#Breaking3 – The Journey

They say marathon training is often about the journey, not the destination. Rarely did it feel truer than this particular morning.

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Tuesday March 27, 2018. I ran my weekly track session with the Halifax Harriers, running two lots of 1000m, then 800, then 600, and finally 400m, with rest intervals in between. I never used to consider myself good at 400m – I once ran 85 seconds for 400m, yet I could smash out quick 10K and half marathon times. That changed once I got regular use of an athletics track and discovered what it was like to run an accurately measured loop, on a surface which gives you that extra zip. In the months since I’ve joined the Harriers, I’ve got my lap times on the track down to just over 70 seconds, with the ability to absolutely sprint from a standing start and hold my pace generally well to the end. Often, the bit lacking is the home straight, where my early effort has me hanging on for dear life. I usually save such a lap for the end of the session, when I’m most tired but when I’m likely to have kept something in reserve.

This particular night, I felt determined. Having just been picked to run for the Harriers in a team relay event later this week, I sensed a chance to work on my speed and prove I could go under 70 seconds. For months, that marker has been elusive. But this night, I was absolutely on it. I kept to the tightest inside line for the most part, hugging the bends if I could and only briefly stepping out to overtake. As I got down the home straight, I felt like I was going to hit for strides again, when I heard fast steps behind me to my right. My competitive urge kicked in. But this wasn’t one of my fellow runners this session – this was a junior member practicing 100 metres. I went into overdrive and found another gear. I gathered another sprint, held it and stopped the watch as I crossed the line. I’d clocked 422 metres overall, and quickly went back into my watch history, checked the last two lap times – and it confirmed it. I’d finally done it! 68.96 seconds. Imagine if I just ran a flat 400 metres with no weaving!

My personal record track lap

Yet in the days that passed, my knee just wasn’t improving. I’d gone back to exercises from my earlier days as a runner. I was on paracetamol and ibuprofen to alleviate the discomfort, and I was using hot and cold therapy. But this dull ache wasn’t shifting.

I woke at 4:10am that Sunday morning, the day of my final 20 mile long run for London Marathon training, and as I busily prepared myself, I realised I wasn’t feeling anything from my knee. As in, no discomfort, no pain, nothing. As in, everything OK. I couldn’t understand it. I still applied ibuprofen gel as a precaution, but otherwise I felt good to go and well, what a timely boost.

My route this day took me into Huddersfield town centre, which at just after 5am on a Sunday morning is still rife with revellers from one of its most popular nightclubs, The Camel Club, from whatever night they’ve hosted beforehand. This clash of two cultures – the early morning runner to the early hours drinker – came to a head when one lass shouted across the road ‘run Forrest run’! I merely gave a wry smile, as banter is probably the best thing for that situation depending on how you look back upon those enjoying the lifestyle you once enjoyed (now and again). Seeing an ambulance outside the nightclub and quite the crowd up ahead, I detoured past the railway station instead and rejoined my route by the somewhat dilapidated New Street, before heading down into Lockwood and onwards.

Huddersfield is a place I was long overdue a run through, in the sense that I spend much of my training days in Calderdale and occasionally Leeds at lunchtimes. Huddersfield holds many great memories for me. I studied at the university (I hold a dust ridden 2:1 BSc in psychology), I found my favourite watering hole (The Parish pub, a historic pub and now a cracking pub/live music venue), met loads of great people, formed a doom metal band which lasted up until parenthood, had a somewhat hedonistic eight months getting smashed every Saturday (all by mid-2011) in the town’s bars. I also enjoyed four brilliant years of employment in the town and in more recent years, have discovered the Wessenden, Holme and Colne Valleys for myself,, run some brilliant, occasionally challenging , but brilliant, races in more recent years too, and some of my favourite routes take in the area. Particularly the occasional jaunt up Castle Hill.

A good few miles from home here!

This particular day, I ran towards Honley village, eventually reaching the smaller and rural Oldfield, running through the main road from end to end before turning back downhill towards Honley. This part of the run was probably the most enjoyable aspect, the quiet surrounding countryside and eventually, the run down Bradshaw Road with Victoria Tower, Castle Hill, standing atop in the distance. I would wind up going past Honley Woods on my left, where I ran the Trail 10K last year, down the road to Netherton, which I once ran in reverse and is absolutely beautiful to run through. I ended up with a jaunt through Beaumont Park before heading home through town for the last five miles. I didn’t half cherry pick my route that day!

Lea Lane in Netherton, Huddersfield, 1/3/2018

Places like this make me want to run. They also make me want to stop and breathe it in. The clean countryside air. The last throes of the night as it turns into day. Barely anybody around, hardly any traffic on the roads, the only sound being my footsteps and my lungs, and the sounds of nature. The discovery and rediscovery of what your local area offers, scenically, and how your two feet took you that far from home. They say marathon training is often about the journey, not the destination. Rarely did it feel truer than this particular morning.

The days have passed by. And now it is almost here. From the day I first ran a marathon, to now, the sub-3 hour marathon remains the one true time target that bears particular significance for myself. Its not strictly about another Good for Age time for London, even if my PB is now no longer GFA standard. The training for this race has run for 18 weeks, but the mental side of training has been there for about 3 years. I fell just short at London in 2016, but having gone in slightly ill prepared I couldn’t possibly complain, only learn. Even as I hoiked myself around Snowdonia and ran two ultra marathons at relatively sedate pace, I knew one day, I would be banking my GFA time from 2016 to head back for London to try and finish the job. I realise if I fail, it’s not the end and there will be other marathons out there to attempt a PB on.

Wellholme Park, Brighouse – once during the Beast from the East in March, and then about five weeks later.

I honestly feel ready for this. My training has gone well about 95% of the time, I cracked my marathon pace runs, my marathon pace intervals during long runs, even as the weather turned really cold and nasty, and my personal best pace over shorter distances became even better. I’ve taken in inspiration wherever I can find it, from my fellow runners and fellow chasers of the sub-3 hour marathon. Of course, there are doubts. The weather forecast has given for record highs on race day – allegedly up to 23C. I don’t feel I cope too well in the heat the longer a race goes on, but what can we all do about the weather? Not much but adapt – slap on the P20, light clothing (Harriers vest and shorts for myself), take advantage of the shower points on course, hydrate well (but not too well, or you might not feel too well), fuel well, and judge my effort carefully. I absolutely believe I’m ready for this, and it will all come down to how I execute my race strategy on the day.

To any of you reading this, and indeed running the marathon, enjoy it. However you made it to London, you earned it, whether through ballot, club, Good for Age, charity or however. Take as much free stuff from the Expo as you can (gratefully). Don’t forget your registration email though. Sleep well. Wake up and get ready to go. Wear your club or charity colours with pride. Take in the feverish atmosphere at the start, the fervent crowds at Cutty Sark, Tower Bridge, lining Embankment and Westminster. Behold the finish line as it awaits you. Pass the Tube queues as you proudly show off your race number/medal to access the underground. If there’s ever a time to feel like royalty, it’s here!

Oh, and try to enjoy the run itself. It’s bloody hard, not least without the potential of the burning hot mass in the sky, but it’s within all of us. Be awesome at what you do. Basically…

#Breaking3 – Taming The Beast

The Beast From The East. A band of weather so severe it was going to bring the entire country to its knees. Visions of being knee deep in snow were projected by the mass media conglomerates. Social media getting into a tizz. People panic buying.

Spare a thought for those of us who have to actually train in this. I know, I know. First world problems. But coming from a country that doesn’t always (these days) get such (relatively) harsh winters, the last time I remember it getting this cold was back many years ago. We had a Siberian weather pattern come over, oooh, I don’t know… around 20 years ago. The wind chill made the weather feel like roughly – 14C. In the UK. There wasn’t much in the way of snow, as I remember, but it was bitingly cold. Not that this didn’t stop our P.E. teacher sending us out for a game of football on a bone dry pitch in our shorts and long sleeve jumpers, which weren’t thermal in the slightest. Unsurprisingly, the game ended 0-0. I played right back and the rest of my defence stood there, rooted to the spot, arms clasped around themselves, absolutely shivering. It was a bracing experience. One I fondly (is that the right word?) remember. I didn’t have the commute or our rubbish public transport system to worry about back then!

Now true, there’s been the odd moment the last few years when I’ve got up to go out for a run in icy weather, found nothing but ice until I’ve got into the hills of Halifax or the Upper Valley of Calderdale, which for myself I have a good few miles to run before I reach them, some too far away to be worth considering. But by and large all I had to contend with was cold air and black ice. The latter not conducive to running safely outside, but there’s always the local park at least to get off road, or the treadmill at the nearby gym & pool. Quite possibly, thanks to global warming (perhaps?), the temperatures more often than not sit comfortably in the low single figures, but just enough that within half a mile that you realise a jacket wasn’t necessary and you end up wearing it around your waste for the vast majority of 19 miles – as I did the weekend before the Beast landed. Acclimatisation can be a millstone, sometimes.

Nonetheless, after having its merry time with the rest of the UK, my part of Yorkshire finally got a decent snowfall on the Wednesday (February 28), which meant I could go out for a run in it. I didn’t manage more than about 4 miles, but that was all my training called for, and in the end I did a decent job going up towards Lower Wyke and back down again. It was a frosty – 6C that morning too. I quite enjoyed it! However, we got the absolute motherload arrive the day after, as all my routes to work got leathered by the white stuff that day, meaning I had to work off site and hope for some abatement in the weather to actually be able to stick to some sort of program that same night. Thankfully, by mid afternoon the monster had gone for a snooze, and I squeezed in another 4 miles that night.

Looking back down Whitehall Road, Lower Wyke, 01/03/2018
Wellholme Park, Brighouse, 03/03/2018

The litmus test to come was in the form my Saturday and Sunday runs. I decided against going out too far from home, as much as I enjoy adventure, and decided to keep to either my local park, or the main road above it. Ten miles of marathon pace training in the snow seemed extra challenging, but it was firm enough without being too icy in the park that morning, and I completed the run successfully. Despite placing what seemed a greater load on my joints than the norm, I ran every mile inside 6:45 mile pace and set myself up for a potential banana skin. A workout I’d picked up from the LetsRun.com forums suggested a 20 mile workout consisting of 10 miles easy (7:40 mile pace), the latter 10 miles at (6:40 mile pace), the aim being to average 7:10 pace, as well as hit your mile targets. That’s one thing in theory, but to potentially run it on disappearing snow, and possibly ice?

My footsteps on Bradford Road, Brighouse, 04/03/2018

Thankfully, Sunday morning is a quiet time on the main road linking Bailiff Bridge with Brighouse Town centre, and the snow was fairly fresh from new snowfall overnight. Back and forth I went, initially at the slower pace, as my Salomon Speedcross, my trail shoes for quite a while now, squeaked awkwardly as they made tracks. I’d sometimes chuck in the local park for good measure, and as an added bonus, got to practice picking up water – such an oft-forgotten art of race day preparation – by leaving it on a wall near a turnaround point while I took a gel, or those awesome Sports Beans. My trail shoes later gave up at mile 13, the lace snapping on one side, meaning I had to nip home and change into my road shoes for the remainder. It was safe enough to run on the road at this hour, and I ran marathon pace for as long as I could thereon. I finished up with an average 7:10 mile pace. Somehow, I’d hit my target, despite what the weather could throw at me. Every damn target I set, it keeps falling, even throughout this weather.

But there’s only so much out and back running I can take. The weather had pinned me into training pretty much in my hometown only, aside from club training on Tuesdays, by which time the Beast had subsided at last. A mere two weeks later (March 17/18), as I planned a great big 20 mile loop of Huddersfield and the surrounding area, we got more heavy snowfall, so much so that when I woke up for my run, the snow on my street was ankle deep. Having only just obtained my new trail shoes at this point, a 20 mile run wasn’t the time to break them in. And so I had to slip and slide down to the main road again, which thankfully the local authorities had done a great job of gritting and clearing overnight, meaning I only got my feet wet in slush after 2 miles and ran with all the joy of a bulldog chewing a wasp. It was attritional alright. Shorn of my free roaming plans, I cut my run down to 16 miles to ensure I got back in time for the kids getting up, this allowing my wife a bit of a lie in, and entirely without nutrition too, save for water. The snow had almost gone the next day too. The bloody cheek of it!

The point I’m making, I guess, is that this winter, more so than recent years, has been quite a testing one for those of us training for our spring marathons. Sometimes, running in the snow can be a thrilling experience, a phenomenal workout, a rarity to behold. In the UK at least. Weeks of bitter cold and disruptive cold weather is enough to drive a runner crazy, the mere thought of potentially falling over on ice or getting stuck in some great big snow drift to force us into the gym or onto main roads only. In my case, the death of my Speedcross came at an absolutely terrible time!

So here’s to all of us. The early risers, the lunchtime runners, the club mates and those who run at all hours. Marathon training isn’t easy at the best of times without having such conundrums as how many layers to wear, are my gloves sufficient, wearing the right shoes depending on the type of snow, and so on and so on. And that’s before worrying about staying on your feet or how long you can last before the terrific wind chill factor absolutely bites down on any supposed enjoyment you’re to obtain from these rare experiences of subzero running.

It’s less than four weeks to London from here. My last 20 mile run is Easter Sunday. Surely the cold weather is behind us now. Surely…

#Breaking3 – The 2018 London Marathon Training Diary

Marathon pace. Two words that will mean different things to different people. But in the main, it defines itself as the pace at which you train, equivalent to the pace you intend to run a marathon. And those two words are pretty much dominating any conversation I’m likely to have about running for the first few months of this year.

I’m now in almost halfway through training for the 2018 London Marathon. Potentially it will be my defining race of the year, a race in which two years ago I got close to going under 3 hours for the marathon. Since then, the sub-3 hour marathon has come to be the one time based goal left for me to really want to conquer. Sure, I’d love to run a true sub 18 5K (I’m close), and a sub-35 10K (still 2 minutes out), but truthfully, the one time I would be proudest of would be to say I ran a sub-3 hour marathon. I know not everyone obsesses over times and personal bests, but as a runner capable of running reasonably quick, the sub-3 hour is a realistic and tangible goal. I won’t hang my hat on London being the place I do it, for I refuse to set myself up for crushing disappointment. But having earned a Good For Age place there again, I feel that this is the moment in my running career to be going for my ultimate target.

And so, in a slight nod to Nike’s application of science and furthering the human possibilities at marathon, any and all entries (aside from race reports) are going to be tagged #Breaking3! Only this is going to involve a lot less science, more hills, a work/family/life balance and shoes in various states of distress!

There is going to be a lot of marathon pace training in my training cycle this time. I haven’t actually tried it very much during previous training cycles, save for throwing it in during the middle of a long run, and even then I struggled to actually reach the pace I would later come to employ on my flat marathon race days. But nearly nine weeks into training, I’m running around 6:40-6:45 mile pace at least twice a week, and it’s now established into my Sunday long run training too. So far, I’m hitting the right pace about 85-90% of the time, save for a few slightly quicker miles or a borderline 6:52, which is pretty much on 3 hour pace. Saturdays are currently seeing an increase more or less of a mile per two weeks, and I often utilise my part of local parkrun course to run these. It’s off road, it’s got a slight hill, it’s rocky when it’s dry but nice and muddy when it’s been wet, as it has quite a bit lately. It’s giving me a good solid base to carry out my marathon pace training – the section I use is a 1.25km loop, or roughly 3/4 of a mile. All in all I’m hitting, on average, 4 out of the 6 runs per week in my training plan, which is a greater level than where I was at for London 2016, although I wish my circumstances would allow just a little more free time to run on Mondays and Wednesdays!

I honestly believe the stars are aligning, so to speak, to make London 2018 my most realistic shot of cracking the sub-3. I’m part of a club set up now, I’ve got much more experience of long distance racing and I’m coming off the back of a fairly injury free year. I’m running consistently quick in training, feeling more comfortable at running inside my target marathon pace of 6:40 per mile, and I’ve tailored a Hal Higdon plan to suit my daily lifestyle and also to target specific workouts aimed at improving my speed endurance deep into a run.

My long runs have generally gone pretty well, and it’s been great after laying off anything long distance towards the end of last year just to get out and run mile after mile for a rough couple of hours or so. At present, my marathon pace target has only been thrown in towards the back end of these runs, the idea being once I’m a little tired, I should be attempting to run that pace. But I’m starting to reach what I like to call ‘the business end’ of training – the longest, hardest runs of your program. The canal will be the best replicant for what I can expect in London, given its not entirely flat from Brighouse towards Mytholmroyd and back. I tried one such run last weekend, picked up from the LetsRun.com forums – 2 miles warm up, then 10 miles starting at 10 seconds below target marathon pace, and increasing the pace by five seconds every mile until by the end you’re running 35 seconds faster than your target MP. Then a further five miles at around 30 seconds below. I came in at 6:55 per mile, and was doing pretty well until the weather played havoc and forced me to change my route from the canal towpath to the roads. I still managed to crack on almost as scheduled, running miles 10 to 12 at 6:32, 6:18 and 6:14 – not too far off where I intended to end up. I sure as heck felt that run for roughly the next 48 hours from when it finished, but it was absolutely worth it to try and prepare myself for my ultimate goal.

I’m also making use of my local park, now the host of a parkrun, to use the back session of the course as a trail circuit for my marathon pace and tempo workouts. When I’m not getting harassed by dogs running off the leash, I’m able to use the 1.25km loop to great effect, getting a small hill to climb and descend, ground going from firm to muddy depending on how much rainfall it receives, and each Saturday I’ve been down there long before the parkrun starts to run loop after loop. I’m usually maxing an average 6:10 pace at the sharp end of my tempo workouts, hugely reaffirming given on the roads I can hit below 6 minutes. The rugged terrain will certainly set me up well for my tilt on the concrete roads of the capital.

The midpoint of my training arrives this Sunday and takes in a familiar race – the Liversedge Half Marathon. A course described as prohibitive to personal bests, but with enough steep descents as it does tough climbs to whip up some serious pace. In 2014 I took my time down from 1:31 to 1:26, and the year after, having lowered it inbetween to just above 1:25, I ran 1:22:41 in what I regard today as one of the finest races I ever ran. Injury and a preoccupation with the challenges of marathons and ultra marathons have meant that since that race, I’ve only run one half marathon, the Sir Titus Trot in 2017, where I recorded 1:30:03 – albeit the course was long by about six tenths of a mile – I was closer to maybe a high 1:25 that day. I’m fairly certain I’m going to end up just running as hard as I can and seeing if I have the spark to still run a stonking half marathon PB. I’d love to break 1:22:41, just to see if I can get closer to 1:21, roughly where I was told by a shop assistant I could take 10 minutes off my debut 1:31 at this distance. I never believed him, but I got tangibly close before my injury in 2015, and I’ve no reason to believe I’ve peaked yet. Not to mention that come the day of Liversedge, I’ll probably set off like a freight train on the first downhill and hang on for the big 14% drop about 5 or 6 miles in. The way things are right now, I’d probably regret it if I didn’t run to improve my PB.

Whatever happens, The Liversedge Half Marathon will be a measure of where I’m currently at for the marathon, although given its completely different profile to London, it will be important not to read too much into my finishing time. I haven’t got near that PB since 2015, owing chiefly to injury, and progression to marathon and ultra distance races. So Sunday will be a day to push myself, but at the same time to try and take some sort of strategy out of that race into the marathon. Most likely, getting my pacing strategy right. But that’s hard when London as nothing the likes of a 14% downhill to contend with!

There’s not much left to say at this point, but I intend to provide an update sooner than the six or seven weeks it’s taken me to laboriously put this post together. The weather looks to be taking a back seat this weekend from the horrid wintry conditions thrust upon my area in recent weeks, which should make for ideal racing conditions and hopefully a positive experience to write home about.

So to my readers, thank you for continuing to check out my posts, and I wish you all the best for whatever your goals are this year.

More on The Hal Higdon Marathon Advanced 2 Training program can be found here

Taking The Long Path – reflecting on a year of endurance

Taking my mind and body into further, harder, longer territory as 2017 begins to wind down.

I realise that I haven’t reported much on how my training has been going this year, and I have a reasonably big race coming up this weekend. So I thought now would be a good time to reflect on the progress I’ve made as a runner in 2017. Not just in terms of results, but in relation to my overall fitness. I know – ‘its just turned November, aren’t you being premature?’, I hear you ask. But in the scope of major personal challenges, now feels like the right time to take stock.

Its been just over five years since I laced up a pair of trainers and set off running. I’ve considered myself a serious runner for about the last 3.5 years. As of now, I’ve had an absolutely fantastic year of running. Most importantly, I’ve not had such a truly uninterrupted run of injury-free running since 2013-early 2015, at a time when I seemingly couldn’t stop improving on my pace. Sesamoidits and knee pain caused by overpronation meant I lost much of 2015 to the former and the latter really affected my London Marathon preparation. Snowdonia Marathon training went much more smoothly but largely on three runs per week. It was only once I made the step up to ultra marathon, with training beginning in earnest from late 2016, after I’d put Bwlch-y-Groes behind me that I truly felt I was finding my four times a week groove again. I had a couple of hiccups at the start of this year – a self-inflicted drunken fall left me bruised and battered but I got up from that and a bit of ankle bother to do something I never thought I’d so – run a marathon distance training run.

And to my surprise, not only did I complete that run, I did so at such a controlled, measured pace that my recovery time was literally a few days and not weeks. No DOMS (or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness if you’re feeling wordy), no stairs that could leave me with fear and dread. I felt good and ready, and what followed a few weeks later was an unexpected best finish of my amateur running career. A second place, in my first ultra, of all places. And since then, I seem to have gone about racking up the miles, while collecting the odd good result here and there, and for a short time, flogging myself in the name of fell racing. But perhaps the most critical choice in my race calendar came when a race I was supposed to do, The Drop, got cancelled due to a lack of numbers. The race organiser (Team OA) allowed entrants to transfer to a race from their repertoire at no extra cost. I wasn’t drawn any of their races involving pie, ale, wine or chocolate, oh no. Just go for the big one, my heart said. My poor brain had no resistance. A few emails later, I was in.

The Butterley Spillway, one of the many sights of the White Rose Ultra. 26/08/2017

And so in just under 48 hours, I’ll be taking part in my second ultra marathon, the White Rose Ultra. It’s a popular ultra which takes place in the Wessenden and Colne Valley areas a few miles outside of Huddersfield, and having heard good things from fellow runners over the years, it wasn’t too hard to be convinced. There’s also a 60 mile and a 100 mile option for this race, but one lap of 30 is about enough for me, thank you. What is has meant is a training regime packed with hills, miles and all kinds of personal challenges (see my beach run from around 6 weeks back). And thankfully, I seem to have remained fit for all of it – barring this bout of the sniffles, of course.

Ogden Water, 23/09/2017

Running huge long training distances these last few weeks has been a joy to behold. As much experiments in nutrition execution as simply clocking up mileage, I’ve taken myself out to the far corners of Calderdale, be it Warley Moor, by way of the stunning Ogden Water Nature Reserve, or reaching out as far as Soyland on a recent marathon distance jaunt, it gives such a positive charge to have such freedom to roam and understand my body, and how it holds up against such demanding distances, and indeed demanding gradients. I even threw in a 20% uphill on a relatively ‘flat and easy’ 16 miler inbetween. I pretty much ran the entire hill. My quads felt like they’d suffered an earthquake, they felt like jelly, and yet somehow, a few miles later I had slowly worked the rumble out, and went on to finish the last 3 miles of the run with a 19 minute blast to finish the entire 16 mile run in under 2 hours. Its like I continue to ask my body ‘how high?’ and it just seems to clear every bar I set in its way. Sure, I’ve worked hard on swimming and made an improvement in terms of strengthening exercises, but I honestly feel very lucky, and appreciative, that my body has withstood this increase in effort and mileage.

The last few weeks have all been about my taper routine. Illness forced me to miss a couple of potential half marathons I wanted to run, plus a first meeting with my newborn niece, and had the usual ‘maranoia’ in the form of my right foot and left knee giving the odd grumble, but otherwise the mileage has continued to rise, and its been great this time to share my build up through group runs with the Halifax Harriers. A further motivation is in the form of a yearly challenge I’ve never once managed previously – to exceed 1000 miles in a calendar year. I thought I was on course to break my target this Saturday, but in actual fact, I achieved it during a routine run around my local park around 10 days ago! There seemed to be some synchronization issue with my Garmin watch which kind of pooped my parade, but nonetheless, to finally surpass that mark is a monkey off my back, and a testament to the ‘further, longer’ adage to sum up my year of running in 2017.

So in four days time, I’ll be lining up with hundreds of others in one of northern Britain’s most recognised ultra marathons, running 30 miles, across hills, roads, trails, past spillways, geological wonders and historical places (and possibly a bull!). I’ve got a couple of shorter races coming up in December, but this right here is the main event of my calendar year. And I’m going to enjoy it. Zero expectations of a result, regardless of how well my first ultra went. I still just want to get round this most difficult, challenging, Yorkshire of courses, just the once, and to get a hot meal at the end of it. To be able to celebrate this magnificent year of running, while I sit somewhat cathartically, enjoying whatever is left of my weekend before I have to face the rigidity of the office.

I’ll write up about my experiences at the WRU shortly, in the meantime enjoy running wherever you are, take in your surroundings and think about what lies beyond them. And then consider if your willpower and drive will take you there. For limits are always there to be pushed. And in running, there’s no shame in breaking through what you thought wasn’t possible.

A Long Birthday Run on the Beach

I woke up on Saturday September 9th, at 3:46am, almost exactly 33 years to the very moment I was born. Yes, it was my birthday, but I had business to attend to. I’ve no other reason to be up at such an ungodly time (well, maybe, but thankfully not this time) other than to get on with my ultra marathon training. The White Rose Ultra, a mere eight weeks away, has a take no prisoners course that will surely take every last ounce of energy to get over the line. The training diary said 21 miles. There was no getting out of it, not that I had any intention of doing. Not even on my birthday. Not even on holiday. At Butlins Skegness. Again.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been here in the last few years, and on this occasion it was to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 50th birthday, the day after mine. I personally wouldn’t choose to come back time after time, but it has its perks. Its great for kids and families, and its got a beach nearby. And in planning for this holiday, and holidays past, I’ve come to realise it has miles and miles of coastline to explore.

My training has had to account for plenty of steep hills, being a Yorkshire lad. But in route planning I found I’d have to travel too far inland to get even the slightest mound to have to run up. So my only realistic option was to plan this run on the Lincolnshire coastal beach. Having run as far as 3 miles to the north of Butlins, and 3 miles to the south – Skegness itself – I had become used to its camber, and the difficulty in running across those sands. Basically, I had the perfect equalizer for these hills lying in the sands. But 21 miles was going to require a massive step up. Was I truly physically prepared? Arguably not – how often do I run on sand? Maybe a couple of times a year at present. And as for the beach itself, not being familiar with just the unpredictability of the terrain alone was a major red flag.

But did I feel mentally prepared (or indeed, ‘certified’)? Absolutely!

South from Butlins wasn’t an option – beyond Skegness is Gibraltar Point Nature Reserve, which would mean getting forced inland onto the roads as the beach would run out, turning mostly into wetlands until Norfolk. Too far, and somewhat less enamoured with that potential out and back through the streets of Boston. So it would have to be northbound. Beach was guaranteed on this route the whole way, joining from Ingoldmells, and running to Sutton-on-Sea, via Chapel St. Leonards, Anderby Creek, Huttoft and Sandilands, before doubling back.

Outside at 4:21am!

Headtorch and race vest equipped, and a little older (& wiser?), I set off from with the grounds of the holiday village and north towards Ingoldmells, home to Fantasy Island theme park and various brightly coloured bars and shops. Turning right, I soon swapped the darkened streets for the moonlit beach.

The tide out and the sand was relatively flat and firm, with streams of water trickling back into the North Sea as it pulled back and forth. The streams varied in width, but it didn’t make much of a splash even if stepped in. Still, I had to keep an eye on my footstep, and on how close the sea was to reaching my feet. At one point, near Chapel St. Leonards, it was right up against me, and I had to make a quick shift upwards to not get caught. I doubt it would have been a major issue – it wouldn’t have been an excuse to go for a swim, but I wouldn’t want to get into any difficulty while it was still dark. With that considered, my headtorch was certainly coming in for good use in the early stages, particularly to avoid one particularly squelchy section of sand.

Not everything was coming up roses however. A few years back I saw a seal on the beach before it quickly made a move back into the water. I’d longed to see another one in the wild since. And around five miles into the run, I did. However, it was lying on the sands apparently not moving. There were no obvious signs of harm, no signs of an attack or a fight, but I struggled to be able to tell if this particular seal was simply just resting or very much deceased. I, like many I suspect, have no expertise on how exactly to check a seal’s vital signs, so after a minute or so gently trying to startle it, I had to assume the worst and accept it wasn’t coming round, simply washed up by the tide by its harsh mistress, its natural habitat, the great sea. There was a part of me that hoped I was wrong, but by the time I came back it was gone, presumably reclaimed by the now incoming tide, which I’ll come back to later. I can only assume the worst, as I’m sure it would have been alerted to my presence if I was pounding my feet in the nearby sand if it had half an idea I was there.

Looking out to sea at Huttoft (I think), 9/9/2017

I was roughly 8:30 miling up to about 7 miles, at which point I was beginning to struggle against the terrain, but having run for an hour, it was a good time to practise my refuelling strategy, which today was to eat half an orange. About five minutes later, I went back into a jog, and then a run, as I made it to a relatively grippy and firm stretch of sand, meaning it wasn’t so much effort trying to dig in and therefore my gait felt freer. However the tenth mile became awkward, as the sands approaching Sutton-on-Sea became deeper, making them effectively unrunnable, if such a word exists. I reached my target destination rather slowly, but I was able to get to the promenade and all in all I could feel happy at this point. 1:32, bar stoppages. All in all a good 10.5 miles, and pretty much how I’d expected, if I could have any expectations beyond tough at all.

Looking out from Sutton-on-Sea

I spent a good five minutes or so here checking out the information about the Mablethorpe to Sutton-on-Sea Cycleway, while taking on some carb-based drink to refuel for the second half of the run. I opted to run the next mile or so on the cycle path, to avoid the deep sands that seemed so stifling. And also to try and make up a bit of time so I wouldn’t be too late getting back to Butlins. Or so I foolishly hoped.

I recorded a 7:34 mile for the twelfth, and had hoped I could carry a little of that pace back onto the sands when I rejoined. However, I quickly found myself struggling for grip again and the next mile went for 9:22. Any gains had quickly been lost, and so the scene was set for the remainder of the run. I had another recovery walk at 2 hours into the run, but in truth I was beginning to walk more often, be it because of fishermen, people who couldn’t control their dogs, or growing tiredness. I’d covered just over 13.5 miles though, more or less where I’d hoped to be, but was now running more or less in the plus 9 minute miles as the sun rose over the North Sea.

Sunrise off the Lincolnshire coast, 9/9/2017

Everything was being taken incrementally now. Mentally I was fine, but physically I was up against it, and my quads were starting to ache in a rather dull fashion, like I’d taken on one too many hills. That’s what running on sand all this time was doing to me. I was counting debris that I’d seen on the way out as markers. However, the tide was coming in, and it was doing its bit to accentuate that one thing you can count on the guide you home along the stands (unless the tide swallows them up, that is). Yes, footprints. Something as simple as that is the mark of any journeyman, and to see my footsteps now lined up against the gentle waves hitting the shore, brightened up by a glistening sunrise, was great motivation. To see where I’d come from, and to show how far I’d come.

Rather than now focusing on 21 miles, I chose to count down the miles to Ingoldmells itself – merely single digits, literally taking one mile at a time, trundling along in search of the skull and crossbones flags I’d noted when I entered the beach in darkness. Eventually I spotted Fantasy Island in the distance, and knew it wasn’t far to go. But my footsteps were slowing. My pace had dropped again and I was now working harder than ever to keep going. Any notion that it was my birthday had long been left behind. I was absolutely in the zone, only thinking forwards and looking for the flags.

Finally, there they were. I was almost at a walk when I trudged up the steps. Over the brow of the tiny hill, and at last, concrete. Firm ground. I had roughly a mile and a half left now, and I managed to maintain a reasonably slow and steady rhythm until I reached the holiday park, running through the car park and clocking up the big 21, stopping there and then.

I had done it. My crazy training run, over 80% of it on sand, was complete, and I took my creaking legs back to the apartment to return to the real world, and receive my birthday greetings from my wife and kids. I also got to give anyone sat in view of the balcony a view of my stretching ability, perhaps enforced by not wanting to get my sandy, muddy feet all over the furniture.

A fellow runner on the Facebook group, Running The World, had wished me luck before my run and warned that 21 miles on sand will sap the energy out of me. He wasn’t wrong. This was perhaps the most destructive run I’ve ever experienced. Had I run about another half a mile of beach I’d have been ready to collapse. My legs had got ridiculously heavy at the point of returning to Ingoldmells, it didn’t make a difference if I was running on flat sand or deep sand. I was still absolutely mentally clear, but physically, I almost had nothing left when I got back onto the road in Ingoldmells. This relatively flat sandy run was quite possibly the most gruelling I’d had since the one where I ran to Dovestone Edge and spontaneously started rock climbing. A good long sand run will absolutely compare with any hilly one and quite the feat of endurance if you can manage it.

But without question, this was absolutely worth doing. Even on my birthday, ultra marathon training cannot and did not stop, and this was exactly the kind of brutal training I thrive on to prepare for the rigours of what lies ahead in November. It was awesome to be running on the beach in darkness, the tide out, relatively easy to run on. Sheer willpower got me to the end, but I achieved my training target and amazingly the recovery aspect went really well. By the evening I was well prepared for the night of boozing I was treated to by two family members.

All in all, this was a great way to start my birthday, even if somewhat an act of self-flagellation, and across an absolutely amazing setting. This was incredible preparation as a training run for the White Rose Ultra in November. But I know I’d be crazy to ever attempt this distance on sand again!

Epiphanies

Without question, one of the greatest and funniest episodes of television I’ve seen is episode 1.6 of the cult comedy sitcom Spaced, titled ‘Epiphanies’. For the uninitiated (get yourself acquainted now!), Spaced featured Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes (nee Stevenson) as Tim and Daisy, two twenty-somethings who meet following splitting from their significant others, and pose as a ‘professional couple’ to get off the London streets and into a flat run by Marsha, a divorcee landlady with a penchant for alcohol, who doesn’t know they’re not actually a couple. It ran for two series and is a celebration of millennial positivity, bristling with pop culture references while riding on the dynamic between the lead characters. I discovered it 14 years late and its my favourite show ever. The said episode in question basically involves Tim, Daisy and their friends going out clubbing and forgetting their arguments in a night of pure hedonism. The rave scene absolutely has to be experienced, so immensely well executed, funny and true to life in equal measure.

Hold on, what does this have to do with my amateur sports lifestyle, you ask?

Well, I’m deep in training for the Ilkley Aquathlon, which, discounting the Go Tri Yorkshire Aquathlon which was a taster race if anything, will be a bona fide multi sport experience for myself. A race I’ve wanted to do for just over two years, involving a sport I ignored for just as long as I overlooked Spaced, it involves a 400 metre swim and a 3,000 meter run, consisting of 5 laps of 600 metres. And in recent weeks I felt I’d hit a bit of a snag.

See, I’ve absolutely no concerns about the run. Given I spent the best part of three months regularly pushing blistering pace around the Halifax Harriers running track, trying (and successfully managing) to break my 10K PB, I’m fairly confident that if my legs are working when I complete the swim – and they normally do – that I can have a storming run. But lately, its the swim that’s been concerning me. Although I’ve managed as far as 240 metres, swimming in a 20 metre length pool, I’ve lately got back to 25 metres and even once a 50 metre pool and have been finding it a little difficult to adapt back to that slight increase in pool length.

I can’t exactly pinpoint why this is and it had left me perplexed. Whether its a pacing issue, a technique issue, or something else, swimming in the main pool at my local has been a bit of a conundrum. Add to this no lessons due to summer break, an outbreak of head lice that my kids encountered, enforcing a break from the pool, and one night where I forgot to take my goggles, I went into last week actually questioning my ability to do a 400 metre swim. The question is not whether I can swim 400 metres cumulatively – I can do it in stages at the moment and can keep swimming for an hour. I have no problem swimming 25 metre lengths, per se. But its my competitive streak. I want to at least be competent. I want to be able to complete the majority of the swim in one take, if not all of it. Maybe I’m expecting too much from myself, but I genuinely felt in the last three weeks or so that I’d hit a wall. It frustrated me when I couldn’t go swimming. And when I did go swimming, I wasn’t getting out feeling I’d accomplished anything. Like I’d essentially hit a peak but was now on a plateau.

So this Wednesday, with my wife and kids away for the week with my mother-in-law, I was free to effectively go swimming without worrying about getting back to maybe help with housework or settle the kids if they were unsettled. I’d watched a vid on the newly launched Global Triathlon Network on YouTube, discussing different swim workouts. I picked a threshold session which involved the following:

4×100 metres at 80-90% max effort

100 metres easy

with 10-20 seconds recovery.

I’d never carried out a specific swim workout before – I get instructions in my lessons to do x of one stroke and y of another, and so on – but this was entirely how I would define it.

After a couple of warm up lengths there and back, I embarked. Initially, I had the problem of a crowded lane, meaning my rhythm would be disrupted, or I’d have to wait for a faster swimmer to pass before I could resume. But before long, space began to open up as one or two swimmers left, and the more I built into the session, the better I seemed to feel. I judged my fast efforts better and my easy lengths were working to great effect. For a first time, itI went extremely well, and I finished the workout much stronger than when I started it.

Having now swam 900 metres, I decided to finish by seeing how far I could swim without stopping. I’d had a touch of calf cramp in my right leg but I’d taken time to shake that off before getting back in the pool and resuming. Off I went, and back and forth I went. The longest I’d ever managed was 240 metres, and that was in the shallower, shorter teaching pool. Here, I seemed to be going great guns, reaching 150 metres and barely feeling out of breath. I reached 175 and genuinely felt good. I actually had belief. Real belief. 

And here’s where the post title becomes relevant. I suddenly didn’t just believe I could go beyond 240 metres. I absolutely knew I could. And I was going to do it right now.

I began to swim towards the 200 metre mark, when all of a sudden – yeeeeeeooooooowwwww! The calf cramp had returned with a vengeance. I immediately couldn’t swim further, and I instantly reached for the lane rope to save myself from going under. I assured the lifeguard I was OK. My swim was done. All I needed to do was haul my carcass back towards the shallow end. Only I then realised I’d actually swam half the length and was actually able to stand on one leg in the water. So instead, I sheepishly hobbled to the shallow end, acknowledging the concern of fellow swimmers and simultaneously trying to avoid eye contact – why I felt shame I’ve absolutely no idea, though its hard to be cool when swimmers are having a nosey at my predicament. I sat on the side once out of the water, tried to get some feeling back in the calf muscle, which at this point felt and looked rock solid. Having relieved the vice that was causing the worst of the cramps, I eventually I stood up and walked back to the changing room, to get changed and then to live with the effects of that temporarily excruciating cramp for a couple of days, costing me a second swim that week.

The cramp could be a result of a few things, though on this occasion it can’t have been hydration, and I’m not sure I was severely lacking magnesium – though I hadn’t had much in the day of dairy (for calcium), but I was on a High5 electrolyte drink during the swim. Maybe it was my technique. Maybe I hadn’t warmed up quite correctly. All, according to research, as apparent underlying contributors. Whatever it was, I’ve got time to work out why I occasionally get these cramps and how to stop them. I particularly don’t want that to affect my race, or it’ll be game over, a first ever DNF. Though I’m not thinking that will happen; its something I can control, and I doubt I will be in the water long enough for any cramp to emerge. The race doesn’t start until the afternoon, so I’ve no excuse not to be warmed up, fuelled and well-prepared for the race I’ve only targeted for the last two years, and the only one I could certifiably say at the start of the year as absolutely nailed on, no matter what else.

The cramp episode hasn’t eroded my sudden improvement in my self-confidence. I felt like I’d suddenly cracked how to prepare for the swim part of the aquathlon, a mere four weeks out from the race itself, and suddenly I wasn’t feeling so unsure of myself. All it needed was to change out how I approached my swim. Not to go in full pelt from the off. To actually warm up in the water correctly, build into my swim and to stay relaxed. From there the confidence will flow. And everything will be OK.

And with that, this budding multi-sporter got his swimming groove back.

Ayyyyyy!

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.