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…!

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A Muppet Chile Challenge

It’s that time of year again where, just like Michael Caine in the Muppet Christmas Carol, we can look back over the past, present and future of the Chile Challenge. Ok ok, I realise revisiting 2016 is probably fairly low down man people’s lists of priorities with the year we all had, and that talking about Christmas in January is about as welcome as turning up at an Ironman with a bike as cheap as mine, but I have been meaning to get around to writing an update for a while now, so please bear with me for a bit…

The Ghost of Chile Challenge Past

muppet-carol

It is almost 3 years to the day since I started the Chile Challenge, and a lot has changed since then. For those who joined late, the original point of this blog was to give me somewhere to both track my progress whilst I Swam, Rode and Ran 4,270 km across Chile from the comfort of my own county, and also as an outlet to spot the many random thoughts that entered my head during all that long distance training.

The centrepiece was to be the Avenger Triathlon, my first half-iron distance race (110 km in a shade under 8 hours on the hottest day of the year!) as well as a number of other smaller triathlons. Looking back over the photos, even at the time of the Avenger I must have been at least a stone heavier and a lot less fit than I am now, and still have no idea how I reached the finish line on my own and in that heat.

After successfully knocking off the last few kilometres of the challenge in late December, I had to decide what to do next, and with the usual psychology of a long distance amateur (forgetting the 90% of the race where you were in so much pain your limbs wanted to shut down and only remembering the finish line endorphins) I decided to go all out and entered Ironman Staffs.

Ironman was my ‘A Race’ around which the rest of 2015 was planned, and to this day is still the event I am most proud of completing, finishing in just over 7 hours. Although it was not the longest (the bike leg was 3 km shorter than the Avenger) or even the toughest (see the Isoman below), it was definitely the most memorable, and I will never forget lining up against Javier Gomez et al in transition, even if that was as close as I got to them for the rest of the race!

Whilst the rest of the year involved more new triathlons and runs to pad it out, I also began to get into Group Exercise at my gym, starting off with Body Combat and RPM, and stepping up into, well Body Step Body Attack, Body Pump and whatever else Les Mills could come up with, culminating with a weekend at One Live in Manchester involving 6 back to back classes, an indoor Ironman in itself! This more intensive training gave me a new focus on exercise, and helped me shift that spare few kilos as well as meeting some great people and learning that fitness does not necessarily have to be a solitary activity.

So onto the ghost of 2016 past, and what happened over the last 12 months. My main race last summer was the Isoman in Redditch, an Ironman with a twist, with the swim nearly doubling to 5 km (2 hours 20 minutes!), a potentially lethal non-closed road ride around the North Worcestershire countryside, finishing in a rain-soaked run around my regular Park Run venue (actually it was 5 park runs, but starting off already knackered!).

isoman logo.jpg

What else? Well six of the first twelve weeks of last year were spent on the move in various chain hotels around the country, with highlights including early morning runs around Canary Wharf and a new experience of Aqua Cycling, as well as a lot of time on the same old dodgy machinery in the various hotel gyms. Les Mills Live made a return, well two actually, one down in London (pretty good) and the other back in Manchester (a lot better), as did our work football tournaments, where we seized defeat from the jaws of victory at home in April, before recovering to a win in Leicester in October.

After planning to do one for years, last year was also my first ever (proper) obstacle race, organised brilliantly by my wife. Rough Runner saw a team of us yomping around the Cotswolds and navigating a series of Takeshi’s Castle inspired obstacles, giant inflatables and the like, although in the end it was the hills and rabbit holes that proved more deadly for more people than any of the equipment. It also allowed us to achieve  lifetime dream for most kids of the 90’s with a run up a travelator straight out of Gladiators to finish up with!

Away from physical training, I managed to get in some great Scuba last year, including visiting wrecks in Cuba and cave diving in Greece, as well as managing to get my first sports related injury in over a decade when I managed to rupture my ear drum due to pressure changes. Who would have thought after all those challenges it would be the slowest moving one which would catch me out?

The Summer rounded off with my third Birmingham Half Marathon, where I managed to knock another 5 minutes or so off my PB but still could not quite crack that two hour mark: who knows, maybe there will be a chance to do it next year…

The Ghost Christmas Present

muppets

Right, time to live in the now, and cover what has happened since I last wrote at the end of October. Well… actually not that much to write home about (which is basically what this is as I am fairly sure only my parents read this far into my scrawlings). Most of my time (and I mean most – I wonder at what point I can start claiming overtime!) over the last few months of 2016 has been spent at the gym getting in as much training as possible to avoid losing my fitness over winter and piling on those extra Christmas pounds.

crawley-runA fortnight in charming Gatwick was a lovely way to spend early December, although I did manage a great night run around the town of Crawley (proudly showing off my luminous tights), the constant expectation of mugging adding at least a few extra mph to my legs. As for my work Christmas party, does bowling count as exercise (and offset all that drinking)? Well have you seen the Big Lebowski?!

lebowski

After a year involving some pretty exotic travels, I was fortunate enough to end 2016 in the fantastic city of New York, and whilst there was little opportunity for intensive training (particularly in sub-zero temperatures) we did manage a heck of a lot of walking all over town, from Downtown (Wall Street, One World Trade Centre and the Statue of Liberty), Uptown (an incredibly long walk through Central Park to find the Home Alone 2 house!) and all over Midtown (Top of the Rock and Empire State – by lift not steps! – as well as up and down Fifth Avenue and Broadway). In fact the closest I got to physical exercise was probably cheering on the Knicks to victory at Madison Square Gardens, another ambition completed!

With everything back to reality now, the last few weeks have been gym, gym, and more gym, seeing progressively more New Year’s Resolutioners appearing in classes, and basically getting back into the normal routine of daily training. So what is planned for 2017?

The Ghost of Chile Challenge’s Future

marley-and-marley

Right, this is most scary ghost in the film, so I will need to keep things brief (and go for Marley and Marley instead – I think I need to end the Muppet theme now). I have already hinted at my main goals for this year in earlier posts, but essentially I am going to be taking some time off from multi-sport racing (i.e. triathlons) to focus on individual events.

First up in the current plan is the Silverstone Half Marathon, a race around the famous racing circuit which is home to the British F1 Grand Prix, where I am hoping a nice flat(ish) circuit will finally help me break the 2 hour barrier so I can stop banging on about it. The event takes place in early March though, which is going to prove tough for someone who is does not usually start training outdoors until the clocks go forward and it warms up a bit, although that is the whole point of starting things early this year.

There is a bit of a gap until my next booked race, which I will look at filling in with something or other soon, but September kicks off the first ever 100 mile Velo bike event in Birmingham, a ride I could not turn down given how beautiful the route looks, going right through Northern Worcestershire & Herefordshire and almost past my front door. With 15,000 riders it will be by far the largest event I have ever taken part in, and being 50% further than I have ever ridden I know it is going to be a killer (although not bookmarking it with a swim and run will help) so it looks like a lot of time in the saddle in late Summer.

It is the last race of the year that looks the biggie though, the new Birmingham Marathon in October, another lifetime ambition to be fulfilled. At this stage it still seems a long way off, but like much of this year, I can imagine it will come about pretty quickly!

Kitting Out Part Three – The Run

There are three main reasons why running is my least favourite element of a triathlon: Firstly it is by far my weakest discipline, which means I have to work hardest to get through it; Secondly it comes at the end of a race so you are inevitably knackered by the time you come to it, creating permanent associations with painfully dragging my ailing carcass around the course; and Finally because it usually does not involve as much kit as the other stages!

This might seem a strange reason to give, and blah blah the sport needs to be accessible and so on, but the fact is that every triathlete I have met at any level loves the equipment triathlon involves. I have already posted on the swim and cycle legs earlier this year, and have a whole shed-load of stuff that I need to lug into transition and squeeze into for the swim and carefully lay out for bike transition, and I love all that.

Now don’t get me wrong: I am not saying it has to be expensive, and that is where a lot of people go wrong by just buying the top brands for everything. As much of the fun is the research you put into finding the best equipment for you by reading press, checking online and visiting stores, whilst trying to track down be best possible prices. By nature of my job I am one of the most cost conscious people you will ever meet, and you would be amazed at how a few pounds saved can make all the difference on even the largest purchase.

But running is a bit different, as it really can be done with minimal kit. Pair of trainers – check. Enough clothing to cover your body so you are not disqualified for indecency – check. You are ready to race! Technically. Of course in reality there is more than that available, and my own personal running kit list is as follows…

Running Shoes – I have three pairs to cover most eventualities, and have tracked down the (clean) photos so you can get excited over them too:

Saucony omni progrid 10saucony progrid trail

  • Tri – Decathlon Kalenji something or others – These were the first pair I bought and I did not pay too much attention in the shop, but fortunately they have worked out really well. They are ultra-lightweight with a velcro strap to slap on quickly, and I now save them for sprint races or below (5 km or less) where the time they save in putting on outweigh the lack of cushioning on offer.
  • Road – Saucony Progrid Omni 10 – The longest name and the first proper pair I have bought, specifically for the Birmingham half last year. I decided to go through the treadmill gait tests and so on in a decent running shop and this was the best of the recommendations. To be fair they are decent, my arches seem to be supported and I do not get ankle pain (other than what I would normally expect from a run). They were not cheap, although under £100 is actually reasonable for a pair like this, but I suspect I will have to replace them again next year when they wear out with all the miles I have been clocking up during the Chile Challenge.
  • Trail – Saucony Progrid – When I realised the Avenger involved a cross-country half marathon this year I realised I would need some proper footwear for it, so given the success I had with the road version I ordered these online from the same range. Again, they have worked out pretty well so I can’t complain, although to be fair I don’t really have a lot to compare these to.

Other Running Stuff:

Garmin 410compresssportteam america

  • Clothing – As mentioned the other necessary element is of course your clothing, and things like proper running socks can not be underestimated. I am not really brand influenced in this part, preferring price and comfort to choose my shorts and tops, but have to put in a quick plug for Tribesports, who seem to be a fairly new company (I promise I have no connection to them and no money is changing hands for this!) but I have bought some of their stuff this year and it seems really good quality – plus it is usually my favourite black & gold which is the colour of my old school rugby team, Cornish rugby kit, and of course my current bike – so winning all round.
  • GPS – Garmin Forerunner 410 – It now seems compulsory to have some sort of computerised device to wear for training, and I am actually going to stand behind this one. Yes, it may not be as necessary as say a dive computer, which has important life saving features on it, but it has made a massive difference to my training. Arguably you could just have a timer on your watch to work out how long you have been running for, but the feedback this has given me in the last few years when I have trained all over the UK, in terms of average speeds, distances, climbs, routes, and so on has been invaluable. I am going to write more on this in another post, but personally this is may favourite piece of running kit.
  • Calf Guards – Compresport – These are the long sock type things above, that basically help bloodflow through your legs to reduce cramp, aches, and so on. To be fair, I use these during and after training rather than racing (I am not really a fan of the look) but they are useful as anything that gets me back up and on the go more quickly is ok by me.
  • Cap, Sunglasses, Race Belt – There are various other necessary bits and pieces that help out but do not actually make me any quicker. The sweat-proof cap was a lifesaver on the Avenger when I would otherwise have burned to a crisp in the sun, whilst my ‘Team America’ yellow tinted glasses help me spot potential rabbit warrens and trip hazards to avoid. A race belt might seem small, but the time saved in putting on your number this way rather than using the old safety pin trick (not to mention the comfort) is worth the few quid they cost.

And that is pretty much it for my run kit. As mentioned I do like my gadgets, so keep an eye out soon for a bit more on the Garmin plus the other bits I use in a vague effort to improve my performance!