Silverstone Half Marathon

First race of the season, done. That pretty much sums up last weekend, and an event that may well turn out to be less memorable in the long-term than I had expected, although it has taught me a few lessons which I am sure are going to be useful later on this year. But before I go into those, a few words on how my early season half marathon went down.

The Plan

I have always been a fair weather athlete, and until now every race I have taken part in since getting into multi-sports in around 2010 has been during British Summer Time, between April and October. And for good reason, as we Brits don’t usually get the best weather even during our supposed warm season, but believe me it can be even worse in the winter, which makes training a real pain. This has never been a problem, as my A-Race has always been  from around June onwards, so I have got away with indoor training until the end of March, and then topped things off with a bit of outdoor swimming and running in the sunshine, ready to hit my peak as the weather finally improves.

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But this year, with my first ever full marathon calling, I have decided to get started a bit earlier in order to bank some serious (ish) miles as early as possible, and what better way to do this than book myself onto one of the first majors of the year, the Adidas Silverstone Half Marathon. What a fantastic sounding opportunity to run on the same track on which so many F1 legends have raced – Hamilton, Senna, Mansell – the crowd cheering whilst we spray champagne on the finish line, and so on. Plus, having this in the diary would make sure I put in some effort through January & February (which to be fair has worked a bit – see my last post), to get a bit of momentum going for the year. That was the plan…

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Somewhere along the way however, I got sidetracked by the fact that this was supposed to be one of the flattest run courses of all, and therefore a great one for a PB, so I became fixated on achieving a sub-2 hour time, which given my last time of 2.03 in Birmingham did not seem unreasonable. I think you can see where this is going…

Race Day

Silverstone is probably the most famous racing track in the UK, and as an F1 fan it always feels a bit special. I had been lucky enough to go a few times before, although both times were to see my wife and brother on track day experiences rather than for major events. All the more reason to look forward to running on the hallowed tarmac.

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The first thing I want to say is that the organisation and logistics of this event were absolutely fantastic, possibly the best I have ever encountered. Signposts & parking were clear & easy, and there were an absolute ton of really friendly marshals to help out and make sure everything went smoothly. In fact I am willing to bet there were more race attendants here than there will be competitors in the next race I am booked on for in May. Great work fellas!

Sadly the weather was not playing ball, as despite the Saturday before (and Monday after) being sun-filled delights, it was raining just enough to be annoying and cold, but not quite to the degree of requiring an actual raincoat. The event plan asked competitors to be there by 10.30 am for the 12.00 start, which was sensible to avoid a last minute rush, but unfortunately meant 90 minutes of standing around getting cold before things kicked off. 

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Yep, it was a bit chilly at the start

After leaving my stuff at the bag drop I headed to the line at 11.15, assuming there would be some sort of pre-race briefing or warm up, but again, nada. Just 45 minutes of jogging on the spot (this time minus my warm outer layers) and casually trying to shelter from the rain behind a taller person without letting on what I was doing.

The event plan had said there would be various bands playing throughout the course, but every time I took off my headphones to see what was going on they just seemed to be playing Bon Jovi on the speakers. Not that there is anything wrong with that by the way, but I did prefer my own mix (which included plenty of other 80’s classics). Apparently the starting band was Scouting For Girls, who had a few horrendous songs about a decade ago, which was all the more reason to keep my buds in!

The Race

As with most races this big, the start was a bit of an anti-climax, as instead of sprinting off at the sound of the klaxon, we spent a few minutes doing the awkward British shuffle towards the line, as about 5,000 people tried to squeeze between the starting posts, but finally we were off.

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Thank you to Marathon Foto

It was a strange feeling running on the track, a bit like being in the middle of a nice wide road, but with a surprising amount of water retained in places. The corners were also a lot sharper than expected given drivers must regularly be doing over 100 mph in places!

I set off at an absolute blast by my standards, in my head really going for that 2 hour mark. My plan was basically to keep an eye on the pace screen on my Tom Tom, and keep it below 6 minutes per kilometre, which would see me through on time. And things were going great as I was going closer to 5.30/km or bang on 9 minute miles in old money, and managing to maintain it well. I hit the first kilometre in 5.15, and the 5 km mark in 27 minutes, not far off my top speed for that distance. Perhaps that should have been a warning, but I was too focused to worry for now.

Around the 30 minute mark I saw multiple Olympic gold winner David Weir zooming past on what must have been his last lap in the outside lane (he won the race in 47 minutes!), which was pretty motivating even if it was only for a few seconds. He was miles ahead of the rest of the field, and even the camera car following him seemed to be struggling to keep up.

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The Weirwolf in action at Silverstone, 2016

I have to say, it was a bit mean of the organisers to loop us around the back of the refreshment stand at the start of lap 2, meaning all we could smell as we ran past were bacon sarnies and Cornish pasties, like some sort of psychological torture. Still, I was not too bothered as I was still doing well against my plan, hitting the 10 km mark on 55 minutes. If I could keep this up I would have over 10 minutes to do the last mile or so, no problem…

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My next vehicle…

As much as I would like to say it was fun running on such hallowed racing ground, the actual experience was a bit less so. The British Grand Prix has around 150,000 spectators meaning the stands and banks get packed out, and everywhere the cameras go on TV there are thousands of cheering fans. Understandably the turnout for this race was a bit lower, with probably a few thousand family members congregated mainly near the start finish line, meaning that for 90% of the race the atmosphere was a bit quiet in such a huge venue. And if the outlying stands looked a bit empty from the front, they looked positively skeletal backed by the grey sky as you ran behind them, taking a bit of the sheen off things.

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Lovely day!

About halfway through the sun finally broke through and it warmed up, which means the weather was basically doing the exact opposite of ideal conditions for a race, i.e. warm beforehand whilst you stand around on the line, and then a bit of light rain to cool you down towards the end. Instead, it meant even more of the clichéd runners ‘throwing-water-on-your-head-to-cool-down’ tricks at the pit stops.

At 15 km things were still going alright, as I reached the three quarter mark in under 90 minutes, but I began to notice the route starting to head uphill. And from there it did not really let off for the rest of the distance. When you watch racing on TV the course always looks so flat, and the cars are so powerful they barely seem to acknowledge and gradient. But on foot it is a lot more up and down than expected, and I later found out that whilst more of the first half of the course is downhill (perhaps explaining my pace), the second half has more uphill. Not steep mind you, like the Great Birmingham hill, but just enough to take it out of tired legs.

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Covering every corner of the circuit

It was about that point that I started to struggle, the combination of heat, hills and hunger hitting my body like a rugby tackle and chopping my pace. Suddenly my target of just 6 minute kilometres seemed a long way off, and as it began to creep up over 7 minutes it hit me that the dream was over for today. That realisation and disappointment only seemed to make things worse, as my body began to give in. I was, as they say, hitting the wall.

In triathlons this is known as ‘Bonking’, apparently due to a lack of glycogen in the body. It has famously happened to both Alistair & Jonny Brownlee in recently years (so I guess I am amongst esteemed company), although I did not have anyone around willing to carry me over the line, so I just had to push on as much as possible. 

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After pinning so much on hitting my target I was genuinely gutted as it shattered before my eyes, and had I been more hydrated might even have shed a tear or two, but I was not going to let the race beat me. My pace by now was verging on walking, although I refused to actually go there, managing to get along with the classic runner’s shuffle up the final few slopes as waves of others that I had been overtaking in the last couple of hours began to flow back past me. 

Finally though, the finish was in sight, and although I could not quite manage my ‘trademark’ speed burst for the line, I did manage to get together for the last few hundred metres to the end. Finally, there were some supporters lined up cheering us on, although sadly no chequered flag to wave us over the line, possibly for the best as I might have run straight into it!

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Brian sums up how I felt on the line…

The Aftermath

The first thing I remember after I crossed the line was the pa system playing that horrendous Disney song ‘Let It Go’, probably the most inappropriate racing tune imaginable, although I did have a feeling maybe it was aimed directly at me, to tell me to get over the time and just enjoy the finish feeling. Sadly I was in too much pain, so hobbled over to collect my finishers pack [incidentally – best goodie bag ever, with a quality medal, t-shirt, a ton of food and even a bottle of sunscreen] and downing the protein shake it contained in a single gulp.

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This was my seventh half-marathon, three of the others coming as part of a triathlon, but I honestly can’t remember feeling so bad straight after a run. I really was out of it and had to lean on the barrier for a good 10 minutes before I could do anything, but eventually came around as heart rate began to level out. My final time was 2.05.11, having taken around 35 minutes to complete the last 5 km. Not even a PB in the end, although in the end it was my second best time which I suppose is an upside…

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Now I have had a couple of days to reflect on things, and also read back what I wrote straight after, I have realised I may have been a bit of a drama queen about it. After all, in none of the 20 or so long distances events I have raced in the past have I ever been remotely bothered about my time (other than when I just made the 8 hour cut off by 3 minutes in the Avenger), and I had not done any specific speed training. Maybe this was my best chance to break two hours, or maybe it will come next time.

I also read an interview with David Weir online where he said how tough he found the conditions tough, and also did not beat his own PB either, which made me feel a teensy bit better. It was pretty cool seeing him zoom past, and had I had the energy I would love to have given him a Weirwolf howl (awoo)!

So the main takeaway here is the first race of the season is done, and I survived. Plus I have a head start on training this year, as well as some valuable lessons on both myself and racing that I plan to put to good use in future, and might even talk about next time on here. Plus a great excuse to dig into some of these bad boys that I realised I had stashed away for a rainy day in the house!

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Race Report: Great Birmingham Run – 19/10/14

Sunday had something of a bittersweet feeling, as it was not just my final race of 2014, but the culmination of a hell of a year.

Bupa Great Bham Run

This was my second consecutive Great Birmingham Run, which unlike most of the others I have completed this year meant I actually knew what to expect for most of the course, and it did help out a lot. In particular the dreaded hill section (around miles 10-12) which although it still hurt a lot, I was more prepared this time around to conquer it.

The Build Up

I spend the day before getting into the zone by watching back-to-back Dark Knight movies: something about the music really helps me psyche up, and I took this all the way through by listening to the soundtrack on the way to the race (the Hans Zimmer one rather than Prince!) and watching Gotham afterwards! In fact I actually ran most of the course alongside a guy dressed as Batman, accompanied as always by Robin, Bananaman and … er Luigi!

Things started well in the build up area when I spotted a Soreen van with samples of my favourite malt loaf. Much to the embarrassment of my long-suffering wife who had kindly come along to be my supporter/driver/ photographer/kit carrier, I then attempted to fill my bag with as many free samples as I could to ensure I won’t need to worry about my mid-morning work snack for the rest of the month. I even got a photo outside it, although implore you not to stop reading just because of this. I will be writing more about my take on sports nutrition soon, but all I will say for now is this is about as good as you can get during longer distance races.

After a week of not being able to train outside due to rain, and with Hurricane Gonzalo due to reach us just days later, I don’t think anyone had expected it to be sunny. I hold my hands up here in that is was probably my fault – most of the races I have had this year have ended up being much hotter than planned, so I guess the sun just has it in for me. Obviously I had not brought sunglasses or cream, so another unintentional Monday morning red face was inevitable. Still, it was better than it raining.

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The Start

As usual there was a great atmosphere around the course, and it was great to see that the official starters were two of my local heroes – Triathlete Jodie Stimpson (see Commonwealth Games blog from July) and Warwickshire batsman Ian Bell – both of whom looked even smaller in real life than on TV.

There are so many people in this race that you are split into separate left and right sides, with a staggered start. Unfortunately I ended up on the left which meant having to wait an extra 10 minutes or so before I could get away, so I had a lot of hopping about on the spot to keep warm. Ahh, that brings us to the group warm up – Something we seem to escape in triathlons, presumably on the basis most people are well prepared for their race, or possibly the fact you start in the water – But I digress. Those who have done similar events may be familiar, a Mr Motivator type guy  gets hoisted up in front of the crowd with a banging soundtrack and goes through a series of stretches, squats and general lunacy, to make sure everyone is ready. It is a bit of fun, but I was fairly capable myself, and as mentioned it was another half hour before I actually got to cross the start line.

Now the important bit – The whole race was televised live on Channel 5, and whilst most of the focus was on the elites at the front there were a few clips of us real racers, and having Sky+ the whole thing I did what everyone does in such situations and watched it back later to see if I could spot myself. Amazingly I was in the only clip they showed of my wave starting, with real pictorial evidence below (I am circled bottom left). Now I am not quite going to suggest it is going to get me VIP entry anywhere soon, or even time to apply for Celebrity Big Brother (although it probably would qualify me). That said, autographs will be available on request.

Bham Run C5

The Race

Looking back at my last blog, I had banged on about how much I liked my GPS watch. Obviously this was an ideal time to be using it, helping me work out how fast I was going to pace myself, and more importantly how much further I had to keep struggling on for! Unfortunately this was the one time it managed to let me down: I had expected it to take a while to lock onto satellites, being surrounded by fairly tall buildings and not to mention thousands of others trying to do the same, so I switched on about 15 minutes before the start, but it just would not connect. Even as I crossed the line I still had no luck, and in the end it took another quarter of an hour before it finally worked out where I was. This meant that I had already clocked up 3km: far faster than planned and using up more energy to boot, as well as giving me a bit of mental arithmetic to do working out where I really was. It also messed up the pretty map I have shown below, as I managed to teleport halfway across town from the start line!

Birmingham Run Map

As well as my superhero chums there were plenty of other costumed wonders in this race such as Wolverine & Spider-Man, and even one guy who had a caged gorilla suit like the one in Trading Places, but the headliners in Brum are always the Wolverhampton Jamaican Bobsled team who do this every year in full costume. They start in the first wave and I guess the early downhill plays into their hands, but I assume Sanka is on brakes and slowing them down, as I caught them up around the same time my GPS found me. Fair play for the commitment though, as I would not have wanted to wear this get up in Sunday’s weather.

Birmingham Jamaica

I suppose I should say a few words about my own performance in the race. It is a road course, and it is hard to get too lost or really do anything unusual. The biggest difference between a running race and triathlon is you are allowed music and headphones which is great for motivation (power song was Noots by Sum 41), but as just about everyone else has them you don’t get quite as much interaction / banter as in a tri. On the other hand, with 20,000 participants you are a lot more squashed together so at least this is not quite as lonely (as say the Avenger when I spent nearly an hour without seeing anyone).

A word needs to be said about the support for this event though, as it is fantastic. The race goes through a lot of residential areas, and there were tens of thousands of people out and about, cheering us on, and even offering drinks and sweets to keep people going. It really is the best part of this race, was enough on its own for me to have done it again this year.

And the hill. As mentioned it is the one part of the course everyone talks and worries about. The TV commentary describes this as one of the toughest half-marathons on the calendar, which is a surprise as you would not have thought of Birmingham as being particularly undulating. There is a small hill just after the 3 mile mark, which this year caused me no trouble, and if the main hill came then it would probably be ok. But it comes after 1o miles, waiting until your legs are already well and truly shattered before rearing its long neck and finishing you off. But this year I was prepared, or so I thought.

There is a golden rule in racing that you should not try anything for the first time in the race, be it clothing or nutrition. I always adhere to this, and in a triathlon earlier this year I received a new energy gel in the goodie pack, which looked perfect for this race: a Gu Double Espresso gel. A small pack, it had a fair bit of caffeine in it and looked just right to help me up the last section. Having consumed well over a hundred different gels this year I did not expect it to be any different, so downed it at the bottom of the hill – how bad could it be? Turns out very. It had the consistency of an actual chocolate fudge cake, which sounds great, but with an already dry mouth having finished my water bottle a mile or so earlier, it immediately filled my whole mouth and refused to move. As my nose had blocked itself up I therefore could not breathe: not the best position to be in at this point. Somehow I eventually managed to gulp it down and fortunately there was water available at the top, but there is a definite lesson to be learned here…

The Finish – 2.08.40

As with the start, the finish of this race is always fantastic. You run the final mile all the way down Broad Street, lined by tens of thousands of supporters who make a huge noise, while the Chariots of Fire some plays on speakers. I took out my headphones to take it in properly, as it was being drowned out by all the shouts anyway – I presume a few were for other racers too, but they probably just had not managed to watch back the Channel 5 footage of me yet…

I managed to get in a proper sprint finish for the last 200m, which ensured I was able to dramatically collapse into the barriers immediately after crossing the line, but I am sure only a few hundred people saw me so I probably got away with it. And that was it – my final race of 2014 completed, three minutes faster than my previous time- and leaving just a few short months of training to complete the remainder of the Chile Challenge. That is assuming my legs ever recover, as two days later I am so stiff I still can’t climb up the stairs properly…!

Bham Run Finish Bham Run J&A