Race Report: Royal Park Series – Regent’s Park 10K

Sunday July 23rd, 2017

It was 6:50am. I had overslept by around fifty minutes, woken only by my eldest daughter climbing into my wife and I’s bed for the week, as fortune would have it, which would mean I had little over an hour to get my porridge, cup of tea and a shower. My phone charger had somehow disconnected overnight, leading to a futile struggle to get it anywhere near a sustainable level for a big day ahead. And to compound matters, I had an urgent sit down pit stop, if you catch my drift, before I could run out to Mile End Road to see the 205 bus starting to arrive. My normally careful and meticulous race day preparations actually felt much more like my regular work commute, a situation I rarely feel at ease with. Thankfully, due to a red light, I made it across the road and onto the bus, and before long I decided to put my faith in the announcements on the bus over Google Maps to ensure I could look upon some of the sights and sounds of my journey to Regent’s Park Station and not nervously into the blue light abyss that radiates my eyes daily. And relax…

This quite urgent first morning of my holiday came about as they tend to do these days. Once my tickets were booked for the World Para Athletics Championships and once my arm had been twisted to make the trip a week long holiday and not a weekend break, I set about booking the AirBnB (a process which took a good few months), before searching for races in the area that I could get to. Lo and behold, I quickly found the Regent’s Park 10K, part of The Race Organiser’s Royal Parks Summer Series along with Hyde Park and Greenwich Park. Fitting neatly into my holiday plans, I wasted no time booking my entry and thus my entire preparations across spring and early summer were built around a long overdue tilt at my 10km PB of 37:15, set over three years before at the Epilepsy Action Bradford 10K.

Nothing seems small in London, and so the walk to the hub at Regent’s Park itself be considered. It was a good 15 minute walk from the bus stop to get to the park’s Hub, passing the lush green space, the beautiful lakes and waterfowl along the way. Still, the Hub was easy to find, and sitting atop a solitary mound in the middle of the park, and registration would be straightforward enough. With that done, I carried out my own warm up concluding with a kilometre jog round a roughly 250 metre circle of grass. This was all before the organisers gave their briefing and sent out a man named Richard to carry out an energetic warm-up just below the Hub. It wasn’t quite like that bloke who pumps everyone up for the Great North Run, but nobody could fault it for enthusiasm.

Pre-race
Pre-Race

The route, by the way, was three laps of 3.3 (and a bit) kms each, and the profile described as flat. The course follows the Broad Walk section of the park, taking in the drinking fountain and visible sights of London Zoo, apparently. The weather was warming up slightly, the sun deciding to appear from behind the clouds, but thankfully it wasn’t too warm as to potentially be uncomfortable at all.

I gathered at the front of the start line, amongst a group of about three or four other, more local runners, discussing taking it easy to begin with. I’d have done well to take that on board. Yet as the race began, I set off quite briskly, establishing myself in second place behind a runner in yellow. I didn’t try to keep up with him, but that didn’t stop me running my first km in 3:21, which meant in all likelihood I was in for a hard time later on. Sure enough, my pace began to drop back, but I was still feeling OK at this point, despite noticing that there was the occasional hill on this course. Always food for thought for the speeding runner.

First lap, before hitting the sufferfest

I reached the end of the first lap marginally in second place, but would soon cede the place as I began struggling for pace and wondering to myself if I’d ever trust myself to pace a 10K properly. At this point, compared to the Halifax Harriers Summer Handicap 10K, my performance seemed worse, and I really felt myself having to push hard to stay within 4:00/km pace. Not even the peculiar sight of a camel in the zoo could fire me up, it seemed, and I was passed halfway round the lap to drop to fourth. Nonetheless, I tried my best to push, and by the end of the second lap, I had slower runners to use as markers. I then noticed my mile pace had moved back below 3:50, even 3:45, so I resolved myself to keep pushing. It seemed I had a bit in the tank yet.

I went into the third lap, with a part of me wondering if I should give up the PB attempt as I was passed by another runner to drop into fifth, occupying the final prize spot. Keeping an eye on my watch, I could see I was marginally on point, but I had no room for error or complacency. I pushed on as much as I could, using the downhills to try and increase my pace and fighting for every last gain. Into the last kilometre, and I sensed I needed a big push to get within my 37:15 from over three years ago. Roughly a 3:40 to be absolutely safe. I was absolutely straining at this point, putting in strides, getting closer and closer to the finish.

Finally I hit the final straight, and the clock was ticking on around 36:44. I had the time in my grasp, but not quite sub-37. I sprinted as fast as my tired legs would carry me, and crossed the line in fifth place, in a new personal best of 37:07. Finally, after injuries, setbacks, and tribulation, what started out as a rather lofty and ridiculous target of going sub-35 had resulted in an eight second improvement. I was more than happy to take that.

Post-race with the rest of the top 5 – in no particular order

I got my goody bag items (an organic energy drink, a bag of Hippeas snacks, some iced tea (which I didn’t enjoy), and a Nature Valley bar; plus the medal, along with a t-shirt which cost a tenner (I normally wouldn’t, but heck, I was on holiday), and handed in my prize ticket (which would later be posted and would turn out to be fluorescent yellow running socks!). I also had my photo taken with the other four runners who placed ahead, as you can see above.

With that, I got my bag, changed out of my sweaty gear and proceeded to walk back through the beautiful surrounds of Regent’s Park, before wandering past the large queues of Madame Tussaud’s back for my Tube train from Baker Street, heading off to enjoy the rest of my day at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Race over, I could now look ahead to the remainder of the year and indeed, the rest of my holiday!
Looking back on my race, I clearly still, after all this time, need to learn a good pacing strategy rather than going hell for leather from the start. I almost paid for it here. I sound harsh on myself, but I had placed a lot on this race as far as a personal best goes, one that I knew I was capable of. That said, I can be pleased with my resilience in the last third of the race to make sure I wouldn’t keep looking back to 2014 and wondering what might have been. I can certainly take heart from refusing to give way to the thoughts on the third lap to hold back and try again another day. Had I done that, I feel I’d have truly regretted everything about how I approached the race, but the lull around halfway certainly gave me that glimmer that I hung onto.

Additionally, while where I finished wasn’t a concern this time, the fifth place was yet another top 5 finish in what is turning out to be my most successful calendar year yet.

A big thank you to The Race Organiser for such a great event, in terms of overall value for money, superb organisation and a real friendly, encouraging atmosphere, and indeed in selecting beautiful locations such as this one within the capital and beyond for staging their races. Should I be back in London any other time than the Marathon, I’ll be sure to check out what The Race Organiser might have going on in the area, and I’d certainly recommend you give them your consideration too, particularly if you’re on a longer break as I was.

Cheers to Basil Thornton for the race photos – these can be viewed here.

Event results here

The Race Organiser website

Race Report: The Keith Midgley Summer Handicap 10km

Tuesday June 27th, 2017

11 months ago, I walked down to the track at Spring Hall, Halifax, during the summer break from my swimming lessons. I walked into the small building near the track, where a few of the Halifax Harriers were gathered. I came to do laps of the track – instead, I quickly got talked into doing a 10km race with them, as a paying guest. I didn’t need much convincing, and before I knew it, I’d zipped down the Hebble Trail, the Calder Hebble Navigation and back again, in a time of roughly 39 minutes, and returning back to the track to enjoy pie and peas with the club members. At the time, it was a surreal experience, but at the same time, a thoroughly pleasant one, and one that eventually lead to me coming back around two months ago to initially trial, and finally sign up for the Halifax Harriers proper.

The Summer Handicap 10km is an annual fixture in the Harriers’ club calendar, but this year it was named in honour of Keith Midgley, who this year is celebrating 50 years of membership with the Halifax Harriers, having joined in 1967. Before setting off down to the Hebble Trail for the race start, Keith was presented with a commemorative club vest marking his fifty years from 1967-2017, which was warmly received as Keith got into the vest. He’s still running well and was taking part in the race, which sees runners set off in order of their personal best or predicted time, from slowest to fastest – a race open to all abilities, with the faster runners handicapped to ensure all have a fair chance to win. It makes for a competitive race, entirely in good spirit, and the added bonus of free pie and peas for all back at the clubhouse post-race.

Group photo before the race (taken from Halifax Harriers website)

I’d warmed up for this race by running a fast 5K on Saturday evening. For the first time in a stand-alone 5km, I clocked under 18 minutes, running in 17:54, seven seconds faster than my time earlier in the year at a club time trial. For the first time in a few weeks, I felt some genuine progress. I felt having lacked opportunities to go parkrunning lately or carry out some speedwork sessions outside of club training was harming my prospects of clocking at least a sub-37 minute time in London, but my 5K pace seems to be bang on and it did have me more optimistic as to how this Tuesday night might go.

Down at the race start, I waited as fellow runners were called forward in order of their predicted time downwards. I seemed to remember being on the third or fourth page of the list, which explains why twenty-one (21!) minutes after the first runners had set off, I left with Raymond’s words of ‘I don’t trust this guy, I don’t know what he’s going to do!‘ ringing in my ears. I felt 39 minutes was a safe estimate, given my last two 10km runs – one dating back to the Summer Handicap last year – both came in over 39 minutes, so I downplayed my expectations of getting close to that PB of 37:15. A 38:something time was more my expectation.

The Hebble Trail path was greasy from the rain earlier in the day. I went like the clappers but with an air of uncertainty I sensed a hesitancy about my gait and I tried to fleet foot down the trail. Soon, I would arrive at the bottom of Salterhebble, to navigate the crossing at the locks and the tricky cobbled section before the Calder-Hebble Navigation heads onto Sowerby Bridge. I started to catch some of a few of my club mates at this section of the race, but judging by the runners coming back the other way, I still had a lot of catching up to down, and this was around a kilometre, maybe more, before the turnaround at Sowerby Bridge.

The halfway point arrived, and I continued to motor on. By now there was a slight challenge of running past oncoming runners whom I’d already overtaken, but beyond here, I started to catch up with other runners ahead of me. I couldn’t tell if I was feeling the pace too much, with no watch to tell me if my pace was dropping. There was no discernable difference as far as I knew, my only measure now being the runners ahead. Running back past the village of Copley, I was now overtaking fellow club mates one by one but as the locks at Salterhebble drew into focus, I could still see a number of runners ahead. Back onto the Hebble Trail, I began the final push across the slight ascent back towards the start/finish.

It was on this stretch I caught up with Keith Midgley himself, still running well. As I passed, he told me ‘well done, now go for the win’. If I was tired at this point, those words felt like a shot in the arm. All I could do was to try and catch up with as many people as possible. I continued to pass runners one by one, and sensing the front was near, I put it a huge surge to overtake two runners as we reached the final corner. I turned, only to see more runners and the finish line ahead. I ran hard but the law of the handicap had spoken. All that mattered was the time. Over I went, hearing my time read out as 58:21. Immediately, I reached for my phone in my back pocket to end my tracking and check my real time. In actual fact, I’d clocked 37:21.

My fastest 10km run in over three years, and just six seconds below my personal best!

The post-race selfie

Realistically, I knew I was never going to win this race and so my main priority here was, more than anything else, to see how quickly I could do it. A time in the 38’s would have been great, but a 37:21 on a reasonably flat, occasionally technical course is stonking. All of a sudden, any doubts I had about improving my 10km time are firmly dispelled, and all without the aid of a watch as well. That time was the fastest out on the course out of all who took part. I seem to be really in tune with myself.

Looking back at my race stats, I ran the first 5K in 17:52, which means my latter half of the race went for 19:29 – something I have very little time to work on. Clearly I struggle to hold my early 5K pace for too long – my 17:54 the weekend before was far more consistent. Nonetheless, I have confidence that I will PB at my next race, the Regent’s Park 10km on July 23, given it ought to be a course free of cobbles, lock bridges, inclines and hopefully slightly warmer weather (but not too warm), which in turn should ensure a dry surface to run on. Plus, I’ll be starting equal in that race and with a good few hundred runners taking part, there will be plenty of runners ahead of me to try and cling onto as I pursue that time for dear life! The sub-35 I talked about a couple of months back is clearly too ambitious at this stage – I need to be able to at least run sub-18 in the second half to think I can get anywhere near that target. But a sub-37 minute time is certainly not out of the question.

Without question, club life is proving to be coming up roses every time right now, and I’m glad I finally took the decision to join a club, indeed the Halifax Harriers, the closest one to myself locally and without question improving my running ability in the space of a few weeks. Regular speed training has been great for my re-entry to the lower range of long distance running, and I’ve found after a few weeks of thinking getting back to 37 minute pace over 10km was going to be harder than I thought, in actual fact I’ve discovered I just had to settle back in to running hard, after a couple of years of only ever applying myself at the odd parkrun. So for that, I’ve got to thank the run leaders and fellow runners at the Harriers for pushing me from the get go to run harder, better and faster. 

This indeed is a race you cannot take part in unless you’re part of the club, or a paying guest. But as a format, the Summer Handicap is brilliant, and I certainly hope and expect many other clubs possess a race in the same style up and down the country. As it is, I’m quite happy to be a part of this race at this long standing, and quite awesome, athletics club.

To my fellow Harriers reading this, well done once again to all who took part, and thank you to all who volunteered in one way or another to support this great annual event. And congrats Keith on your big 50, here’s to many years of continued running!

Halifax Harriers AC online

Race Report – Hebden Bridge Fell Race 2017

Thursday June 1st, 2017
The Hebden Bridge Fell Race is the second of three fell races I’d earmarked for the year – four including Kilnsey, but that’s not happening now. Following my reasonable efforts in the Dick Hudson Fell Race on Ilkley Moor, I made it my intention to enter this race not just for the challenge, nor the experience, but to get back up that hill to visit the great black obelisk, Stoodley Pike, a site I visited on a walk in the summer of 2016 that really livened my spirit for journeying away from man and beast, if just for a few hours. Organised by the Todmorden Harriers, this race has attracted runners regionally and nationally since 2006, held on the first Thursday of each June and was now in its 11th consecutive year.

Unlike Ilkley, I didn’t get chance to recce the course – general life got in the way, and I found myself unable to commit to a morning or afternoon to navigate the course. Nonetheless, I had previously experienced the hills above the town on my adventures last year, so I had some background knowledge and was able to use my OS Map to study the course. I signed up a few days before the race without hesitation and for the first time was able to mark myself as a Halifax Harrier – although as a FRA (Fell Runners Association) race and not a UK Athletics race, the discount didn’t apply. £5 (or £6) is cheap as chips to enter a race, an attractive price for anyone from experienced runners to those new to the fells.

It was a gloriously sunny evening in Hebden Bridge, as evidenced by the blazing sunshine beaming down on Calder Holmes Park. I took the time to take in the sunshine, the River Calder, and head for a quick warm up jog out and back, clocking no more than half a mile. By 7:20pm, we were gathering the other side of the Station Road bridge, facing down where the start line was positioned.

The River Calder, Hebden Bridge, 01/06/2017

I did feel a sense of pride wearing my vest this particular evening – my first race not as an enthusiastic unattached runner, or as a charity runner – I was now part of a group. Although I’m fairly sure I only noticed one other Halifax vest, with many runners drawn from Todmorden (of course), the stripey Calder Valley Fell Runners, and there even seemed to be more Manchester Frontrunners in attendance. Nonetheless, I was on the start line, that’s what mattered.

Off we went. Immediately, something didn’t feel right. It seemed like nerves. Possibly because of the knee, but I got caught out by the pace of the start, and was overtaken on the inside by a good few runners. We then began the climb up through the woodland, which often bottlenecked and allowed for plenty of pauses to power walk and conserve energy. Once escaping the woodland, I seem to recall a narrow path which soon became a mix of flat and hilly sections, my speed at which quickened or slowed accordingly as I tried to traverse the terrain. My shoes weren’t helping – more than once I had to step to the side to tighten them as they didn’t seem to be supporting my heels so well – thankfully rectified by the halfway point – and so I struggled to maintain any real momentum, although I was gaining ground as the race ascended another level.

Before long, I was really starting to have problems climbing the terrain. I’m in tune with power walking and perfectly happy to use this method on a particularly steep hill, but as Stoodley Pike loomed ahead as to my right, I had very little power in my quads, and the result was an exhausted trudge to make the final metres to the top. Even on the final approach to Stoodley, I was struggling to maintain any momentum over what was really a perfectly surmountable hill. I mustered the strength to get to the top, touch the Pike itself and then head back, mercifully, down the hill again. At least now I could try and gather some momentum.

For the next mile or so, I seemed to go alright, occasionally interchanging places with other runners and making a fist of being competitive in the midfield. Towards the end though, my lack of experience started to show on the steeper sections, as foot placement on protruding roots became tricker, the inclines a little steeper, and I would have to cede one or two more places as the race returned through the woodland back to Calder Holmes Park.

To compound matters, there were one or two more roads which contained hills. Even after spending a long time coming down, I continued to struggle to ascend normally routine hills. It was similar to the Dovestone Edge run I did about 9 months ago – on that occasion I got to 13 miles before my quads gave up! Needless to say I felt pretty shattered, physically and psychologically by it all. Finally returning to the canal, I mustered one last hard effort to ensure I didn’t lose any more places. I crossed the line and promptly felt an overwhelming sense, not of accomplishment, but disappointment. A serious case of ‘that was fucking crap‘ overcame me, as I sat myself down on the deck. Not the race itself, but pretty much everything about how it went.

(I don’t often use curse words on my blog but that’s how I honestly assessed my performance. I wasn’t holding back!)

I took myself back to Machpelah, where I cleaned the mud off my legs (a bit), got changed into my Snowdonia Marathon t-shirt and opted to indulge in some fruit juice and ginger cake. I could have had a beer for £3, but what was there to celebrate really? I didn’t feel much like drinking alcohol, and even the slight surprise of finishing 35th (in a time of 54:53) did little to raise my spirits towards the race. I gladly made the short trip back to the train station before heading home. 

Had I written this in this immediate aftermath of the race, I could have come across far more negative than what I am about to say now. But I’ve had plenty time to reflect. I didn’t have a cracking night’s sleep beforehand, though I felt fine prior to the race. I don’t think the weather was a factor either – I felt warm but not hot, and at no point did I feel dehydrated. Maybe I paid the price a little bit for a recent lack of hill training – I spent a lot of time preparing for a fairly flat ultra marathon earlier in the year, and have only recently given hillier running again its full due. But ultimately, its my lack of experience in these races. I wasn’t expecting the earth in terms of a performance, but I at least always felt I could at least excel myself in these types of races. Instead, it seemed I had finally found something that’s not quite my forte – and indeed, finding my body had reached a limit that basically said ‘no’, and tried to hold me back again and again. And initially I found that to assess my performance as such. I realise I’m being overly harsh. I can more appropriately say it was a chastening experience, one which I hadn’t possibly foreseen but one which maybe I should. Brighouse has nothing you could class as a fell – a few hilly trails, but nothing more. A trip to Stoodley, or Ilkley Moor is a day trip to me. For some more localised runners, this is their bread and butter. I could just jack it in and argue I’ll never have a chance.

But that belies my own competitive spirit. I’ve not experienced a DNF yet. Or even a DNS. Even when I’ve struggled, I’ve found a way to finish. Even when I’ve got lost, or taken a wrong turn during a race, I’ve fought tooth and nail to make up the ground. And here, I took on one of Calderdale’s toughest races, and lived to tell you I was bloody awful, and still finished.

So I may well sack the Stoodley Pike 5K next month and instead redouble my efforts to get race ready for the Regent’s Park 10km later in July. I shouldn’t be lugging myself up a great big hill just for the experience when my chief focus is elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean I should ditch fell racing. Simply make sure I get out there, get some experience, build up my core strength, do my recce if I can, and take a look at the most appropriate challenges out there. I shouldn’t ever expect myself to win one of these things. All I want is to be competitive on the day. But I realise that everyone has an off day, everyone has a bad race in them, and mine just happened to be this one. There’s no time to sit around complaining, because my next race, The Drop Summer Sizzler, is right around the corner. Or at least it was, til it got cancelled due to low sales. But more on that another time.

A big thank you to the Todmorden Harriers and everyone who volunteered, marshalled and flagged out the course. 

Race info + results

The Summer of Speed – Progress

I thought it would be a good time to drop back in and discuss how my ongoing preparations are for my big 10km PB attempt this summer. I’m heading down to London for the Royal Parks Series Regent’s Park 10km on Sunday 23rd July, and have my sights set on my long-standing PB of 37:15 from the Epilepsy Action Bradford 10K from March 2014, and have dedicated my spring and summer to chasing down the pursuit of blistering pace.

The key change in my life is that I’ve started training with the Halifax Harriers, an athletic club based just on the outskirts of the town centre, having now freed up my Tuesday nights to be able to train with them. After three trial sessions, I finally handed over my membership fee and now, just over four and a half years after taking up running again, am now proudly wearing the Halifax Harriers race vest.

I’m currently turning up on Tuesdays for training sessions with them, and already I’m seeing improvements to my running. Here are a couple of pace charts – one from a repetition session carried out on a Monday night (01 May 2017) and my first repetition session on the track with the Harriers, less than 24 hours later.

On my own – consistent intervals, but the slight drops are proof of the strain
With the Halifax Harriers, similar session, smoother intervals

As you can see, my pace is much more consistent running with a group, maintaining a steady pace even at my top end speed, where on my own the jagged nature of that pace line shows how hard I was working to keep my level up. I also tended to jog during the recovery phases of my interval training prior to club training, but the recovery here tends to be to stop, rest, stretch, loosen up and lower the heart rate, before setting off again. I’ve managed to get my 400 metre speed down to 70 seconds, which is as quick as I’ve ever managed lapping the track.

My 5K pace seems to have improved as well since joining the Harriers. I ran an 18:22 to take first place at Brighouse parkrun again, albeit I suffered for front running the whole thing – I set off too quickly and the hill at the back of the Brighouse parkrun course basically sapped my top end pace out of me. I had an immediate chance to pursue the sub-18 again the Tuesday after, at a 5K time trial on Harriers night, taking on a two lap, undulating course in Skircoat Green, Halifax. My first three k’s went for 3:50, 3:35, 3:37…and then my watch gave up. Saving myself onto the remaining uphills, I thundered down the flats and the descents, turning right at the end for one more hill towards the finish – absolutely on my toes, I pushed for the line and recorded 18:01 – narrowly close to sub-18, but a brand new PB over the distance by five seconds. It took everything I had, but it was worth it for the result, and gets me tantalizingly close to going under 18 minutes as we head into June.

Just this past Sunday, I ran on my own to test my 10km pace eight weeks out from the Regent’s Park 10km in London, running from Brighouse to Elland Bridge and back along the Calder-Hebble Navigation. I clocked 39:12.5, a couple of minutes down but on a slightly hilly route, and with a pronounced slow down at 9km so as not to needlessly chase the 3 minute km I would have needed to go under 37:15. I needed a marker to lay down and while I was shorn of top end pace later in the run, I know where improvements can be made and there’s plenty time to turn that around.

I’m not finding this without difficulty though. Odd cranks have started to appear, and at the behest of self-diagnosing, what’s going on in my right foot is the ruminations of plantar fasciitis. I haven’t half worked on my eccentric step exercises and calf massages since, and thankfully so far its remained manageable. I’m trying more than ever to get onto trails and away from roads when the opportunity arises, and listening more than ever to when my foot decides its not happy with the stick its getting. Furthermore, I had more than a  hiccup with my Garmin Forerunner 10, which seems to be on its last legs for a little while – its stopped recording runs despite all manner of reset attempts to right it. Not the most important thing but when you’re trying to measure your pace, its a bugbear if you haven’t got the kit.

And I definitely need time to acclimate to potentially hot racing conditions. I recently ran home from Ravensthorpe along the banks of the River Calder, and found it hugely stifling in 24-25C temperatures, with the sun endlessly beating down. Right now the weather is consistently around 17-18C in the UK, occasionally breaking into the 20’s in my area. The warmest I’ve ever raced in is 18C, so I’ve got to prepare for the potential of racing at least in the low 20’s. That shouldn’t prove too big a step, so long as I take the opportunities to run hard in the heat, and key things like staying hydrated. At the end of the day it probably won’t make too much difference, but its best to be prepared for all eventualities weather wise on the day of the race.

Selfie break in the pre-summer sun, on the River Calder, 25/05/2017
The River Calder near Mirfield, 25/05/2017

As you read this, I’ll have taken part in the Hebden Bridge Fell Race – more on that very soon – to kick off a surely busy couple of months packed with races and opportunities. Without question I’m going to have to work hard to keep bringing my time down, but who said chasing times was ever going to be easy? Especially with a watch that may or may not be on its way out. In any event, it’ll be great to keep on this road into the heart of summer, culminiating on July 23rd, when I can hopefully race the 10km of my life in the morning and be inspired by the athletes taking part at the World Parathletics Championships in the evening. The focus here remains resolute, and with the Halifax Harriers I’m feeling great about the remainder of the year going forward.

Finding a bigger pond: Diving into the next phase of swim training

In life, outgrowth is a common theme. For every stage in life, there is something we end up outgrowing and shedding. Kids clothing. That one bedroom flat that won’t do once you’ve got a little one on the way. The job you’re overskilled for. WWE wrestling. Ok, maybe not WWE. But indeed, becoming good…hmm…better…at something you were previously hopeless at can be a common theme to which upscaling your ambition can be applied to.

On Tuesday 25th April, 2017, I stepped away from the Adult Improvers swim class I’d attended for almost two years. It wasn’t an emotional decision, although attached to it were many highlights. When I first nailed breathing underwater. Getting that perfect push and glide. Learning to scull. All the drills to improve technique. Trying to swim two days after the Greater Manchester Marathon with marathon legs. Trying (and failing) to dive without slamming my chest in the water rather than my hands and head. Learning dolphin, a slightly better backstroke, and finally breaststroke. Even a slightly awkward butterfly technique. None of which I have a photo of to show you, because selfies in the water aren’t generally recommended.

I owe much of my re-education to my previous coach Judy, who is absolutely excellent at her role and always gave firm but fair, positive advice and demonstrations as to how to swim and dive properly. None of the other coaches who stood in, or eventually replaced her after she left, were as applied as Judy, but they all helped bring my technique on. Over the last few months, my predominant technique, front crawl, has improved and with it my stamina in the water. I can run 32 miles, but I could barely swim even 25 metres. I got as far as 75 metres around the autumn of 2016, and eventually finally cracked the 100 metre mark. 

To hit triple digits meant a lot to me, and I’ve really kicked on from there. Steadily I went through 120, 125, 150, 160, and then one night, absolutely stressed out and ready to explode, I took myself down to the local pool, focused my stress and channelled it into the swim. That night, I finally cracked 200 metres non stop. To hit 200 metres meant I could actually focus on building up my stamina, and perhaps focusing more on my actual form and pacing. It also meant that I was really on borrowed time and starting to limit myself. Indeed, a lot of my fellow learners had left at the end of 2016 and I remained the only constant. New faces came in, but in many ways it felt like the lessons were more geared towards them, as you’d expect, and so the only logical step was to take my coach’s advice and move into the next class, Stroke Skills, permanently.

This potentially now frees my time to join a running/athletics club, with Halifax being the most likely, but its critical to me that I don’t ever lose out on time at the pool. I’ve got a good base to work on, a platform on which to move my lessons onto the next level and continue towards my very much long term aim of one day, competing and completing a triathlon. In the meantime, I’ve started my Stroke Skills training. Its hard work, but its pushing my stamina levels more and giving me a full hour in the water on Friday nights to really push my abilities to the next level.

Put simply, the future as far as swimming goes is looking good. I’ve got a lot of hard work ahead to further improve and I’m confident with the right application I can get myself into even better pool shape and reap the benefits that can bring to my all-round fitness and wellbeing.

And to anyone out there who, like me, found swimming undesirable, or felt hopeless at it – take the plunge. Give yourself a reason to swim. I want to be a triathlete. I also want to be a good example for my children as they learn to swim. The first trip to the pool is the hardest – but getting yourself out of your front door is even harder. Overcome this, take to the water, try to relax and swim whatever you’re comfortable with. And if you haven’t still got it, I can’t recommend lessons (and indeed, a good coach) enough. Over time, the water won’t become less chilly when you first step in, but it will become a less daunting place. The improvements will gradually come, your technique will find poise and posture, and eventually you too will be able to call yourself a competent swimmer.

Now, just to learn how to back crawl in a straight line…

Race Report: The Dick Hudson’s Fell Race 2017

Its Thursday 27th April, 2017, 5:32pm. I’m on a train to Ilkley. My rest vest is absolutely crammed. The bladder pocket is being used for clothing storage. I’m balancing a hot cup of black tea beneath my feet, and I’m trying to fold my waterproof jacket down enough to fit in the vest. I’m slightly stressed. I’m on my way to a race. On a Thursday evening.

What fresh hell is this?!

Call it an initiation of sorts. Today is my first ever fell race. Arguably, my second in fact – (Wo)Man vs Barge is described as a trail race by definition, but it involves a bit of scrambling, some fast descents and its very rocky in parts. I digress. This by definition is a fell race. The Dick Hudson, organised by the Wharfedale Harriers, is an annual fell race named after the boozer located at the foot of Bingley Moor, the halfway point of the race. The race starts at the barrier at White Wells, near the foot of Ilkley Moor, and is a loose 7 mile climb up and over Ilkley Moor & Bingley Moor, and then back again. It started in 2009, I believe, a spiritual successor of sorts to a long held race walking event which used to run (or walk) from Bradford to Dick Hudson’s until 2008, when it fell foul of stringent road safety regulations (there’s an excellent piece on that race here).

Registration took place beside a campervan and a small square table outside with pens and safety pins. Where there wasn’t room at the table, runners were using nearby signs to fill out the required entry form. 

I had turned up nice and early after my initially stressful journey. I got my race number pinned to my shorts, and left my race vest in the campervan, taking only my waterproof jacket, and the whistle I purchased earlier in the day just in case a kit check took place. Yep, I’d packed a small portion of my house (or so it felt), and in the end didn’t need most of it. Well, rules are rules, its for your own safety so its better to pay attention and not risk your place. Race vest deposited, I warmed up with a nice little jog up and around the moor. I got as far as the stone staircase I’d climbed twice prior to today, and I couldn’t see a clear path around it. Well, damn. I guess I’m going to have to do some scrambling. 

Looking up from the race start
Watching the clouds roll in

The clouds were ominously gathering. The race director had warned of rain around 8pm, yet it threatened to arrive sooner. I jogged back down the hill and started doing my warm up. I was recognised by another runner, Matt, who remembered me from my posts about the Leeds Liverpool Canal Canter on the Facebook group Running The World. We had a quick chat pre race, before the runners – gathered from all the local clubs – Wharfedale, Horsforth Fellandale, Hyde Park Harriers, Otley AC, etc – began to walk up to just past the barrier, almost a rolling start. The race director gave brief final instructions, a quick countdown and we were away.

Within the first 200 metres, lead runners began to peel off to the right and up a grassy knoll. Around another corner, several runners took an almost hairpin turn and took another path away from the gravel trail. There were a few of us, myself included, who continued past White Wells, and onwards to the stone stairs. There was a cyclist amongst this pack – cyclists are indeed invited to partake in this event – carrying the bike over one shoulder, scaling the staircase with relative ease. Even then, I wasn’t yet at the top of the moo – there were a couple more ups and downs before reaching Ilkley Crags, and I had to step aside to let the cyclist through – he was breathing down my neck for a good couple of minutes – but finally, I got onto the top, and found my stride. I had to place my feet ever so carefully at a split second’s notice, bounding over rocks, mounds and muddy, occasionally watery moorland. 

The halfway point – the gate by the Dick Hudson’s pub – beckoned. A good few of the leading runners had gone through on their way back by this point, and the descent down to the gate was completed. A man was taking race numbers down as they arrived. I’m sure he said to me ‘on your shirt next time please‘. I can’t understand why, if that really was what he said, wearing my race number on my shorts was a problem. Still, I wasn’t the only runner to pin my race number to my shorts, so I felt slightly reassured that one or two others might get a bollocking too. Anywho, it was a steep climb back up, before beginning the crossing back up Bingley Moor. Arguably, this was the sting in the tail – a much more gradual climb on the way back, and somewhat more energy sapping. I really wasn’t feeling competitive, an unusual feeling as even when just running for the craic, I have even a slight urge to max out my effort.

Arriving back at Ilkley Crags, the runners immediately ahead of me veered to the left. I continued back the way I came. I figured I was going to try and see if I could actually gain a few places. I got to the steps as fast as I could, and nervously scrambled down. Finally hitting reasonably flat ground, I floored it.

Credit: David Haygarth. Cracking photo

The last kilometre is extremely quick downhill – and I could actually see I had ground ahead of at least one or two who’d gone the other way, still navigating the descent back towards the finish. I put on a good sprint finish and crossed the line in a time of 57:12 – good enough for 43rd overall.

Looking rather chipper post-race

This is the first of four fell races I had lined up, with Hebden Bridge up next in June. I felt a bit battered after this race, owing to my freak rib injury which left me feeling like I’d taken a punch to the kidneys or something. It did have me wondering whether or not I really enjoyed the prospect of running up a really steep hill to come back down it again, although the Dick Hudson is much more than that. However, I woke up the next day feeling fine, and so any doubts I had have subsided. I genuinely enjoyed the race, which I set out to do really just for the experience, though it was something to see my competitive urges seemingly disappear during the race, only to reappear near the end. Ultimately, I’m realistic to know that I was never going to match my recent excellent results (5th, 3rd, 2nd, and a 1st at a parkrun) racing a different animal altogether, and as long as it doesn’t interfere too much with my training for my fast 10km attempt in London in July, I truly can’t see any reason not to come back for more at Hebden Bridge in around four weeks’ time, because this running up big hills lark is actually quite fun. If that’s your bag, that is.

Once again, a big shout for the Wharfedale Harriers for putting on a cracking little race that makes the most of Ilkley Moor’s beauty and indeed its tough, brutal ascendancy. Only £4 to enter as well – no medal, no t-shirt, no goody bag – just pure running and well worth it. Thank you to all who volunteered to marshal/assist on the day. And well done all who took part. It was good to see everyone got back in one piece. , and indeed for those looking for a new challenge, this is a race you may wish to consider, if you can make it on a work/school night.

Dick Hudson’s Event Page/Results

Training Update – trails, track and parkrun success

Just as I put out my post about my future plans, I decided to get back into the here and now and begin preparing in earnest for the busy spring/summer of racing I have lined up. Indeed, the races are coming thick and fast as I’m eschewing spring marathon season this time in favour of fell racing and chasing a shiny new 10km personal best.

In conjunction with this, I’ve been busily reading Jack Daniels’ training guide ‘Daniels’ Running Formula‘. While the book itself is in the region of 10-20 years old, its still perfectly relevant and has really opened my mind back up to understanding training terms. Easy pace, marathon pace, threshold pace, interval pace. Repetitions, cruise intervals, repeats, and so on. It didn’t take me long to get through the book and I’m a bit clearer now on what exactly I need to do if I’m ever to reach the lofty goal of sub-35 minutes for 10K. Or, at the very least, sub-37:15.

I’ve had a good few weeks since returning to running post-ultra, recently finishing first at my hometown parkrun in Brighouse, and in front of my wife and kids too. That one was for them. My time was 18:41 – pretty good, but I felt a noticeable lack of top end speed endurance. I tried to kick on during the last lap and just didn’t have it in me to sustain anything above my 3:50/km pace for more than 15 seconds a time. Not that I’m complaining – I had a brilliant day and there’s loads of people who would kill for a time like that. I also gave a little back the following day and helped my kids to the best ever junior parkrun experience too. A great weekend for running for my young family!

In full flight at Brighouse parkrun, 01/04/2017

Things picked up last week, when my wife and kids were whisked away by my mother-in-law to a midweek break somewhere outside of York. I got on with mixing up my training. I ran four laps of my local park’s parkrun course on Monday, and threw myself into my swimming on the Tuesday. Wednesday brought on a rare track session, in fact my first for possibly 18 months or so. I did a 1500 metre ‘warm up’, running in 5:28.4 – I definitely held back there – and then a ten minute warm up, followed by 6×400 metre repetitions (400m fast, 400m recovery), and a ten minute cool down. I rarely measure my pace over 400 metres – the last time I did was on grass, hardly flat, and I never got beyond 1:26. I therefore surprised myself when I ran my first two repetitions for 1:14. Sub-5 minute mile pace! I struggled to maintain that level – the remainder clocked 1:16, 1:17, 1:21, and 1:17. I had plenty reasons to be pleased with that – particularly the rarely relenting headwind that seemed to attack on the back straight. I’ve yet to upload and review the charts, but I’ve given myself a good target to aim for. I haven’t run that fast, legitimately, since around the time of the Liversedge Half Marathon in 2015, when I ran a 5:23 in the first mile – and that was partly downhill. So to do that on a track is satisfying.

These haven’t seen much action!

However battered I felt from that track session, I still had one order of business, which was to tackle the Dick Hudson Fell Race course, exactly two weeks from race day. Partly for knowledge, but also to get a good experience of running across this particular stretch of moorland. The initial climb up Ilkley Moor is horrendous – past the White Wells spa house, the footpath snakes all the way up to a steep stone staircase that can’t truly be run (surely). Part of the stairs is basically a large boulder that you’re best hauling yourself up. The path has a few more ups and downs before leveling out into pure racing territory, past Ilkley Crags and the Twelve Apostles Stone Circle. Its onwards at this point Bingley Moor, which has a slight decline before reaching the drop to the gate by the Dick Hudson pub – after which the race is named, if you hadn’t guessed. And then its back again, including that stone staircase, which is just as steep and tricky to descend before the final rush down the snaky path to White Wells. I then had the additional rush to thunder down Wells Road to get to Ilkley Rail Station, 90 seconds before my train to Bradford departed, meaning I had to find a quiet corner of the train to stretch and clean the mud off my legs!

Ilkley Moor, 13/04/2017

After that run, I was absolutely shattered. I wound up falling asleep on the sofa and woke up the next morning convinced that Good Friday would be a rest day. And indeed it was.

Quite irritatingly, I have managed to undo my great start a little by yet again bruising my chest or ribs. This time, I sustained it leaning over a bedframe to give one of my daughters a goodnight kiss. Of all the things! So hard intervals aren’t exactly on the cards at the minute, but I’ll still be ready for the Dick Hudson next week.

This has all served as a reminder that finding these gains in my performance are going to be hard to come by. I’ll need to remain dedicated to my approach and be absolutely committed to the pursuit. My place in the race – the Royal Parks Series Regent’s Park 10km – is now confirmed, so there’s no turning back. The date is set and I’ve got to get together a training plan to chronicle my weekly sessions, and how I’m going to fit those in around the various fell races, the unpredictable race known as The Drop, and of course, the work/life balance. I doubt my diet is going to be perfect, but I’ve got to eat better, sleep well, and look after myself. Its all well and good saying these things – how many of us do? Yet its these little details that must be put into practice if indeed I’m going to shatter a target I seemed to set a long time ago now. I’m in the best shape of my life, but can it be better? I’ll always ask myself that, and the challenge there is to stop being non-committal, or to renege on any wishful promises to myself, like four months without chocolate, for example. It isn’t happening!

I’ll be back on my feet soon enough to get a few miles in prior to the Dick Hudson, and you’ll hear more about how I get on very soon.

Of course, this weekend sees the return of the London Marathon. Loads of people I know through running groups online are taking part, and maybe that includes you, yes, you? I’m going to be there next year but I’m going to enjoy watching the race on telly, tracking a few runners online and taking in the amazing and inspirational stories behind the journey towards running this iconic race. Good luck to all taking part, and I really hope you enjoy the experience.