Back on the Road

Let’s not kid ourselves. Things are things are tough at the moment, certainly worse than any other time in my lifetime: if we are going to get through this with the mind intact we need to look for and celebrate the positives.

Like many others I have barely left the house for over a month now, although compared to some of my colleagues elsewhere in the world, I do feel hugely fortunate that in the UK we are at least actually ‘allowed’ to go outside once per day for our government approved exercise.

Rocky 4 Behind the Scenes | Making of Rocky IV

As someone who spent much of the recent winter training for a marathon, I am already used to pounding the local pavements on my own. Morning runs in January tended to be solitary at the best of times, only occasionally sighting other fellow lunatics who had likely also signed up for early season races in a moment of madness, but I did get to like that feeling of space and quietness, although funnily enough it is the opposite now.

The thing is, despite calling myself a triathlete, if I am honest almost all of my training is running and swimming, with my only cycling between races now indoors. Why don’t you take the bike out more often I hear you ask?

Road & Traffic Signs | Manchester (Free Quotes - 0161 776 0527)

I know there are load of great cycle paths and so on, but the honest answer is I just really don’t like riding on busy roads, dodging cars, pot holes and headphoned pedestrians who wander onto the tarmac without looking. I live within a mile of two of the busiest motorways in the country and believe me, the streets here are always packed. So I only participate in organised bike events, preferably with properly closed roads, but if not at least large enough that they will be clearly signposted for drivers to keep an eye out, and never end up riding around where I live…

Until now!

After finally accepting that there really are actually no cars out at the moment I bit the bullet and decided to dust off the bike for first time since my 100 mile Velo, just under a year ago.

Bike 4

The first ride started off a bit nervous, not quite believing I could be the only person out at 7am on a cold but sunny Sunday morning, but after not seeing another soul for in the opening 15 minutes I realised how much I had been missing out. Running is truly liberating, giving you the freedom to explore at your own pace, especially as many paths and places can only be reached on foot, but biking significantly expands your reach, providing a far greater radius to travel  which was something I have been craving in these constrained times.

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A few weeks later I have been fortunate enough that the weather has held, and three rides down I am on track for more than 100 km this month, exploring roads and villages around my town I never knew existed – hilltop views, secluded streams, hidden bluebell woods and even a national nature reserve.

Bike 2

I have also started to notice some of those little things I enjoy on foot have their own counterparts on the bike:

  • A slight turn of the head when approaching a junction to get the wind out of your ears and listen for oncoming traffic (people massively underestimate the part hearing plays in riding – a major reason I never listen to music on the road)
  • That small smile of satisfaction from a perfectly timed gear change when approaching a hill as you seamlessly move into the climb, avoiding avoid the dreaded ‘clunk’ on the cassette (this might be BAU for real riders, but I still like it!)
  • The tiny extra pressure on the pedals as you hit the downhill to lift your backside a quarter inch from the saddle and alleviate the impact of any bumps as you hit top speed. One discovered out of necessity as much as anything…

So what can I say, I can consider myself a re-converted cyclist, looking forward to exploring some new parts of town for the first time – and who knows, maybe I will even carry it on!

Warming Up

I wrote on here a while ago about how me training routine has changed this year due to needing to be ready for my Marathon (change being the very appropriate word given it is now 6 more months away).

Traditionally this meant I tended to follow a similar routine: spending winter in the comforting environment of my gym, the only exposure to cold air in training kit being a sprint between heated car interior to heated club lobby.

Then, like a grizzly bear emerging from hibernation, I would finally venture out around March as the clocks roll forward and the temperature finally begins to get its game together. As a result, I don’t tend to really notice the difference between hot and cold exercise, as if all goes to plan there would not be any (properly) cold weather training.

Bear Hibernation Illustrations, Royalty-Free Vector Graphics ...

But as mentioned this year is different, as I have been building my running distance month-on-month since October, and have only been to the gym a handful of times at all this year, and not at all in the last month for slightly different reasons. One of the great benefits of this turns out that I can really handle the cold a lot better, those 7am January runs at 2 or 3 degrees in the odd moment of winter sun really must have toughened me up and after the first few icy minutes passed I actually enjoyed those moment…

… or so I thought, as it turns out there has been an unexpected side-effect: I can no longer handle the heat! Those in the UK will can’t have failed to notice a big jump in temperature this weekend, from single digits to the low 20’s, and wow what a difference it makes.

Tempted as all runners would be by the combination of blue sky and empty streets I went for an early run on Good Friday morning, aiming to do my usual 10k but ending up getting carried away and going closer to 15. Not usually a problem but it turned out to be a real schoolboy error as I was not at all used to the extra heat. First up I hadn’t thought to bring anything to drink, having trained my body to go without during my hour long winter runs, the main reason being my hands just can’t handle carrying a bottle for that long in the cold, even in gloves. 90 minutes, whilst not impossible, was a heck of a lot tougher while losing 1000% more fluids through sweat and by the end I was really struggling.

Trail Running – Page 2 – Girl Running Crazy

Secondly was Mr Sun. Having not been anywhere remotely hot for more than 18 months my poor pale scalp was not equipped to handle the early season UV rays, and I came back looking like I had swapped my head for a tomato!

Finally the physical impact in muscular pain and cramp. One of the best and worst parts of outdoor running is you have to plan your routes well as whatever distance you decide to do, you have to get home at some point in the end, so if you run too far in one direction you are going to need to go the other way again. I did have a couple of gels and managed to make it around without anything too major, but I did notice a few twinges on the last few hills and reckon another mile or so would have been serious issues.

Saying all of that, it did feel really good to be out in the warm weather, and with a few hundred miles of running in my legs from the last 6 months it really felt different to my usual forays at this time of year. I just need to remember the fluids and sun lotion next time!

Into Perspective

We are living in strange times and 2020 has definitely been the strangest year yet.

The last decade has seen some real extremes in this country, from the highs of sports events like the 2012 Olympics & Cricket World Cup, to the political lows of the Credit Crunch & Brexit. People have been brought together and fallen apart, but I don’t think any of us were prepared for what we are going through now.

The last week alone has seen travel bans, curfews, self-isolation and sadly there will still be more to come. It is times like this when you just want to spend time with your loved ones, but in many cases even that is not even possible at the moment. For me personally things are very different this year, with a new baby to look after and family members to worry about. Sport should not have even entered the equation, but for some reason it did.

For many people sport is of course a luxury, a hobby, and low down the list of important things. Most UK sports events in the coming months have now been cancelled, including International Rugby, Cricket, and even football (you know it must be bad when the footie is off). Sure, we can do with a break from sport for a while, although for many it is a big part of their lives – something to get excited about, something to escape with, something to guide your social activities. There was a great piece on BBC News this week on this and I know exactly what they are getting at.

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This of course brings me onto the postponement of the London Marathon, the driving force behind restarting this website. For many runners it is the pinnacle of their career, ad it is with true British irony that after a decade of trying to get a place in the darn thing, the year I finally manage it and the world turns upside down!

For the first week of March as the news started spiraling and Covid reached Europe I wondered if it might even affect the race – hoping this might come and go by the end of the month like many other stories, forgotten moments later – but clearly things were different as other races, events and matches began to be cancelled by the day.

Lots of questions, both selfish and practical: If the Marathon is cancelled will they honour my place next year? Could they really reschedule such a complex closed roads event? What about the funds I had raised so far? How long could I maintain my running fitness? What about the hotel I had booked before and after?

By the time the inevitable announcement came it was actually a massive relief. The race was still taking place but postponed until October. I would keep my place, and have the luxury of summer training to look forward to (more irony after months of cold, wet training through winter!). I even managed to defer my hotel say until the new race weekend.

It feels like a massive weight had been lifted. Having waited all this time, I can manage another few months waiting. Clearly there will be a lot of disappointed athletes, who maybe cant make the new date or cannot cancel their travel plans as easilly, but ultimately you have to look at the positives. The actions now will reduce pressure on the health service and ultimately save lives, and with luck the crowds will be back in full strength again by the Autumn, ensuring that special atmosphere everyone wants for the this race. And hey, how many people will get to say they took part in the only London Marathon to have ever taken place in October…

Even better, you lucky readers will get an extra six months of these ramblings to read in the meantime!

 

 

A Tale of Two Seasons

When I talk to many people about my various challenges and longer distance events, at some point the conversation will usually get around to the topic of training.

As much as I would love to claim to run hundreds of miles each month or smash through 4am gym sessions the truth is somewhat less exciting: I train 3 or 4 times per week, usually for about an hour, majority cardio, and whilst I do step it up as I get closer to the big day there is only so much time in the week with a full time job (and 9 month old baby!).

When I first started out my training was very gym based, with a big focus on spin and circuit based classes and only occasional outdoor stuff. It was only when I started working away and wanted to escape the monotony of chain hotels that I even got into running. To be fair though it all worked, seeing me through three 70.3 Ironmen, two 100 mile cycle sportives, one marathon and a whole load of obstacle races, half marathons and so on.

The common denominator of all those races though, is they took place during Summer or early Autumn, which has meant for most of the last 6 or 7 years I have been able to take it steady from around October to March, keeping my base fitness through Winter with nice cosy indoor gym sessions, before starting to step things up as the time the clocks Spring forward and the temperatures start rising, in time for my A-race.

Everything has changed this year with the London Marathon, an event not only terrifying in its distance (which I know I can do) but in its timing – April! This has truly forced me out of my comfort zone as I actually have to train properly through the Winter, increasing my weekly mileage throughout December, January and February. Believe me, getting around 26 miles is a big part of the sponsorship, but it is those three to six months before that you really earn the contributions and show your commitment.

Where once I used to smile inwardly at the ice cold January joggers, shuffling down the pavements in their shiny New Year’s resolution kit, as I drove past for another high energy class in my cosy warm gym, I am now the one hobbling down the high street in the fog, dodging the tidal waves as cars take turns to try and splash me with any available puddles. Yes, I am now a Winter runner.

rocky 4

To be fair there are some benefits of Winter running. When you get the right day, the sky can be even clearer than Summer, you have the roads to yourself, and the chills act as natural motivation to run faster and stave off hypothermia. But get the wrong day, or worse one which starts out looking alright and tricks you into running miles from home before unleashing a months worth of rain in half an hour… but back to the positives!

First up is the kit, which admit it or not, is always a massive draw for anyone who likes to work out in the cold dark evenings – and don’t the manufacturers know it. Layers of long sleeved, sweatproof, fast wicking tops just look cool, and the best ones even have those thumb holes in the sleeve so you can use them as a sort of weird glove thing. As a bonus they usually come in a range of 90’s dayglow colours which stand out in the dark, making you look like a high speed version of Ross’s teeth (for older readers think Cheshire cat)!

Ross Teeth

Then there are the leggings, a top look for any modern man, and one I rock hard, at nighttime anyway as they tend look a bit tight on my rugby player legs. Still, they keep you a lot warmer than shorts, as I have found to my cost in the past with bright red legs and icicle toes. I also usually run in my trail shoes at night, mainly to protect my precious road trainers from all that mud that accumulates on the local roads that you can’t see in the dark…

head torch

…or so I thought until I invested in an even ‘cooler’ piece of kit. That’s right I actually went and bought what used to be described as a miner’s lamp but is now cunningly re-branded as a runner’s head torch, ensuring my runs through the park now look to the casual observer like some sort of illegal teenage rave is going on, meaning it is only a matter of time before I get chased by the 5-0. Until they see my skintight leggings up close and let me go as the fall over laughing.

Crawley Run

But as usual it will be me who has the last laugh , as I can really tell the difference this year having done all this extra Winter training in the last few months. Not only will it make sure I am ready for London but give me a head start on any other events I do later on in the year: maybe even a new PB. Who needs Summer?!

2020 Vision

Having spending the last few posts looking back over recent years, it is time to look forward to what is going to be happening in the Chile Challenge world in 2020.

2020

Kicking off the year will be the Solihull Half Marathon, aka a way of making sure all that winter training has done enough to get me at least halfway around the capital. This is a new event for me, but in a good location that is pretty personal for me, right by where I got married. Although relatively small, it looks like it has all the things I look for in a race like chip timing, water stations and of course the promise of a goody bag!

Solihull

At this time of year there is a bit more limited choice of events at the right distance, but this one is right in the sweet spot, three weeks before my main race. Whilst I am not actually following a formal training plan, mainly because a 9 month old baby makes it near impossible to stick to any kind of schedule that tells you when to run, I have done enough big events by not to know how and when to build up my distance to (hopefully) peak at the right time, so this half will be a good test of how much I have learned.

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Then it is the biggie: London Baby! I will be writing plenty more about my thoughts on this one as it gets closer (68 days to go at time of writing) but for now it is hard to put into words how excited I am just to get a place in this, one of the world’s most famous races. After numerous of  failed attempts to gain a ballot place over the years (about 25 applicants for each place, and  have the losers t-shirts to prove it) I am so proud to be running for Bowel Cancer this year, a cause very close to my heart, and one I have a long history with going back to the start of this blog in 2014.

Bobby

After that it is a bit of fun to calm things down in Rough Runner, an old favorite in a new venue. I wrote about this here after first doing it a few years ago as my first ever OCR, and it was a real laugh. Like the Wolf Run it is a sort of team based cross country run, but the obstacles are based on classic TV shows like Gladiators and Total Wipeout, with all sorts of giant inflatables to negotiate, walls to climb and everyone’s childhood dream a Travellator to run up at the finish line!

Gladiators

And that is it for now, although I am sure I will tuck in a few other treats as the year goes on and write about them on here. In the meantime please take the time to check out my my sponsorship page where all support will go towards the Bobby Moore Fund for Bowel Cancer Research and keep me going around those London streets in April!

Catching up on 2019

Bringing things up to date, 2019 was a mixed year for challenges: fewer races than usual but some new and interesting things to talk about.

From a training perspective, the big new thing at my gym last year was the release of a brand new, purpose built Blaze studio. Touted as ‘the next big thing’, Blaze is a fantastic form of HIIT – High Intensity Interval Training –  short sharp bursts to get the heart rate pounding and maximise calorie burn, while building endurance and strength.

BlazeBlaze studio

The concept is simple, a 45 minute class with 3 x 3 minute rounds in 3 different zones. Firstly a treadmill, usually set as steeply as possible with (if you are lucky) alternating sprint/walks, or otherwise brutal climbs like the training montage in Rocky 4. The middle is a strength zone with dumbbells and a bench to do anything from squats to flyes, planks to deadlifts. The last (and best) is a full length punchbag, for all kinds of kickboxing drills, punches, knees and even some crazy floor work to really de-stress.

drago

To bring it to another level, all participants wear combat gloves and My Zone heart rate monitors (regular readers will know I am a sucker for new kit), with everyone’s performance projected onto the wall and coaches patrolling the room shouting encouragement,  over the music. Activities are targeted by zone, yellow being 80% of Max HR and Red being 90%+, with a goal to spend 12-18 minutes of the session in the red, while recovering as quickly as possible inbetween. It is massively addictive and I loved it instantly, a great way to keep up and track fitness all year round, with an unofficially competitive edge as it is near impossible not to compare your stats to others, which only pushes you on further.

blaze graph

On a slightly calmer note, I managed to get in a bit of diving last year, although not quite on the same levels as usual. This was neither the warm Caribbean sea nor the icy quarries of the midlands, but some more unusual venues. First up was an old fashioned hard-hat experience, diving indoors in one of those brass screw on helmets from back in the day as seen in films like Men of Honour, and wow did those guys have it tough. Not only did the helmet weigh an absolute ton, but the set of lead boots accompanying it ensured it was only possible to shuffle around with all the grace of a moonwalking elephant. My 15 minute experience went by in a flash though, and is highly experienced for any diver if only to realise how good we have it now!

The second part of the day was spending time in a real life decompression chamber. These things allow divers who have been to higher depths and pressures, or worse managed to get themselves DCS, aka ‘the bends’, and looks more like something you might see in a space station than hospital. In the end four of us spent half an hour simulating a deep dive to 50 metres, before the system slowly perfectly decompressed back to atmospheric pressure. And yes, all of the expected side effects did happen, from squeaky voices to nitrogen narcosis! A great experience, although hopefully one I will never have to actually do for real.

Dry Dive

Back on the racing trail it was two more familiar events that anchored the year: Velo 2  and Great Birmingham Run number 6!

The first Velo was my longest race to date and really tough, involving 8.5 hours cycling 100 miles up and down hills around Staffordshire, Worcestershire and the West side of Birmingham. This one was more of the same, but on the East side, taking in the sights of Solihull, Coventry and Warwickshire, with plenty of countryside to accompany the concrete. In fact one of the highlights was riding through the cobbled streets in the centre of Cov: who knew it was such a great looking place from that angle! 

The last race of the year was the Birmingham Run, which is really more of an annual tradition, and as mentioned the sixth in seven years (including the marathon). By now these have all blurred into one, but it is always a decent day out and supportive crowd, and I was happy enough that at least it did not tip it down like the previous year. Since October I have been ramping up my running in prep for the Marathon, moving from around 10k per week to closer to 20k by the end of the year, but more on that in future posts…

Because by far the biggest thing to happen last year was the birth of my beautiful baby daughter Isla in May!

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PS. Sponsorship link https://fundraise.cancerresearchuk.org/page/james-and-the-marathon-challenge, with more to follow soon!

The Challenge Returns… to London!

After a couple of years away I am pleased to announce the Chile Challenge blog will be making a return in support of the most exciting adventure so far: The 2020 London Marathon!

Over the coming weeks I will catch up on the various events, races and adventures from 2018 & 2019 and looking forward to what else is in store this year alongside the biggest of big races.

As part of the Marathon I will once more be raising money for a very personal charity to me, the Bobby Moore Fund for Bowel Cancer Awareness, who supporters kindly raised over £1500 for the original Chile Challenge back when this first began.

The new sponsorship page is https://fundraise.cancerresearchuk.org/page/james-and-the-marathon-challenge

Best of the Best 2017

Having rediscovered this blog in recent weeks I realised I left things on a bit of a downer after the Silverstone Half, which isn’t really a fair reflection of how the last few years’ Challenges have gone. As today is the start of a New Year (and I have a few spare hours to fill) I thought it was only right to round-up how the rest of 2017 went – the best of the best if you will – and for anyone still reading to give a bit of an insight into what is to come in 2018.

For someone who has always said my weakest area is running I seem to have spent much of my time last year on foot, so in true seasonal Top of the Pops style this is a countdown of my Top 10 runs of 2017, with a few bonus rounds thrown in for good measure:

10 – Bromsgrove Fun Run

The two main reasons I started this blog in the first place were firstly to help get fitter and achieve some personal success in races, and secondly to raise some money for charity from sponsors in my long distance challenges, so when a friend from the gym announced he would not only be organising a fun run on behalf of a local refugee charity, but it would be in my local park (my first race ever on home turf) it was a no-brainer. At just 3km I would of course have to break my own ‘not-getting-out-of-bed-for-less-than-5km’ rule, but on the basis I could add a couple of km each way by running to and from the race it made it more worthwhile.

Fun Run

A few seconds into what was a rainy run, I realised I had slightly misjudged the level of competition, as I sprinted off the line leaving behind a crowd comprised mainly of children and pensioners! Still, a result is a result, and I realised I had a rare chance of a podium as this rate. In the end it did not quite happen, and I had to settle for 5th place behind a kid about a third of my age (if only the race had been longer distance!) whilst top spot was apparently taken by a Team GB quadrathlete who had also obviously not got the memo about taking it slowly. Still, a fun day out, and maybe one I can return to try again in future.

9 – London Olympic Stadium

This one goes right back to the early weeks of January almost a full 12 months ago now. Just a nice early morning run around the East End, but with a pretty memorable centrepiece running around Olympic Park and the Stadium. Despite being pretty chilly, the lights looked great – except for the pitch black ‘Greenway’ section which my workmates casually told me was also known as ‘murder mile’ later that morning – but fortunately there were not too many others about at 6am and it ended up being just me and the stadium for much of the run.

Bonus 1 – Les Mills Live London

As our fourth One Live in two years, we felt like veterans by the time this rolled around in July, longer getting lost on the way to the venue or between classes, and managing to pace ourselves to not burn out around lunchtime. I have written loads on here before about One Live, and happy to say this one was more of the same, which was a good thing. We hit all the big classes – Combat, Attack, Pump & Step – bookended with some relaxing Body Balance and a bit of Sh’bam fun.

8 – Norwich City Runs

This was a big year for City runs, and at one point  had intended to try a different one each month – until I changed jobs and stopped living in hotels like Alan Partridge for a living – but I did manage to get in a good few in the first half of the year. Talking about living in cheap hotels, I had two weeks in Norwich during the late-June heatwave, which gave some good opportunities for exploring, although the runs needed to be either first thing in the morning or late at night to avoid the most of the heat.

It is a great running city with interesting streets, a castle, football stadium and plenty of riverside paths to explore / get lost in. The second week was spent out of town in a much nicer resort with its own golf course, which naturally I had to test out on another early morning run, trying to avoid the groundsmen in their giant lawnmowers who I had convinced myself would tell me off if I went near them for running near the course.

7 – Guernsey Seaside Runs

An even more exotic destination back in March was a fortnight on the Channel Island of Guernsey, which was also surprisingly warm for the time of year. Saint Peter Port is a charming capital of sorts, and another fantastic location for some long runs around the water’s edge. Highlights included fantastic early morning sunrises over the sea, two large castles with plenty of cannons, and generally great scenery all round.

 

Bonus 2 –  Cyprus Scuba

Whilst two weeks in Cyprus was not great for running (just descending the steps to the pool made you sweat in 40 degree heat) it was a lot better for diving, after I discovered a great scuba centre right next door to my hotel. After a couple of familiarisation shore dives I managed to notch up my 50th dive (as well as achieving Master Scuba Diver status) on none other than the Zenobia – rated as the top wreck dive in Europe. With warm waters and great visibility, the near-fully intact transport ship more than lived up to expectations as we managed to swim all around and inside the vessel, joined by copious amounts of tropical fish. A couple more sessions closer to our resort culminated in my first ever night dive, which ended up turning into more of an underwater rave complete with glowsticks!

 

6 – Newcastle Night Run

Going back even further to February I had a freezing fortnight on the Toon, staying so close to the Tyne that the fog was literally all mine, misting up my hotel room window every morning. The runs though were great, and I wrote about them on here in some detail in a previous post. As usual I alternated between late evening and early morning runs, meaning I had most of the streets to myself, got totally lost (at one point missing my lift to the office after an unintentional extra 30 minute detour one morning!). Still, the parks, bridges and waterfront all looked great lit up and this was a nice way to see much of a genuinely interesting city.

 

 

5 – Silverstone Half

My first event of 2017, and covered in much detail in my last post. Looking back I am still glad I managed this, the opportunity to emulate my F1 heroes and zoom around the famous circuit, albeit with eerily empty stands! If anything it made sure I got the year off to a start, making me train though winter and teaching me some valuable lessons on pacing yourself in a race.

Bonus 3 – Iceland Expedition

Ok this one is not strictly a sports event, but I was fortunate enough to spend this Christmas in Iceland, which I would be remiss not to talk about here. Whilst the snow made it pretty impractical to do any running, we did manage to conquer a few snowy peaks on top of the county’s longest glacier Langjökull, and even venture inside at one point (wearing crampons to ensure no ice-related injuries). A fascinating and beautiful country, especially at this time of year, which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the outdoors.

Iceland

4 – Valencia Run

Back to the running world, I did manage a warmer run in April whilst spending a few days in city of Valencia in Spain. Given the weather allows for great year-round running the locals have done a fantastic job of creating interesting run routes, most notably the Turia gardens, a dried river bed that once ran through the city, which is now acres of parkland which winds around the historic old town, past the city gates and the out-of-this-world City of Arts & Sciences which has to be seen to be believed!

3 – London Top Gun

Last year seemed to be a case of either being far too hot (Cyprus, Valencia, er Norwich) or freezing cold (Iceland, Newcastle, London in January), but I did manage to get in one more hot run in London whilst working there in early July. Although I stayed in my usual place and retraced a few of my classic routes, this one was a bit special as it was my first proper ‘Virtual’ race – the Top Gun run. The idea with this was I could complete any route I liked, in any time, and upload to a website to ‘compete’ against others. I received back a finishers certificate and a pretty cool Top Gun medal, which if anything is at least the largest one I now own, if not the best looking.

 

2 – Worcester Half

My other proper half marathon last year was in Worcester, near to where I live. This ended up going a lot more smoothly than the Silverstone race, although was perhaps slightly less memorable. Closed roads made it a lot friendlier, and it did have a good atmosphere with plenty of time to chat to other runners as we completed one large loop, and learning from past experience I relaxed properly into this one, giving me a slower finish time but plenty of opportunity to take in some of the countryside in spring.

Bonus 4 – Velo Birmingham

The last of the non-run events this year was also arguably my A-Race, a 100 mile bike sportive around the West Midlands, taking in parts of Birmingham, Staffordshire and Worcestershire. In the past I could have written pages about the great atmosphere, hair-raising corners, organised pit-stops and even attempted sabotage from local protesters (yes really!), but the main thing I remember from it was hills.. endless hills. As much as I had tried to train properly for this race I had other things on my mind (see next entry) and as such I had enough stamina to get around this, but it took over 8 hours (!) and was a real killer. That said, it was a huge achievement which I would stand alongside any of my half-Ironmen on time alone, and the less said about recovery time after an entire day in the saddle the better!

Velo

1. Birmingham Marathon

So the biggie, a full marathon in my adopted home city. And what a day is was! Having completed plenty of half’s over the years, I decided it was time to step up ad bite the bullet. The good news was there was a new route which started the race in the main athletic stadium in the North of the city, before winding through to the centre. From there it turned into two loops, some of which was on the old half marathon course, although interestingly doing it backwards (clockwise rather than anticlockwise, not actually backwards as that would be crazy). This had some benefits as it meant I knew where I was going (although with 10k+ runners it would have been hard to get lost), but as per the usual rules of multi-loop races meant the second lap was guaranteed to be a real test of mental toughness.

Bham Marathon

And with some inevitability, around mile 20 a particularly short but steep hill brought on a dose of cramp and put paid to any thoughts I had been harbouring of a sub-5 hour finish. In the past I might have let that get to me, but this year I had learned from my mistakes in Silverstone, and refused to let myself worry about times – after all this was my first ever full marathon, and was taking place around the corner from where I used to live, and right next to my current office – this was too good a chance to worry about small things. So with the help of some of the best support for any race I have ever taken part in I pushed through the final few miles and made it across the line for that indescribable feeling of euphoria you only get after going through the limit. Marathon complete!

Looking Ahead

So how could that list possibly be topped? What next for 2018? Well a few days ago I realised that this was looking like the first year in half a decade where I had no races in the diary, having had to enter most of my big triathlons and marathons over 12 months ahead in some cases just to be sure of a place. In something of a panic I have managed to spend New Year booking myself onto two big outdoor events:Wolf Run & Tough Mudder. These are both off-road, trail based runs which should involve plenty of rough terrain, obstacles, and of course mud. Both should be fun, and I am sure I will be adding a few more races to the list by the end of the summer, and who knows maybe I will be able to rack up as many events as 2017. I might even write a blog about them…!

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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Great Northern & Southern Runs

I realised the other day that I have not written anything on here all year, and wondered whether it could be due to something I talked about a while ago, where the bulk of my winter training has been based on indoor classes. As much as I love doing them, the thing is you really don’t get much time to think, as you focus on following the instructor in time to music, and in my case make sure you don’t fall over! With longer distance training however, you have a lot more time to yourself and your own thoughts which, for me at least, is where I end up writing most of these.

But that is all about to change, as not only do I have something to talk about now, with my opening race of the season just a few days away, but I have managed to man-up and get out in the cold for a few decent runs recently.

Night

To be fair, things actually started a few weeks before Christmas when I was working down in Gatwick and managed to get in a few evening runs, which I wrote about in my last blog. Given that my job involves travelling around the UK and spending a fair bit of time in cities – some more interesting than others – I thought I would make more of an effort to do some exploring on foot and then write about the places I get to along the way.

First up for me this year was of course London, a place where I have to spend a lot of time, usually around the Docklands area. Whilst I have been for plenty of runs around the river and into Canary Wharf, it is not always the most exciting part of town, so rather than glamorous sights such as the Houses of Parliament and Tower of London, it tends to be the Flats of mid-week Commuters and Tower of HSBC.

Olympic Park

But this time I had something different planned, in that I had never been close to the 2012 Olympic Stadium, which is located in Stratford (not the Shakespeare one), a do-able distance from where I was staying. Knowing I would need a fair bit of time to get it done before work, I bit the bullet and set my alarm for a Rocky-esque 5.45 am.

By 6 I was on the road, and heading towards Canning Town high street, and having recently watched a documentary with Idris Elba talking about the fights he used to get into there, I was pretty glad I was going to be the only one about at that time. But I wasn’t, and whilst there was definitely no sign of trouble, I was amazed at how many people were up and about at that time in London, walking, bussing, DLR-ing and all sorts. I am pretty sure where I live it is a ghost town before 7!

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Following the rough map I had in my head from my research the night before, I carried on and tried to follow the signs for Stratford, although being designed more for drivers than runners, I had to ignore a lot when they tried to steer me back to the main road. Once I reached West Ham station I climbed up and onto Greenway, a well-lit footpath which looked like it would take me all the way to the stadium.

Actually, scratch the well-lit part, as within 30 seconds of leaving the station all the lights disappeared, leaving me in pitch black conditions to fend for myself. Fortunately I had not yet spoken to my colleague who lived nearby until after, as when  asked if he knew the area his response was along the lines of “oh yeah, I remember that guy got done for murder around there last year”. Another reason I prefer early morning runs! Still, it was actually really nice once I found my footing, to be in the centre of one of the biggest cities in the world, in near perfect darkness for some distance either side of me. I may have even been able to see a few stars, who knows…

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Once I got to the other side my target was firmly in my sights, and aside from having to zig-zag along a ridiculous road layout to get there, I finally reached the famous Olympic Park. I decided to run a Mo Farah style victory lap around the stadium, which sadly is now leased by West Ham United so full of their branding, but it did feel great and a decent reward for getting up at that time. Reaching the start I saw a few other laggards had dragged themselves out of bed too and were just reaching it, but by that time I was back on my way. Ok, I did also look into jumping the fence to get onto the adjacent running track for a quick lap around that too, but it was getting just that bit too light so I chickened out!

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Having taken part in plenty of straight line out and back races where the return holds no excitement, I always try to find a different way in my runs, so veered towards the city centre and tried to find a new route, which whilst slightly less exciting (that damn main road the signs were trying to take me to earlier) was also less eventful, and given I was starting to tire by then was probably for the best.

olympic stadium run

All in this was a 15.15 km run in 1 hour 40, not particularly fast by any standards, but given that firstly I had forgotten my water bottle (fortunately I had a single gel in my back pocket) and stop-started a load of times to take photos and get lost, was not too shabby and hopefully a good sign for my upcoming half-marathons.

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My next trip was up to the far north of England, the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, home of Alan Shearer, the Angel of the North and of course Ant & Dec. It was a place I had never visited before given it is a fair way away, but I had always fancied it given a great running heritage thanks to the Great North Run, the World’s largest half-marathon. Whilst I did not quite have the time or inclination for a run of that distance, I did manage to get in three pretty decent efforts during my fortnight there.

First up was my explorer run, another early morning job (this time a lot quieter as I had expected before), where I made my way around the city centre at leisure, scoping out the Quayside, Chinatown, St James’ Park football ground and a few nice enough parks. Despite getting a bit lost towards the end and doing a couple of km longer than planned (the city is a labyrinth in parts) things turned out well, and I got to see a good proportion of the local sights as the sun gradually rose.

The next afternoon I tried a different tack, running alongside the north side of the river. Initially I headed East and towards South Shields, the finishing point for the GNR and more importantly into Byker (the Grove!) but it turned out not to be particularly well lit, so after a mile or so I turned back and tried the other way inland. This was a lot busier – there seems to be tons of running clubs up there, all going off around 6 pm – but again there was not a huge amount to see. A nice peaceful run is all well and good, but given the short time I was there I fancied seeing a bit more, so I turned it into a bridge run, covering the four major bridges across the Tyne in turn: The Millennium Bridge with its spectacular lights, the High Level Bridge for some spectacular views, the low-level Swing Bridge, and to finish things off the famous Tyne Bridge itself.

Amazingly it turned out when I got back that my run was almost identical to the one the morning before, which was not bad given how often I was stopping to take pictures and check my GPS!

Newcastle runs tomtom

The following week I though I would try something a bit different and keep on the Gateshead, southern side of the river where I was staying. The plan here was to make a parallel run up the river but turn off after a couple of miles to run past the office I had been working in.

Although the first section was well lit, things got a bit dodgier after a mile or so after I turned off and headed away from the river. Going back to earlier, part of the reason I prefer early morning runs is because you tend to have places to yourself. Now with all respect to Geordies who are some of the nicest people I have ever met, Newcastle is somewhere which has a reputation for being a tough place (especially amongst soft southerners), and the further away from the main track I ran the more I imagined meeting a group of ne’er-do-wells.

After deciding against running down the deserted canal path on my own, I skirted the main road instead, and after one particularly bad stretch where all I could imagine was meeting David Patrick Kelly’s character from the end of The Warriors, I rounded a corner and found the office. I can honestly say I have never been so glad to find an industrial park in my life.

That just left me with getting home, which was equally challenging, as the bus route I knew involved a massive hill, and for some reason I was desperate to find a park I had read about which looked like it had some sort of Disney castle (no joke, google it) which involved a bit of a detour. So another couple of miles later I found myself at Saltwell Park and immediately regretted it, as it was pitch black and all the entrances were padlocked. Probably for the best as all I could think about was that it looked more like the kind of abandoned amusement park Scooby Doo would hang out in than Fantasia.

Still, the one benefit of my ‘shortcut’ was that it would all be downhill from there, and a good thing too as by the time I finished I was over 14 km, well over what I had originally planned to do, and whilst it was a long way from The Shining (probably closer to the Jeremy Kyle graffiti above…) this run it did teach me a bit of a lesson about planning my routes a bit more in future.

Gateshead run

Despite all that, I have to say Newcastle is an amazing place, and I am looking forward to going back there some time (ideally in the summer as it really is cold!) for another round of city running. But in the meantime it is tapering time, as this weekend is time for my first proper race of the year, the Silverstone Half Marathon. More on that next time!