The Summer of Speed – Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Training Update – trails, track and parkrun success

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

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

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

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

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

These haven’t seen much action!

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

Ilkley Moor, 13/04/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Countdown to the Canter

So, in less than two weeks time – 11 days to be precise – I will be stepping up to the start line on the banks of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal in Kirkstall, near Leeds, race vest equipped, drinks and nutrition packed, mentally zoned in, ready to run further, and for longer, than ever before. I will be stepping up, along with 140 others to take on the Leeds Liverpool Canal Canter on March 11, taking on it’s longest distance option – 32 miles. It marks my first step into the world of ultramarathon, and the latest barometer in terms of how far I feel prepared to run competitively, or how high I’m willing to set the bar.

Given over the last few years I’ve covered my progression from charity runner, to marathoner and now beyond, regular readers here may wonder why, having covered the Manchester, London and Snowdonia marathon training blocks in depth, I haven’t done the same for my first ultra marathon. There’s a couple of reasons. The first being I wasn’t certain of my entry until the turn of the year, and I’d already begun my training. How foolish would I have looked to announce my week by week training, only to find out I couldn’t afford, or that the race had sold out? Furthermore, as the training has progressed, I’ve found it hasn’t varied too much from preparing for a marathon. The long runs are still long runs, the midweek sessions slightly longer, but all in all, it feels like the jump to going beyond 50km isn’t as large as I first imagined. That being the day I measured out the distance of 16 miles along the towpath before turning back and hearing an audible ‘gulp’ in my throat, as if to say ‘what have you done now?!

I settled on the Canal Canter after originally entering and withdrawing from the Canalathon 50km. Its an ideal first ultra for a number of reasons. As its on a canal towpath, you can only really go forwards or backwards. Therefore, no navigational skills or aids are required, unlike many ultramarathons where a map and compass are deemed mandatory. Its also local, requiring no more than a train, another train (or a bus) and maybe a short walk to the race HQ, saving on accommodation. Race entry was £36 all in, no extras for medals nourishment, etc, so all in all, a bargain. And, save you a few rising locks, the course profile will be relatively flat, which will ensure the 32 miles won’t be as harsh on my body as some of the hillier courses I’ve run on recently. Not to mention, its a beautiful place – I experienced some of its sights during the Sir Titus Trot and during the 401 Challenge with Ben Smith. Therefore its allure is second to none.

Up until the week before the Sir Titus Trot, around four weeks ago now, things were going swimmingly. I began training in earnest from late November onwards, and although I missed a couple of long runs around Christmas, I was able to make up the mileage and found myself in a pretty good spot, having cracked 18 miles and about to move onto 20 plus. Then, as I mentioned in my race report, I fell over on a night out with family and banged my knee pretty hard. And from then on, it feels like I’ve been playing catch up again. The night after that fall, I managed 15 miles but stopped on the grounds of it being too late to continue. The knee withstood the schedule right up to the Sir Titus Trot half marathon, which I finished third in, but my recovery from that took seemingly longer than normal due to the long time it was taking for my knee to calm down. In the end, I sacrificed six days of running and worked on fitness techniques, hot/cold therapy and the odd ibuprofen here and there, to get the knee in shape for the long Saturday run. 21 miles taking in Emley Moor, a site I long hoped to run (or cycle) to, before dropping back through Upper Hopton and via Bradley before returning home. The knee came through that run remarkably well, but the hilly nature of the course took its toll – I got a lot of tightness in my right calf muscle and worse, a horrid, burning like sensation just below my left ankle that presented itself just as my run that day came to an end.

Emley Moor Tower, 21/01/2017

I know what you might be thinking – was I being a bit impatient? I did wonder this myself, but I felt behind my decision to drop the weekday runs was an underlying desire to give myself the best possible chance of doing the long run that Saturday. I didn’t just go for this on a whim. I was to retain this approach going forward, with a focus on trying to help my ankle recover with painkillers (initially), exercises, stretching (later) and sufficient rest. Because I still felt I could give myself the best chance of making the start line on March 11 if I at least keep up the long runs.

I did get to test my ankle out on the treadmill, and it came through roughly 40 minutes of running pretty much unscathed. I felt as though this was the green light to go ahead with my plans. Now I had to decide where I was going to run. I didn’t want a hilly route, certainly nothing as demanding as the 21 miles I undertook the week before. I decided the only thing would be to take the flattest route I know out of Brighouse and head out, along the Calder-Hebble Navigation (my favourite running spot), onto the Rochdale Canal and onwards, towards Hebden Bridge, before turning back. All in all, I measured my run to be 23.5 miles, with the turning point a little outside Hebden Bridge itself. The trick, as the week before, would be to effectively teach myself to take proper walk breaks, and to stop to eat or drink now and again. Effectively, things I already do, but trying to alter my mindset so that when I race, it will hopefully feel somewhat normal come race day.

The gateway into Hebden Bridge. You see this if driving along Burnley Road, or if you cross over from one side of the canal to the other.

Amazingly, the whole thing came together. The run along the Calder-Hebble took place in darkness, but it receded as dawn arrived, by which time I was over six miles in as I arrived in Sowerby Bridge. I had the reassurance of bus and train options on the route had I needed them, but it was absolutely a near perfect long distance training run in nearly all respects. I did have a slight hiccup arriving in Luddenden Foot to find a section of towpath closed, meaning I had to join the main road until reaching the village of Brearley, but I continued onward and for the first time since my failed attempt to cross the Pennine Way towards Littleborough, I was moving beyond Mytholmroyd and onwards to Hebden Bridge. I turned back at Bridge 15 on the towpath, just outside the town centre, put my rain jacket back on (it was raining heavily at this point) and began the journey back home. I won’t deny, it got a bit tough later on, but that’s because I put a few strides in around mile 16 which perhaps I should have saved. In any event, I made it to 23.4 miles and all in all, I’d successfully come through the run and thanks, partly to the power of paracetamol, felt no bother in my ankle – although the mild discomfort remained thereafter.

With that settled, it was time to prepare for the big one. A 26 mile training run. Except, it was going to be that distance, but for a few familiar voices egging me on to add the 0.2 miles to make it marathon distance. So I yielded, and again ran just once that week – a speedy run commute which I sub-8 minute miled all the way back – and rested until Saturday, when I would wake up, into my usual pre-long run routine, before departing once more, back towards Hebden Bridge, to go farther along the canal than ever before.

I took the run nice and steady, once again in morning darkness to begin with. As I approached the tunnel at Salterhebble Locks, morning began to rise. I was around nine minute pace up to this point but upped it very slightly and had reached Sowerby Bridge and the Rochdale Canal, around one hour and seven miles in. Here I took a walk break, eating an energy bar and taking a good gulp of water before ambling back into my action. Once the eighth mile was logged, I resumed my normal pace, hovering around 8:40/mile. Reaching the sign for Hebden Bridge felt like an impetus to push on – seemingly buoyed I got closer to 8 minute mile pace, and though I had to leave the towpath at one point, I got back on as the halfway point approached. The 13 miles came up at a slightly awkward time – I had come across a short section which had a stone floor, but a very narrow, rickety bridge that allowing a drier alternative to putting my foot in what was essentially an overflow for the canal. Shortly after this point, I reached, 13.05 miles, and opted to pause briefly to take in my surroundings, and to just think for a minute how far I’d come. If I was completely free to keep going, I might just have tried to follow the canal all the way to Manchester, if nothing but for the adventure and the love of the nation’s waterways. What to be, to be the lonely long distance runner?

The Rochdale Canal, just past Hebden Bridge, facing roughly south towards Todmorden and Littleborough.

The 14th mile was very stop start, counting as a walk break, thanks partly to the rickety bridge and a blistering sensation on my little toes. Luckily, I’d thought to bring my trusty thick Thorlos with me, so got them changed and started to chow on a few clementine segments. Then it was back into my running.
I kept it nice and simple all the way up to mile 19. I decided to pick up the pace a little and clocked a 7:36. The fastest so far. Time for the final walk break. What did I take on board this time? That’s right. A Snickers bar (or Marathon, depending on your place in the world)! I once ate on halfway through what had been a tired run commute and it seemed to wake me up somewhat. I felt inclined to try it on a longer run. I also took a caffeine gel for the first time shortly afterwards. I normally like mine caffeine free, but my recent fixation on caffeine abstinence and the stimulant properties of caffeine, it definitely felt like something to try. Now I reached the end of the Rochdale Canal, and I had 6.2 miles left to run. Effectively a 10K. So I just imagined my remaining distance as a 10K run. I was now running closer to 8 minute mile pace, and maintaining it as I reached Elland Bridge, 3.2 miles from the end. I injected a little more pace, and clocked the last three miles at 7:43, 7:42 and 7:41. I finished the run in 3:48:13. The best part?

I could have kept going.

I felt I had plenty of energy in reserve – my body didn’t ever feel it was on the limit, and the way I finished that run was the best I’d ever felt running the marathon distance. Admittedly, I wasn’t pushing it like I usually do, but I ran this pretty much the way I want to run the race. For the first time, I have a genuinely great feeling that I can do this. I’ve struck on a comfortable target race pace, a run-walk strategy and I know roughly what I’m going to fuel myself on.

Mile splits from my marathon training run (from top left)

More to the point, my post-run recovery went amazing too. I foam rolled the morning after and the day after that, I was walking up and around Ilkley Moor. If that didn’t feel like a personal statement of fitness, I’m not sure what does. I still have a bit of tenderness in my ankle – much less severe than it first seemed but enough to warrant paracetamol on some of these training runs as a precaution. I’m reasonably hopeful that it won’t present much of an issue come race day.

There’s still a few unknowns I will have to encounter. For starters, the exact course for the race hasn’t been published yet. And how will my body feel as it goes beyond 26.2? When, if at all, do I put the hammer down? And most importantly, will my Garmin Forerunner 10’s battery hold out for the duration of the race?!

The taper phase is truly locked in now, and that includes my now customary caffeine abstinence from two weeks prior to the race. While suffering from withdrawals from the lack of tea and chocolate in my life, I guarantee I hold no such feelings similar to those of nervous regret when originally sizing up the challenge. I’m absolutely ready and capable of doing this, and just want Saturday March 11 to arrive as soon as possible. Its not been the smoothest ride – but since when has long distance training ever been? The truth is, I don’t think I’ve ever gone into any race, not even Snowdonia, with such a level of experience and preparation that those extra 5.8 miles suddenly don’t seem so daunting. If I rest well, eat well, and execute my race plan exactly as I’ve trained, then I can be every bit confident of completing this race and giving it good as I’ve got.

Yes. I am ready.

Snowdonia Marathon Training

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

15. Llandudno

And so we arrived, fresh off a slightly delayed train into Llandudno Junction station. We had a minute to get our connecting train. A porter on the platform shouted ‘Llandudno!‘. We walked past him, turning right and looking up the stairs for our platform, before realising our train was actually right there in front of us. Clearly it was cheaper to wait for everyone than to send everyone of in taxis for their missed connections. Still, nothing to grumble at – it was very good of them to wait, and we completed the final leg of our journey, a short ride up to Llandudno itself, the end of the line. We had a quick look at the Alice in Wonderland display inside the station, and made our way towards our hotel, pretty much a straight line into the town.

January 1st, 2016 seems a long time ago now, and yet, hardly seems two minutes ago. That night I’d booked myself into the race, mildly tipsy but without question knowledgeable as to my actions. I’d seen the hill elevatiob profile, marvelled at the race highlights from the 2015 race, and even using Google Streetview to recce parts of the course. But cue Monday 24th October, we (that’s my wife, kids and I) had finally arrived in Llandudno. As we walked through the town, we noticed the large looming limestone colossous, the Great Orme, for the first time, and out to the west, the sight of the edge of the mountains of Conwy and indeed, Snowdonia. The scale of what is to await on Saturday suddenly seemed that much more real. Even my still decaffeinated eyes were wise to that.

My resident tour guide, of sorts, is Joni, who writes the blog ‘The Reluctant Triathlete‘, and was previously mentioned way back when I was a marathon novice some 19 or 20 months ago. We’ve long been communicating on where I should stay, what there is to do, and later, race day preparations, which lately then developed into sorting out car seats so my kids can cheer me on, and the use of a foam roller, the latter of which arrived on room service. Joni also provided directions to the hotel and several other locations too. She got to providing me with a 4.5 mile course that would take in part of Llandudno in a nutshell, so to speak. It went like this.

From the north shore (near which I’m staying), down the dual carriageway of Gloddaeth Street towards the West Shore, turning left and running an out and back in the direction of Deganwy, doubling back as I approached two miles in distance. This would afford views in the distance of Conwy Mountain, the hills of Penmeanmawr and Llanfairachan, and beyond them, the isle of Anglesey.

Coming back, ignoring the turn back onto Gloddaeth Street, I was to follow the road up to a route called Invalid’s Walk. This is a footpath that leads to Haulfre Gardens and, if you wish, up the zigzag path which takes you to the Great Orme Summit, said to have inspired Lewis Carroll’s literary work. When I first turned onto here, I thought I was about to be led a merry dance up the Great Orme, but as I turned right, I realised this wasn’t the case and remembered exactly why I’d been sent up here…

Llandudno from Invalid’s Walk, 25/10/2016
And looking down on the West Shore

Without question, this was the ‘hello, Llandudno’ moment I’d been waiting for, except it blew away any imagination of what I could have expected. The view was, without question, magnificent. Absolutely mindblown, I knew I had to continue chasing the sunset. Onward towards Haulfre Gardens, a lush microcosm tucked away near the foot of the Great Orme, contrasting against the hard limestone face with rich greenery, tea rooms, and an excellent undulating progression – on past the Great Orme Tramway, further up Hill Terrace, and arriving at the top via the Camera Obscura monument, which looks out onto the pier, Llandudno Bay and everything below and beyond. Quite simply amazing.

Haulfre Gardens
The view from the Camera Obscura monument, 25/10/2016

I was up bright and early Thursday morning to go out with Joni down to Deganwy Marina for the final run before the race. An easy three miles running around past Conwy Marina, then past Conwy Castle, which looked mighty impressive in the flesh, through the town itself and then back again, much like our hair which appeared to just flail in the wind. And just as we did around 18 months or so before, we had time for an obligatory selfie for the masses on Running the World, through which our connection developed from stumbling upon the fact we were both from the same town!

So that’s it. Training is finished. Its now come down to Saturday. Tonight I’m off to collect my race number, and I’ll likely spend the rest of the day carb loading on porridge and trying to find the cheapest, healthiest way to get a load more carbs, protein and greens inside before the big one. I’ve got to think about when to end my caffeine strike – the shit tea in the hotel, or some amazing local brew pre race. And do I want to trim my beard just a little more, or keep it nice and rugged. And am I really going to sell myself out to Trek bars at the end of the most gruelling examination of my physical and mental psyche in my life?
Well, if it takes my mind off that big hill at mile 23-24, then so be it. But no matter what happens, it all comes down to the start line on the A4086. Its still a marathon. All the hills, the conquests, the disappointments, the mud, the moorland, the sheer adventure of it all – all of it has led to this. And I feel I’m more prepared than ever to experience everything a marathon can throw at me. So to Saturday 29th October, Llanberis, Snowdonia Marathon 2016. There is no turning back.

Gadewch i dorri ‘i! (Let’s smash it!)

Snowdonia Marathon Training

14. All Aboard!

Right as you read this, me, myself, and my wife and kids, will be on our way  to Llandudno, train hopping our way down from Brighouse. Its been quite a journey in itself up until this point, from running the 401 with Ben Smith, walking in the Dales, getting lost during (Wo)Man vs Barge, reccing the Pennine Way, getting covered in mud (and more besides) in Hebden Bridge, getting chased by the sun in Barkisland, climbing hills and rocks in Saddleworth and Dovestones, and ascending Holme Moss twice in a day (on foot). But after a Sunday meal with family later today, the focus will turn onto packing my large backpack full of clothes, shoes, and proverbial race science, for the 210 minute journey and the seven night stay in fabulous North Wales.

There was still the winding down of tapering to get on with this week, against the backdrop of going caffeine free for the race. After a good couple of nights over the weekend, a couple more nights later, and a combined total of sleep over two nights into single digits only, caught up quickly. I actually managed to fall asleep on the bus on my way to my Tuesday swimming lesson, waking up just as the bus arrived into Halifax. I still managed to rouse myself into 250 metres in the main pool, where I managed another out and back across 50 metres, and crack on with the lesson, before making the run home. According to the training guide, it was a fartlek. Mad as that sounded, less than two weeks from a marathon, I still injected some 60 seconds on, 60 seconds off and some 45 on, 45 off splits. I arrived home later than if I’d got the bus. But the main thing was a good solid 5 mile run, and I ensured I didn’t go too hard on the intervals.

I spent much of Wednesday battling sleep deprivation and the lack of a caffeine fix. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday tend to be the busiest nights for myself personally right now, and staying up to do basic things like ironing or loading the dishwasher chipped away at my sleep time – as well as kids waking in the middle of the night. I battled through the fifth day without caffeine, and gratefully caught up on my sleep with an early night. And wow, did I catch up, because I slept in past my 3:40am alarm for a whole hour, which meant I had to get up and out of the door quickly if I was to have any chance of squeezing a run in before work.

I decided to keep it to four miles, a flat out and back, and, again as per the training guide, as a tempo run. I was in too much haste to wait for the Garmin to find a signal, so I set the MapMyRide app up (which I use for cycling…now and again), simply as the GPS loads in literally two seconds. Off I went, agreeing with myself not to check my phone too often and just to run roughly 7:30/mile pace. That would give me 30 minutes of even paced running.

Initially my route took me up a hill. Not s steep hill, mind, just the one leading out of Bailiff Bridge towards Wyke. As the Whitehall Road junction, I doubled back. This wasn’t quite two miles but I had to take into account a quick trip to the nearby supermarket afterwards. As it happened, I was slightly below 7:30 mile pace at this point, but what goes up, must come down. Properly warmed up, I took the descent confidently, completed the third mile, and then looked at my phone. I was somewhere below 22:30 at this point, so I knew I was on track. I was really into my running now, noticeably quicker, but staying blind to my actual pace. A quick loop round the block to ensure I didn’t overshoot my finishing spot, and I was done. Total time, 28:51. The fourth mile split was 6:27. Unbelievable! I’m more than capable of a mile that quick, but I felt comfortable doing it too.

The final run before the holiday was held off until Saturday evening, a 7 mile out and back run to Elland and back. I decided on a whim to go out with my new sport earphones and, just for once, listen to music on the run. The soundtrack? Judas Priest. Oh yes.

The earphones seemed like a terrible idea. I bought them cheap, for a couple of quid, and throughout the run they would not sit on my ears correctly. I first surmised that it was my ears perhaps not being the right shape, or that my long, bouffant hair was getting in the way, before realising it was this cheap pair of earphones that probably were just a bit, well, shit. So much faffing around for the first six miles, and not once did they sit right, leaving me feeling like these sport earphones were a massive con, and a waste of money. 

I got a good shot of Elland Bridge, which I discussed a couple of weeks back, at night, and then began to run back the remaining 3.5 miles, trying, and failing, to ignore the ridiculous earphones. I ought to have just given up and concentrated on the run. Maybe I was too determined to enjoy myself. It wasn’t until the final mile, after finally changing the music to a mix containing Rammstein and Sepultura, among others, that they actually sat pretty. 
Then during the final tenth of a mile, just to get up to 7 miles, I noticed a man stumble across the road, on his own, completely inebriated. And then he started yelling at me. Whatever he was jabbering, I couldn’t tell what he was saying, more that there wasn’t anyone else around, so he must have been talking to me. I had one riposte:

“I can’t fucking hear you!”

He continued to yell as I disappeared around the corner, and still I couldn’t hear him. I felt in no way intimidated and all in all, the earphones had actually seemed a worthwhile investment all along!
Not quite the way I wanted my pre-holiday running to finish, but in any event, no real trouble encountered and no post-run issues, meaning I can go on holiday looking fully forward to the race.

Elsewhere, I’ve had another successful week of swimming lessons, clocking another 50 metre out and back on Tuesday, and during my Stroke Skills lesson, which takes place in a 20 metre ‘teaching pool’, I managed 60 metres! My swimming is absolutely in the ascendancy at the minute, and I’m actually truly enjoying it. Almost seems a shame to lose out on a week!

There’s not much left to say now. I have to busily tidy my house, clean my race vest, pack my supplies, the remainder of my clothes and toiletries, and try and get some sleep. I’ve come through all of this training fairly unscathed, despite a few false warnings, usually in the soles of my feet, and the only thing I need to be careful is a slight hoarseness in my throat that needs clearing now and again. A cold would be the last thing I need going into this race, but I’m not thinking too much about illness. The last 4 months have been perhaps the best phase of my life as a marathon runner, stripped back to consider only the quality, not the quantity of my runs. In some weeks, my mileage was in the low twenties, and never did it once reach the forties. But each and every run seems to have provided me with the preparation I need without butchering my feet or my knees.

So tonight, I shall get some much needed rest for tomorrow, for the final countdown begins in earnest now.