Race Report: Ilkley Aquathlon 2017

Saturday September 16th, 2017

To club triathletes and seasoned multisporters, the Ilkley Triathlon & Aquathlon are highlights of the club & local tri calendar, and in the latter’s case, a fantastic introduction for junior athletes to get some early experience. Then there are people like me, who have never taken part in a full sprint or standard distance multisport event and basically want to have a go to see if they like it, or to have a bit of fun with the challenge.

In my case, the Ilkley Aquathlon had come to symbolize a little bit more for me. Just under 2.5 years ago, fresh off an incident at my local pool which led to me being dragged out before I got into further difficulty, I took part in the Go Tri Yorkshire Aquathlon, a 100 metre swim, and 1200 metre run. I swam the entire 100 metres head above water, but found it such an enjoyable experience that ever since, I’ve taken over two years of swimming lessons just to get to the point of being capable for this one race. If London and Snowdonia were my target races last year, this was arguably my target race this year. I’m now much improved, a capable front crawl swimmer who can move at decent pace (though not competitively fast), with a decent technique, and reasonable endurance. Though I’d never once swam 400 metres in one go, my swim training for this race left me believing I absolutely could. I was absolutely looking forward to this race, and absolutely couldn’t wait to take my first true step into the world of multisport, and one step closer to my ultimate goal of becoming a triathlete.

My trip to the race venue was going really well until I arrived, when I stepped on one of my elastic laces and snapped it, meaning I had to tie knots in it to prevent it from unravelling, and to keep it attached to my foot. Undeterred, and not reading into it as a sign of things to come, I walked to race registration and became reacquainted with the ankle tag – the thing they use in these events to time each part of your swim, transition and run consecutively. Even better was the offer of a free hat! An unexpected perk.

The setting out back was amazing. The lido was closed but it sits right with the backdrop of Ilkley Moor for company. I bet that’s a cracking place to be on a warm day. But I digress. The race briefing was given out by a man who looked not unlike WWE megastar John Cena. After he gave the crystal clear information to everyone, I proceeded to leave my vest, shoes and a towel in transition, convinced I would be fine with safety pins and not a race number belt, having carefully tried successfully to put the vest and pins over my head and over my t-shirt. With that taken care of, it was over to the spectator area. I wasn’t due to race until 4:47pm. I could easily have gone back into Ilkley for another hour or so, but to do what exactly? I thought I might as well soak up the atmosphere of my first aquathlon race proper. So I had my lunch and went out to the back where the run course was, walking once round it to get a good idea of the 600 metre route.

My race number (picture taken post-event)

In this country at least, the majority of aquathlon races (of which there aren’t many) are aimed at juniors getting into triathlon. So the first wave of runners where known as the Tri Start wave (for entrants born in 2009, would do two lengths of the 25 metre pool (50m total) and one lap of the 600 metre course. The three Tri Star groups, comprising slightly older children per category – Tri Star 1 (born 2007-08) would incrementally do four pool lengths and run two laps, Tri Star 2 (born 2005-06) swim eight pool lengths and run three laps, Tri Star 3 (2003-04) swim twelve lengths and run four laps up to Youth/Adult (born 2000 or earlier), doing a full sixteen pool lengths (400m) and five laps of the run course (3000m). Time passed, along with a passing rain shower that lasted for about 10 minutes, with barely anywhere to shelter. As I worried about changing into my now possibly wet shoes and vest, the rain subsided, the sun broke out a little, and the racing continued. At about 3pm, still just under two hours to launch, I went inside and observed the swim legs. There was a 10 second countdown for each event, and I keenly observed the swim pedigree of some of the older juniors, seeking an opportunity to just watch them go through their stroke and trying to observe the tumble turns, something I haven’t yet mastered. Although thankfully I wasn’t the only one. I would later get dressed into my swim shorts, then my hat and goggles, as time ticked down.
We were all briefed by one of the race marshals at the shallow end of the pool. There were about 10 or 11 of us. I generally have done well in races with smaller fields, but I wasn’t taking anything for granted given I was likely to come out behind in the swim. We were later assigned into lanes and (finally) led to poolside.

So this was it. After nearly 2.5 years, numerous swim lessons, and 22 prior waves on race day, it was time to get in the pool. I dunked my head into the water to check my goggles weren’t letting anything in. All good. I assumed the push and glide position as the 10 second countdown commenced. At 1, my head went under and the race began.

The first thing I noticed was the guy next to me was absolutely off like a rocket. By the time I’d completed 25m, he was already into his second length and by 50m he was already coming back to start his fourth length. But I wasn’t concerning myself with him. I just kept focused on completing the swim. But something wasn’t right. By 100m some sort of tiredness had crept into my right arm, and by 125m I was feeling very tired. I wasn’t trying to keep up with anyone, I was swimming how I normally swim. What on earth was going on? I made it to 150 metres and needed a few seconds to take a breather. I kept going and did the next 50m, but at 250m I had lost count of how many lengths I had left. I was taking an extra second or two at each end to gather myself. This was not what I’d come to expect.

I was getting a lot of encouragement from the volunteers to keep going though, and this was certainly keeping me from even contemplating the thought of not finishing. I certainly didn’t want to be the one ‘DNF’ on the results, having put so much into getting into shape to do the swim. But the encouragement poolside was helping me think positive and at 300m I was told I had four lengths to go. Finally, knowing the end of the swim was close, I got back to it and seemed to swim my best 100m of all. I knew I would grow into the swim, just not like this. In any event, I reached the end, to a few cheers from poolside and more encouragement from the volunteers. I climbed out and walked to the transition herehere, offering brief thanks and acknowledgment on my way out. I was the last one out.

A couple of years ago, at the Go Tri event I did, we didn’t have race numbers to attach, and I seemlessly got my shirt and shoes on that day. Here, I got my shoes on first, no worries. Now the vest – over it went. Then, it seemed to coil up, and just as I’d feared, the safety pins were causing a problem. That, and the fact I was still wet emerging from the water, it took a good 30 seconds alone to get the vest to cover my body. Then I’d realised as I left transition I’d forgotten to tighten my elastic laces, and bumped into John Cena who was coming back into the transition area. He was very apologetic but I honestly didn’t mind, I just had to get the awful transition behind me and get into my run. 

I always knew I could catch people up on the run, and so it proved here. Emboldened by my recent success in club handicap races, I overtook runners on the course which we all had to do 5 laps of. I worked out the best, least muddiest route and used this to my advantage, making sure to accelerate out of the tight angled turns with as much power as possible and in the end, completed the run without too much fuss. Upon receiving my time via a printout – 23:35 in total – I found out I was indeed the 3rd male. Out of four. Placing fourth overall.

As one of the top three men, I would be presented with a plaque. There was applause from those who’d gathered, and then that was it. Off to get my train back home.

My overall feeling was somewhat strange about the whole thing. I felt that my race, barring the run, had gone pretty badly and I felt I’d only won the plaque through sheer lack of numbers. I’d only come for the challenge and the experience. I was pretty ambivalent about receiving such a prize. That doesn’t mean I’m not grateful for it, but it kind of feels odd to see it sat there right now next to my trophies for the Sir Titus Trot and the Leeds Liverpool Canal Canter, both races where I’d placed highly in a more competitive field. Family and friends, at home and on social media, were much more encouraging (one of my kids said ‘you know, third place is still a good place to finish!’), others reminding me that you can only beat who turns up on the day, and third is third no matter what. I’m not going to reject that reasoning either!

Sporting my race swag (post-event)

But as for an experience in multisport, it was definitely a valuable one. In hindsight, my somewhat bad swim is one I’m putting down to psychological factors – I’ve never swam competitively before, and it honestly feels like my body went into some ‘fight or flight’ situation despite my best efforts to treat it as any other swim. It won’t put me off trying again someday, but it does put into focus what I need to work on. Namely adapting to cope mentally in competitive pool swims, build my swim endurance, and, should I come to race an aquathlon again, or indeed a triathlon, for all that is sacred, get a trisuit and a number belt! Transition would be a lot simpler if I did.
All in all, a slightly chasening welcome to multisport was endured, but at a great local event. Anyone wanting to take part in a well supported local multisport could do far worse than turn up here during the weekend of the aquathlon and triathlon. I can honestly say the encouragement from those poolside got me through that swim, and I’m absolutely grateful for it! Granted, Ilkley is a bit out of the way for some – it took me just under 90 minutes using public transport from Brighouse, about 15 miles away – but you’ll get a great, no pressure experience here and not to mention a great magnet for the junior triathletes. A big thank you must go to the volunteers and marshals, and indeed Leeds Bradford Triathlon, for making this event a success year on year.

I’m also sorry there aren’t many photos – there was a strict policy on photos at the event due to junior involvement, parental permission, etc, so I kept my phone away. I’ve not found official photos either since the event, but that’s no problem personally. I still have the memories of the event itself. 

Thank you all for reading.

Ilkley Aquathlon event page

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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!

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…

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.

2016 – A Step Beyond

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

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

Spotted during the London Marathon – in decent nick here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

My year in numbers

2 marathons (London & Snowdonia)

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

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

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

One Butlins gold medal and wristband for archery!

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

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

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

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.

Snowdonia Marathon Training

13. Just…keep…swimming

Last week began with something, personally, momentous.

I attended Halifax Pool for my Improvers swimming lesson, and after arriving, kitting up, showering, and carrying out warm up exercises, I got into the fast lane of the main pool for my now-customary 15 minute main pool workout. I took a deep breath, and pushed off into my front crawl.

I was turning to the side with a little more grace, and keeping my stroke technique efficient. As I reached the other end, I didn’t reach for the side, per se. I pushed off the side, and began to swim back.

The last time I attempted this was in April 2015, when I could barely swim, and it ended with my kick vanishing and having to be dragged out by the lifeguard, rather embarrassingly. Here, I was in control. I got to 40 metres. I could feel myself tiring, but I knew I was on a cusp of something amazing. I didn’t stand up. I kept swimming, and completed the journey back. Then I stood up, almost in disbelief. I’d actually done it – for the first time ever in my life, completed an out and back in a 25 metre pool!

I did manage to calm myself and the rest of the time swam single lengths, but I couldn’t stop smiling about what I’d managed. In the context of my long-term ambition to get into aquathlon and triathlon, this is a massive stepping stone. I want to now get into the habit of nailing 50 metres in one go regularly, and building up to go further. If I can actually swim 200 metres without stopping, then I can seriously consider, at the very least, pool based multisport. The dream seems suddenly realistic again.

As for the week’s running, the tapering phase is well and truly in motion by now, and compared to the eventful last few weeks, this was, in comparison, the very equivalent of miles in the bank. 5 miles on Tuesday after swimming, and then another 5 miles doing loops of Wellholme Park, again in my headtorch, again in the early hours. This time, my torch picked up one noticeable difference. The area by the outdoor gym, at the far end of the park, had an area cordoned off with red tape, covering a significant section of the trail where the parkrun course runs. And behind it, piles and piles of stones and gravel.

I was able to continue around to where the trail resumed, but as a runner and a lifelong resident, I felt a sense of disappointment. They were turning another section of the park into hard surface, presumably as part of the parkrun’s development. I always considered the charm of Brighouse parkrun was that its pretty much a trail throughout, in comparison to other local parkruns, which take place predominantly on concrete or asphalt footpaths. Its not as though the trail wasn’t visible – it was worn away clearly by years of human footfall or environmental progress as a flood plain. Can’t a trail run be a trail run? As in, just mud and grass (and the footpath that runs along the bottom of the woodland). Colour me mildly disappointed. Still, it was a good run out, a negative split to boot, and it kept things ticking over nicely. And, muddy, but not too muddy! 

The weekend’s long run was a 12 miler, which took me up to Roberttown via Clifton and Hartshead, and back through Hightown, Hartshead Moor and Bailiff Bridge, before looping around Thornhills to drop back into town to complete the final couple of miles. It was a misty morning that took ages for the cloud to lift – there’s normally a good view of Castle Hill, in Huddersfield, somewhere in the distance on this run, but it was nowhere to be found today.

After running around the 7:40 mile mark for the first five miles or so, I ran a little more conservatively than the week before and found myself more or less in the 8 minute plus area. I opted not to barrel down the big 14% drop that is Birkby Lane, instead easing down and almost sluggishly running down Bradford Road. Mile 11, partly uphill, went of something like 8:52. So having saved myself a little, I felt I should try and push on. Only to have my progress impeded by a very friendly cat! It approached me and was very affable and endearing. I managed to break away into my running again and for a brief moment in time, the human-feline synchronicity was in full flow, as the cat dashed to run alongside me – for about 15 yards, and then just stopping and remembering it was supposed to be aloof all this time.

All in all, a solid week of running, punctuated by that fantastic personal progress in the pool. I’m just eager to get away now. 

The last cup of caffeinated tea I’ll touch til race day (taken 15/10/2016)

The caffeine cold turkey, which I tried out for London, gradually working down to a miserly week before the all important pre race brew, is now on for the next two weeks starting from that same Saturday. Up to Sunday, it was going well, though of all the days to attempt a beef mole, it had to be during my caffeine strike, which meant I had to leave out dark chocolate, a prime ingredient of most moles! So I compromised with cacao and chilli seasoning to taste. My word though, what a treat – pasilla chillies, diced beef, tomatoes, cumin, garlic, onions, cinnamon, it all came together wonderfully. Combined with a couple of good nights of sleep, its gone OK so far, and my hashtag of #caffeinefree for @marathoneryri even got the eyes of a decaffeinated coffee company, to whom I could only apologise – as I only have eyes for tea!

As the nights draw in, so does my training for the 2016 Snowdonia Marathon. I’m ticking down to it. The commute becomes ever worse. Work is good, but not without it’s bad days. I just want to be free, away from the sturm und strang of weekday mornings, to focus on my family holiday, and the race itself. I’m not quite in holiday mode, but unquestionably hard to ignore. For now, there’s one more week to go, and that means continuing the taper and absolutely NO withdrawal symptoms. Aside from maybe caffeine. And chocolate.