Serpent Trail 50k – 06/07/19 – my sunny, sandy and stunning Ultra debut

After a spring spent on the road marathon training the trails have been calling all summer. A few of us from club turn 40 next year (well three of us do, Chris is sort of our 40 something groupie 😄) and the Serpent Trail 50k represents our turning 39 challenge in preparation (maybe) for something bigger next year.

The Serpent Trail snakes for 64 miles between Haslemere and Petersfield (only eleven miles apart in a straight line), along a route which links many areas of beautiful heathland, woodland and greensand, with the 50k starting halfway at Petworth. I did know a little about the race in advance, I’d read Ally’s epic blog post about the 2018 100k, plus Alison’s great blog about the 2017 50k, so I kinda knew what I had in store for myself.

A little about the group before I get into the race: Chris is my fellow racing snake, a good friend who I ran my first marathon with last year (South Downs Trail) and who somewhat dragged my ass to the finish when I cramped up at mile 22, he’s a very strong runner who turns into Captain Metronome when he gets going after a good few miles of warming up; Rachel was coming off a stunning 3:14 at London this year but was a bit of a late entrant as the 50k sold out and she had to get a transfer place; and finally Naouele, who was actually the only one of the four of us who’d ever completed an Ultra before and was the one who suggested we enter the 50k as a group this year.

(L-R) Chris, Naouele, Rachel and myself at the start

We’d all agreed to run as a group, that was the very ethos from the start, it was important for me that we ran as a group and went at the pace of the slowest runner. Throughout the training I think we’d all had our concerns that we’d hold the group up, for me personally it was the concern of what might happen when I got into the untested waters of 26.3 and beyond (given that I’d suffered from cramp every time I’d run past 23 previously it was a real concern). We’d all manged to recce some of the route over various training runs with Chris recc’ing the entire 50k.

As far as targets went, it was really completion first, the time didn’t really matter. However, that being said we’re all sub 3:30 marathon runners so we’d discussed five hours as being potentially possible for 50k if all went well. Given results from the 2018 event I also had secret hopes of maybe getting one of the ladies onto the podium if we all achieved a sub-five. The weather had other plans!

Flat lay the night before

Registration was open on the Friday night as well as the Saturday morning at the tipis village basecamp which was located at Petersfield rugby club, a quick thank you to Naouele for picking up our registration documents which meant no hassle for Chris and I on the Saturday morning. Buses were due to take us out to the start at just gone nine so we had plenty of time once we’d parked up to sort our kit/numbers out. It was only 9am and it was already getting hot as the sun beat down, the forecast said it’d cloud over later on, turns out not so much! It transpired that one of the buses had been struck down with a flat battery so it ended up being more of a wait for the final couple of buses than expected. The bus delay meant a pushed back start time for the race as we hadn’t even reached the start at the 10am scheduled time.

Getting off the bus our timing chips (which were a SI card on a lanyard) were ‘dipped’ (scanned) for the first time (essentially logging us onto the timing system), we’d have to ‘dip’ our chip at each of the five checkpoints along the route and at the finish in order to track our progress along the route. It was a bit of a different system for us as we’re used to road races with chips on race numbers and timing mats etc. but it all worked fine.

Just time for a quick wee and then it was straight into the race briefing with the four of us getting pretty near the front. The organisers were apologetic about the buses (and the portaloo’s which were missing from the start) and it’s understandably just one of those things that can go wrong with an event like this. No problem really. With a drone buzzing around us filming we were given a quick countdown and then with a blast of an air horn we were off.

The initial climb then little undulations all the way

Straight off the line we were climbing, we knew from recce’s that the initial couple of miles would be up so we just got into a decent rhythm and then as we funnelled through a kissing gate we were onto the Serpent Trail proper. Just after that as we were running along a guy introduced himself who I’d befriended through Twitter. Dwayne had commented on one of my Serpent Trail recce posts a few weeks earlier, although I knew he was doing the 50k I hadn’t actually expected to bump into him given the 250ish people running the event. Luckily, he’d seen the Portsmouth Jogger vests that the four of us were wearing and tracked me down. We swapped greetings, goals and general chit chat for a mile or so before he dropped back a bit. It was very much his home event as he lives about a five-minute walk from the finish!

The plus side of the climb was the couple of mile descent on the other side, a lovely single track down through the woods, leaping fallen logs and ducking branches. At this stage I was out in front in the group, just trying to keep us ticking over at around nine-minute mileing. It was hot though and even short sharp climbs were strength sapping. We quickly got to Fittleworth and the first checkpoint at 6.6 miles in, ‘dipped’ our chips, filled water bottles and then surveyed the food selection. I’ve been in races before where there have been Ultra like food spreads but I’ve always been racing shorter distances so have never really partaken. Now I had a nutrition plan that I followed (homemade flapjack at miles 5, 15 & 25, shot block at miles 10, 20 & 30, with a Saltstick tablet every 4 miles) which worked for me, but I was still grabbing crisps, and stuffing jaffa cakes into my gob before we exited.

The next seven-mile section was the one that I hadn’t recce’d the whole of. Chris and Rachel had run this when it was wet a few weeks back, given their photo’s of massive path blocking puddles I was glad we’d had a nice spell of warm weather leading up to the race which dried the route up. We did have a couple of “fun” bridges to contend with that only had one hand rail on them, but generally the route was good.

Spot Captain Pastey!!
Credit – Christopher Cockroft via Facebook

I think we were roughly ten miles in when I started to realise we may have gone off a bit quickly. We went through 10 miles in 95ish minutes (roughly bang on 5-hour pace) but Rachel and Naouele were suffering a bit in the heat, Rachel especially was finding it difficult to drink whilst running so we started to take a few walk breaks to recover. Rachel was trying to get us to leave her and go on but we were having none of it, we started as a team and were damn well going to end as a team! We were out in really exposed heathland now in the midday sun, I was being good and trying to stay hydrated by drinking every half mile or so, just mouthfuls of water from my 500ml soft flask I was carrying, I had a litre of water in my backpack bladder but I used this more as backup. Brilliantly the race was completely cupless so I used the soft flask as my “cup” at the checkpoints too.

Checkpoint two came and went and then we were really into the beautiful middle section of the course which has changing scenery seemingly every mile, from wooded sections, to open heathland with gorse bushes scratching your legs, then large sections of sand, then really dense foliage which almost feels like running through a jungle. It’s crazy really, you’d never know it was there if you didn’t seek it out but it’s truly beautiful. We continued our walk breaks, mostly up the hills, we walked most of the long uphill leading into Midhurst and then started our tradition of running from the brow of the hill.

The checkpoint in Midhurst came at mile 20 but was about a mile and a half later than advertised which I think was a bit of a mental barrier for us. It was becoming more difficult to get in and out of checkpoints quickly, we just couldn’t get enough fluids down us. Midhurst to Dumpford was now a much shorter section of less than four miles, we still walked the up’s but made good progress as it’s relatively sheltered under the tree canopy. It was probably on this section that I started to feel tired, I felt it most in my upper quads, no idea why and not something that’s bothered me before on runs, but they were beginning to feel pretty tired.

We popped out onto the road near Dumpford and ran along a few hundred meters to the final fully stocked checkpoint. We certainly made the most of it, getting cold water poured over our heads by the volunteers and finding a wonderful ice filled coolbox to submerge caps and buffs in. Leaving the checkpoint we knew what was in store for us: a 3-mile undulating road section that never seemed to end. Myself and Chris pushed the pace whilst making sure the girls were still hanging onto us. Towards the end of the road section was where I really started to feel the tiredness kick in, I found myself falling to the back of the group and just hanging on.

The final checkpoint

At getting on for 27 miles we finally got off the road and back onto the trail, just as we did the leader in the 100k race passed us looking absolutely amazing for a guy at 90+km, no wonder he won the 100k race by over an hour! At this point we started to catch some of the runners in the half-marathon which gave us a little boost and they were extremely gracious in letting us pass on the narrow trail. Just for fun the route now chucked in a few stiles to drag ourselves over and then we snaked through the epic wheat fields where the sneaky camera people lurked.

© No Limits Photography

Only a couple of miles further! We bypassed the final water station as we didn’t need to ‘dip’ our chips there and then it was head down and a push for the line. Roughly the last mile and a half is a big loop back to the rugby club on streets and through a small wooded section, knowing this Chris pushed the pace and we tried our best to hang onto his coattails. We ran a sub-9-minute mile for mile 31 and I was really breathing hard much to Chris’s amusement, we even managed to pass a few fellow 50k’ers.

Breaking the treeline, we were into the long finish funnel. With cow bells ringing and cheers from the crowds of race finishers, supporters and volunteers we joined hands as a team and enjoyed finishing the 50k together.

Over the line it was final ‘dipping’ of chips, medals being placed round our necks and results slips being printed. We had a little group of PJC supporters too which was absolutely lovely: George had cycled up to see us finish, David placed in the top ten of the 10k held slightly earlier; Chris’s wife Cheryl was there to see us home too as well as Naouele’s two kids and her Mum. It was great to see them all and just chill for a while. I was absolutely exhausted; I think the heat just got to me a little bit over the second half of the race and just sapped all of my energy, but on the plus side I’d ate and drank the whole way with no gels needed. Chris though was an absolute machine he was completely fine and playing football with Naouele’s kids, crazy!

About the most “tanned” my legs will ever be 🤣

We came home in 5 hours 22 minutes, not quite the sub-5 we were hoping for, but I think the heat killed much chance of that. Saying that we were all well inside the top-40 places with Rachel and Naouele being 6th and 7th ladies’ home. Very respectable 50k Ultra debut I’d say.

I’m not sure how much Rachel and Naouele enjoyed being slightly pulled along by Chris and I. Rachel was very much “never again” immediately after but I think on reflection both she and Naouele would run another 50k, but maybe not in the middle of summer and maybe not with Chris and I.

Chris and I have slightly bigger plans. 50k was a good challenge but it’s not quite far enough out of my comfort level, so I think 50 miles and Centurion Running is calling next spring!

I would whole heartedly recommend the race. Everything I heard beforehand was completely true, it really did feel like a race for runners put on by runners. The route is stunning and the job that the Freedom Racing do in the couple of weeks leading up to the race is brilliant: they cut back the trail leaving it in great condition both for the race and other users, plus they add loads of additional signage which really helps as the Serpent Trail markers are tiny and somewhat confusing in their directions sometimes. The volunteers at the checkpoints were wonderful and the greeting that all runners received at the finish, no matter what time of the day (or night!) they crossed the line was fantastic. Plus, free race photography; nifty wooden medals and decent race t-shirts. Definitely one to add to your race calendars!

The Serpent Trailers taking part in the PJC photo challenge in the week after the race

Until next time …

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A summer on the trails

I’ve been quiet on here recently, but my running has been going pretty well, amongst other things I’ve been building back up my base, this time to attempt my first Ultra!

Exploring the Serpent

Way too much of the spring was spent pounding the roads, it was worth it #sub3, but I’m not sure it’s where my heart or long-term running future lies. Three fellow Joggers and I have entered the Serpent Trail 50k (put on by Freedom Racing) in early July and much of my recent running has been recceing various sections of the route and falling back in love with the trails.

The Serpent Trail runs for 100k between Haslemere and Petersfield, we’re not quite crazy enough to take on the entire 100k route (this year), but the 50k (between Petworth & Petersfield) still amount to a decent challenge. It’s further than I’ve ever run before so it’s a bit of a journey into the unknown for me (as well as a couple of others in the group). We’re going to run it as a group and we’re not really racing it, I say not really because we’re all sub 3:30 marathon runners so we won’t be going slowly, just taking it steady and seeing how it goes on the day.

Recceing is something that I’ve found has really helped previously with trail races; myself and Chris recced the entire Souths Downs Way marathon route before we ran the marathon in 2018 and it massively helped on the day to know what to expect from the route, where the big climbs were and ticking them off as we went. I’ve managed to recce four sections of the 50k route with only roughly four miles unexplored; Chris has actually managed to recce the entire route. The out and back recces have been great fun in the early evening sun and has given us an understanding of the route and the various multitude of surfaces we run on (lots of unexpected sand!). We’ve been fairly good at not getting lost but the serpent trail markers are frustratingly small, easily missed and aren’t always quite clear in their directions, but hopefully we can use our recce knowledge on race day to avoid any wrong turns.

The trail itself is beautiful especially the middle section around Midhurst. With the exception of a few road crossings you’re out in the middle of nowhere in absolutely stunning countryside. Quiet too; we’ve had recces where we’ve barely seen another soul on the trail. It’s not quite as flat as advertised though, the 50k has a decent hill at the start but the rest of the trail is definitely more undulating than we were expecting. Should make for interesting running on the day, fingers crossed it stays dry though.

The race is less than a week away, I’m really looking forward to dipping my toe into the world of Ultras. I’m thinking this could just be the tip of the iceberg though!

Coming first finisher at Parkrun

This was an unexpected bonus a few weeks back, I love Parkrun, but I haven’t been going as much recently due to marathon training. My previous highest finishing position was third a couple of times, coming first finisher was something that was always on the goal list but does require a bit of luck re: who else turns up on the day. I was doing an airport run so figured somewhere on-route hence rocking up at Alice Holt Parkrun set within the country park of the same name.

The choice of location was really my fellow racing snake Chris’ idea as he wanted to improve on his old time there. This was also in my mind as I’d run it once before last summer. I’d spotted uber fast runner & fellow blogger Joe Spraggins (check out his excellent blog here) at the start so competing for first hadn’t really crossed my mind. Turns out I got lucky and picked the one week where either the quick peeps were elsewhere or hadn’t turned up to race.

1st & 8th for the racing snakes

The course is undulating trail, with some sharp ascents, very much suited to my running style. It consists of a little one mile loop followed by a bigger two mile loop. By the end of the little loop I was in 4th place with the leaders not pulling away, “interesting” I thought. At the bottom of the biggest climb on the second loop I was right behind 2nd and 1st place, as we started the climb the leaders slowed, I kicked and pulled away from them on the hill. The finish was still a mile away! Running on my own in 1st place is an odd experience, I’ve only really done it once before. It’s constant paranoia feeling like people are reeling you in and are breathing down your neck. Luckily this wasn’t the case, the quick people had a week off and I managed to bring it home in 19:01 taking well over a minute off my time from a year earlier.

Running naked! … PJC Champion of Pace

I haven’t been going to my club much either of late, again marathon training, recovering from that plus Ultra training has meant I’ve been a rare attendee on club nights. The club has recently run its Champion of Pace event which consists of a three 5k runs based at the local Lakeside Parkrun course on consecutive Tuesday nights. The catch is that you need to predict your time for the 5k and then run without your watch. Closest guesses to their overall times win prizes!

I’m a relatively experienced pacer I thought, I should smash this. Turns out not so much without a watch! Let’s start with picking a pace, I figured running quick would be the key, I’ve got no idea what a 22 or 24 min 5k feels like but if I ran fairly quickly then I couldn’t be that much off, could I? My PB at the Parkrun (& for 5k overall) is 18:31, and I haven’t run a quick one since mid-March so I thought lets go a bit conservative and plump for 18:59. Figuring even if I run my PB it’s still less than 30 seconds off. I think we all know where this is going!

Turns out my form is better than I thought it was and 18 minutes and 11 seconds later I’ve just (unofficially) smashed my 5k PB by 20 seconds and completely cocked up my prediction for the run, 48 seconds out does not a champion of pace make! (cue much ribbing on the PJC Facebook page from my clubmates). There are some really good pace predictors at the club though, one guy was less than 0.5 seconds out! Crazy good predicting.

It’s great to come together as a club though, we run mostly in the same groups each week with the same group leaders, so running all at the same time, all in PJC colours and making sure everyone (no matter what their pace) is clapped in at the finish line is a wonderful thing. #teamPJC

Until next time & the Ultra! …

Clanfield Challenge (20k) – 19/05/19 – aka “The one with Butser Hill”

Going into the Clanfield Challenge I’d actually never run up Butser Hill before, I’m not entirely sure that I can change that statement given my jog/walk/crawl to it’s summit.

Running Butser was a big part of why I signed up to the race, plus it was a chance to run a nice local race (one that I hadn’t done before), get back on the trails before training for the Serpent 50k started and properly compete for the first time since Manchester.

The race is in it’s fourth year, and is a real community event, with race options for adults at 5k, 12k & 20k, plus 1k and 2k kids races (all chip timed as well!). In addition to this there is food and drinks, kids activities, entertainment, live music and stalls from local businesses.

Here’s a description of the 20k course from the Clanfield Challenge website:

“This route is a favourite with Clanfield Joggers and will be a challenge for all runners incorporating several climbs before the most challenging long climb up the furthest path to Butser Hill … which offers fantastic scenery from one of the highest points in Hampshire and along the South Downs with views to the North and East Meon. The course will follow off road footpaths and bridal ways and metalled roads with limited Tarmac road sections.”

Not exactly flat!

I parked in Clanfield really easily about an hour before the start of the race and made the short walk to the event HQ. Registration was quick and easy and they got the distribution of the event t-shirts done then as well. Many runners actually wore the event shirt during the race. As I got my number and kit sorted on a hay-bale in the middle of the event field the kids races were going on around the edge, it really gave the event a sense of propulsion, there never seemed to be a time when nothing was happening, no long periods of waiting around. A real positive in my book.

The adults races all started in a country road about a 10-15 minute walk away, so it was good to use the walk as a bit of a warm up, plus there were places for last minute toilet stops en-route. Conditions were good for running, dry and warming up as the morning went on. All the runners congregated and soon we were being called forward to the starting line. The 20k wasn’t a massive field (around 150 runners) and overall across the three distances there were probably just over 500 competitors.

Cool and calm just after the start – Photo Credit: Alan Dunk (via Flickr)

I tried to set off reasonably steadily, there was an initial climb followed longish decent which meant my second mile was probably quicker than it needed to be. But I was staying in control, running my race and letting others go past. There was a bit of a technical decent once we got into Queen Elizabeth country park, I was keeping in touch with a couple of guys throughout.

We ran past the field where I finished my first marathon (the South Downs Trail Marathon) and got to the bottom of Butser at about the 4 mile mark. I have walked up Butser a couple of times but not for many years so I’d probably forgotten quite how long and tough the climb is (roughly 400 feet over a kilometer). The two guys in front of me slowed, I slowed, but felt okay and trotted on up by them. I generally like running hills, I’m fairly good at running them, but I do have a slight habit of going too deep on them and having nothing to push on with at the top. This turned out to be the case halfway up and my trotting quickly turned into walking, and the two guys overtook me again. It was very much walk/run to the top, with the emphasis on walk. It ended up being a 10:18 mile!

There was a water station at the top, hooray! (but thankfully no photographer) I grabbed a decent drink and started to get back into a rhythm and attempting to catch those that had bested me on Butser. The route undulated along the top of Butser and the South Downs Way for about 5k, I’d seen the elevation chart beforehand and actually expected worse, so it was a pleasant surprise to eat the miles up relatively easily and reel in a competitor or two as we ran along country lanes and round the edges of fields.

At about 13k we started the descent back down the other side of Butser, this was a great section with wonderful views. At this point I was catching runners in the 12k race who were running an alternative route. Even though we weren’t in the same race it still helped me to keep pushing on the downhill section, picking off 12k competitors as I went. I even ran past a couple of friends which was a lovely momentary distraction from the run, fleeting good wishes were exchanged and then back to the business of running.

As we reached the bottom of the decent I finally caught another 20k runner, the route immediately went back up a short hill so I took my chance and kicked and instantly dropped the guy. Another 20k runner was ahead and I quickly caught up with him, he’d be much more difficult to pass.

Photo Credit: Clanfield Challenge (via Flickr)

I now know (from checking the results) that this guy was called Timothy, didn’t know it on the day, but Timothy helped me out enormously in the last relatively flat (with a couple of lumps) 5k. I literally sat on his shoulder for the entire 5k, he was going at a good lick and I just used him to pace me all the way to the finish. The route went back onto road as we reentered Clanfield and I just stayed with him, he did almost manage to drop me as we went through Clanfield, my heart raced a bit and I had to drop the pace, but fortunately there was a bit of a climb round the corner so I could pace myself back up to him.

What am I doing?? (Timothy just looks tanned and cool next to whatever I am) – Photo Credit: Clanfield Challenge (via Flickr)

We entered the event HQ field side by side, it was a 2/3 lap of the field to finish and I went for it pretty early, and using my usual finishing burst to cross the finish line a few seconds ahead of him.

Photo Credit: Clanfield Challenge (via Flickr)
Just cracked the top 10

I had no real time or place expectations, so very happy with a sub 1:30 and a top 10 finish. I was delighted that one of my clubmates and fellow Serpent 50k runner Naouele came home 2nd lady on just a “training run”.

Overall the event passed all expectation I had for it, I had no idea going in that it was such a community event with so much going on for families and spectators. Plus all profits are reinvested in the local community. It was a shame that I had to get going soon after I finished and didn’t get to sample the beer or prosecco stands. Another unexpected bonus was free race photography.

I honestly can’t fault the event, it was brilliant from start to finish, and an absolute credit to the organisers. I’ll definitely be back in years to come, whether that’s as a competitor or just a spectator enjoying a beer or two in the sun.

Until next time …

Okay, so you’ve run a sub-3 … that don’t impress me much!

Standard Shania Twain lyric quoting blog post opening. The competitive runners brain is an odd place, goals are set, achieved and then instantly the goal posts are moved. Can’t we just be happy with what we’ve achieved for a while?

It’s been a bit weird since I got my sub-3 at Manchester, it was six weeks ago but it still sort of doesn’t quite feel real. It feels like a bit of an out of body experience. Like I went to watch somebody run in Manchester rather than the reality of running the race myself. I know it was a massive achievement and I am bloody proud of myself for smashing just sneaking under the three hour barrier. But of course the instant question on everybody’s lips is “so what next?”

This was something that was concerning me before the marathon; there was no plan for after Manchester, it was pretty much a completely blank slate going forward. However things are starting to come into focus …

Short term (Summer’19) – Hitting the trails:
I struggled with a few injury niggles after Manchester, which meant my April mileage was way down. To be honest it probably did me some good to take an slightly enforced break for a few weeks. I’m getting back to regular weekly running now and building my mileage back up.

Given I got my sub-3 it’s meant I can focus away from road running for a while (to be honest I’m a bit sick of pounding the pavements). So I’m changing my short term focus to trail running; easier on the old(ish) joints, fun to explore new trails, completely takes the time pressure completely off; plus we can go longer. A few of us at my running club are turning 40 next year and we’ve been debating doing some kind of challenge(s) to mark this.

We’re kind of warming up for this by signing up to a local 50k Ultra in early July. The Serpent trail (where better for a racing snake to run?) is a 100k trail which runs from Haslemere to Petersfield, and we’re running the second half of this. We’ve all agreed that we’re not racing this, for most of us (including me) it’s further than we’ve ever run before, so we’re treating it as a group challenge. The next few weeks will be spent warming up to this and completing recces on various parts of the route (something that was really beneficial when I ran the South Downs Way marathon last year).

Medium term (Autumn/Winter’19) – PB chasing:
After a summer on the trails (plus a holiday to Southeast Asia) I’m hoping to get back into decent shape and take a stab at a couple of PB’s in the autumn/winter. My half PB is really the one that I’d like to get down and this is where my competitive brain comes back into play. Given my sub-3 marathon time my half PB should (in theory) be a couple/few minutes quicker than it currently is, I know I shouldn’t be comparing myself to others but I do, I see 1:21’s-1:25’s for others whereas mine is 1:28. I think if I can get consistent speed work in plus ramp my general mileage then an improvement on this (and my 10 mile PB) should be possible.

I’m also hoping to get the opportunity to pace another race or two. I really enjoyed pacing the Southampton 10k recently and I’m crossing my fingers that I’m lucky enough to be selected for more events. Pacing gigs are tricky to get so I’m trying to build my experience base to hopefully give me a shot at pacing at longer events in the future.

Long term (Spring’20) – ??????
This is where I’m struggling and it feels like I’m constantly shaking a magic 8-ball in my head.

I do (in theory) have a Good For Age (GFA) time for the 2020 London marathon, but given GFA places aren’t guaranteed anymore and mine is only nine seconds under my threshold time I’m not holding out any great hopes of getting in. It would however be lovely to run it for my 40th.

If not London then I could run a different spring marathon. There are a multitude of them both home and abroad and part of me does fancy trying to go quicker than Manchester. I know it wouldn’t be easy, and I’d really have to commit both to the training mileage and S&C work, but I think there’s probably a bit more pace that I could squeeze out of myself over 26.2 miles (although saying that I’m still incredibly inexperienced at the marathon distance). I know a massive jump isn’t possible but would a 2:55 or even a 2:50 be possible? (competitive brain talking again!).

So run another spring marathon, simple, what am I struggling with?

Well there’s another part of my competitive runners brain that’s saying “don’t go faster, go longer!”

I am very tempted to really challenge myself distance wise for my 40th and try to complete a 50 mile race. Specifically I’m looking at the North Downs Way 50 mile race which would be held this time next year. It’s organised by Centurion Running who have a wonderful reputation for excellent events, volunteers and caring about the runners in their races and every time I read a blog post from someone who’s run one of their races I debate about when I’m going to sign up for one.

So it’s really a question of faster? or longer?

I think training for and running the upcoming 50k will help me decide, it’s been some time since I’ve run trails consistently and I need to work out whether I merely like running trail or love it. Unfortunately Centurion races sell out really quickly so I won’t be able to wait until the end of the year to work out my plans.

It’s a good decision to have to make, and ultimately staying fit and heathy and being able to run consistently is the main goal. I’m still relatively young in the running game so there’s a lot of time to go both faster and longer. Let’s see where my head is in a few months’ time when NDW 50 goes on sale!

Until next time …

Southampton 10k – 05/05/19 – Pacing an Olympian (sort of)

I’d just donned my 45 minute pacer vest in the deserted Solent University lecture theater when who should walk in but Olympian and former European and Commonwealth games 400m champion Iwan Thomas and a friend. Spotting me Iwan quipped “I’ll be needing your help today mate” … crazy business this pacing lark!

Pacing is something that I absolutely love doing (this is my second official pacing gig) and I felt very lucky that I was given the opportunity to pace the 45 min group at the ABP Southampton 10k this past weekend. The pacers for the event (both in the 10k and the half marathon) represented almost a dozen local clubs and were excellently organised by David Hawkins (I only wish I could have attended one of the training runs in the lead up to the event).

The 10k route winds around the city centre before crossing the Itchen bridge, looping and then recrossing before snaking back up to the finish. It’s definitely not flat, it generally descends for the first 3k then spikes with the two bridge crossings before gently ascending back up to the finish. The half marathon/marathon route shares sections with the 10k but given they start an hour apart it’s generally a clear road you’re running. The event itself is growing with over 6,000 finishers across the three distances this year.

Definitely not flat!

The Southampton event also holds a special place in my heart as it was the site of my first half marathon just two years ago. My running journey has come a long way since then so it’s doubly nice to be able to go back to the event and give something back.

I travelled up to the event with a friend who was running her first 10k. Parking was easy in the city centre, and the Guildhall area was awash with runners when we got there. I made my way to the Pacers area in the Solent University building and got changed and then had a bit of a warm up.

I met my pacing partner for the morning the lovely Dan who’s a crazy triathlete/ironman and we quickly came up with out pacing plan of getting a few seconds up per kilometer and then using this buffer on the bridge crossings and uphill second half of the race. All the 10k pacers posed for a photo on the start line about fifteen minutes before the start and then we took our positions in the pack. We ended up being about twelve rows deep at the start, deep enough to get out of the way of the really quick sub-40 boys and girls. Very quickly we were being called forward and then we were off.

Jazz hands in the middle of the front row … what am I doing?

We started fairly quickly with a 4:14 opening kilometer (although saying that pacing in km’s is completely alien to me), we then settled down into our running. The group around up wasn’t massive but as well as others it included Iwan Thomas, his friends & David (our pacing organiser) who was acting as Iwan’s personal motivator.

Yep, bang on time (he thinks, hopefully) – Photo credit: Paul Middlewick (via Facebook)

The middle kilometres included the two bridge crossings and associated water stations. We were still ahead of schedule so didn’t need to smash the bridges, just keep it nice and steady plus reassure those around us that they were doing great and that our time target was well in hand. The bridges also allowed us to cheer on runners on the other side of the road which is always fun.

Keeping a close eye on the 45 min team at the 3/4 mark – Photo credit: Marcus Baker (via Flickr)

Support around the course was really good, there were pockets where it was more concentrated but throughout the course you were never far away from a supportive cheer. Marshalls were also plentiful on the course and as well as doing their marshalling thing again provided lots of vocal support for all the runners.

Me (in the orange vest) “pacing” Iwan (in the white top) – Photo credit: Marcus Baker (via Flickr)

The closing couple of kilometers was just a case of Dan and I getting our two remaining group members to the line in under 45 mins. Iwan’s little group were always about 15-20 meters ahead, just within shouting motivating distance so they were good, but it was our two group members who were really our focus. We knew they could make it but they were starting to tire, just dropping off our shoulders at times but we did everything we could to talk them through it, motivate them, keep them concentrating on their form and breathing.

It was an absolute delight to get to the finishing straight where the race merged with the finishing half marathoners and see our two group members find that something extra to sprint to the line and smash that 45 minute time. Our pacing job was done, Dan and I jogged slowly to the finishing line, encouraging half marathoners finishers as we went, crossing the line we congratulated each other on a job well done, the 45 minute pacing bus coming in at 44:49.

Over the line it was time for handshakes and hugs from our grateful group members. Always nice to know that you made a difference to their race. We collected medals, t-shirts (nice technical ones) and an alcohol free beer for our troubles. Then it was back to the Pacers room to swap war stories with the other Pacers.

It was an absolute delight to pace the 10k, I hope I’ll get the opportunity to come back again next year. The race & overall event is great, well organised, well supported & with the three distances offers something for everyone in a city centre location.

Until next time …

Manchester Marathon – 07/04/19 – sub-3 becomes a reality (just!)

Liam Gallagher! L.S. Lowry! Morrisey! Danny Boyle! Emmeline Pankhurst! … your marathon took a hell of a beating! 😉

Apologies up front … this does go on a bit but please indulge me 🙂

We’d traveled up to Manchester on the Saturday and after checking in at the hotel and grabbing some lunch I was keen to travel out to Old Trafford and recce the start and finish areas just to have an idea of what to expect the next day. We met up with a friend for drinks and food on the Saturday night which was a good distraction although Vegan Indian street food was certainly an interesting night before meal.

Carb loading the day before
Flat lay the night before

I woke early on race day, I’d gotten a reasonable night’s sleep, certainly not brilliant, but decent enough. Having sorted all my kit the night before it was just a case of shoveling down a couple of porridge pots, chucking my kit on and getting out the door for just gone seven. I caught the metrolink tram from Victoria station (5 mins from the hotel) down to Old Trafford which was really easy and actually not squished in like sardines. So I was at Old Trafford cricket ground by about 7:40, entered the athletes village and got my bag dropped off which was a painless process.

Having recce’d it the previous day I knew where everything was so there was no pre-race stress which meant I could just chill out, get the requisite toilet stop done, and walk to my starting pen nice and early. I actually ended up in another toilet queue in the pen itself which did take a while, but actually this just meant I had something to do whilst the announcers tried to build up the atmosphere over the loudspeaker system. We were in alphabetical pens and I was in pen ‘B’ which I knew would have a three hour pacer at the front.

The mass warmup took place but there were no screens near us to see what was going on so it was a damp-squib of an affair, I ended up following a few others and jumping the pen guard rail just to complete a bit of a decent dynamic warm up in a blocked off piece of road, before jumping back into the pen and discarding my old warm top a few minutes before the start. The waves were going to be let off a few minutes apart so the Elites and wave ‘A’ went off with the starting gun, however the three hour pacer at the front of my pen also went with them. I’m not quite sure what happened as I was probably 10 -15 rows back but any hope of catching the three hour pacer and running with him for the majority of the race vanished in an instant.

Just a note before we get to the race about the required pace for a sub-3 marathon: perfect overall pace for 26.2 miles is 6:52/mile. So anytime I’m running a few seconds under this we’re all good, anything over this we’re in a bit of trouble. Any mile splits starting with a 7 are of concern!

Three minutes later we were being called forward, with a microphone countdown and a failed airhorn we were on our way. It was a downhill start and even though I was well forward in my pen it was still busy, it probably took me about a minute to lock into my planned 6:45-6:50/mile pace and in doing so I just let the masses swarm on by confident I’d be seeing plenty of them again before the race was done. The first three miles was a loop which brought us back very close to the start line, I hadn’t really thought through that we’d be seeing waves that hadn’t started yet whilst we were a few miles in. I was bang on pace in the early miles (6:49, 6:46, 6:47) and my only mistake was not really thinking through my racing line, something that gets important as we get to the closing stages of the race!

The route then took us away from Old Trafford in a southwesterly direction and the crowds that were big at the start soon thinned out. We ran on the big A56 for a couple of miles which was fairly soulless but it did help to string out the field a little before we got into smaller roads. I had some good banter with a guy from Basingstoke A.C. who on seeing my Portmouth Joggers vest as I passed him sang a little ditty about Southampton F.C. We actually ended up overtaking and re-passing each other for the majority of the first half of the race before I ended up pulling away from him. Miles 4-6 were again bang on pace (6:49, 6:46, 6:50), I was feeling pretty comfortable.

At mile six we hit Sale and a mass of people in it’s main street, there were numerous places like this where you’d come into a small town or village and hit a wall of support which would give you a brief lift before the crowds died down and you were back into the suburbs. The next few miles zigzagged through Sale and Brooklands, I took my first gel as planned at 45 minutes in, it gave me the exact boost I needed, and again I just ticked off the marathon pace miles as planned (Miles 7-10 = 6:47, 6:47, 6:48, 6:45). I was through 10 miles in a shade under 68 minutes on 6:47 pace.

Miles 10-14 were essentially a big out and back to the village of Timperley with a loop of Altrincham at mile 12, and included a section with runners going in both directions, going out we could see the elites coming back from Altrincham flying along looking amazingly fresh at the half way point. Altincham was an important point in the race for me as it was the first time I’d planned to see Katie on the course. We’d worked out the night before that a few points around the course should work as spectator points for her and the tram system meant she could relatively easily move between them. Given my original plan to try to run with the three hour pacer Katie was getting concerned that she’d missed me as I wasn’t with that big group when it went through. I was busy scanning the crowd for her as I made my way through the main street of the town and was delighted to spot her and gave her a big wave. Again a nice distraction tactic to get my mind off the constant road pounding. Going into and out of Altrincham is also where the only real elevation on the course is, it’s nothing really just a climb up and over some major railway lines but given the pace it does have an effect on the legs.

After the ‘climb’ we hit the halfway point, here’s where you can start to see the effect of me not running the perfect racing line, on my watch I hit halfway in 1:28:53 but it was 1:29:26 via the official timing mats. So that’s 30 odd seconds that I needed to make sure I had in hand at the end. On the back section to Timperley I got a shout “go on Will, you’ve got this” from across the road from one of the other waves of runners which I wasn’t expecting, it was from Louise Griffin who’s a local Portsmouth runner who I know, I knew she was doing Manchester but hadn’t really thought that we’d be passing on opposite sides of the road, and I was completely in the zone so would never have spotted her. Things were still going really well (Miles 11-14 = 6:49, 6:46, 6:45, 6:49), and it’s probably at about this point that I first thought a sub-3 could really be on, the early miles were out of the way, marathon pace was feeling good and even though I was tiring in each 45 minute segment the gels were really working and picking me up.

There were numerous water stations on course, I have no idea how many there were but I drank at all of them, not much, just a few gulps each time from the small water bottles they were handing out. One other distraction technique was attempting to discard the water bottles into the big waste bins they’d set up after the water stations, the organisers had cleverly installed giant bulls-eye targets above the bins which gave a nice sense of achievement when you bounced a water bottle in. Given the current concerns about the amount of plastic pollution in the world it didn’t feel great throwing so many part drunk plastic bottles away, I truly hope the organisers made a concerted effort to recycle as much of that plastic as possible.

After Timperley there were two lengthy straight sections (one of them back on the wide A56) which took us back to Brooklands, where I saw Katie for the second time, there was a 90 degree left turn where we’d agreed she’d be, I was scanning the crowd on the outside of the turn and just as I turned the corner there she was on a traffic island in the middle of the road. I gave her a big stupid wave and love the photo that Katie took, it shows me absolutely loving the race and being completely in control on MP at 16.5 miles in. We then completed a mile loop of Ashton Upon Mersey which was one of the last populated section before we headed out into the sticks. Again still in control on MP through 18 miles, and treated myself to a Cliff Shot Block at the two hour point (Miles 15-18 = 6:45, 6:49, 6:47, 6:50).

At this point I definitely knew a sub-3 was on, but I was running headfirst into the “danger zone” (cue Top Gun music). Mile 18 onwards was the part of the race that I was really concerned about pre-race, I was worried about slipping off MP and how I’d get back on it if that happened, plus given my lack of marathon experience how my head would react if such a thing occurred. It was also the part of the race which left the suburbs and went out into country lanes around Carrington with very few supporters on course. I tried to focus on my technique, reminding myself to stand up tall and keep my cadence high, I was also focusing on reeling other runners in and then moving onto my next target. Other runners were having to take walk breaks or stopping to stretch, but I just ploughed on with my MP and took my last gel at the 2:15 point (Miles 19-22 = 6:50, 6:49, 6:50, 6:54).

My mile 22 split was my first that exceeded MP, but giving back a couple of seconds were okay. More concerning was the first signs of cramp building in my calves. This very much hit home in the next mile: both of my calves started to cramp plus both my hamstrings. I tried not to panic, I had time in hand but I couldn’t hit my MP anymore, anytime I tried to push the cramp would worsen and occasionally I’d get a big jolt of pain when a foot would land and a big shooting pain would go right up the back of my leg and all of my nerve endings would explode into pain. I knew I couldn’t take many of those jolts so I just had to back off the pace and try to manage my average mile splits, trying to get them somewhere near the seven minute range. At mile 23 I took my final shot block with ‘only’ a Parkrun to go this was the final bit of nutrition I had.

I think the reason for the cramping was a lack of salt, thinking back on it now it makes sense and is a pattern with me that I didn’t think to address (until now). I’ve only ever run 22+ miles three times, but each time I have I’ve suffered with various leg cramps. Definitely something I need to address before I take on this type of distance again. Perhaps via something like salt stick tablets which are chew-able as part of in race nutrition.

Miles 24 and 25 were 7:04’s, and mile 25 was a 7:05, I knew I could afford to give back some of this time as I’d gained a decent chunk in the first 21 miles but given I was long at all of the mile markers plus I was slowing I knew it was starting to get really tight. I saw Katie for the last time just after the 25 mile point, she was on the inside of the big last left hand corner onto the wide A56 and gave me a shout, but I didn’t have much to respond to her with. The route went up the A56 for about half a mile before taking a right hand spur into the roughly half mile finishing straight. I was pretty much on fumes at this point, just trying to up the pace as much as I could whilst still dealing with the cramping. Turning into the finishing straight I could see the finish way off in the distance and I knowing my elapsed time on my watch I had about 3:30 to cover the last half mile. Others were around me but I ignored them, just concentrating on keeping my cadence as high as I could, my watch buzzed for mile 26: a 6:58, okay time to really go for it, there’s no way I’m letting this slip through my grasp now. One of my only complaints about the race is here, there were no visible countdown boards of distance to go, I’d have loved an 200/400/800m to go boards, I swear they weren’t there.

I stuck my head down and dug in, that bloody line wasn’t getting much closer, but time was ticking by, through 2:58 on my watch, keep pushing, forget about the pain, 2:59 ticks by on my watch and still a couple of hundred meters to go. Keep pushing the pace, 6:30, 6:20, 6:10 for the final few meters, it’s only then that I know I’m going to do it, I let myself celebrate arms wide in the final few meters.

A time that will live with me forever

Across the line and I’m trying to hold it together, my watch says 2:59:52 but I still need to wait for the official confirmation just to be sure. It’s a fairly lengthy walk hobble back through the athletes village and en-route we’re presented with medals, space blankets, water and pick up our t-shirts (black, shame would have preferred something with more colour). Then I’m back at the bag-drop, again it’s incredibly simple and well organised, plus pretty quiet given I’m a relatively early finisher. I quickly get my phone out and there it is a text confirmation of a 2:59:51, I’ve done it!!

So pleased with how I ran the race, look at all the positions I made up en-route 🙂

After a few pics in the race village and attempting a bit of a stretch I slowly made my way out to meet Katie nearby. We hobbled to a pub near to the Trafford Bar tram station and I enjoyed a well earned Guinness.

Time to celebrate with a beer

To be honest I was in a daze for much of the next few hours, not really believing I’d actually done it. I went back to the hotel and just chilled out for a few hours, my phone was blowing up with messages of congratulations from friends on various social media platforms and it was honestly overwhelming to read everybody’s wonderful comments. I can’t thank everybody enough for their messages of support on this journey, whether it be a like or a comment on a blog post, kudos on Strava or a retweet on Twitter, trust me every little bit of support has been incredibly important to me.

If Carlsberg did supporters …
My group leader doing his very best to break me post race … cannot tell you how much this meant to me.

Breaking the sub-3 barrier also represents my Good-for-Age (GFA) qualification time for London next year. However only beating the time by nine seconds doesn’t fill me with much confidence that I’ll get in via the GFA route (they only take a proportion of those who break their respective GFA times), but who knows maybe I’ll get lucky 🙂 Overall I’m so happy with what I’ve achieved, breaking the three hour barrier was a big stretch target for me and it’s something that nobody can ever take away from me. Even looking back on things a week later it still doesn’t quite feel real.

Manchester marathon is definitely a race I’ll never forget 🙂

Until next time …

Manchester Marathon – Pre-race thoughts and Goals

Making sense of it all before the big day …

I tried to write this last night but the words wouldn’t come, I’m hoping they flow easier tonight as I’m travelling North on the train.

So yeah, Sunday, the big day, it’s come round so quickly. The twelve week training programme I’ve been following has flown by. There have been a couple of lowlights (injury/illness) but for the majority it’s gone really well, surprisingly well I’d say. I honestly thought I’d struggle more than I have done. There are lots of positives to take:

  • My mileage is way up year on year (probably 150 miles up on this time last year)
  • More importantly my body hasn’t broken down. It turns out with a decent strength and conditioning routine in place 40+ miles a week is very manageable for me.
  • I’ve run a good number of Marathon pace (MP) miles at the end of long runs and I’ve been consistent with their pacing.
  • Again more importantly (for me at least) I’ve felt in control running those MP miles. The feeling of running in control is massive for me and is something I want to lock into on Sunday.
  • I competed all the interval sessions at the paces I was targeting.
  • My diet is better, I’m a compete porridge convert and it turns out homemade flapjacks are the bomb!
  • Running only 3 seconds off my PB at Parkrun the other week was a real confidence booster that my speed is still there even with all the miles in my legs.
  • I’m fitter and leaner than ever before, plus I’m near enough injury and illness free going into Sunday.
  • Bramley 20 miler went well, the last few miles were tough but overall it was almost exactly where I wanted it to be.

So I’m in a good place, but I’m not deluding myself that it’ll be at all easy to run a sub-3. It’ll be borderline, it’s always been the case, but I’m as prepared as I could be, and trust me I’ll leave everything out there trying to achieve it!

Goal wise it’s fairly simple, and you all know the ‘A’ goal, if I slip outside this then the logical next goals would be sub 3:05 and sub 3:10. Even if the wheels completely come off then I’ve (hopefully) got a marathon PB on the cards (as it’s currently 3:39:58).

I’d love to say I’d be fine with a 3:05 or a 3:10 (and trust me I know those are great times that I should be proud of) but I wouldn’t, I’d be disappointed. I’m incredibly competitive, whether it be sports or board games or anything really where winning is a possibility. I don’t do things and half arse them, I give my absolute all. Running is a slightly different beast; yes the marathon is a race (but not one that I have a hope of winning) for me it’s a competition against myself and the clock rather than others. The whole point of this journey is to see what I’m capable of over the marathon distance and I’m looking forward to seeing what I can achieve on Sunday.

As far as a race plan: I’ll be trying to run consistent marathon pace from the start; making sure I don’t make the mistake of being swept along with the masses and going off too fast; probably trying to lock into 6:48’s for as long as I can hold them; there’s a 3 hour pacer at the front of my wave so I might try to latch onto him and then stay with him all the way; I know my nutrition plan, both in terms of what and when; and I’ll be pushing through the pain from 20+ and using all the distraction tricks/mantras to escape the mental pain cave.

The nervous energy is beginning to build, and I can imagine that’s going to multiply exponentially tomorrow and early Sunday. I’m going to check out the start/finish area when we get up to Manchester just so I’ve got an idea of what I’m doing first thing on Sunday. Then it’s all systems go.

I’m really thankful that Katie will be with me in Manchester and supporting me out on the course, she’s been a great source of support throughout the training programme. We’re going to be spending a few days in the Peak District next week post marathon which we’re both looking forward to.

And that’s where I’ll leave it for now: I can’t do anymore; all the training is complete; I’m fit and healthy going in; Manchester I’m coming for you and I’m going to bloody smash it! (or die on my arse trying, LOL!)

Until next time …