Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Another Tuesday, Another Long Run...

Greetings there! All good with you?

Well, I’ve been better, let me tell you. Last week wasn’t great for training, through a combination of a bug doing the rounds chez Squintani and the disruption of a 24-hr round trip to Farnborough. I still managed to get to the 50mi mark for the week, mind… just!

I’m just crossing that chasm where childish enthusiasm for a new challenge turns to the acute adult awareness of its implications. I do so with M-Day now less than five weeks away. In 33 days’ time, I will know whether all these miles, all these hours have been worthwhile, and into what finishing time I will have been able to convert them. And that sure focuses the mind!

These are five weeks during which I will be my best friend and my own worst enemy. I will motivate myself onto the roads of Portishead, I will keep an eye on myself to ensure I eat properly… and I will have more than the occasional word wi’misen. But, almost as a natural flow from that, I will set expectations of myself that, quite frankly, no-one will do anything to compound. Everybody else recognises that running a marathon is a major challenge in itself without overcomplicating, over-stretching the issue. But me… as economic theory goes, the more you invest, the more you expect in return: and I’ve invested, and will continue to invest, an awful lot. There is a danger that, cometh the day, I will expect too much: it is one of which I am aware and one which I intend to manage. Hope for the best but expect nothing: that’s the balancing act I need to strike.

Lest I forget, of course, my initial target was to run a marathon in under four hours. That alone, for someone who’s never run 26.2mi, would be some achievement – something of which I must not lose sight. It is only because of the sheer volume of training I’ve been able to put in and because of some encouraging results along the way that I moved my target finish time to 3h45’ and then 3h30’. Every time that target has been lowered by 15’, the required pace per mile has gone down by 30”. So, from 9’/mi, I went to 8’30”/mi and am now effectively targeting 8’/mi. Is that sensible, when only last Tuesday I ran 22.1mi at a pace of 8’36”/mi and only this morning I ran 23.2mi at 8’43”? Am I really going to be able to shave off 43”/mi?

Truth is, I don’t know. The past few weeks also featured 1,000+ feet of elevation, which I won’t encounter in Manchester. I’ve been setting off before 6am, which, whilst practical, can’t be ideal for my body. Although it has meant lower dehydration levels… there are parts of this here country covered in snow right now, surely it can’t last till April?
No small detail, however, is that even this morning, on my longest run yet, I ran three fewer miles than I will do in 33 days’ time: and, when I do have to run miles 24, 25 and 26, they will be a darn sight more challenging than any of miles 1 to 23! (Or is the “uphill finale” I encounter when running around here acting as a good simulator for the pain of those final marathon miles? Discuss)

Looking at my splits from last week, I see that I ran miles 15 and 16 at 8’00”/mi and 8’10”/mi. That’s encouraging. Still not good enough for 3h30’, though. So why don’t I aim for 3h45’?

Because… I don’t know. Because I want to give 3h30’ a shot, safe in the knowledge that, if I drop off the pace, I can still aim for 3h45’ or indeed 3h59’59”. Because I am hoping that being part of a Brooks Pace Team will have a positive effect on me, helping my legs keep up and saving my head from having to work out stuff. Because what I don’t want to do is give up now on 3h30’ and then reach the finish line only to find myself wondering. I’d much rather slow down on the day. Make sense?

Who knows! I need to not get fixated on a time, much as that is somewhat complicated by my wanting to sign up for one of the Pace Teams.

As with any performance, on the day there will be nerves: as with any performance, if managed correctly those nerves will be an asset. Here’s hoping the rehearsals bear some resemblance to the real thing in the end.

Last but not least, a major source of motivation comes of course from my fundraising. I’m now within £35 of my £500 target, which is immensely humbling. I have always candidly admitted that I would be running Manchester even if I weren’t fundraising, yet life has gone and added a little poignancy to my efforts. This is not my story to tell or my grief to share: suffice to say that someone I know has recently lost their son, their very young son. We should not have to bury our children, yet that is what she will have to do on Thursday. She wasn’t from Sheffield, though it’s from Sheffield that I know her. I’m fundraising for Sheffield’s Children’s Hospital Charity, because of personal links to the Hospital and of course the City. But Sheffield has no monopoly over the sadness I feel upon hearing such stories. And I plead guilty to having thought about my friend on recent runs, of the unfair hand life has dealt her and her husband, and of finding myself converting that feeling of injustice into an extra spring in my step at times.
Anger and sadness pull at our heartstrings in a way that can motivate us in a sporting context, as we turn to sport to “do something” when there is very little that we can do. If April 28 turns out anything like my previous races, I will think about my brothers in the final hour or so ahead of the start, when I will fight back a tear or two, then during the race, when they will lift me during the harder bits, and finally when I cross that line, when I will feel we did it together and will raise my eyes to the sky, to them. But now I expect I will also think about a young man I never met, whose mother for that matter I’ve not seen since graduating in 1998, but with whom I’ve kept in touch courtesy of modern technology. A mother who, around a year ago, suggested we try to meet up, kids anall… we never did and now my chance to meet that young man has gone forever. My chance to honour his memory alongside my brothers’, alongside the streets of Manchester… well, that’s 33 days away.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Two beautiful days... I didn't let them get away!

Just over seven weeks to go… Nervous? Qui,  moi? Absolument!

As in, “absolument oui”, that is. Nervous, excited… you know the range. But confident. Confident that, seven weeks out, I’m on track. I’m putting in the hours and feeling good: the body’s responding well to the long runs and that’s all I can ask of it right now. In fact, it responded particularly well to Tuesday’s 21.3-miler

…and that’s because it was a lovely day for a run!

It wasn’t meant to be. On Monday we had snow and one heck of a wind, which saw fit to carry on through most of the night into Tuesday morning. It kept waking me up, seemingly questioning my wisdom as it sought to make me see sense, turn off the alarm and indulge in an extra couple of hours’ sleep.

However, it failed. Come 5:05, I was up as planned, getting ready to hit the road. Admittedly I got as far as pulling on my running tights, but I promptly took them off, fearing they might cramp my style, and folded them away. I’ve had them since May and am yet to run in them. I’m saving them for a cold day… Karen believed Monday was “now or never” time, so I’m guessing I shall never wear them!

What I did wear was my “windproof running jacket” – another of my Decathlon bargains! As much as anything, I wore it because it had pockets. I came under fire on Twitter last week for admitting to not drinking water on my 20-miler, which wasn’t an act of stubborn defiance on my part but simply an acknowledgement that I don’t like carting water around with me. The stupidity of my approach swiftly dawned on me and this week I remedied with jacket pockets, which I also lined with Clif Blok Shots – my first experience of gels. And, at 5:41, off I went…

…on what turned out to the longest and one of the most beautiful runs I’ve completed!

My previous long runs had been fairly monotonous affairs, my focus set on keeping on the flat. And for the first 4mi I replicated that, just running in between two landmarks on nearby Down Road beyond which it heads downwards. I then took in one of my Police HQ Laps before heading down to the Portishead Lake Grounds and from there to the Marina, the Nature Reserve, coming back up along the Coast Path to Charlcombe Rise and finally… home!

I don’t expect the names to mean owt to thee, unless you’re one of the few people around here who reads my warblings. Suffice to say that it’s not a flat route… so, whilst on March 6 I’d gained 305ft over 20mi, on March 12 I gained 820 over 21.3 (34.2km). The gradient got as steep as 15.6% at mile 20 – perfect timing, eh? Ah, the joys of living on top of a hill and always having to run uphill at the end… although that was virgin territory for me and I have no shame in admitting I slowed down. (OK, I walked!)

However, not only is the route not flat – it’s also scenic, as for a lot of the time I had the Bristol Channel in sight. There is something primordial about our fascination with water that still rings true today, especially if you’re a primordial Yorkshireman like I am. Sure, the West Riding is nowhere near the blinkin’ sea (there are some claims even we can’t lay): but the ‘primordial’ component rings true!

I will forever remember standing on one of the hills behind Rapallo, in the area where I was born, back in 1993, looking onto the Ligurian Sea and my good friend Mauro Schiaffino commenting that he could never live away from the sea. He’s in Rome now, not sure how much of the Tyrrhenian he sees… but the principle struck a chord with me and has stayed with me since.

The Evangelical Runner, moi?

The scenery went a long way in helping the legs up some of the hills. Hillage and sections of trail presented a different challenge to the monotony of previous long runs: this time it was physical rather than mental. On the whole, the trade-off was for the better. Not from a statistical perspective, you understand: I’d run three 20-milers previously, on February 12, 19 and March 6, and done so at 8’44”/mi, 8’16”/mi and 8’35”/mi respectively, whereas on Tuesday my pace dropped to 9’07”/mi. Instinctively, I found that disappointing: but when I factor in the hillage and the trail sections, it’s actually not that bad. I’m not sure where it leaves me in terms of target pace and time for Manchester, which is of particular relevance in terms of finalising which pace group to join, but I’m sure I’ll work something out between now and the end of April… (OK, ‘hopeful’, anyway)

It was the first time I’d run along the Coast Path this year. Darkness and slippery mud are not that appealing when it comes to a rocky section along the Bristol Channel – not even for a nutter like me! When dry, bright and safe, however, it is a highly enjoyable section – only about a mile and a half long, but a welcome change from the tarmac of Nore Road, weaving in and out of the woods with the channel as the one constant companion.

(I only discovered the Coast Path route last August, thirteen years after moving to Portishead, and soon made it a ‘treat’ for me, using it as part of a 10k route when time and weather permitted. Sadly, by then the days were already getting shorter, so my fling was short-lived… one winter later and it was part of a 34k run. How times have changed!)

So that was Tuesday. Having run a short recovery run on Wednesday, yesterday I treated myself to a
Half Marathon route!

I returned to most of the ground covered two days earlier, just without additional laps and the initial session along flat Down Road, thus shaving off seven and a half miles. I also brought forward my exiting of the Coast Path, saving myself the 15% incline. ‘Soldiers’, ‘game’ and ‘stuff’ are words that come to mind!

It was good to run 13.8mi forty-eight hours after running 21.3. Elevation was a healthy 842ft, giving a greater elevation:distance ratio than Tuesday (61ft/mi to 47, since you ask). A beautiful, clear day – hard to imagine a better way of spending 2h00’13”!

Last but not least: yesterday’s 13.8mi route via the Lake Grounds, the Nature Reserve and the Coast Path is now officially called
“The Alwyn Lloyd Half Marathon”. Shortly after I got in from it, I received a text from my good, indeed excellent friend, Richard Lloyd, a ‘maratoneta’ in his own right who’s now scheming a cycle up the Alp D’Huez in three years’ time. In the text, Richard announced the birth of his second child, Aldwyn Lloyd. When I head out on morning runs, I often try to fathom if it’s anyone’s birthday, but I drew (as I usually do) a blank yesterday. Two hours later, however, and I had an answer. So Aldwyn, this course is for you. Maybe you’d like to join your old man and me in running it in, say, a dozen years’ time? Although by that time your Dad and I may see fit to stop at a least one of the three pubs it takes in..!

(Sorry, Rich – no offence intended, I know you’d already happily stop at the three of them now)

So there you have it – that’s where I’m at 44 days before the Greater Manchester Marathon and 155 days into my runstreak. Will there be a day 200?
(Do some maths, folk… then wish me luck!)

Monday, 4 March 2013

The Bath Has Been Run!

Friends – the Bath has been run!

I ran it in 1h35’54” – exactly 14’ faster than I had run the Bristol Half all of 154 days ago. So comfortably within the 1h40’ goal I’d set myself at the start of last week, slightly outside of my revised, Twitter-fuelled target of 1h34’59”…
…but don’t worry, I’m delighted! I shaved off more than a minute per mile in less than half a year!

Had the course been as flat as I thought it would be, I might well have sneaked under 1h35’: not because the inclines bothered me as such, but because of their impact on the ‘traffic’ ahead of me. Upon signing up on October 4, I had entered a “predicted finish time” of 1h50’. I’d forgotten all about this and can only tell you I’d predicted 1h50’ because I’ve gone and searched for my entry confirmation e-mail today! This was obviously reflected in the pen to which I was assigned. Don’t get me wrong, it was absolutely the right pen for me to be in yesterday on the basis of where I was last October; it just so happens that I’ve improved somewhat since and I spent most of the first of yesterday’s two laps overtaking other runners. At times that slowed me down as I found myself running a road race on the pavement… it felt good but it may have hindered my time sufficiently to keep me above 1h35’. That and slowing down a tad for the final three miles, although my slowest mile (mile 11 – if we exclude the second, traffic-hampered mile at 7’27”!) was still run at a decent enough 7’23” pace. Or, to put it more clearly, at a pace that when I ran Bristol I could only dream of! Overall pace was 7’15”, which is exactly what I said I was hoping for last week. As Richard Lloyd has often reminded me, you always end up running further than the official distance and a GPS watch can be misleading, so I’m going to blame the extra tenth of a mile or so..! I still got in a sprint finish, too: I didn’t think I had that final speed and distance in me, but the sight of the finishing line does strange things to ones legs! That and training obviously paid off and allowed me to sneak under 1h36’.
Not that I knew that at the time: I stuck with the plan and only looked at my pace. I also allowed myself to run by feel a little, because that’s what Trevor suggested. I only looked at my time once I’d crossed the line.
(You want all the boring stats, do you? Oh gu’on then… they’re here!)

Anyway, all of that is great – and do you know what it means? It means I can realistically aim for my first sub-1h35’ in my next half – my homecoming run!

Er… or can I?

My next HM will be the
Sheffield Half Marathon on May 12 – two weeks after the Greater Manchester Marathon, towards which all training efforts are now geared (T-55 today, by the way – oh, and legs feeling fine, managed a steady 3.5mi recovery run this morning). In all honesty, I am not setting myself any goals for Sheffield other than see if I can actually enjoy it – which, for someone who can’t stand running, would be the ultimate achievement! Meeting up face-to-face with some of those #nutters will be an honour, a privilege and a pleasure… who knows, it might just help get me over that particular line…
…but don’t worry, as for scope for performance improvements since we last spoke I’ve signed up for two other halves!

It was always part of The 2013 Plan that I’d sign up for
The Bristol Half Marathon on September 15 – I was merely waiting for entries to open. I then waited an extra few days, since one of the fields asked me for my PB over the past two years and I was kind of hoping I could enter a lower time after Bath…
…what wasn’t part of The 2013 Plan was the Grand Pier Half Marathon in Weston-super-Mare on September 29! This was brought to my attention by a dear friend as part of her reason for not signing up for the Bristol HM this year. A family day out in Weston as summer draws to a close? Well why not…

...by mid-September, I’ll have had four race-free months. It’ll be interesting to see what form I’m in and how realistic a new HM PB could be. With Bristol, I’ll have the advantage of knowing the course: and the Weston course should be fairly flat. But then they always say that, don’t they? 
No, it's not flattering. So?

Thanks all for your support and encouragement in the build-up to Bath, folk… and thanks to Gary Embury for getting me there and back! He ran it in 1h28’, which is just mind-blowing. So, as with Bristol, I got a lift with someone who went on to run the race faster than I did. One of these days… one of these days… ;-)
The whole build-up with Gary was most enjoyable. He picked me up at 8:20, we headed into Bristol and made the 14’ train ride over to Bath. Bath is a beautiful city, although I can’t recall seeing much of it yesterday – was too focused on either overtaking or at least avoiding traffic! I overtook DJ and telly fella Dermot O’Leary at some point: not that I saw him (he’s not exactly a skyscraper), I just can but assume that he was the Dermot whose name females of all ages were chanting. The Athlete’s Village was on a sizeable field and just rolled into the starting line. This was only my fourth race and the first one in which I received a blessing over the PA system before setting off: I appreciated it, much as I also appreciate not everyone will have done. The weather was most definitely chilly, but that’s never an issue once the legs get moving. All in all, a great event – entries for 2014 were meant to open today, must monitor that…

…because absolutely, as I ran the final mile of the Bristol Half, I promised myself I’d never run a half again. As I ran the final mile of the Bath Half yesterday, I promised myself I’d be back – and that I’d do better. What a difference 154 days can make…

…last and least, if you want to see photos of me in yesterday’s race, have a gander here. Because honestly I can’t see me buying them.