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…

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Fells, trails, speed and (air) miles: Mapping my future course

Hello everybody!

Thank you all firstly for reading my write up of my race at the Leeds Liverpool Canal Canter. It got a great response out on social media and I got some great compliments not just about my run, but my writing style too. I write this blog almost as a personal diary which I’m happy to share and however it affects you, the reader, is genuinely a wonderful thing to receive in return. I don’t seek to force my blog onto anyone – of course I’ll publish, share and retweet – and I don’t seek, or expect, thousands of hits. I’m really happy to continue sharing my running adventures with all of you and what a bonus it is that right now, I’m in the most successful results phase of my career. So thank you everybody, its much appreciated.

So after something like that, how do I possibly go forth from here. Well luckily for you, I seem to have it all mapped out in my head as to the next 18 months or so. Without further ado, I introduce you to…

Short term (spring/summer 2017)

This spring will mark my first dip in the proverbial rough waters of fell running. Although I’m still undecided on whether to go for my ultimate goal of running the Kilnsey Crag Fell Race, I’m looking at entering races with a reasonable entry level so should I opt for the step up, I’ll feel ready.

Ilkley Moor. On a wet and windy February morning.

The first of these will hopefully be the Dick Hudsons Fell Race, taking place on Thursday April 27th. This event takes place starting from White Wells, situated on Ilkley Moor, and the race itself is a rough 7 miles ascending the moor, ideally past the Twelve Apostles Stone Circle (where I walked to earlier in the year), and down towards the Dick Hudson pub in Bingley, from which the race gets its name. Its a tag of the gate and then a run back the opposite way back to White Wells in Ilkley. I seem to remember one steep stone stair case that will need climbing and descending, but otherwise, what I know of the path is mostly flagstoned. Either way, having gained knowledge of the area, it seems an ideal one to take on.

The next event I’ve lined up is the Hebden Bridge 10km Fell Race, organised by Todmorden Harriers, which is a jaunt up to Stoodley Pike, the defining war memorial that overlooks the Calder Valley, and down into some of the woodland trails in the surrounding areas below. Its billed as a fell race with trail elements and an ideal entry race. This is followed up on Tuesday 4th July by the Stoodley Pike Fell Race, also organised by Todmorden Harriers, a shorter but arguably more thrilling race up to the monument and down its steep descents back to the bottom.

Stoodley Pike, 14/08/2016

Something I’ll be trying to balance with all this is a return to a long held goal of mine that got interrupted big time two years ago, when I developed sesamoiditis. I haven’t entered yet, but I’m on a family holiday to London for the final night of the World Paraathletics Championships on Sunday 23rd July. The Royal Parks Regent’s Park 10K, organised by The Race Organiser, is held the same morning. I feel confident now with the London Tube network to be able to get over from my digs for the week to the race, and it represents a chance for myself to attack a PB of mine that has now stood for over three years. In 2014, I ran 37:15 at the Epilepsy Action Bradford 10K. The following year, I began training for a crack at going sub-35 minutes. I was clocking some excellent intervals – even at sub-3 minute per km pace – but then my problems began to develop and halfway into the plan I bailed and decided to try and get to the bottom of why my left foot couldn’t take more than 20 minutes of running.

I still believe I can go sub-35 minutes for 10K. Its a very big leap, however, so there isn’t any guarantee I will achieve it in one go. I did, over the course of 2016, lower my parkrun 5K PB to 18:06 – still some way off the 17:30 I would possibly need to feel fully capable, but I did manage a 17:28 split during the Great Birmingham Run. I believe now I’m more experienced to make a more considered approach to tackling this goal than I did two years ago. For a start, avoiding doing all my training on the road will be a start, and keeping my body strong and injury free will be another. I’ve also invested in a second hand copy of ‘Daniels’ Running Formula’, written by the acclaimed running coach Jack Daniels, to seek to understand putting together a training plan from scratch and to introduce myself seriously back into threshold and interval running, both of which I pushed mostly to one side for the slower pace required in the ultra marathon I trained for. I’m already some way through the book – more on that another time.

To round off the summer, will be one, possibly two races, depending on my willingness to sign up for the Kilnsey Crag Fell Race on Tuesday 29th August. Two days prior, I’m taking part in the Honley 10K Trail Run, which will see myself and numerous others tackling a scenic and challenging trail course around a section of the Holme Valley. It’ll be nice to get back to running in the area – I don’t often visit the Holme Valley unless its for big, long, very hilly climbs over Holme Moss. This will be something a little different, and no less enterprising. And then remains the shortest, and no doubt most challenging of the four fell races I have planned, as this video below may attest to.

Medium term (September-December 2017)

Ever since I took part, hastily, in a Go Tri event (The Great Yorkshire Aquathlon in Leeds), four weeks after having to be dragged out of a pool because I suddenly lost my kick in the deep end, I’ve had a keen interest in getting up to a level where I can take part in a multisport event again. I had an absolute blast that day, and I’ve been on a mission since to improve my swimming abilities to be able to take on the Ilkley Aquathlon, an event held every September at Ilkley Swimming Pool and Lido. Its taken a while, but I’ve significantly improved as a swimmer. As of last night, I’m currently up to 200 metres (in a 20 metre pool) swimming front crawl without stopping. I’ve had such a positive start in the water in 2017, reaching the 200 ahead of schedule, but the race itself is the impetus to kick on – I’m really invested in running right now and so its important not to lose focus if I’m ever to progress to triathlon.

The Ilkley Aquathlon comprises a 400 metre swim and a 3000 metre run, mostly on grass. This takes place one week after my 33rd birthday, on Saturday 16th September. Entries open in May, so I’ll need to be fast to book my place, but this is my ultimate challenge as a swimmer for 2017. I really believe I can do it. Therefore, I really want to be a part of it. The key part of my training balance will be to ensure I get enough swim training done, because with all these other races it would be all too easy to lose focus on the swim leg, which is obviously critical to keep working on. I can swim 400 metres if I stop for a breather now and again. I’d love to be good enough to attempt it in one go.

There’s still an itch to run a marathon this year, and the one I’ve identified is the Kirkstall Trail Marathon, part of the Kirkstall Abbey Trail Running Festival, organised by Its Grim Up North Running. Taking place on Saturday 18th November, the course is three laps comprising ‘road, track, and field’. Basically its a trail race, and it’ll probably be muddy, and there’s apparently a bit of a steep climb somewhere. Sounds grand! Other distances are also available at this race. Head here for more information.

That also means I’m likely to run one of two events in October as prep – the Northern Jumble (another Its Grim Up North Running race) is another multi-distance event which costs just £10 to enter regardless of distance (5K up to ultra). The medals at the end are surplus, so won’t be individual to the race but will have been handed out at one of the other IGUNR events. Each will have a Northern Jumble ribbon. If I enter, I’ll plump for the half. The alternative is the Holmfirth 15 mile race, which is a two lap event. It’ll also be a little hillier than the Jumble, which is on another canal, this time to Huddersfield Broad Canal. I’m not leaning towards either, but the latter would likely be better practice for the hilly Kirkstall Trail.

My year might wind down after that. Then again, maybe it won’t. Because…

Longer term (early 2018)

As long as the dates line up with a certain major marathon later in the year, I plan to enter the Canalathon 50K in 2018 – and this time it shouldn’t clash with Mother’s Day in the UK! I’m determined to make up for the fact I couldn’t make this event in 2017 (and wasted £50 in the process) and having enjoyed my first ultra marathon so much, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t feel capable of ultra #2. This is a popular regional event that takes place on the Rochdale Canal, from Manchester all the way to Sowerby Bridge. There are longer options too – the 75km and the 100km, the latter of which garners points for UTMB qualification – but I’m fine for now cutting my chops at roughly 31, 32 miles before signing up for an even bigger challenge.

The certain major marathon I refer to is London Marathon 2018. I have a Good For Age time valid from 2016 and its time to try and top it up. Not only that, but I want this to be my serious tilt at a sub-3 hour marathon. I was narrowly close in 2016, clocking 3:02:39 – the watch suggested I ran 26.47 miles. While I’ll take my finish time as gospel, it does make me wonder – IF it was long course, then I must have been within a minute of the magic marker. But no excuses – if I’m going to do it, I’m going to be serious about it. By now if I haven’t seriously worked hard on my core fitness, and indeed my speedwork, and indeed judging marathon pace, I can probably forget it. But if I’m on top of those things, recover well from the Canalathon, and if I can bring it all together on the day, then what’s to say I can’t achieve it? The sub-3 is my ultimate time goal. Yes, sub-35 for the 10K would be grand, but for myself, personally, to actually run such a time for the marathon would be something.

Long term (beyond summer 2018)

The last time I went abroad was 1997. It was a family holiday to Tenerife, my long abiding memory being waking up in tears after a planned trip up Mount Teide was cancelled after my father consumed a dodgy British curry the night before. Fast forward nearly 20 years, and the only time I’ve left this fair isle since was on a boat from Plymouth to the tiny Cornish villages of Kingsand and Cawsand in 2010. Which doesn’t really count, does it? Plus, with Brexit about to drop, I’ve a horrid feeling the sterling is going to be worth jack in years to come. Furthermore, my passport expires in 2020. Its been good for nothing except identification for beer and parcels from the local Post Office depot. Well, its time to do something about it!

Yep, I want to run a marathon…abroad! To some of you, this is nothing new. To me, this is actually a big deal. If I commit to this, it’ll be the first time I’ll go through an airport on my own. I’ll possibly have to learn a few phrases (not just ‘Gratulerer med dagen!’ – happy birthday in Norse). I might even get cheaper rail travel!

My destination of choice will be Europe. Its the easiest option and there’s an absolute plethora of marathons and races to choose from. Everything from the race itself, race entry fees, travel and accommodation, the location, the lingo etc. is likely to shape where I decide to plop for. One thing for sure is the calendar – ideally I don’t want it to fall during my kids school term time, which basically means an August or late October marathon, ruling out a good few, though having said that, it would be churlish to overlook a race a week or two either side with good connections. 

Already a few people have given me recommendations on where to go. Some places I seem to have my heart set on more than others, some I would love to do but already find my budget being stretched. I’m likely to be more certain towards the end of 2017 if I’m actually going to leave this country behind for a few days. And fingers crossed, I’ll have the cash to afford. That tax free allowance rise has got to come in good somewhere!

So, the blueprint is (sort of) set, its now a question of drawing up training plans, booking my race entries, and, most crucially, getting out there and putting the hard miles in. This is going to be a nice return to 5K and 10K racing, whether on hills, roads, trails and fells, before cranking up for a long distance autumn/winter season and a chance to escape the madness of this island, if just for a few days. But first, the fells of Ilkley Moor. Only this time, faster. And maybe a bit of sunshine too.

Yep. Absolutely sodden with rain
Yep. Absolutely sodden with rain.

The Wonderful World of Run Commuting

by Peter, 32 and rising

I don’t drive. I’ve never taken a single lesson. I once had a provisional licence, and I was once offered lessons by my parents when I was 17. Life may have been a little different had I accepted. Alas, it confined me to the wonders of public transport. An experience I first encountered at university, and then when my first proper job got relocated to Morley. This sapped away some of my then previous enjoyment of the train. Then I started working in Huddersfield and got the bus. In the last year or so, I’ve been working further from home close to Leeds city centre. This has meant revisiting the trains, and sometimes using the bus, which truly opened my eyes to how horrifically turd the experience of long distance bus commuting is.

A couple of weeks into my recovery from the Snowdonia Marathon Eryri, and feeling certain I was going to take on a race of at least 50km, I started looking for a generic training plan to start me off, not truly knowing what I should expect from such preparation for the distance. I quickly found one which I felt agreeable with. The first thing that caught my eyes was the schedule. Always important to know which runs on which days and how that works into my busy work-life balance. The next was the long run, just to see what distances I will potentially reach in training. Then I realised the inclusion of hill sprints in this program, something I rarely did, prior to training for the planned ultra. But then I spotted something slightly more concerning. 75-90 minutes easy on a Thursday. Now that wasn’t a problem prior to Snowdonia, but then I wasn’t doing hill sprints on Wednesdays, so no 4am run on a Thursday for me. I also didn’t fancy the prospect of coming home, putting the girls to bed and doing a third run in three days at a late hour on a school night. So there was one, seemingly logical conclusion. I would have to run commute again.

Except, its not as logical as it once was. I used to work five miles from home. Now its twelve miles, at a minimum. I worked out the pacing that would require at 90 minutes max. 7:30 miling. Not easy. Moderate, if anything. To do it too slow would involve running for longer than 90 minutes. So I have to reach a compromise. I had previously gone back as far as Ravensthorpe or Dewsbury, and run along the main road, but at around 6 or 7 miles and with much less cornering, if any, it isn’t hard to get wrong. But that would be too short.

So I settled on roughly 9 miles, which at its fastest is 8 minute miling but ideally 8:30 is much more target zone. My Thursday nights now currently involve a a short public transport commute, which means getting either a bus to Gildersome, or a bus/train to Morley, or a bus to Thornbury Barracks. The former two involve running via Birstall, and the undulating A643, via Spen Lane, Cleckheaton and Hartshead, the only difference being I either start from Morley and run through Howden Clough, which is nothing but a dark A road, or the bright lights of Birstall Retail Park, and a number of major junctions and roundabouts. The latter is a run via the major roads linking Sticker Lane, Rooley Lane, and Odsal Top, shortening my run to around 8 miles, but not a bad option is truly pressed for time.

I don’t always feel cracking on these runs. Particularly the Bradford route. Running alongside heavy traffic isn’t the most gratifying, and more to the point, it has me wondering if I’m susceptible to smog. How I can feel like I’m overheating in temperatures of 1C really doesn’t stack up. I should be able to wear headgear, a base layer, t-shirt and gloves without feeling like I’m going to burn up. I feel noticeably better in the second half of all these routes, when I’m leaving the busy city behind and arriving nearer my hometown. Likewise, it seems to take me a while to warm up if running out of Gildersome – the major roundabouts come thick and fast and do much to break up early rhythm. Morley, on the other hand, involves a dangerous short climb up from the somewhat cut off rail station, weaving in and out of rush hour commuters eager to get home, and cars coming down the pathless section amidst the throng, before climbing up to the junction at the nearby Toby Carvery. Here its a drop through Howden Clough, a village where little but countryside and and an industrial estate exist, before climbing up and then down into Birstall, where the Gildersome route would converge. 

Its through the heart of the town before heading on the long climb up Spen Lane, eventually reaching the top where I once stopped, walking into the nearby Sainsburys for a Snickers bar once, so lethargic I felt. Then through the suburb of Spen and onward along the A643, leaving the city behind and taking on the undulations back into Hartshead and then home. The final section is like the calm after the storm. The run gets quieter as it reaches home, and eventually plunges into the darkness of the ‘Mad Mile’ Highmoor Lane, turning off towards Thornhills for a run down a country lane and, if I should be granted a clear night, a magnificent dark sky experience. Though one always taken with the appropriate caution (and a headtorch).

I won’t deny that I pine sometimes for my old commute, which was five miles (said to be the perfect run commuting distance) from Brighouse to Huddersfield, which is basically one big up and over whichever way you do it, and viceversa. It was a main road, and a bit bland, but on a given day always left options to extend the route out even as far as Scapegoat Hill, or even Castle Hill, and drop back in, or to run via the Broad Canal towpath. It was stacked with options. I even once ran to work via Dalton, making the route eight miles, in absolute pouring rain. Thank goodness indeed for work showers, if indeed your employer has them. Now, a minimum 12 miles from A to B means compromise (yes, that word again) at this point, and a great deal of limitation to my route – swinging out too far can add a mile or two extra very easily, not ideal when you’re aiming to only run for x amount of minutes. In other words, I’m stuck with the linear option, though I could always, if I felt like it, allow for a 10 miler if I could find the right path and judge my pace correctly. 

There’s a great deal of articles out on the internet about run commuting. While presently, I chiefly only have to plan for running home, but many people run to work, for similar reasons to myself, and for many others also. One such website, Jographies, is currently conducting The Big Run Commuting Survey, aimed at gathering the thoughts of run commuters and would-be’s. Run commuting is certainly becoming more popular – there’s even a Run To Work day now – and while its not for everyone, its ultimately a great way of fitting in training for a race, getting away from the stresses of public transport, even just filling your mind with positivity (before work) and clearing it of the previous 7-8 hours of the daily working overdose, almost a cleansing of the mind. And a boost for your health. It’ll also give you a bit of a lesson in being organised. If I run to work, I try and leave my work clothes a towel and toiletries (hair and body wash, deodorant, etc.)  in my work drawer the day before, so I don’t have to lug them to the office. And something to eat, stored in the fridge, because nobody wants, say, an exploded yogurt pot in their backpack. Planning is key. The run home itself requires much less planning, but you’ll still need to have a good idea of how long you want your run to be, which roads or paths to travel on, and in either casecase, how long you plan to run, whether you’re going to pace it, or whether you want it to follow your marathon training program to the letter.

Do give the survey a go anyway. I’m looking forward to seeing the data on that one.

In summary, run commuting isn’t perfect, not personally, anyway. Its what you make of it to yourself. I do wonder if I’ll ever find the ideal route for my commute again. Ideally one with a decent off road section. Yet for the faults I find with it, it does serve an important, somewhat understated purpose in my life, in giving my training a platform to build up the miles, my hill strength, my own sense of pacing, patience and fortitude. And who knows, maybe one day it’ll all come together. It beats running after a bus anyway.

The Big Run Commuting Survey

Scenes from a recent commute

Gelderd Road, Gildersome, Leeds. A truly busy section, often so stop start to a pedestrian due to the sheer number of roundabouts and crossings.

Another industrial estate
An all too familiar sight for run commuters. This beauty is in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire
Always a welcome sight. Not too far to go now…
Hello darkness, my old friend

2016 – A Step Beyond

So, another year of running comes to an end, and I can safely say, after a disruptive 2015, 2016 has gone largely much better, though not without its hiccups. It started with a slightly tipsy, but intentional and excitable entry to the Snowdonia Marathon, and looks set to finish with a minor foot injury sustained through removing a shoe. Such are the ups and downs of a runner. More on that another time.

Yet it took a trip to Woodhouse Moor parkrun in Leeds, running 18:34 but in considerable discomfort with my knees afterwards, to take affirmative action to salvage my London Marathon training and to make sure I could make the race. Gait analysis revealed I was an overpronator, and about £80, I was in Brooks Adrenaline GTS 15s, half a size up, and for the first time possibly ever, my feet didn’t rock. I had to miss my favoured half marathon, the Liversedge Half, due to those knees, but I got back into training step by step, one run at a time, and London suddenly was back on. And sure enough, I made it to the start line, simply happy to be there, taking advantage of my hard earned Good For Age time, and falling just short of a sub-three hour marathon time that, truthfully, I had no right chasing. It was a brilliant weekend in London, and it brought me full circle with my other chief inspiration for taking up running again – visiting the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Stadium, where those great memories of Super Saturday still linger.

Spotted during the London Marathon – in decent nick here!

Put simply, that trip to the running shop broke the cycle, snapped me out of a rut, and got me feeling good about running again. Who would’ve known a routine shopping trip could make or break a year like that?

The way the second half of my year unfolded turned out to be even better, evolving from a long distance road runner to tackling the adventure of the trail, as I prepared for Snowdonia. Getting off course during the (Wo)Man vs Barge race, almost getting lost off the Pennine Way, climbing Dovestone Edge during a run, getting covered knee deep in mud and other horrid substances in a field near Hebden Bridge, running up and over Holme Moss Summit twice in the same run, nearly passing out on the Calder Hebble Navigation, and best of all, getting to run 17 miles with the one and only Ben Smith, of the 401 Challenge, made for the best block of training I’ve ever done for a race. Barely ever disrupted by injury, even my delicate work-life balance, I believe it all helped me to get into the best possible shape for Snowdonia – even if I did only end up racing like a fool because I was so immersed in the scenery.

With Ben Smith at Marathon 348 (Horsforth, Leeds) of the 401 Challenge
Crossing the finish line at Snowdonia

And as for Snowdonia itself? Its a race I’m sure I won’t forget. The ultimate road marathon test of endurance, in the shadow of the mountains, through the mist and fog of Pen-Y-Pass, the swathes of slate, high peaks, clear blue lakes; the crowds and support along the route; the killer turn at Waunfawr prior to Bwlch-y-Groes, a truly punishing climb that tried to extrapolate my muscles in ways I’d never experienced, and the final descent back into Llanberis. Its a race I’ll never ever forget, not just for what it nearly did to me – the preparation and the sheer intensity is enough to make a man insane, like Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick. The sheer relief and jubilation at the end, and for my family to see it as well, made all that preparation and sacrifice absolutely worth it.
Outside of running, my swimming ability seems to be making great strides, if not great waves. I’ve been at my swimming lessons a year and a half now, and the last three months were incredible. Not only have I kicked on from the departure of my now ex-swimming coach, and improved at back crawl, breaststroke, dolphin and butterfly, I’ve cracked 100 metres consecutive front crawl for the first time in December. It pushes me that little bit closer to multisport, with the initial aim being a sprint aquathlon where I can really try and test my newfound abilities. The below picture sums up perfectly how stoked I was after that first 100 meter swim.

Going forward, I have great plans afoot for 2017, and indeed some decisions to make. I’ll be putting together a separate post detailing my plans for next year, though you can check my Itinerary for the latest races I’m booked into, along with my race history.

With that, I leave you with stats, and a huge thank you to all my readers for keeping up with my most incredible year of running so far, and to everyone and indeed anyone who’s been there to support me with a lift, a shower, local knowledge, and words of encouragement. Reading back over waves of positivity reminds me of just how amazing putting one foot in front of the other really is!

My year in numbers

2 marathons (London & Snowdonia)

One 10K (the Halifax Harriers Summer Handicap 10K)

2 trail races ((Wo)Man vs Barge, The Great Yorkshire Pieathlon)

A new marathon PB (3:02:39, London)

One Butlins gold medal and wristband for archery!

5 parkruns (including one first place finish, one second, four 5K PBs (currently 18:06)

928 miles run (+ 19 miles of long walks (I only did two) = 947 miles (as of December 30, 2016)

6 pairs of shoes used (three road pairs, two trail pairs and one fell pair – two road pairs and one trail pair retired)

After Snowdonia

The first four days after returning home from Llandudno were nothing short of stressful. I was straight back into work on a  Tuesday, underslept and at one point fell asleep on the bus. I woke up in unfamiliar territory and thought I’d missed my stop. In actual fact, it had taken a diversion, and subsequently, I was slightly late for work. This set the tone for a whole week struggling against tiredness, traffic congestion and worrying about getting to work on time. Even on marathon legs, I was pushed to actually walk a mile and a half to get to another stop because it was quicker than slowly making my way through treacle traffic. One night, I spent fourty minutes on a bus out of Leeds city centre and didn’t even leave the centre. I got off and dashed for a train. By Friday night, having done more running around to find a quicker way of getting home, I was at my wit’s end.

This wasn’t how marathon recovery was supposed to be. Aside from swimming, three days after Snowdonia, which felt absolutely amazing on my quads, it just felt like all I could do was rush and harry. I felt restless, and disappointed. The weekend couldn’t come soon enough.

If there was one thing keeping me sane, aside from my wonderful family, it was reminiscing about the events of Saturday 29th October. Looking back over a brilliant family holiday in Llandudno. I had the distraction of writing up my race report for this blog, and checking back to read comments on my Facebook posts, Instagram and Twitter feeds. Getting the odd congratulations in a busy work office.

To all of you who cheered me on, congratulated me and relived my arduous race with me, thank you all so much. I value everyone who comes to check out my page and reads what I have to say. Sometimes I read back over my posts and they’re practically a book in themselves. They seem so hard for myself to read at times, but its the only way I really know how! But you all seem to enjoy them and its brilliant to continue receiving the comments I got. And at least I also had my slate coaster to look at. I’m still mega proud of it now, and forever will be. To think back to the coaster, to the race, the incredible Pen-y-Pass, the magnificent descent into Llanberis, even that brutal final hill, brought a wry smile to my face for several days afterwards. 

Thankfully, things have settled down a little now – the commute remains busy, but has calmed down. My lowered immune system meant the cough I carried all holiday eventually bloomed into a full-blown cold, which laid me low for a few days. But I’m back in the pool, easing back into running, and I’m pleased to say I’ve come off well after the marathon, with no injuries, strains or quarrels to report.

And thank you to those same people who followed my training diary building to Snowdonia. Without question, it was my most daring, adventurous, and yet successful block of training yet. The comments left on my blog were greatly appreciated, and for every share, every retweet, just reaching one more person is another person to have had a small taste of the adventure. Looking back, it felt like a perfect story arc, building up to that day on Invalid’s Walk when I could see across the whole of Llandudno as the sun rose. A sight I initially hadn’t anticipated, but yet so lucky to see. But another chapter is now at an end, and so we move on in search of the next thrill. 

Full of cold but still standing

So what’s next?

Well, the next race is just around the corner, and its a return to one of my favourite races on the calendar. T’Great Yorkshire Pieathlon. This year, I aim to see if I can run the 6km course a bit quicker but of course, I want to just enjoy those rich, tasty pies!

Beyond that, I’ve nothing booked but I do have races I’d like to do in the pipeline. The big one is the 2017 Canalathon, on 26 March, taking part in the 50km option, which navigates the Rochdale Canal all the way from Great Ancotes in Manchester back to Sowerby Bridge. The only sticking point at present is the cost – I’m on a budget and close to Christmas its hard to prioritize a race over loved ones and day to day necessities. Entry is £50 until January 1st, 2017, but the optional extras for a medal (£6), post-race meal (£6) and transport to race start (£10) bump it up to £72. Now, it might not seem much in the grand scheme of things – I won’t need accommodation, for example, or spend too much on travel, but its the race the first half of my year hangs on at present, and affording it immediately is proving a little tricky. There’s still time and space to enter though.

I did want to do the Brass Monkey Half Marathon in York. The Brass Monkey is a hugely popular race that kicks off the calendar around mid-January on a fast, flat course, and it sells out within minutes. I got my times muddled up and woke up way too late to enter, by which time my hopes had gone kaput for another year. Right now the likely alternative is a little known race called the Sir Titus Trot, taking place on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal from Saltaire on January 28th, 2017. There’s a 32 mile, a standard marathon, a half marathon option and a 10K. I aim to enter the half, and its around £18 to enter. It seems a cracking little race and a good chance to actually have my first attempt at beating my half marathon PB, the 1:22:41 at Liversedge in February 2015. I find it hard to believe I’ve not raced half distance since!

Beyond those, I might take myself out on a jaunt somewhere across the country, but that depends on my money and where I feel my priorities lie. I certainly want to experience a few different locations and I can imagine wanting to try out a couple of fell races too.

2016 is nearing its end, but be assured I’ll be out on the roads and trails again soon, whatever the winter may bring.

Snowdonia Marathon Training

8. Changes

This week, my twin daughters started school. Any parent will know how big an occasion this is. When your children are born, the thoughts of them in school are seemingly distant until, of course, the day arrives upon you like a freight train. The expense of the uniform, the constant checklists, the ironing of labels, the piles and piles of uniform – all multiplied when you have twins. It really dawned last Sunday night, two days before they started. The day itself would turn out to be fine, but it seems that this family milestone wouldn’t be the only thing to be disrupting my psyche, indeed, something was casting over me like some sort of malaise.

Truth be told, the weekend of running that I recently undertook seemed to take a lot out of me. There’s running on tired legs, and then there’s tired. As I walked around on Monday, feeling like I’d run a marathon, my right hamstring seemingly weighing a tonne, I couldn’t help contemplating if I’d overcooked things last week. I worked on my lower leg fitness on Monday night, foam rolling, stretching and using a resistance band trying to get some feeling back into it, some weight off it. I’ve always had powerful quads and hamstrings, just when they get tight, damn, they let me know. Even as my swimming lesson approached on Tuesday, I still felt a bit like something wasn’t right. I was glad for the day off to walk my kids up for their first day at school, and to collect them a few hours later, not to mention a walk to collect a parcel, which at least finally loosened things up a bit.

Still, that didn’t prepare me for the news that would be delivered shortly after 8pm, having completed my warm up for the swimming lesson. My coach, Judy, is leaving the set up at Halifax in three weeks. Now, I did imagine that one day I would fly the Adult Improvers nest, but never did I imagine I would be pushed. Or in fact, imagine Judy leaving. At this point I don’t know why. She is offering classes in a 25 metre pool in Rishworth on Thursdays, but that’s too far away for me to get to from Leeds and it would interfere with my family’s fitness activities – even the kids are getting into kickboxing now. Suffice to say, I made the most of the session, and Judy did notice the improvements I’d made, particularly the front crawl. We had 10 minutes of diving, my current mental block in the water, but in any event, her knowledge and application are second to none.

I left the lesson that night for my run home. I took it easy for the most part but I couldn’t do much but contemplate my next move. It felt as though the suggestion to move on to a Stroke Skills class was a bit of a nudge, and not just because I’ve been doing the Improvers class for over a year. It did take the mind off my running haze, but it didn’t feel fun.

I’ve already booked on to a Stroke Skills class at my local pool next Friday, and I’ll be continuing at Improvers until Judy leaves. Which as you read this, is three weeks from now. And what I’ll gain in a 20 metre teaching pool – more skills, better stamina – I’ll probably lose in terms of the application, the nous, the actual coaching. I’m fairly certain Judy is (or was) the only coach they have who actually gets in the water and shows everyone what they should be doing. Her methods are firm, but fair, and she transformed me from someone who couldn’t even stick their head under water to breathe into someone who is, at least, a bit of a fish now and one with a platform to maybe take things up a level. For that, I’ll always remember what an excellent coach Judy is and credit her greatly with bringing back my confidence in the water, and actually enjoying it again.

I did the now customary early night/early rise on Wednesday/Thursday, and got out at 4:20am to run 8.5 miles in the morning darkness. My last run as a 31 year old. I still felt a bit unsure, like I still wasn’t fully over running myself ragged that weekend before. I didn’t know if it was fatigue, or something else. In any event, running at this hour was a good source of therapy. Now the schools are back, there’s one or two more cars on the road at this hour, but its still fairly safe going and all in all, quiet. It turned out to be what I needed. I just got up, got out the door and got on with it. The route was at times hilly (when it is not?, I ask) but I did get the simple satisfaction of enjoying ny progression through the miles, and in the end, it seemed to unlock whatever spell I was under, and all seemed right again. I had three days to prepare now for a big 19 mile run to Ripponden and back again, giving myself the grace of a mild hangover (from birthday ale) and my mother-in-law’s birthday to get the necessary rest.

Morning, world!

Sunday came, and again I was up sharp at 4am. I had porridge with chia seeds and peanut butter for breakfast. I did wonder if I’d overdone the protein but heck, I got my drink together, a mini Chia Charge bar and wedged the bar with my phone and key in the back pocket of my shorts. I jogged down to the same start point for all my runs along the Calder Hebble Navigation – the Lüdenscheid Link, started the watch and I was away, now officially another year older.

The Calder Hebble Navigation, 5:45am, 11/09/2016

The light on the towpath was dim, and at one point I had my early progress interrupted by a couple of ‘playful’ dogs. Well, they didn’t bite, they were a bit of a hindrance but at least the owner gave a hoot. On I went, taking in the morning darkness, leaving the ravaged Elland Bridge behind and heading up Saddleworth Road, taking the long road to Barkisland. The street lights were switching off as I progressed, and the sky was turning a beautiful fire orange, overlapping the hills of Barkisland. A photographer with a real camera was roadside, taking in the opportunity. It wasn’t until I looked back I noticed what a great sunrise this was. 

And sure enough, as I ascended higher, the sun began to rise, absolutely wide open and beaming across the sky.

I know you shouldn’t stare at the sun, but it was impossible not to! Here I was, on this stretch of road for a second time, still as distracted by my surroundings as the first. Well, I had work to do, so it was time to knuckle down. I followed the signposts for Ripponden, and headed down Ripponden Old Bank, which was steep, cambered, a bit dicy at times, and completely understandable as to why Google couldn’t get a vehicle down there to Streetview an image. The purpose of this descent was effectively to take a long run back up. A quick hello and goodbye to Ripponden, I’d soon swung back onto Elland Road and headed back up the New Bank.

Here, I lost time on the hill, owing to my phone map confusing the heck out of me, pointing me back towards a turning I didn’t need, and had already passed. All I needed to do was keep going. And so I did. I’d been going to right way all along. Turning onto Fiddle Lane, this was one of the toughest, steepest parts of the course, not just for gradient, but sheer length of the hill. I really felt the lactic building in my quads, but I made it to the top, and made it gradually up the next, less severe hill up towards Ringstone Edge Reservoir. The view on the way up, mind, was just as spectacular as the sunrise. Rolling hills and the views of the land beyond, the cloud smattering the peaks in the distance.

That beautiful sunshine would now prove to be a nemesis. Of course it seems daft to wear sunglasses at 5:30am on a September morning, but the sun was now full bore on the hills surrounding Krumlin and beyond. It was just as well the roads were quiet as I occasionally had to look down to avoid the glare in my glasses. 

I nibbled down the mini Chia Charge bar I brought out. I have to say, that was far more enjoyable and palatable than any energy gel. I was interested to see if this would keep me going. Moving on, I decided that I would have to attempt running a few miles at ‘marathon pace’. Or at least, a bit faster. Now I aim to run marathons at 6:50 mile pace, but Snowdonia will be a much more conservative effort. Hopefully. So I initially aimed for about 7:15 mile pace, starting from about mile 13 – this, however, coincided with the 10% gradient of Beestonley Lane, a winding road leading to Stainland. I spent a good proportion of the 13th mile tackling the hill, and eventually it went for 9:04. I wrote that one off, and then went to move on. The road down into Holywell Green was mostly downhill – a 7:17. It turned out that by heading on to the village of Broad Carr I’d chucked in another short, steep hill. This time, I pushed on, even quickening the pace on the climb, and clocked a 7:55 mile. Four miles left. Into Elland, through the town centre, and down towards the Lowfields industrial estate, to rejoin the Calder Hebble Navigation. A 7:28. I was feeling strong. Onto the relative flat of the Navigation. I was on sub-7:00 pace and went through mile 17 at 6:51! I surprised myself. I’d never felt this good at this stage of a long run. The pacing was just right again. Keep it going, I urged myself. I arrived at a cobbled bridge right at the end of the 18th mile. This slowed me down slightly, but the watch beeped shortly after – a 6:57!

I arrived back into Brighouse a bit tired, nearly three hours after setting off. The run was more 2:32:something (I’m typing out with one free hand and no room to move on a bus – I can’t reach my Garmin and can’t be bothered right now!), but staring at the sun and that brief letdown in navigational trust will do things to you. Quite pleasingly though, I had lasted the distance, and the brutality of those hills, quite well. And it got me thinking about another change. One that hadn’t sunk in, even though I’ve been following it for weeks now. 

I run less. Not necessarily over less distance, just fewer days a week. I’ve stuck to the Brooks Snowdonia Marathon training program and modified it slightly to suit my own needs. The result is that I’m running no more than four days a week, sometimes only three days. Other than the mishap in York, which cost me a weekend earlier in the cycle, and one Tuesday after walking across the Pennine Way and racing in the same weekend, I’ve not really missed too many sessions out. I take or leave the Sunday recovery run, and the remaining runs on Tuesday, Thursday and long run Saturdays are what’s left. I used to run five days a week, occasionally more. The result? Fewer injuries. Ok, so I’ll always have creaky knees and tightness here and there, but throughout the cycle, nothing that stretching, alternative exercise, and physio/strengthening work hasn’t taken care of. And the majority of those runs can be deemed a success, with no troublesome issues presenting themselves, allowing focus on the next run. Quality over quantity.

The first of my big long runs is finished. The second is this coming Saturday, around Marsden and the Oldham Way, which will at times become a scramblefest. I’m not overly accustomed to scrambling, but I’m reasonably sure that I’m not putting myself in too deep and I’m keen to run and scamper up a few hills and tick off a few monuments along the way. Its been a good week for reflection, with change happening around me, but if there is one constant to remain, its that 32 isn’t that different to 31. Right now, my training is at the business end. And its business as usual. But not without seeing what absurdity I can put myself through for doing this thing that I love, and what’s more, in a positive frame of mind. Because this happy train I’m riding has to make it all the way to Llanberis.

Skegness – Butlins, beach running and Brexit

Separation. It works in many ways. This was my first holiday to Butlins in two years. It doesn’t seem a long time, but consider that in 2015 my family could afford to go twice in one year, but on both occasions I had to miss out. I was going through a career progression. Twice. A secondment, in which the week they went, the role I would end up landing was advertised. Good thing I stayed behind. The second time, it was mid December, and I was in my final week of training. That one sticks with me. I was absolutely full of cold, should’ve been in bed, but instead I helped my family get their bags over to Leeds for the train to Skegness before starting work. It was the first time I watched the kids leaving for another destination. I waved them bye for a few days. I began walking up the steps from the platform, and felt a huge sadness tearing at my heart, my body, already weighed down by illness, suddenly felt heavier. Absence, indeed, makes the heart grow fonder, as many of you may relate to this experience.

Needless to say, it was awesome to be able to take six days of paid holiday in order to be with my family for a full week at Butlins, the last one before inevitable term time blockades and school holiday price hikes kick in. The kids were mega excited, and amidst the backdrop of having a new kitchen installed, we all set off, my wife, kids, brother-in-law and mother-in-law, to the land of sand, sea and sun…

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Oh well, a bit of rain wasn’t going to ruin our holiday, and nor was the insipid 0-0 between England and Slovakia or even the fact we were all coming down with a cold.

An important personal aspect of this holiday was to go running on the beach, but not only that – to try and get back into some sort of routine. Groin injury aside, any attempt even to muster lower mileage runs has been thwarted by preparing for the holiday, the new kitchen, and I daresay, a lack of motivation. I feel almost ashamed of those last few words, knowing full well the Snowdonia Marathon was only a little over 4 months away. Even with my busier concerns over the last few weeks, I never found the time to put on my kit, let alone go out the door. At least now I was in an environment where, free of the daily grind, I could hope to reset.

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View from Ingoldmells beach, 22/06/2016

Still suffering a little from the cold I had picked up, I managed to rouse myself to go for a run and headed straight for the familiar dunes of Ingoldmells beach. Heavy, sloped, the feeling of my footsteps slipping to the side, the proverbial game of chicken with the North Sea tide. It all came back. The early morning sun was shining bright, beating down on the side of my face. Just like a lot of beautiful aspects of nature, it had a brutal side, and even this out and back halfway to the Fantasy Island theme park, it was fairly hard work. I got back to base, satisfied with the morning’s effort, though I ended up applying a heat pack to my groin as there were still murmurs of the injury persisting. But unlike the previous run, when I commuted on foot for a train to Leeds World Triathlon event, I felt fine throughout the run and it seemed as though I might be putting this injury behind me.

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Ingoldmells beach, 22/06/2016

The date of Thursday 23rd June was looming. It was EU Referendum day. And even somewhat distant from it being over 150 miles from home, you were still never too far from a conversation about it, even in the family friendly atmosphere of the Skyline Pavilion, and even when you’re having to sit through the infernal dance routines of the Skyline Gang. I still can’t get the Twist song out of my head. Curse you!

Friday 24 June. 6:00am. My alarm went off. I went straight onto my phone to check the result. Its one thing to try and prepare for such an eventuality, but then its the one you least expect, or the one you didn’t hope for. The nation had voted. Leave. I actually couldn’t believe it. A referendum fuelled by what appeared to be little more than lies, propaganda, fear, hysteria, and very little underneath, the country had voted to leave the EU. I was shaken. Almost paralysed. I asked myself how could we vote for this? People fears preyed upon, little in the way of hard fact, seismic implications that could not be predicted. I anticipated the result, but equally went to bed the previous night not expecting it.

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I got out of the door of the apartment, still in a spin, realising the need to just get out and try and forget about it. Life, they say, goes on. As I stood atop the stairs, waiting for my watch to load, I looked to my right. There, gathered around a puddle, three ducks, without an apparent care in the world. They slowly ambled towards my position, encountering another puddle, and seemed absolutely nonchalant, blissfully unaware of the momentous decision the country had just taken. My watch beeped. I realised now, somewhat amused by what I’d just seen, that I had to get away and try and put the negativity to one side.

For this run, I stuck, at first, to the promenade, staying a good distance away from the sea, and off the sand, aiming to get as far as Fantasy Island, Ingoldmells’ premier theme park. I was still grumbling away. I couldn’t help it. It led me to take what I guarantee is the most badass selfie I’ve ever taken of myself!

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Just over 4 miles and 30 minutes later, I was on my way back to the apartment, to prepare for the day ahead, and to discuss Brexit over another ludicrously large breakfast. There was one good thing to come out of the run, I wasn’t feeling the groin strain any more. And this time, it stuck. No recurrence.

I had one final run, a seemingly ambitious six miles. Ambitious, because I haven’t reached that distance since running past the Cutty Sark two months prior. I ran down the beach towards Skegness, and this time I seemed keen to surpass Skegness Pier. Well, I left the beach at this point and tried to run back from the town back towards Roman Bank. However, I forgot that the road was a bit windy. And so I ended up back on the beach, for that was the straightest course. It was a toil, I’ll say that, and I was glad to get back on firm concrete by the end. The six miles took me 49 minutes flat – it was really tough running on mostly sand over such a distance, particularly with my race fitness down. But most importantly again, I came through it, and with no issues.

There was other positive news sport wise the rest of my holiday. I went swimming multiple times with my family and found time to put my swim skills to the test in the Splash Waterworld. Sculling around the Rapids, dolphin, front and back crawl drills, and I daresay, mildly efficient breaststroke! And my kids are quickly becoming like little fish in the water too. And, what’s more, my wife and I had a grand time down in Bullseye Bay where we tried out archery. It was my second time trying it, my wife’s first. We won a team competition, and I shared joint honours in an individual category. For our efforts, we both got a wristband, and I got a Butlins’ archery medal!

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It was back home the following Monday, after a full week enjoying some quality family time, now returning home to the grind (and a new kitchen). It had certainly made up for the two trips I missed before and it was incredible to see my kids having so much fun, and become ever more confident in the water. Its a cliché to talk about how these experiences create great memories, but it does indeed reflect in how positively I can talk and look back on that week.

Its been two weeks since the holiday now, and I’ve managed to establish my routine again, something that will come to fruition as I’m effectively now on my training plan for Snowdonia. I did another 8 miles this morning, and while its tough as ever running uphill, its anendeavour I have to and will pursue. I just hope I can get through the block without any injuries, without shedding sleep, and generally coming out the other end fitter.

I’ve also entered another race, the fantastically titled (Wo)Man vs Barge, a trail race in which you have to run from Marsden, West Yorkshire, to Diggle in Lancashire, while trying to beat a barge travelling through the Standedge Tunnel. I’ve really wanted to do this race for a couple of years, and finally its fit in around my other races. Saturday 13th August is the date, and I’m certainly looking forward to it!

All in all, a brilliant holiday had, despite the cold, Brexit, and getting disoriented in Skegness, it was a hugely fun week and made up for missing out on the other family holidays. The focus is now towards October, and a date with hills, scenery, and hills. And if nothing else, things are all coming together now.