Author Archives: Ben

Babcary 7.5: race report

The second part of my weekend back-to-back, after completing leg one of the Hills to Coast Relay with Minehead RC the day before. This was also my second visit to the Babcary 7.5 mile road race, which I also ran last year.

This race, like all of those in the Somerset Series, was pencilled into my diary as soon as I knew the date. It’s a bit of an oddity of a race – 7.5 miles is hardly a normal race distance, and the profile of this course means that it isn’t particularly quick either. But that is part of the joy of this race – it’s challenging no matter what.

No matter where they take us, We’ll find our own way back. (Well, actually we’ll follow the hi-vis arrows and marshals…)

My legs – nay, my whole body – was feeling pretty rundown after the relay on Saturday. Apparently 1,000 ft over 10 km in just under 54 minutes isn’t brushed off too easily. That said, I wanted to run 10 miles on Sunday in terms of progression for The Big Cheese race in a few weeks, and also in preparation for my upcoming marathon training for the Snowdonia Trail Marathon. Bizarrely, running a 7.5 mile race, and topping the mileage up with a warm-up and cool down seemed a preferential option to 10 easy miles on my own.

Generally, my preparation for this race was awful. Not just the fact I’d raced the day before, but also the fact that at 9:15 I still hadn’t really started packing. The race was about 35 minutes away, and on-the-day entries officially closed at 10:30. I also had no fuel in my car and no cash to actually pay for entry….

After some rather rushed packing, I was off. Via a cash machine and a petrol station. About halfway there, I was getting confused; my sat nav was trying to send me an odd route, and I was getting concerned that maybe a road was closed ahead. I pulled over, and realised that I’d written down the wrong postcode. A quick search on Strava for last year’s activity, and I simply put the street name into the sat nav, et voilà!

So, about that rushed packing. When I arrived, I found I was missing my running socks. And my Garmin. Thankfully, I was wearing socks, so I just had to give my Fozzy Bear socks their running debut. The Garmin situation was also averted, as I had my FlipBelt with me, so was able to pop my phone into that with Strava tracking the run. Because after all…

The Race

My race strategy was much as at the relay the day before, and at this event last year. It was nothing special: ‘take it easy early, get a feel for your capabilities, see what you can do later’. Largely, I think I managed to stick to the plan. I held back on the initial climb, and then allowed a few runners that I’d normally run with slip away ahead of me. I was a little concerned that Graham, my usual Somerset Series sparring partner was still near me, but the positions of everyone else told me I was about right.

The whole race undulates – although none of the climbs are particularly tough, it is non-stop. Uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill, uphill… you get the idea. My first two miles were significantly down in pace compared to last year, dropping about a minute between the two. Shortly after this, on the climb that started at around 2.5 miles, my legs started to feel pretty wiped. I’d dropped back from Graham and another Wells City Harrier, while a third was now running with me, having caught me around the two mile marker.

As I spent the next half mile climbing that particular hill, I was starting to seriously doubt the wisdom of racing two days in a row after a six month absence. While I was never in danger of dropping out of the race, I did worry that I might embarrass myself by falling like a rock through the field. However, as hard as it felt, I found that I wasn’t really dropping back from the group in front, nor were those behind closing the gap. I settled in, and remembered that racing never feels easy. It’s kind of the point.

I lost another couple of minutes compared to last year over the undulations of the middle few miles. As we ran through one village, I had a little faux race with one of the spectators, who looked to be coming out of her garden to stand with some friends. It was a nice little mental break from the race, though it only lasted a few metres! Otherwise, there was little to mark these middle miles – I went up some hills, down some hills, passed some barns. You get the idea.

Interestingly, my pace over miles six and seven was actually very close to last year; 7:20 and 7:08 this year, compared with 7:12 and 7:08 last. Finally it seems that my efforts to take it easy early in a race actually came to some fruition. The final half mile is the reverse of the start, and drops back down hill. With no one forty yards either side of me, I didn’t push too hard, but kept a decent pace that removed any real possibility of me being overtaken. Last year, I had a sprint finish with Graham which saw me peak at about 4:45/mile. This year, after easing my pace up to 5:50/mile down the hill, I slowed back down to cross the finish line. Twentieth overall, and eighteenth male, is a solid finish for me in terms of the Somerset Series; in each of the last two years I’ve averaged around 21 to 22 per race.

After a mile and a half cool down (mileage top-up) I was done. My two-race weekend was concluded. I grabbed some lunch from Burger King just down the road, and headed back. This morning (Monday) I had some serious DOMS. But now, this evening, it seems okay. And I seem to have planned a 2,000 ft run for tomorrow…

Hills to Coast Relay: “race” report

After not racing since last August, for some reason I decided that it would be a good idea to return with a weekend back-to-back. On Saturday I took in Minehead Running Club’s “Hills to Coast” Relay, an internal club event that I was kindly invited to take part in. The following day was my first Somerset Series race of the year, the Babcary 7.5 mile road race, but more on that in a later blog post.

MRC “Hills to Coast Relay”

Each year, Minehead Running Club arrange a club relay, and this year I was lucky enough to be invited to take part. The event comprises four legs, and the course isn’t marked – the onus is on the runners to learn the course themselves in preparation for the day. A couple of months ago, I found out that I was running leg 1, and had been sent the route.

I plotted the route onto my OS Maps app, and headed out in early January. Lolly dropped me off near the start, and then headed off to the end with the children for a splash around in the woods. Meanwhile, I studiously followed the red line on my phone to navigate across to meet them. My daughter was a bit confused when I turned up, asking how I’d got there without a car! About a month later, I headed out again with a few other runners to try the course again. I was pretty happy with most of the route, but I remained a bit uncertain about the start. Hence, Tuesday this week, I nipped out again to get it firmly sorted in my mind (and maybe have a CR attempt at the downhill segment on Strava…)

Stunning views

Roll on Saturday morning – I dumped my car at the finish, and got a lift to the start with Josh. Running Yeovil Montacute parkrun last weekend had given me a bit of a wake-up call; I’d shot off too quick and suffered later. So my plan was firmly to take it easy early on, and then reap the benefits later. It’s important that I make it clear that this was my plan.

The first mile essentially weaves its way through Williton, and is basically flat tarmac throughout, crossing the West Somerset Railway on its way out of the village. After that, the course moves off-road, and starts to climb (this is something of a trend – the leg started at 93 ft and finished at 421 ft, so there was always going to be plenty of climbing involved.) The next mile and a half are more or less a constant gentle climb up to the base of the Quantocks. Throughout this section, which alternates on- and off-road, I maintained a grade-adjusted pace of roughly 7:00 min/mile, and was holding quite nicely in fourth/fifth.

Up, and up, and up…

Then came the “Unnamed Combe”, as the Strava segment dubs it. And off came the wheels of my race. A long drag of a hill, this starts up a boggy field, continues up a footpath which is basically actually a stream, and then turns into what might as well be a brick wall (albeit a gorgeous one, pictured). It involves 569 ft of climbing in one mile, and my pace dropped right down to 13:32 min/mile – even grade-adjusted it was 8:16. Given that the Snowdonia Trail Marathon, which I’m running in July, includes four successive miles that clock in with 769, 601, 385 and 953 ft of elevation respectively, I think I might need to work on this…

I dropped back from fourth on the climb, and then a navigational error meant that the runner behind me caught up. With seemingly better legs, he pressed on ahead of me on the gentle climb on towards Bicknoller Post and Longstone Hill. I managed the gap, but could do little to dent it until we dropped downhill. I flew down the last mile, which was entirely downhill on tricky loose stone, to reclaim fifth place, and finish in just under 54 minutes.

This was a great little event, well managed by the club. If anything, I probably enjoyed the exploration beforehand more than the relay itself, though both were enjoyable. The downhill terrain played to my strengths at the end, but I’d already lost too much up the hill for it to make much difference. Minehead make a day of the event, following the relay with an evening social, but I skipped that part as we had family staying. I’m hoping to get out running with Minehead more this summer during their ‘Strate Liners’ to explore more of Exmoor and the Quantocks.

parkrun tourism: Yeovil Montacute – B course

As “parkrun tourism” goes, this is a bit different to usual. I actually first visited Yeovil Montacute parkrun back in October 2014, which you can read about here. I returned again in October 2016, when they reversed the course to celebrate the clocks going back an hour. (Or something like that). I meant to visit again last winter, when they moved to their B course, but I didn’t make it. I thought I’d missed my opportunity again this year, but then an opening sprung up, and off to Ham Hill we ventured…

Yeovil Montacute parkrun has suffered over the winter. They have managed just two runs in November, three in December, and only one in January. The “A” course winds it way around the grounds of Montacute House, a lovely National Trust property near Yeovil. Being a completely grass course, it can get waterlogged and chewed up through the winter, and so the parkrun moves to the nearby Ham Hill Country Park for January and February.

Ham Hill itself isn’t immune from waterlogging – a similar grassy terrain, the course can get pretty muddy, and on the morning there was a warning of mud on the event Facebook page. But who doesn’t like a bit of mud?

Walk to the start.

We arrived in plenty of time, and had no problem finding somewhere to park. The toilets were conveniently located on the walk to the start, which was signed from the car park. The path to the start was quite muddy in places, but once we got out onto the fields near the start, it firmed up a bit. Normally, I like to do a warm-up before parkrun, but we’d timed things such that there wasn’t really enough time. We either arrived too late for the new runners briefing, or there simply wasn’t one; I’m not sure which. Still, the main briefing was more than sufficient, and frankly, I know the main parkrun guidelines, and I’m not quick enough to have to worry about the route – I can just follow whoever is in front of me!

With little fanfare, we were sent on our way – and I made my first mistake of the morning. A wide start meant that I was in the second row, and I stupidly stayed on the shoulders of the front-runners. After a few hundred metres, I glanced at my watch and assumed it wasn’t tracking me properly, or maybe I had left my pace in kilometres – it was reading 5:50 – FAR too fast.

After about half a kilometre, I had managed to pull my pace back, letting what felt like half the field stream past me. Despite this, I recorded a 4:10 opening kilometre, which given the terrain, a slight incline, and my current fitness level, was still too fast. The second kilometre finished off the climb before dropping back down the other side, and I was still letting people past as I ran a more reasonable 4:27.

Despite the warnings, the course was firm underfoot throughout, and actually really nice to run on. The third kilometre finished off the lap, and as you dropped back down hill slightly, you had good visibility of the route ahead. By this point, I’d fallen to the right part of the field for my pace, and a 4:20 kilometre was about right. Climbing back up the hill for the entire fourth kilometre, I passed a runner – the only change of position I had for the entire second lap!

I glanced at my watch a short while later and was slightly confused by the distance it was showing – it didn’t quite add up to me. As I got closer and closer to the finish, it became more and more clear that the course was over-distance. Not uncommon for “B” courses, as if it was quicker than the “A” course, then you might set a PB that you couldn’t beat on the main course. That said, it soon became clear that this wasn’t a slight extension; in the end the course measured in on my Garmin as 5.5 km!

I’d intentionally “raced” this parkrun – due to my ankle injury, I haven’t raced since the start of August last year, and with a few coming up, I wanted some practice. The fast start was a reminder that it is easy to get carried away early on, and will definitely be something I keep in mind over the next few weeks. After that I was relatively happy with my “race craft”. I didn’t have much to do, and maybe I let myself get more isolated that was ideal, but generally after the quick start I kept a pretty even pace (considering the profile) and was able to push myself throughout. On a proper length course, I’d have got about 22:07, which isn’t unreasonable for that route with my current fitness, though it does show that I have a way to go yet before I have a shot at setting any new PBs.

I’d really recommend this course – while I love the main course at Montacute house, this is certainly no disappoint in comparison. The terrain and undulations are pretty similar between the two, giving the same feel. It clearly isn’t a course you’re likely to PB on, given the length, but given that it is a trail course anyway, that really doesn’t matter.

All done!

Lolly had a fabulous run, getting her fastest paced parkrun since child number two arrived, despite the course being harder than some of those we’ve run recently. We’re planning some flatter “road” courses over the next few weeks, so it’ll be exciting to see what she’s capable of! For me, I’m contemplating a slightly mad return to racing with a weekend double – the Minehead Running Club “Hills to Coast Relay” on the Saturday, followed by the Babcary 7.5 mile road race on Sunday (see last year’s blog post.)

parkrun tourism: Shepton Mallet parkrun

At around 9 am on New Year’s Day, we had no plans to parkrun. Long ago, we’d been talking about doing a double, but neither of us were in any state of running fitness to complete 10k in one day. We had discussed the possibility of going down to Killerton for Lolly to repeat at 9:30, but we never really got our stuff together in time for it.

At around 9:05; I mentioned the possibility that maybe we could both run at Shepton Mallet – a buggy each. Shepton Mallet parkrun is about a 55-minute drive from us and was starting at 10:30. Making the decision, more or less out of the blue, to go just 85 minutes beforehand probably wouldn’t be too unreasonable for most parkrun tourists. But when you have to pack not only yourselves and your running gear, but also two small children, two buggies, changing gear for the youngest of the two, and all the other ancillary rubbish that goes with small children, it really was a crazy decision.

But then, that’s probably what we do best.

Somehow, we managed to get ready in pretty much 15 minutes, thanks mostly to the fact that our 4-year-old daughter decided she would put clothes on – if that decision had gone the other way, we might still now be trying to wheedle with her.

As we got closer to Shepton Mallet… it started to rain. Just another thing to make the experience a little bit more stressful! We arrived to pretty light rain, in which I had to try and remember how the rain-covers for each of the two buggies worked (differently, of course!) By the time I had got both children into their buggies, the eldest had decided that she would like to go home now, thank you. Well, of course she did!

We hadn’t really done much research on the course: we knew it was three-laps, allowed buggies, and was mostly tarmac. We rushed down to the start, and more or less only just got in place at the back of the crowd in time to begin…


A blurry two buggy start.

… Which turned out to be less than ideal. The course started by winding its way along a narrow path, including a corkscrew-esque uphill hairpin bend. Throughout most of the course, it is run on narrow tarmac paths with grass either side. Running with a buggy, this was a bit of a nightmare when starting from the back – I got out onto the grass early to pass a few people, but it was seriously slippy. If I have one recommendation for this parkrun, it is to make sure you start according to pace!

Still, after continuing up the hill a bit further, we went along a short (10 metres maybe?) muddy, tree-root riddled section, and then were on a nice wide path. Or at least, it seemed nice and wide, until someone yelled: “lead runners coming!” So, the bit where I said I hadn’t done much research on the course? Yeah, hadn’t realised that there was a really long out-and-back. So now, while trying to pass people, I’m also having to try and stay out of the way of the quicker runners coming back the other way.

Out-and-back stint navigated, we dropped back down the hill, quite sharply, and ran next to the pond for a few metres. It’s probably pretty scenic most of the time, but by now it as pretty much torrential rain. My daughter kept trying to talk to me through the rain-cover, but I frankly couldn’t hear a thing, so I just kept saying “Yeah” from time to time, and crossed my fingers that I wasn’t agreeing to anything too expensive. Not that I could actually cross my fingers, as they were numb with the wet and cold.

Another climb followed, up towards the car park we’d arrived from, before the course dropped back down to the start/finish area, past a little shelter full of huddled, cheering spectators. And repeat. And repeat.

As usual, I was able to make better headway through the field as it spread out, but the out-and-back section was even trickier second time around, as I was trying to pass people, while being wary of runners coming the other way (some of whom were trying to pass each other) and also paying attention to those lead runners who were by now lapping me. So just the potential for three abreast each way. On a path wide enough for… well, three.

Having started as the fourth of five buggies (Lolly being the fifth), I somehow made it through the finish as the first buggy, though it involved something of a quick final half a lap! I was slightly surprised halfway through the second lap to hear a cheer of “Go on Ben.” After checking a couple of times that I wasn’t wearing anything with my name on it, I paid more attention and realised that it was Joanne, who I know from Twitter, and I’d met before at her home event of Kingsway.

The finish funnel was pretty narrow – I’m not sure that a double buggy would have fit down it at all, and I had to slow quite dramatically and basically walk over the finish line – but this might have been forced on them by the wet conditions making the grass so muddy. Despite the weather, the support from the marshals and other supporters around the course was superb. After finishing, we hung around just ahead of the finish funnel to wait for Lolly – though I did get told off by a passer-by for asking my daughter if she “could see Mummy yet” – less of the “yet” apparently!

This photo really doesn’t convey quite how soaked through we were…

Due to the weather, no one was hanging around for a chat, and we proved no exception: after getting a photo by the pond, we got back to the car as quickly as we could.

I always find parkrun on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day to be a little bit special. The atmosphere is different to a normal parkrun – there seems to be an even greater sense of community than usual. (And there is usually quite a lot anyway.) I think it probably comes from the fact that we all feel a little loony for being out running when most other people (even more than usual) are doing anything but.

Now… where’s next?

Ballot luck

Way back in late 2015, I entered my first (and for a long time my only) ballot for a race. The race in question was the 2016 Grizzly, a reasonably well-known 20 (ish) mile trail race in the south west. I don’t know what the odds were in that ballot, but I got a place while plenty of my fellow club members did not. I had 100% success in ballots! As things turned out, I got injured and transferred my place to club-mate Iain.

BALLOT LUCK: 1/1 (100%)

I’ve never been that interested in running the Great North Run (a pretty boring looking half marathon which is bloody miles away) and the London Marathon didn’t really appeal to me either – as I typically run in races with very small fields (often less than 150 people) the scale put me off. That’s not even considering the fact that it’s a marathon, a distance that I’d long been putting off.

I didn’t enter any of the three ballots in 2016; the impending arrival of child #2 in spring 2017 put something of a stop to major racing plans.

Then, earlier this year, I made something of a mistake. After watching the London Marathon on TV, and getting caught up in the excitement, I subsequently entered the ballot. I’d always said that I wouldn’t enter until I could get a ‘Good for age’ (GFA) time. Which is 3:05 for a 18-40 male. Indeed, for some time my (very) long-term plan has been to get a Boston qualifying time (also 3:05 for a 18-40 male). But for some reason, I ignored this, and opted to enter the London Marathon ballot anyway. “I’ll put myself in the hands of the ballot gods.” I said. I didn’t actually really want to do the London Marathon, but the odds seemed so small…

Ballot entry mostly forgotten, I then entered my “first marathon”, the 2018 Snowdonia Trail Marathon, the day before my birthday in July. I told people all about it; that it would be my first marathon. All about my plan to do a tough trail marathon before a road one, as it would take away the time pressure – completing it would genuinely be enough of an achievement.

And then, one Monday at work, I got an excited phone call from Lolly, asking if she could open some of my post. I was a bit confused. Then it became clear. Oh so horribly clear.

Oh Jason…

As I said at the time on social media: Oh. Bollocks.

I still don’t know if I really want to run the London Marathon at the moment, but I don’t think I really have a choice. I put myself in the hands of the ballot gods, and they gave me a clear answer. Also, half of the members of my club seem to have entered the ballot, and as far as I can tell, I’m the only one who got in. (Though quite a few have GFA places.)

BALLOT LUCK: 2/2 (100%)

Push the clock forwards by a week, and my third ballot result came back – for the Grizzly 2018; a race that takes place one month before the London Marathon. And the result? Success, again.

BALLOT LUCK: 3/3 (100%)

So, my ballot luck is pretty good. Of course, as well as a 100% success rate in ballots, I currently hold a 0% success rate in subsequently running the race I got a ballot place for. Given the current state of my ankle means that I’m still not running, I haven’t ruled out the possibility of this trend continuing. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve got over six months until London, and not dramatically less than that for the Grizzly; but coming back from a bad ankle sprain means it’s likely to be a long and slow road back to full running fitness.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I do enter the National Lottery; every week. And my luck is appalling.

Training: Weeks 5 & 6

Oh boy, what a couple of weeks. As I mentioned in my last training update, my race addiction can cause quite a few issues for my training, and this was never more evident than in the last fourteen days. When I opted to train to improve my 10k time, rather than my half-marathon time, it was a two-pronged decision. Part of it was the desire to have a really good go at the distance that I just hadn’t focused on last year. The other was the vague idea that 10k training would be less intense, at a time when I had a small baby to look after, and a wife looking to get back into exercise routines herself.

What a clanger.

Had I actually looked at the 10k plan I was aiming to follow, or in fact engaged my brain and thought about things, I’d have realised that 10k training more or less followed the same pattern as the HM training I’d done, but included more speed-work. So in essence, similar mileage, but more hard workouts. So, basically, at least as hard, if not actually slightly harder. Anyway, less about my stupid decisions, and more about… well… my other stupid decisions:

Week 5, coming off the back of a recovery week was meant to start with a general aerobic run with hill sprints and 100m strides on the Tuesday, before the traditional endurance run the next day. And so, we reached the first issue. The Haselbury Trail 10k, a Wednesday night race. As is now traditional, the speed-work was cancelled, and replaced with a seven-mile meander along a route inspired by the Hurtle, one of the races that our club puts on. I hadn’t really felt like running at all, but was happy enough that I’d managed to get a run done, and that it was pretty close to the right distance.

I’ve written plenty about the Haselbury Trail in the race report blog post, but in summary, I was really happy with it. Despite some awful conditions, I ran my quickest time on the course, and even managed to add some distance before and after the run to make the day up to nine miles in total, keeping me on track for my weekly mileage target.

Unfortunately, despite my good start to the week, the tail-end was subject to more disruption – we were heading up to London to watch the athletics on Friday evening, so my Friday speed-work (5 x 1000m) was not going to happen. So, still aching from my race, I headed out early on Friday for a gentle 3.5 mile run around the river and canal, which was a pretty ‘nothing’ run. We then spent the rest of Friday clocking up more and more steps; we had to stand for most of the train journey to London, and then walked from Piccadilly Circus to our hotel in Tower Hill. We then turned out to be in the very back row at the athletics, and so built up even more steps going up and down the stairs to our seats and back a few times. Then, after watching Mo win the 10,000m (Go Mo!) we got back to our hotel room after 11 (late for us).

Just a casual 26:49 10k…

All of this was great preparation for Mile End parkrun – in the absence of my intervals the day before, I decided that it would be a good idea to make this an ‘effort’ parkrun. I clocked 19:44; my second-fastest parkrun time ever, on a slightly undulating course; you can read more about it here. I was really happy with my time, and although it didn’t serve quite the same training purpose as the planned intervals, I felt good about getting a quicker workout in.

Sunday’s long run was an opportunity to run on a few roads that I hadn’t explored before to the east of Taunton – I find solitary long runs pretty tough at times, and so I like to find ways to motivate myself and keep myself distracted – in this case it was expanding my VeloViewer ‘largest square’. Basically, every map grid that you run in is highlighted, so I was exploring some new squares! It’s a bit sad and geeky, but it keeps me interested! The run itself was 11.7 miles at 8:34 min/mi, a decent but not spectacular run.

My VeloViewer square.

Week 5: Target 37 mi, actual 36 mi

Another week, another race to mess with the plan! It was back to the Yeovilton 5k in Week 6. In Week 2, I’d ran 19:46, which had given me a big mental boost, and I was hoping for another this time around. My head wasn’t really in the game to start the week though, and my Tuesday run ended up being a very late evening plod around at 9:19 min/mi. I think the combined efforts of the Haselbury Trail and Mile End parkrun had really worn me out. With that in mind, I was really struggling with whether to go to the Yeovilton race. I was down on my weekly mileage, and doing the 5k race would only make that worse. I ummm-ed and I ahhh-ed, and I made and re-made the decision a few times before ultimately deciding to go.

I’m glad I did. As I knew, my weekly mileage suffered, but I ran 19:17, only four seconds slower than my PB set last September. The race gave me great confidence for how my training is going. I managed to tag on a decent length warm-up and cool down to minimise the damage to my weekly target.

Bizarrely, considering that I was feeling wiped out after so many race efforts, I opted to stick with my lactate threshold run on the Friday – cruise intervals; 12 mins/12 mins/10 mins at 6:40/6:40/6:38 pace. As I did for most of last year, I ran this along the canal, and was really happy with the effort I managed after a tough period of training. A gentle recovery run on Saturday evening was followed the next morning by a 12.3 mile long run with the club. I didn’t feel up for a solitary long run, so took the opportunity to do our club’s regular Sunday run. Although the pace wasn’t quite what I’d have done on my own, I didn’t regret the decision at all – it was lovely to be able to chat to friends all the way around, and made the distance feel like nothing at all.

A decent lactate threshold workout.

Week 6: Target 39 mi, actual 37.2 mi

I was disappointed to be short on mileage both weeks, but given that I had races both weeks, and some other disruptions too, I’m not too bothered in all honesty. My training is clearly heading in the right direction; both the races and the speed sessions show me this. Six weeks marks halfway through the plan, and the second half is much less congested – I’ve got a 10k race on Sunday of week 8, but that coincides with a planned 5k tune-up race, so not too much tweaking should be needed, and then the next Yeovilton race will be in week 10 or 11. I’m hoping to be able to get in a lot more of the planned speed workouts, and hopefully with less alterations, my body will benefit from the planned rest and recovery periods!

Acquiring focus, a training update

After a few races catch-ups, it’s probably time I focused on my training; what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and whether it is working. As I’ve mentioned a few times in my race reports, despite Lolly doing all the hard work, the arrival of our second child had quite a detrimental effect on my running. This wasn’t helped by a sinus infection that I caught around the same time. The two combined meant that after a pretty decent March, in which I ran 100 miles and set competitive times in both The Big Cheese and the Butleigh MT 10k, April was pretty awful: eight runs, for a total distance of 40 miles.

May and June were both huge improvements, with me finishing just short of 100 miles both months, but I was getting a bit demoralised by my slower race times. The 20:48 at Yeovilton in May was particularly difficult to take, despite the fact that I had known I was going to be off the pace. There are excuses I can tag to some of them as well; Wells and the Steeplechase were both on hot days, the Quantock Beast came at the end of a week when I’d been a bit off-colour anyway. Despite this, and the fact that I knew my pace would come back with time and training, I felt I needed some more structure to my running.

So, I turned back to the source of last year’s improvements: Pfitzinger and Latter’s Faster Road Running. After a bit of deliberation, I opted to follow a 10k plan. My 10k PB is serious lagging behind my 5k and HM efforts, and sub-40 is my next major milestone after doing a sub-20 5k and sub-90 HM last year. (A sub-19 5k is also a target, but that’ll come off training for some further.)

After some further deliberation, I set the Taunton 10k as my target race. It isn’t the flattest, and it certainly isn’t the biggest, but it’s all on road, I’ve set a PB there before, and it worked out around the right time. With this in mind, my first week of training (as last year) was meant to be the week after the Quantock Beast. However, my body disagreed! I opted that week to concentrate on getting the distance in, but not worrying too much about pace. To that end, I ran a 5 mile recovery run on the Tuesday, at around 9 minute miles and 6 miles the next day, at 9 and a half minute miles. I went off road towards the end of the week, taking in a lumpy 5 miles along the coast path on Friday, before a 12.5-mile loop of the Herepath on the Sunday.

Week 1: Target 30 mi, actual 29.1 mi

I was feeling pretty good after that week, despite the hilly end to it, and the second week should have provided the perfect opportunity to hit my planned workouts and get going properly. Except for my race addiction. This is (my wife tells me) a problem (she says this with glances at our credit card statement, our busy calendar and our neglected children). I have to admit, it’s hard to disagree: running a race in the middle of a training plan is a pretty surefire way to mess up the training plan. Of course, the fact we were going on holiday on the Friday was also pretty awkward.

Holiday running: pretty, but an organisational nightmare!

As a result: another week of rearranged and mangled training. My 5k race on the Wednesday showed things were heading in the right direction, at least, while a parkrun (in place of a speed session the day before) provided another opportunity to confirm my pace. Despite being in the New Forest, I managed to get out for 11 miles on the morning of my birthday. Although the speed workouts are important for increasing my pace, the longer runs are one of my focuses throughout this plan, as I did very few of them in the first half of the year.

Week 2: Target 32 mi, actual 32.4 mi

All the food! (A dinosaur birthday cake!)

The third week in, and for the first time, I was able to run pretty close to the plan. I found a nice track in the New Forest to do some point-to-point intervals along, and ran a 200m repeat session. Or at least, a “roughly 200m” repeat session. I gauged this off a combination of the number of paces I’d taken and the amount of time it took me to run, and then marked it with a fallen branch. It was tough, as my Wednesday endurance run title suggested: “I’ve eaten too much food this week to run properly…”

We travelled back on the Thursday, but the weather was absolutely awful on the Friday, so despite some initial resolutions to actually do my planned lactate threshold run, I didn’t get out. (Those who followed my training plan for the Bristol Half Marathon last year will recall that lactate threshold runs have a tendency to be… ummm… missed.) I was eager to get something akin to the planned session in though, so went to Longrun Meadow parkrun on the Saturday. The planned session was 10 min / 10 min / 8 min at pace with 3 min jog breaks. I decided that a 21 min parkrun with a 4 min break and then 8 min effort would simulate a similar session. I got the 21 min parkrun pretty much bang on, but then ended up chatting for too long, and so had too long of a break before my second effort. But still, overall my pace was where I wanted it, so no big deal. I finished the week with a relatively speedy 11 mile long run, averaging under 8 min/mile.

Week 3: Target 34 mi, actual 34.3 mi

Unfortunately, the side effect of moving my Friday speed-work to Saturday and running a quick long run on the Sunday was that I started week four feeling pretty knackered. It was advertised as a recovery week (my favourite) but began with another set of 2 x (4 x 200) on the Tuesday. Again, this was estimated distances marked in the gravel, but it went pretty well (which means I probably under-marked the distance!) I ran with the club on Wednesday, stepping down a group for an easier run, though I got a bit carried away towards the end with some hill sprints…

I’d over-egged my overall distance on both Tuesday and Wednesday, so I went for a much shorter than planned run on Friday, taking my daughter in the buggy with me to help control my pace. To be honest, looking back at this week, I probably should have been taking things far easier. The whole point of a recovery week is to give your body a bit of a reset for the training ahead, and I think the hill sprints and extra distance in the first half of the week really prevented that from happening too much. My Friday run, while short, should probably have been slower still, especially given that I had the buggy. My Sunday run was okay, but again, should probably have been slower.

Week 4: Target 30 mi, actual 30.2 mi

Overall I have to be happy with pretty much hitting all my weekly mileage targets. The training was pretty disrupted in terms of the specific workouts, but hopefully that will improve in the second half of the plan. Either way, improvements are obvious, and maybe, just maybe, a sub-40 is possible.

A race report catch-up: part three

This is the third and final instalment of my race report catch ups, going through all the races that I’ve done in the past few months, most of which I didn’t manage to get around to writing up at the time as I was too busy doing other things.

  • Part one: Butleigh MT 10k, Yeovilton 5k (May), Wambrook Waddle 10k, Crewkerne 10k
  • Part two: Red Bull Steeplechase

<dramatic voiceover> And now… the conclusion. </>

Quantock Beast – 2 July

This was the third year in a row that I took on this race, put on by the local Quantock Harriers, and only a few miles up the road.

The race came just a couple of weeks after the Red Bull Steeplechase, and off the back of a not great week of running. I ran 8 x 200 metre repeats on the Tuesday evening, and I think it wiped me out – I was using a football pitch to estimate the distance, and I think I ended up doing too far, too fast. The following night I wiped out during our club run, and just felt completely drained. I didn’t run again before the race – so I was a little concerned about how it would go.

As usual, we had a good club turnout for this race, and we were especially we represented near the front of the race: Iain, Tim and Andy all run with group 1, although I hoped that on a hilly, off-road course I might be able to challenge Andy.

The race begins with a fast road descent that lasts just over a kilometre, and despite feeling like I was taking it easy, I ended up being six seconds quicker than last year. I continued to be significantly quicker over the next kilometre, although the drier weather might have something to do with that, as the second kilometre moved off-road and climbed gently uphill. I stayed in touch with Andy through these early sections, and as the course dropped to a steep downhill, I was able to pass him, though he got straight past me again as we climbed back up the hill.

After a couple more little lumps, this climb settled into the big one, almost a mile and a half long. Although it is rarely too steep, the climb is sapping, and I struggled a bit with it. I can’t really put my finger on why I didn’t do too well on it: there is a Strava segment for the hill, and my best time remains that from 2014. I’ve done lots of hill training since then, so logically I should be significantly better at it, but last year I was almost two minutes slower, and even this year I was about 30 seconds off the pace. I can only put it down to a ‘longer race mentality’ which means I’m taking more walking breaks than I did before. Maybe. Looking at Strava, I was massively slower at the bottom of the hill this time (7:32 km compared to 6:38) while I pretty much the same towards the top. This definitely suggests I started walking earlier and more. Something to consider for future shorter races with hills!

Anyway, over that hill I just had the long road descent back to the start/finish. I could still see Andy ahead, and hoped that I might catch up down the hill, but he (and everyone else) maintained their pace far more than I remembered in previous years. Despite running this final section quicker than I’d managed before, I was actually caught during it, though I managed to time my sprint finish better to beat him to the finish line.

I was generally disappointed with this race – it should have played to my strengths, but for whatever reason I just didn’t seem to be quite there on the day. On reflection I guess that given how I was earlier in the week, along with everything else going on, meant that it was actually a decent performance. It just didn’t really feel much like that at the time.

Yeovilton 5k – 12 July

After my first Yeovilton appearance of the summer, I wanted to set things straight a little with this race. My actual time in May hadn’t been awful (considering), but my pacing had shown how poorly my head had adapted to a slowing in my pace. After running the first two kilometres at 3:57/km, I then dropped off dramatically, running the final two kilometres at 4:24/km to finish in 20:48. So this time around, I wanted to be a bit more realistic.

I was boosted somewhat by this being a Somerset Series race, which meant the field was a bit bigger, but most importantly, there were more recognisable figures. Most significantly, the chap who I’d just pipped to the finish at the Quantock Beast was there, and we ended up running most of the race together, along with a couple of other familiar figures. This meant that although I was a little concerned with my quick early kilometres; 3:52, 3:53, I didn’t have to worry too much about the numbers as I was around people I considered my peers.

In fact, it worked out pretty nicely. After the quick start, we then dropped to almost dead-on 20 minute pacing, running the last three kilometres in 4:00, 4:02, 4:03 (though that last one was only due to a sprint at the end). I finished in 19:46, a little quicker than this race last year, but most importantly, back under 20 minutes. It’s a silly little thing, but in my head, I’m a sub-20 minute 5k runner, and until I’d got back to actually doing that, I just felt a bit out-of-place, almost a fraud. It also meant that I could see everything was coming back in the right direction, which was a huge boost.

Haselbury Trail 10k – 2 August

Another race that I’ve done a couple of times before.

I had a good few weeks between the Quantock Beast/Yeovilton races in early July until the Haselbury Trail at the start of August, and I clocked up the training miles, including a few decent speed workouts. Haselbury was well timed after a recovery week as well, meaning that I went into it feeling the best I had been for a while. We had a surprisingly good club turnout again at this race, especially considering the awful weather – it had been raining all day long, and that didn’t stop in the evening. For me, this was great – the Quantock Beast had been too dry for my liking, so I was looking forward to a wetter off-road race!

Again, there were all the familiar Somerset Series regulars (well, minus the two Matts, one of whom has been injured most the year, and the other of whom has just had a baby). My previous two visits to this race finished with near identical times; 47:08 and 47:07, though conditions had differed significantly between the years, making the 2015 time the more impressive. This year’s conditions were definitely more akin to 2015!

Unsurprisingly for similar overall times, my splits were similar in places too: both years started with 4:01, 4:20, 4:52 kilometres (give or take a second). Both years, my race report talked about having gone off too fast, and needing to rein it in. Which I sort of managed this year – my opening kilometre was 4:11, though I then ran 4:18 for the second and 4:45 for the third. Those good at arithmetic will notice that as a result, my first three kilometres were actually therefore more or less done in exactly the same time in 2017 as the two years before…

But despite the similar overall time, I think the specific kilometre splits made a difference. I didn’t destroy my legs so much with an over-fast sprint start, and I think I’m in better shape anyway than the previous two years. By the end of the third kilometre, I’d settled in behind Graham, figuring that given our recent relative results, I didn’t want to get ahead of him. However, the pair of us were stuck behind another runner who seemed to be struggling on the slippier off-road sections, and when Graham didn’t pass him on a wider section, I opted to pass them both, backing myself to manage my own pace. As it happened, Graham must have passed him soon after, and was back on my heels by the end of the fourth kilometre.

Shortly after came the first climb of the “Horrible Hill” (to quote the Strava segment). I was fully expecting to lose ground here – in previous years I had been passed on the hill, and after my Quantock Beast experience I had no reason to think it would change this year. But amazingly, not only did I not lose any positions, but I actually gained time on those around me. Admittedly, I was probably a little bit slow to speed back up again on the level, but still! As we came around to begin our second lap, there were a group of four of us, strung out a little; a runner from Maiden Newton, a chap in a triathlon club top, me and Graham. The pace was being pushed by the two runners I didn’t know, particularly the triathlete, though I was a little confused at his variations in pace. Sometimes he was sprinting along, easily passing me, but then at others, I cruised up to pass him.

Although I made some decent pace down the hill to start the lap once more, I decided not to push along with the other two initially, but temper my pace closer to Graham’s once more. As the lap continued though, I kept swapping positions with the triathlete, and I soon worked out it was because he had road shoes on. On the more solid terrain, he was much quicker than me, but when we were on the slippier sections, I had the edge. Coming back around to the hill at the end of the lap, he was slightly ahead of me, but really struggled in the mud that had been ground up at the bottom of the hill. In trying to go around him, I ended up more or less running into him as he slipped around, but I pushed myself hard up the hill, and over the last section of off-road terrain. I knew that my only chance to keep ahead of him was to have a decent gap before we got back on the road.

My hard work paid off, and I retained my position to the end; the group of four of us that had started the lap together ended up finishing within 1:10 of each other, having gained a couple of positions past some struggling runners. I was very happy with finishing 22nd, especially doing so ahead of Graham.

parkrun tourism: Mile End

A child-free trip to London for the athletics seemed like an ideal opportunity for our next round of parkrun tourism, after a visit to Moors Valley a couple of weeks ago. For us Somerset folk, it is always a surprise to find public transport that is frequent, easy to use and even relatively punctual!

London parkrun tourists – you don’t know how lucky you are!

Of course, that public transport provides its own problems – from our hotel in Tower Hill, there were A LOT of parkruns within easy range. The parkrun tourist tool revealed that there were 32 parkruns within 10 miles, and all the top 50 were within 13.4 miles. To put that into some perspective, our second closest from Taunton is 15 miles away…

There were some tempting options: Bushy, obviously, but that was the 49th closest, and looked like a bit of a pain to get to by public transport from where we were. Valentines, a chance to get the letter ‘V’ if we were considering some alphabet tourism, but that’s not our focus right now. Ally Pally, one we’d heard positive things about. But ultimately, the decision came down to two things: (1) how easily we could get there (and back to Paddington after) using the underground, and (2) the availability of lockers and showers. That more or less left us with Mile End or Burgess, and ultimately, the course looked a bit nicer and Mile End.

All of this meant that at half past 7 on Saturday morning, rather than having a nice lie-in after a pretty late night cheering Mo, we were on our way back to Aldgate station. A short hop around to Liverpool Street, then a slightly (but not much) longer trip on the Central line to Mile End station, where we were surprised by a shout of “Cow cowls! We’re off to Wanstead.” It was the mother of the cow cowl herself, Kathy. Unfortunately, we were denied the chance at any conversation due to our opposite trajectories! From the station, we were practically there, with just a short walk through the park required to reach the start.

A pretty little park.

At first glance, the course didn’t look too inspiring – two laps, each an out-and-back with a little loop at the end. But after reading a couple of blogs, it sounded an attractive prospect, a pretty park with some… undulations. The advertised lockers were in the leisure centre right by the start, and after getting some change from the coffee guy, we stowed our bags, and were ready to go. Well, once I’d done my warm-up, anyway.

Unsurprisingly, given the World Championships, there were A LOT of tourists. In fact, 123 of the 317 runners were first-timers. There were also 27 ‘unknowns’, so almost half of the runners that scanned in were there for the first time! Despite that, 317 runners isn’t a huge increase for Mile End; they regularly get over 200, and have had over 300 runners a few times already this year. The two briefings, (new runners and pre-run) were both delivered a little quietly – a loudspeaker should be on the Christmas list here, I think!

With little fanfare, just a 3-2-1, we were on our way. And boy, was it a fast start! In what turned out to be a pretty fast field, I got lulled into haring off far too quickly, especially given that the first undulation appears pretty soon into the course. Half a kilometre in, the course rises again, more significantly, over Green Bridge. This was added into the park in 1999 to link the north and south sections that were split by the A11 – but rather than just add a footbridge to connect the two, they built a wide bridge that maintains the grass and foliage of the park. All of which meant that as far as I was concerned, going along at somewhere around my 5k PB pace, I was just going up a hill in a park.

A lollipop – with a slightly odd stick!

Shortly after the bridge, the course curves around to the right, to begin a loop which took the route alongside the Regent’s Canal for a short spell. As we headed back to rejoin the simple out-and-back, I was initially a bit confused by seeing other runners, as I’d forgotten about the loop, had been expecting a specific turnaround point, and assumed they were all ahead of me!

The first mile finished just before we crossed back over Green Bridge towards the southern end of the park again, and we continued through the trees on the gently curving path to the leisure centre. A single blue cone was positioned for us all to turnaround at this end, and head back out for another lap. Lolly and I had joked about who would get back first – me having finished, or her having completed her first lap, and as I ran the second circuit, this served as one of a few diversions from the struggle to maintain my pace. I was hoping for a sub-20 minute time, although a race on Wednesday, a general lack of sleep, and almost 30,000 steps the day before weren’t in my favour…

As it was, the undulating course suited me, and although Lolly just about managed to beat me (alright, by a fair bit, actually), I finished well under 20 minutes to record my second-fastest parkrun time ever. This probably isn’t a traditional PB course, but I tend to run well on courses with some undulation – my quickest overall time is at Shrewsbury, another one with some bumps.

After a sip of water, I jogged back out for a bit of a cool down, and to find Lolly. This also allowed me to enjoy the park a little bit more for its beauty, rather than just its firm paths! Jogging along gently, I was able to notice the fountain, and appreciate the trees, shrubs and general greenery. Lolly is still adopting a 2:1 run/walk strategy as she returns to running post-pregnancy, and amazingly, her time at Mile End was exactly the same as that a few weeks earlier at Moors Valley. I’ve told her that I’ll be very disappointed if she doesn’t exactly equal it next time out too!

Two sweaty runners – we were so glad for the showers!

Refreshed after the showers, we headed back across London just in time to catch the 11:35 out of Paddington back to Somerset – by which time we were well ready for our breakfast!!

So, what to say about the parkrun in general? The volunteers were all cheerful and helpful, as usual. The course was far nicer than the rather bland course description would suggest – the canal section breaks it up nicely, and the winding path and hills prevent it from being too monotonous. It’s an absolute doddle to get to using the tube, and is within Zones 1-2, which keep it cheap too. There is a coffee van at the course, and there looked to be a couple of cafes nearby too, though we didn’t sample either. The lockers and showers were vital to us, and the leisure centre staff didn’t seem at all bothered by the number of people using them (which isn’t always the case!)

Would I go back again? Well, no – but only because if I’m in London again, there are so, so, so many parkruns that I haven’t done there yet.

Red Bull Steeplechase: race report (catch-up part two)

My catch-up quest continues! Three more races to get through, starting with a big one (literally):

Red Bull Steeplechase – 18 June

This was one of my favourite races of 2016, and when I saw that it was coming back to Exmoor for a second year, I couldn’t resist. Despite the huge hike in price. In 2016, I’d been pretty close to making it through the second checkpoint, and onto Lynton, but I missed out by a couple of minutes. I was itching for the chance to go further. Of course, then we had a baby, didn’t get enough sleep to train properly, and I came to realise that even equalling last year’s effort would be a fair achievement! This race also happened in what was pretty much the hottest weather I have ever run in. So not ideal… (Getting my excuses in early.)

The race started at 9:30, which I had figured would be one small mercy with the weather. Except that the day before the race, I was doing some gardening at 9:30, and it was already baking hot, so there would be no respite. I mostly tried to stay out of the sun before the race started, and made sure I drank plenty. I also toyed with my race tactics – namely my plan for the start. Last year I was surprised by the pace of the start – we did the first half mile at around 5k pace, as it went through the street (singular) of Lynmouth and then hit a bottleneck at the coastal path.

Ultimately, I decided to take it a bit easier in the heat, and then slowly pick my way through the field later on when it was wider. I then completely ignored this plan, and pelted it through Lynmouth at what Strava suggests was pretty much exactly the same pace as last year. After that quick half mile, we then had a slow half mile of hill climbing. Very slow in fact. The first half mile took about three minutes. The other half took about eight minutes. But, important detail, that was the first horrible climb completed.

After that first hill, things level off for a time, and I could just run. Each mile was slower than 2016, but between the training and the heat, it was still feeling pretty tough. Very tough in fact. About six and a half miles in, running alongside the River Heddon, I stopped for a drink station. Credit to Red Bull: there were lots of drinks stations, and they were very well stocked with bottles of water and cups of Red Bull or a water/Red Bull mix. When I say that I stopped, I really mean it. In a knockout race, I, along with two others I’d been running along with, came to a complete stop to drink a complete 500 ml bottle of water. Such was the heat, and such was the knowledge of the hill to come.

But now, some good news! The marshal at the drink station asked if we’d done it last year. Yes, we all had. Well, he said, that horrible hill climb through the scrub? Not there. Instead we’d turn left and head up the coast path instead. Great!

For some context. These two “struggling” runners came first and fourth. This is how hard the course is.

No, it bloody wasn’t.

It turns out that when you’re at 120 ft, and the checkpoint is at 815 ft, there isn’t really an “easy” option. In 2016, we had one horrible climb, and then a gentler ascent up the road to the checkpoint at about 8.7 miles. This year, the climb up rugged terrain just seemed to go on forever, and the first checkpoint wasn’t until 9.4 miles. On the two intermediate checkpoints, I’d been 110th and 108th, but I knew I’d dropped places heading up the never-ending hill and was 113th. Considering my expectations, I was surprised at how highly I was placed – in 2016, I’d been 128th through the first checkpoint.

Through the second section of the race, things became more lonely as the field spread out, and I was really starting to struggle in the heat. There aren’t really any flat sections of the route, and I was taking frequent walking breaks. Where in 2016 I’d been cheerily acknowledging walkers and those around me, this time I was grunting and hoping for it all to be over. The course was beautiful, the scenery stunning. But my body wasn’t really up for it, and I didn’t cope with the heat very well. Amazingly, I finished in exactly the same position, 110th in both 2016 and 2017. But whereas in 2016, I was only 2:44 behind 100th, this time I was 5:41 behind.

Some other comparisons; last year it cost £30, this year £45. Last year, there were 281 men and 96 women. This year 198 men and 93 women. I fear that the race might have to either move again, or consider the price. It’s an expensive race to put on, and Red Bull do a hell of a lot to make it worthwhile. The drinks (as I said) were well stocked, there was a free “runner’s lunch”, this year it was a pasty, followed by a cream tea. The hoodie from last year had been downgraded to a cotton tee though. And yet again, despite photographers and videographers all over the course, there were no participant photos, just a “pool” of about 15 shots available to the press. To me, this was the most disappointing aspect. Red Bull could get lots more publicity and marketing exposure by making the photos available, with big Red Bull logos in the corner. We’d have shared them on social media, especially given the amazing backdrop. But there was nothing.

All that said, if the race is back on Exmoor again next year… you know, I’d probably do it again: I really want to get to Lynton, and get the train down the cliff.

Right. This was meant to be all three race reports, but I got a bit carried away with the Steeplechase! Look out for part three…