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.

Snowdonia Marathon Training

12. Restoration and Maintenance

After losing much of last week’s running due to family commitments, commutes gone awry and finally a scare in my right foot, I felt as though this week I had to get back on track with the business of tapering (properly) and actually do some running as the days whittle down towards the Snowdonia Marathon. Indeed, the title of this post can be described as quite apt, in the way that much of my week’s running was to pan out.

It would start on Tuesday, my first swim session of the week, the Improvers class, is now preceded by time spent in the 25 metre pool. I had 15 minutes this time. I managed 200 metres before getting out and ready for my lesson. This time it went much better, doing the front crawl calmly, the dolphin effectively (if not perfectly) and even copying another swimmer in doing an exercise of breathing every second arm pull – as in every right arm, or every left arm. The lesson itself worked mostly on dolphin and breaststroke. Judy now no longer runs the classes and instead its a member of the pool staff, whose name I can’t remember and whose methods I once disliked but have grown to accept are fine, even if its not quite the same any more. All in all, a good swimming lesson, but once I was out of the water, I had to prepare for the run. Now at this point, I was back on ibuprofen gel and using it on the particular point in question, right at the top of my arch on the right foot. It didn’t seem to affect me when walking, so I opted to stick to the bus route just in case. And thankfully, it went fine. I wad rigorous in looking after my feet when I got home, but all in all, a healthy five miles in the bag.

Next, a 5am run complete with my headtorch, out for the first time this post-summer, a brisk 4 miles or so of Wellholme Park. Its had a new guide track marked down the edges to help parkrunners every Saturday in following the course. When this was announced, I did worry it would spoil the park’s appearance, but in actual fact, its pretty much the equivalent of marking a football pitch. It doesn’t detract at all and it may well prove helpful, not just in following the course, but in avoid the boggy areas when it rains heavily – this turns parts of the park into proverbial moorland – it was designed as a flood plain after all. Again, no issues, despite the fact the sensation on the arch hadn’t disappeared. I could go to work on Thursday mind refreshed, and feeling like I was back in the swing.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been attending a second swim class, titled Stroke Skills, at my local pool on Friday nights. So far, it’s gone alright, although it isn’t half a test of stamina at times, I feel as though it will benefit me in the long run. This particularly Friday I clocked around 600 metres in the 20 metre pool, doing numerous different techniques including being asked to try one arm breaststroke. I’m barely adept with two arms, never mind one! 

The Calder-Hebble Navigation, 08/10/2016

For Saturday, I was planning, as per the training guide, to run 17-18 miles. I’d never run that far three weeks from race day, but I’ve felt committed to the plan and in good shape considering recent tough runs across 19-22 miles in the previous month. Having taken on so many hills, I decided I’d avoid them on this occasion, and instead headed for the place I feel most at home running – the canal towpath – namely the Calder-Hebble Navigation. It was here that I’d largely cut my chops as a runner, and briefly last year as a cyclist. That was before the Boxing Day Floods of 2015. Aside from losing Lemmy, seeing what happened to the region I lived in was traumatic. The images of Mytholmroyd submerged, Elland Bridge battered, homes and businesses across the Upper and Lower Calder Valley ravaged, had caused immense damage to the Calder Valley and pointedly so to key bridges that line the canal towpath as it progresses. Crowther Bridge, halfway between Brighouse and Elland, was damaged, closing off part of the footpath for some time. There were further problems at Park Nook Lock, where a nursery and a pub had suffered, and most crucially of all, Elland Bridge, carrying gas pipes and a key link for traffic to cross into and out of the town centre, was weakened and partially collapsed. The bridge was deemed a no go area, although a walkway was put in place to allow pedestrian access from one side to the other. Put simply, it was the most devastating flooding locally I’ve ever witnessed. I’d never seen flooding in my home town before – Brighouse is fairly low lying but rarely gets the brunt of such weather – it suffered its fair share but not quite on the scale of the towns and villages upstream. Recently, however, access at Crowther Bridge was recently opened up, crossing into the nature reserve and down a small track down to the other side. It meant, for me personally, the entire first three mile section of the towpath was open again, and so it felt right to go ahead with a long run on there for what must have been the first time in a long time.

The Calder Hebble Navigation, 08/10/2016

My route marked a first full run from Brighouse to Luddenden Foot, going across the Calder-Hebble Navigation from Brighouse to Sowerby Bridge, and then onto the Rochdale Canal from Sowerby Bridge as far as Luddenden Foot, before doubling back. I’ve often talked about running this route in the past, but in the context of what happened and how the area is rebounding, its worth putting into context. 
I set off at brisk pace – around 7:20/miling, and soon reached Crowther Bridge, which is currently a quick up and around the towpath at present, but is coming along nicely. The towpath was looking particularly scenic in the autumn sunshine. Moving on, I encountered a bit of traffic (ie families, dogs, etc) as I approached Elland, and had to slow down a little. I reached Elland Bridge. Or indeed, what’s left of it. Now, I didn’t get a great picture of the ongoing work, and whenever I got closer, I had workers on the bridge in the shot, and didn’t fancy faffing about for the right shot, but here you get the gist of the scale of their task.

Well, work is really underway now. For months, one side of the bridge has been amass with scaffolding, but the work they’re carrying out suggests progress is being made, and before long the bridge may well be reopened. That sounds blatantly obvious, but this has been a bridge that’s been out of action for well over nine months, and its a long time for a vital transport link to be that way. When its open again, it’ll be grand. This bridge often marks the next section of my journey, whether I’m going out

But having clocked a 7:52, I endeavoured to keep to sub 8 minute mile pace. I would keep this up as I ambled under tunnels, viaducts and through a bustling Sowerby Bridge town centre. The Rochdale Canal towpath becomes more of a light trail at this point, and also more rural. You do get a good sense of wilderness going through this section, occasionally seeing the signs for canal goers on the distance to, say, Summit, or Manchester. As I approached Luddenden Foot, the hills of the moorland in the distance became visible, a beacon, at this point for the halfway point of the run. Not far off 9 miles, I ran up onto the Station Road bridge and allowed myself a breather, around 64 minutes into the run. I took a little to read up on a little history of this industrial corner of Calderdale, before setting off again.

An artwork titled ‘Fender, Pool & Splice’ by Josh Smith. Found beneath the Station Road bridge, Luddenden Foot

Its worth a mention here that I opted not to run in a race vest, and so only carried a 500ml water bottle with a carb based drink, in order to simulate my marathon plan, and a mini Chia Charge flapjack. The drink was pretty much empty by halfway. But having run without water as far as 15-16 miles, I felt well hydrated and OK to make the return leg all the way home. Well, something was about to feel amiss. I kept on at the comfortable sub-8 pace and the miles ticked by, but around seven miles from home, I started to a tiny bit light headed. I eased up a little but still kept on with the pace. I couldn’t fathom it – the temperature was almost perfect for running, and I might have expected problems if I’d run sub-7 perhaps, but I couldn’t place it. I reached Copley village on the towpath and decided I was going to eat the salty Chia Charge then. This was on plan, but initially it didn’t kick in, and I was beginning to feel the strain. I didn’t want to give in. I didn’t feel I was going too fast, but maybe I was suffering a little with dehydration having run out of water. What if my body has got used to having access to water as I do when I have my race vest? Such questions seemed pertinent but I had to keep going. I felt I had to.

The Rochdale Canal, towards Sowerby Bridge

The Chia Charge snack alleviated whatever my body was doing for about a mile, and then it was back to the grinder. Finally when I got up off the towpath to head to Elland Bridge, I got to the main road and paused the Garmin. I stopped, crouched down, trying to catch my breath, trying to calm and restore myself. Three more miles. That’s all I had left. Just take it nice and steady. The gaiter was off my head and onto my wrist my now. Trying to retain heat probably didn’t seem a good call. Up I got, and onwards towards Brighouse. I sustained my pace and clocked the 17th consecutive mile, according to the watch and not including stoppages, in under 8 minutes. I completed the final fraction of the run finally at a significantly slower pace.

I don’t think I’d ever had such a close shave with this sort of light headedness, I drank enough prior to the run, was sufficiently fuelled, and I had taken water, a carb based drink, which ran out after an hour of running, not far short of halfway. The Chia Charge snack briefly enlivened me, but by the end I felt to be hanging on grimly. Perhaps I’d been too forthright in pursuing a run at my target marathon pace for the duration, but I felt in good shape. By the time I stopped outside my home town’s iconic Ritz Ballroom, I was hands on knees, heavy breathing, with people walking around but with not a word to say. Not that I was after their concern. I hoisted myself upright and walked home, in search of water, electrolytes, and indeed, salt. I was right again about an hour later.

Later that evening, my old enemy, sesamoiditis, seemed to be brewing in my left foot, though it reacted well to ice and I’m pleased to say it doesn’t seem to have recurred beyond the weekend. These little scares could well be ‘maranoia’, but foot problems seem to be the wicked thing that stalks my hopes. I do everything to look after them, warming them up, stretching first thing on a morning, post-run, metatarsal doming. After sesamoiditis, I don’t leave any stone unturned. I didn’t think I would be bordering on the ‘wobbly horse’ as Jonny Brownlee said after his burnout in Cozumel. Particularly in temperatures barely a third of what they had that fateful day in Mexico.

Nonetheless, despite all that, I think I’ve come through another week unscathed. What seemed a bit uncertain at the start of the week at least ended with a good solid collection of miles and conditioning. Indeed, a bit like some of Calderdale’s waterways and bridges, I restored a degree of progress, a particular certainty back into my tapering phase having come off that really busy week of practically nothing. The trick now is to keep the engine oiled. Keep it purring, and not to waste those joints or be profligate to my overall condition. I want to be ready and raring on Saturday 29th October, and the closer it gets, the more I happily get anxious for the holiday to arrive, to get down to Llandudno, surround myself in the North Welsh air, and leave the horrible commutes, the stress of daily life, and for one week, just relax, and get race minded. It’ll be soon. Very soon.

*Featured image is of the start of the Rochdale Canal at Sowerby Bridge

Snowdonia Marathon Training

11. What fresh hell is this?!

After three solid weeks of hills, swimming, hills, more swimming, walking, tired limbs, rock climbing, exhaustion, and miles of miles of fun, I found myself less than five weeks from the Snowdonia Marathon, facing up to a week to allow recovery from that phase, intending to focus largely on anything but running. Though at least not without gathering up a few further miles, and testing out a sound new investment. Ironically, after a glorious UK summer, which rained all too infrequently to really get a sense of what to expect in October, we got a week which actually delivered in grey cloud and rainy days. And yet still not get a rainy day run.

I’m now the proud owner of an Inov-8 Elite Raceshell waterproof running jacket, which cost me a fair whack but I managed to secure a small discount on it. It came out with me on the 22 miler I recently did, but never came out of the bag because it never got cold and it never looked like raining. Aside from the run I did to Castle Hill which briefly threatened before typically dissipating, its been anything but a damp training program. Plenty of sunshine. And yet, come Monday, what did it do? It rained, that’s what! And so I got to test my jacket on the rainy streets of Leeds one lunchtime. Pleasingly, I must say, it seems the business. Not a single hair on my head got wet. I’m not sure I got covered in rain at all! Hardier times await, but right now, it seems a sound investment.

My training plan, following three intense weeks full of ups and downs (literally and figuratively), dedicated my Tuesday session to between 60-90 minutes of, well, something else, then a 3-4 mile jog on the Thursday, and a 7-8 mile run on Saturday. All things considered then, I made sure I arrived at Halifax Pool as promptly as I could for another lesson with the Improvers class come Tuesday night. I managed about six lengths of 25 metres prior to the lesson, the latter two of which were a very ropey breaststroke which I had to turn into a front crawl to make it to the end, and a back crawl which started with a great push and glide but ended up with me losing my kick. I went to stand up in a deeper section and went under, but thankfully my experience kicked in to breathe out, and get myself into shallower water on my front again. I decided to save myself for the lesson at that point.
The two days after that, I saw more problems involving public transport during my daily commute which meant I got to do some running at last. Roughly a mile, slightly more, because it was quicker to reach my place of work in Leeds from the nearby suburb of Armley, via the River Aire. Well, they all count, but it was far from ideal, running in my work clothes, my work shoes. Its much less efficient and far more clunky. Not to mention slightly uncomfortable underfoot. Oh well, I got to work on time. Ish.

From that point on, life took over. It was my twin daughters’ 5th birthday on the Friday, and any time I may have had on my day off to go running was quickly thrown into tidying up the house, ordering balloons for the party, which took place on the Saturday, collecting the kids from school, celebrating their birthday at home, and helping my wife prepare party bags for the thirty or so kids attending. The following day was all about the party, and the day seemed to go so slowly as I looked to ensure order amongst the kids stayed in place. In the end, all ran smoothly, and as evening approached and the dust settled, I pondered my position. Tapering was never meant to be this extreme in the first week. True, it was meant to be easier to compensate for three tough endurance weeks, but a whole week without any running? Since coming back into Holmfirth, the only speedwork I was doing was getting off the bus a stop early to run the remaining distance to work to beat traffic congestion, which doesn’t really count and isn’t enjoyable. I had to take some control back.

And so rather than fall asleep on a random floor somewhere in my house – because that’s the sort of thing I can do when I’m mega tired – I got into my running kit and ran a slow 3.33 miles (to be precise) out and back the main road that runs between Brighouse and lower Wyke. It wasn’t the greatest or most enjoyable run – it rarely is at 10:30pm on a Saturday night – but it was a run, and my psyche felt refreshed for it. But I was too tired to wake up early on Sunday, and yet I did thanks to my excitable kids. I never got out for a run, planned to be eight miles, and to compound matters, another problem flared in my right foot, again in the arch, again near the ball of my foot, again, a minor quibble at present. But it did leave me wondering what I’d done to deserve that. A week of hardly any running, and yet I’d exacerbated something? Is that just? Is that right? Its sod’s law, is what it is!

But again, there’s no panic. It’s treatable. The race will soon be here, and I’ll be damned if I’m not on the start line, and I’ll be damned if I don’t finish!

Thursday marked exactly one month until race day. It seems like a good time to take stock of how they training has gone and the position I’m in. For the last three months to have gone pretty much as well as they have done, barring mishaps in a bog here or there, I can’t really think of a phase of training that hasn’t gone that well. Manchester was going fine until injury struck on a routine loop of my immediate locality. London, at times, felt like a battle to make the start line. My knees felt like they were giving up, and it forced me to define my runs not about what was coming up later in the week, not what I was training for, but taking one run at a time, never looking beyond that. I’d pretty much decided I would crawl the London Marathon if I couldn’t run or walk it, such is the magnitude of being a part of it. But Snowdonia, and its elevation, was the first to specifically address a need for a certain type of training, and to actually take it on without overloading myself or setting unrealistic expectations.

Certainly addressing the shoe issue was a big thing, and knowing that neutral shoes are no longer suitable for my gait, meant purchasing a pair of shoes with adequate support. My problems ironically with a Brooks shoe the Pureflow, which is largely a problem of my own making, given I tried to transit to minimalist shoes too quickly, and loaded that transition with too much mileage, to the point where it shook my faith to ever where the shoe again. I ran Manchester in Salomon Speedcross, a trail shoe, less than 50 miles old, because I had no time to replace the Pureflow. The sesamoiditis I suffered effectively reduced my running to a point where I couldn’t see the issue with my gait, and when I did eventually get into the swing of training for London, I had to go through the necessary correction to ensure I had a shoe I was happy with, and one that would take me forward to the foreseeable future. So I’m glad I shelled out for the Brooks Adrenaline GTS 15, for nearly 500 miles later, they’re still going strong, and any problems with my knees now seem to be more about my hip and core strength.

The next three weeks, whether I’m running or resting, I’ll need to really be careful not to incur an unnecessary aggravation of what’s already there and not to overdo things if I do go out on my longer runs. Taper time is here, and I want it to be right. My greatest personal challenge is almost upon me. And there is no going back.