up before the proper work starts – did I mention we missed the start, thus no warm up? After being gently eased into proceedings, the climbing begins. We gradually climb for about 7 km, topping out at the highest point of the race. We then drop down before climbing again for another kilometre or so. It is at this point that stage two of Dad’s strategy comes into place, the walk. So I do what any good son would do, I continue to run and leave him to walk alone. If I am honest, I can’t believe he lasted 13 km running once, maybe twice, every 5 years. Obviously good genes, or poor decision making.
Once on my own I try to push the pace a little, and try to run the remaining 8km at around threshold. It has to be said, there is something uplifting about waiting until half way through a race before really opening the taps and being able to give it a big push as others begin to feel it bite. By the time I finish I am the beetroot red, sweaty mess that I usually finish a race in. Garmin paused, and medal collected I go find the family for the obligatory ‘just finished a race’ pictures, and then go for a little cool down run to get the distance up.
By the time I’ve done that and gone to collect my bag I find that my dad has made it back, and not moving too freely. Feeling guilty, I give him a hug and make sure he is ok. Thankfully he’s ok, just a bit disappointed that he couldn’t finish the race.
After a couple of days off I get back to focusing on the Plymouth half. The aim is to be as consistent as possible; double run day early in the week (2 x 10km), speed work on a Thursday, longer run on the weekend. This continues with the exception of a couple of away day Parkruns (both at Swansea Bay, both PBs). Two weeks before the half I set a new half marathon personal best. It was only 1 minute faster, but all is looking good. A week later I set the second new 5km personal best of 19.09 at Swansea Bay Parkrun, which is another 27 seconds quicker than the time I set there a few weeks earlier. All is pointing towards a new personal best at Plymouth half, I just had to try to manage my expectations.
In the final week before the half, all the preparation appears to be going well with the exception of a slight niggle in my left heel. It doesn’t appear to be anything that will prevent me racing, just something I need to be mindful of.
Race morning comes around, and the niggle in my heel is still there but it shouldn’t give me too much trouble. I walk down to the ‘race village’ with Steve, a mate who is also running the half. He has only been running for 6 months to a year and is annoyingly quicker than me, so I feel the 15 minute walk may be the only time I see him. We get to the start with a decent amount of time to get ourselves sorted and find where we need to be in the starting pen, no running late this time.
Once the ridiculous warm up is done – how can you do jumping jacks in a crowded starting pen? – We are off. Over a minute passes before we cross line. The first km or so is very crowded as 6000 people make their way through the closed roads of the Plymouth waterfront. Steve and I go our separate ways shortly after, I see him about 10 people ahead, but make the conscious decision to let him go. My plan is to try to keep it as steady as possible to start with, and open the taps towards the end. As the roads widen there is more room the run at my own pace. The early kilometres tick over nicely as I consciously try to run at an ok pace without over cooking it.
After around 6km the first of two climbs starts. It’s a long gradual drag, rather than a steep hill. I consciously aimed to just try to hold my pace, and not let my average pace drop by more than a few seconds per km. I try to relax and make the most of the free speed on the other side of the hill, and then repeat the process on the second climb which comes straight after the first. The decent from the second climb is a long and gradual affair through the beautiful grounds of Saltram House. Once out of the grounds the race recounts its steps, with one exception. Just before the route heads back to the waterfront it takes in an out-and-back. This takes us along the river for a kilometre each way, which, in direct contradiction to all topography rules, felt uphill both ways. On the way out I see Steve coming back to other way – quickly I try to look comfortable. I make a mental note of where I am and by the time I reach the turnaround point I guestimate he is about 1 km, maybe a bit more, ahead of me. I conclude that I won’t be catching him and concentrate on my own race. As much as I would like to beat him, I don’t want to ruin my race chasing after him.
There are now 5 km to go, 4 of which are predominantly flat with a climb for the final kilometre. My plan was to push on at this point, but when that message was sent down stairs to the engine room there wasn’t much of a response. I try to keep my pace up as much as possible, saving something for that final climb.
The lower cobbled section of the climb is tough going, but as I hit the tarmac and I round onto the sea views I begin to feel a little better. As the climb continues the crowds get bigger, and louder. I push again, giving it as much as I can. The final two corners approach and the crowd is 10 deep, or my vision is beginning to blur. It feels like nothing I have raced before, I genuinely don’t think I have seen so many people at a mass participation event. I dig in for the final ramp and push for the line.
I had hoped for a new PB, and had told people I wanted to get as close to 1 hour 40 as possible. Internally I was hoping for something close to 1 hour 35. I glance down at my Garmin and I have managed to get a personal best, finishing in 1:37:38 (course) and a half marathon PB of 1:36:45, an improvement of 6m 34s. Just outside my internal target, but if I’m honest I don’t think I had much more to give. There isn’t anywhere that I can look back and think if I had done X or Y here or there I could have saved a little time. What I am pleased with is my pacing. I had planned to pace it as uniformly as possible, before pushing on. I didn’t quite manage the push but the pacing was pretty much uniform for the whole race, something I have never managed before.
In the week since the Plymouth half I have been unable to run, as the sore heel has felt pretty tender. Usually post-race this isn’t too much of a concern, but I have entered another race.
After running part of Man Verse Horse as a relay a couple of years ago, I have had an itch to run the full race. This year I have entered it, using the training I have been doing for the halves as the base miles to build up to 23 fell miles. It was always going to be tight getting my endurance up. However the longer I have to rest my foot the more anxious I get about it.