Tag Archives: trail running

My Snowdonia thoughts

A bit of time has passed now since the Snowdonia Trail Marathon. (Did I mention that I ran a marathon?) I wanted to post again to reflect on my thoughts about a few things. Overall, I did it. I did it in more or less the exact time that I estimated. So I can’t have too many qualms about the race really. But.. there are a few things that I’ve learnt from.

Training

So, again, I finished, and I finished in pretty much the time I predicted. But that doesn’t mean that my training was perfect. Or even adequate. I took a relatively laid-back approach to this training cycle. My focus was on two main things: mileage and elevation.

The latter I certainly achieved (compared to my previous efforts, at least). I opted for a two-pronged approach: I simply made an effort to target more hills in my runs, and run far less in central Taunton, and I joined Minehead Running Club for their Monday evening runs. The combined effect meant that by early July, shortly before my marathon, I had run just over 50,000 feet this year. In contrast, the most I’d ever run before *in a whole year* was 42,000 feet.

Courtesy of Veloviewer.

Mileage was generally less successful. I only ran one long run of 20 miles or more; and only three that were 15 miles or more. My weekly mileages were also pretty low. In the 12 weeks leading up to the race, my biggest week was 40.7 miles. In contrast, my biggest week for the Bristol Half Marathon was 45.9 miles. Accumulated across the whole 12 weeks, the difference is even more stark: 422 miles for the Bristol Half, compared to 301 miles for Snowdonia.

There were definitely reasons – I was ill twice during that training period for Snowdonia, and missed something like 15-20 days (not all of these were training days, of course). That probably works out to about 60-100 miles, a big part of the difference. Without those gaps, my training would have built on itself a bit better, and I would almost certainly have done longer long runs. Or at least, more of them. Races (as always) got in the way too. Doing a 10k, plus some added mileage isn’t too bad during training for a half, but it’s a pretty big dent for marathon training. If I’m serious about a marathon in the future, I probably need to curb my shorter distance racing habit a bit.

We also had a lot going on. Both me and Lolly have been busy and stressed at work, and we also have twice as many children to deal with now compared to during that Bristol Half training.

Could I have trained better? Yes, though it’s hard to account for illness. Do I really mind? No, this was all about completion, not time. But it’s still good to analyse it to see where improvements could come in the future.

Fuelling

This, in my opinion, is where I really let myself down. I don’t even know why it all went wrong. Well, no, I do. I got in my own head about it, and messed myself up.

I have quite a sensitive stomach / digestive system. Actually, that isn’t entirely true. For some reason, my head has too much influence over my stomach. I make myself feel ill – if I get it in my head that something smells funny and has gone off, then my stomach feels funny. Not because the food has actually gone off, but because my head makes my stomach worry about it. Or something like that. Because of this, I’d never used gels before this training cycle. I’d read so much about their possible effects on the digestive system that I thought it best to avoid them with my own.

I realised that running a marathon without anything would be stupid. Particularly this marathon. I am also something of a fussy eater, so most of the ‘natural’ alternatives don’t appeal to me. After a fair bit of research, I settled on trying the Torq gels. They were described as more of a ‘yoghurty’ texture and flavour, which sounded like something I could deal with. And I could. I used them in my training runs, and had absolutely no problems. I also tried having a peanut butter sandwich (too dry and claggy) and then settled on peanut butter and jam sandwiches instead.

My favourites: Apple Crumble, Raspberry Ripple.

So, for the race, I set off with (I think) seven gels, plus two slices of peanut and jam sandwich. My plan was to eat something roughly every 4.5 to 5 miles.

I had a gel at around 6 miles, and a sandwich at 11 miles. A further gel at 15 miles, and I was done for the race. I tried to have the other sandwich around mile 21, but by then I was struggling up Snowdon and was pretty dehydrated. I should have probably tried a gel instead, but as I say, I’d basically got in my own head by then. The distances don’t look too bad, but if I convert them into times, it tells a slightly different story. 1 hr 10, 1 hr 50, 2 hr 30, 4 hr 18. Yeah, not quite the same as 6, 11, 15, 21, huh?

A simple lesson to be learnt here – distances might be fine for flat road marathons where you would expect relatively even splits. But for gnarly trail marathons with mountains… not such a good idea. In future, I might try to base my fuelling on time, rather than distance. I also need to worry less about what everyone else is doing, and just focus on myself. Which is really bloody obvious, and yet still I suffered by it.

Hydration

For the most part, my hydration was pretty good. I carried a 500 ml bottle with me (this was part of the mandatory kit). For the majority of the race, this was plenty enough, in conjunction with the drinks stations themselves. However, for that four miles from Pen-y-Pass to the drinks station on the way down Snowdon it was not. Primarily because that four miles took me about 1 hr 45. Basically, as above, I just need to consider time gaps, rather than distance gaps. For most races, a 500 ml bottle plus refills would have sufficed, but for this one, I could have done with double that, if only for the big climb.

The mountain

Despite the sharp increase in the amount of elevation I clocked up during training, nothing could prepare me for Snowdon itself. A 1,300 ft climb up Corn Du in the snow in early February was the biggest single climb I did, while my “Exmoor Three Peaks” run totalled 3,300 ft, including Dunkery Beacon. Both impressive feats, but compared to a 2,800 ft climb over about four miles, they were small preparation. Especially after 18 miles of running. Simply put, the only thing that could have prepared me for climbing up Snowdon would have been climbing up Snowdon.

Would I like to go up Snowdon again sometime? Yes. Would I want to do it in a race? Maybe, but probably not. I run because I love running. Walking for four miles isn’t my idea of running. It was a great challenge etc etc, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t running. Would I do another race with over 5,500 ft of elevation? Sure. But it would need to be more spread out over the whole race, rather than concentrated on one big and one very, very big climb.

Marathon distance

I guess the biggest question is whether I would consider doing another marathon. Truth be told, I don’t know. The long runs were pretty tough on the family, and I really didn’t enjoy them that much. The race itself was hard, really hard. But then, I’ve heard it talked about as being the “toughest marathon in the United Kingdom”, so go figure. For the moment, I certainly want to focus on shorter distance stuff again. But… I do still have my deferred London Marathon place…

Hmmm…

Snowdonia Trail Marathon: race report

It’s difficult to know where to start with this one. So, as is traditional, I’ll try and start at the beginning.

Just under a year ago, in the middle of a good spell of training, I saw that one of the runners I follow on Strava had done the Snowdonia Trail Half Marathon. It looked amazing – 13.1 miles, 3,852 feet of elevation. It went over a mountain! The idea took hold quickly. But soon things escalated. I’d been looking for a trail marathon to do for a while. I wanted my first marathon to be off-road, and hilly; that way I couldn’t get too caught up in chasing a time. Also, once I thought about it, travelling all the way up to north Wales for a half marathon; one that was pretty similar to the Exmoor Stagger in many aspects (16 miles, 3,200 feet), seemed not really worth it. So obviously, rather than give up on the idea, I simply decided to run the marathon. And there it was; on Friday 28 July, I had signed up.

Six weeks later, a major spanner fell in the works when I sprained my ankle. Despite my initial hopes to be back up and running relatively soon, it dragged on. Then, in early October, more news: against all the odds, I’d got a London Marathon place. Wow. Suddenly, it looked like I was going from never having done a marathon, to a couple in three months.

In late October I started to run again – a mile here, a mile there. But it wasn’t really until December that I was doing much. Then, with Christmas and illnesses and whatnot, it was January. Various bugs meant that my training remained spotty. But, at the end of February, I made my return from racing. And I did it in typical fashion: a double-header. On Saturday, the Minehead Running Club “Hills to Coast” Relay. On Sunday, the Babcary 7.5.

On 12 March, I “started” my training. It was pretty ad hoc. After just two weeks, I was out of action for two weeks with a diarrhoea bug. Another couple of weeks of training and I had another bad bug, and missed another ten days. It’s fair to say that at this point, I didn’t really think a marathon was going to happen. I’d already deferred my London place; it was quickly obvious that wasn’t going to happen. But I was really starting to worry about Snowdonia too.

Despite all the issues though, I was still making progress. My long runs were getting longer: 13 miles, 14 miles, 17 miles?! (I blame Ron.) I went for a solo run around some of Exmoor’s highest peaks, totalling 19 miles and 3,300 feet. A few weeks later, after a couple of race weekends, I looped back, forth, and all around Center Parcs for 20 miles. By then I was pretty happy – even if I did no more running, I was confident that as long as I was fit and well, I’d be fine.

Which was handy, and I got ill, again. Another week and a bit of training gone.

I’ll start talking about the race now, I promise

Fast forward to race week. Suddenly, the logistics became real, and difficult. My daughter has been getting car sick lately, and a five hour car journey didn’t look too appealing. We created, then tore up plan after plan after plan. Eventually finishing with cancelling all our hotel rooms, and involving me driving up on my own on the Saturday, saying with my in-laws that night, and then driving back straight after the race. It looked like it wasn’t just going to be the race that would be brutal!

It’s a long old journey…

The drive up went pretty well – five and a quarter hours to Llanberis. Then another half an hour to find somewhere to park (this would have been easier if either [a] I had change or [b] North Wales joined the 21st century and allowed you to pay for parking by mobile phone.) It was then simple enough to walk into the race village and collect my number. Another twenty minute drive got me to the holiday cottage in Y Felinheli my in-laws were staying in. We went out for a lovely meal at the Torna a Surriento restaurant in Bangor that evening to allow me to ‘carb-load’. I’m not sure whether Carbonara really counts, but it was delicious, so who cares!

Okay, okay, the race

A relatively normal 6:30 alarm gave me plenty of time to have a large bowl of porridge, start filling myself with water, and get my kit ready before we left the cottage at 7:30 to head to the start. Rather than worry about parking again, my father-in-law kindly dropped me off – we arranged that he would keep an eye on the tracker, and hopefully work out roughly when I was due to finish. I guessed at something between 5 and a half and 6 hours to complete the race.

Having collected my number the afternoon before, I didn’t really have anything to do in the hour and ten minutes before the race. I took a few pictures – both for myself and others, and generally whiled away the time. Bizarrely, given that my main concern for the race was getting too hot in the sun, I also had to work on keeping warm. The sun was tucked away behind the clouds, and it was actually – for the first time in about a month – quite chilly.

An average view from the start/finish area

The Always Aim High event team were brilliant throughout the morning, given frequent updates on the mandatory kit list. They had loosened it slightly, removing the need for waterproofs or gloves – full-body cover was still needed (a long sleeve top and trousers/tights). Sadly, this made no difference for me, as the only full-body cover I had with me was my waterproofs, so I had to carry that anyway. A lesson for the future!

A race briefing was given at 8:45, detailing the cut offs, and some basic safety information – pretty generic stuff, but some good stuff. They asked runners not to use the drink station water to pour over themselves, as this would risk them running out, especially in some of the harder to reach locations.

This bit is actually the race now

Well, sort of.

Not only was this to be my first marathon, but also my first race with mandatory kit, my first mountain race, my first run with more than 5,000 feet of elevation (actually my previous most was 3,800), my first run further than 20 miles, and significantly my longest run time-wise.

I had two main concerns:

  1. Running that far.
  2. Fuelling myself.

You’d think that I was worried about the climb over Snowdon itself, and the elevation, but oddly, I wasn’t. I’d trained with a fair bit of elevation, and was fully expecting it to be a walk, so the difficulty of it had been diminished in my head. I wasn’t even too concerned about the distance. Again, I knew that Snowdon would be something of a walk anyway, so actually, I didn’t really think I would have a major problem completing the race from that respect.

Running in an anti-clockwise direction.

On the other hand, my food and drink situation was one that worried me a fair bit. I get quite significant headaches after a lot of my runs, which seems to be linked to my hydration and fuelling. This race was going to span lunch – in fact, a guide time of six hours from 9 am meant that it would actually be basically all day. I have never used gels in a race before, but had been experimenting with them during my long runs, and had no ill effects. I had also taken peanut butter and jam sandwiches out a couple of times, and found that this had worked well too. So, I made a rough plan for the marathon: 5 miles, gel; 10 miles, sandwich; 15 miles, gel; 20 miles sandwich; 23 miles gel.

My general race plan was to take it pretty easy early on: that initial small looking climb is still over 1,000 feet. So I figured that I would get over that without exerting too much energy, and then crack on along the descent and the flat section. And then, you know, the mountain. I’d basically try and survive the walk up that, and then see how my legs were for the big descent. Sorted. A plan.

The actual start of the actual race (Start to Rhyd-Ddu)

No, like, actually this time.

After the race briefing, we were called to line up at the start. It was all a little bit of a mess, and I didn’t really have a clue whether I was too far forward, too far back, or about right. I guessed I was a little bit too far back, and this was borne out by our start through the village. Heading right down Llanberis High Street, the crowd was going at slightly less than 9 minute miles. Not catastrophically slow, given that I wanted to take it easy to start, but still slower than I wanted. I was aware of a stile at around mile four which other blogs had described as a pinch-point, which long queues. While I wanted to take it relatively easy on the first climb, I also wanted to hit that stile far enough up the pack that I didn’t have to wait too long.

I can tell this is early – I had my cap on!

I continued to gradually pass people along the High Street, and then as we turned up the hill the crowd slowed to a walk. I jogged short sections when there was space, but was mostly happy to go with the group. I really didn’t see any point in killing my legs on this first climb. We continued to climb, first on what was mostly a proper road, becoming a decent, single road-width track, becoming a narrower track, becoming quite a gnarly path. I slotted in with a group of three runners at this stage, and let them dictate much of the pace for a while.

Our first peak was reached at about three and a half miles, and took me about 40 minutes. I say a peak – in reality we were running up a pass between the heights of Foel Goch (605 m) and Moel Cynghorion (674 m) to Bwlch Maesgym (467 m).

Cap off – looking a bit less kempt.

More ‘average’ views.

From Bwlch Maesgym, we dropped down towards the Snowdon Ranger Path, where we had a short queue for a stile. This was the first of the pair that I’d read so much about – I was thankful that I’d clearly got far enough forward that they weren’t too much of an issue. The half marathon route splits off to head up the Ranger Path, but the marathon and ultra runners continued on, down towards Rhyd-Ddu. But first, another stile and some pretty treacherous terrain. I was keeping a pretty decent pace up along this whole section (stiles aside). The downhill nature suited me, and the terrain was pretty friendly early on – soft grass with a few rocks around to avoid. But after we crossed the Ranger Path, we seemed to be in some sort of quarry, and there was a lot of loose shale-like terrain to deal with, and some seemingly artificial mounds to negotiate.

One of the many stiles to get over early on.

Rhyd-Ddu, just about 10k into the race, was the first drinks station. Having missed my first gel at five miles, I took it on here. I also had a big cup of water, and took the opportunity to refill my water bottle. The station was well-stocked with water, High5 Isotonic drink and High5 gels as well. This was also the first checkpoint for the live tracking, so the first time that those following my progress had any idea of how I was doing: 1:08:21, at an average pace of 11:13 per mile, apparently.

The ‘boring’ middle bit (Rhyd-Ddu to Beddgelert)

After the gorgeous first section, and ahead of Snowdon, the middle section was relatively dull by comparison. That’s not to say it was actually unattractive or boring – in any other race, it would have been lovely. It’s just that in this particular race…

Approaching Rhyd-Ddu, when I was still capable of looking like I was enjoying myself!

Heading out of the drinks station in Rhyd-Ddu, we went around Llyn y Gader (a lake) and followed the edge of Beddgelert Forest. The pace picked up; mile 8 was my quickest of the entire marathon (8:25), and most were quicker than 9 minute miles. The terrain was largely compacted gravel, and with less stop-start, it was easier to follow typical race tactics. Three of us ran much of this section together, our paces nicely matching, though we swapped lead of the group a few times.

Entering Beddgelert, we reached the second major feed station for the marathon. Again late for my food, I scoffed down my sandwich as we approached it, and then once again took on plenty of water and refilled my bottle. As I was waiting for my refill, I heard my name – it was fellow RFRC runner Matt Blee, who was doing the ultra. We had a quick chat; he let me know that he was ahead of Damon, but the two Andys from our club were just ahead. After a little confusion about which direction to head in to leave, I headed off once more, through the pretty little village. Beddgelert was very busy with tourists as the time approached 11 in the morning. 11 miles in 1:49:42, at an average pace of 9:58 per mile.

The end of the beginning. Or, the beginning of the end. (Beddgelert to Pen-y-Pass)

From Beddgelert, the race continued to be mostly flat until the approach the Pen-y-Pass. The scenery was very different to the earlier stages; despite the dry spell, we were surrounded by lush greenery. We were running up the Afon Glaslyn valley, and went passed a couple of lakes, Llyn Dinas and Llyn Gwynant. Shortly after Beddgelert was the lowest point of the race, around 50 metres. Other than a brief bump around Llyn Gwynant, we only gained about 50 metres over the next 10 kilometres. Despite this, the terrain slowed us down from about mile 14, as the path twisted and turned through the trees and rocks. There were quite a few scrambles up and down steep rock formations, and there were a fair few stiles again. A feed station around mile 15 reminded me to take a gel, and put me pretty much back on track.

Just more lovely scenery.

 

Just before mile 18, the climbing starts. It sort of caught me off-guard. I’d driven past the Pen-y-Pass car park on my way to Llanberis the day before, and I had wondered about how high it already was. Apparently, I never developed this thought to really work out that there would be a fair bit of climbing before the Pen-y-Pass feed station (and cut-off, though I was well ahead of that spectre). In fact, we had to climb about 250 metres just to get to Pen-y-Pass and the start of the Pyg Track. Mile 19 was that climb; the first of four miles of it. And it was one of the most significant; 756 feet (~250 metres) in one mile. Everyone slowed to a walk – one person joked that it was like something out of a war film, with everyone trudging along, snaking up the path as far as we could see. That didn’t make it any easier – we could see quite how much further up we had to go – just to get to Pen-y-Pass.

Up, and more up. And this is before even hitting the mountain proper.

It was a relief to reach Pen-y-Pass and refill my water, which had been getting pretty low. Sadly, with the trauma of the climbing, I forgot to have anything to eat – technically it was too early, but given how much I’d had to slow, I should have done anyway. Pen-y-Pass was the last checkpoint before the finish line; 19 miles, 3:33:29 at an average pace of 11:14 per mile.

Can I please just give up? (Snowdon ascent)

The Pyg Track is often described as the prettiest route up Snowdon. It is one of the more popular, as it is also the shortest (assuming you start in the car park, and not 19 miles previous in Llanberis…) It is not however, the easiest. According to walkupsnowdon.co.uk, it “can be steep and rocky in places”. Yes. Quite. No one was even remotely considering running, and we were frequently slowing right down to clamber up some of the trickier climbs. It was amazing, let me be clear about that. Had I not already run pretty much as far as I’d ever run before, I’d probably have loved it. As it was, I’d already been climbing for a mile, knew that I had a fair bit left, and was getting fed up. It didn’t help that I didn’t remember exactly how much I had left. I recalled that the summit was somewhere around either 22.5 or 23.5 miles in, but couldn’t remember which. So I couldn’t even console myself by counting down the distance.

Mile 20 took 24:19, followed by mile 21 in 20:12 – there were actually a few points during this mile when I was able to run! Well, sort of. My this stage I was really struggling with basically everything. My groin or quads (I couldn’t really pinpoint which) were struggling with the big steps needed at times, and my calves and hamstrings weren’t too happy either. I sat down for an actual break at about 19.8 miles, and then repeated this again at 20.6, 21.1 and 21.8 miles.

Tough going.

Frankly, my head was broken. I didn’t want to keep going. I’d already gone further than I’d ever been before, and the walking was really demoralising me. I’m a runner – I train to run, I like – heck, no – love to run. And yet, for a few miles, and for more yet, I was just walking. Trudging really, not really walking at all. If there had been a feasible way to stop, to give in, I’d have probably taken it. As it was, I was halfway up a mountain. I had to either walk back down, or walk the rest of the way up. I could hardly sit there and demand Mountain Rescue come and take me off the mountain. So, on I went.

The views though!

I kept on going. And going. And going. Thankfully, my estimates for the summit (well, where the Pyg Track meets the Llanberis Path, which is as far as we went) were off, and we actually got there at mile 22. There was a photographer near the top, and I’ve not included any of the photos – the backdrop is stunning, but I was… not. My efforts at a smile and thumbs up are quite amusing though! For the record, mile 22 included 983 feet of elevation, and it took me 30:58!

Down Snowdon back to Llanberis (to the finish)

Normally, I’d have gobbled up the downhill; it was rocky and fun. However, I had no legs left to work with, and very little energy. I knew by this point that I’d messed up my food, and although I’d tried to have a sandwich halfway up, I just manage it. I’d ran out of water on the climb, and the drink station wasn’t until a mile into the descent. But, importantly, I knew that having made the climb, I could definitely finish.

I once again made full use of the drinks station, having two cups of water, and refilling my water bottle up completely. I tried to then spur myself on down the hill, but truth be told, I just had nothing left. I ended up running with the half marathon sweeper for a fair while – I think he must have sensed my despair! We chatted for a little while about the race, and running in the area generally, before he stopped to talk to some marshals and I continued on. For about two and a half miles after the drinks station, we dropped down the Llanberis Path before it deposited us on the road. I was unusually happy to see the road, and the regularity it brought with it – my muscles were fed up with variable terrain.

Spurred on by a runner who passed me, I managed to put on a bit more speed down into Llanberis. Thankfully, I remembered from the blog posts I’d read that the course didn’t head straight to the finish, but took a right-hand turn to approach the finish from the other side. I assume this has something to do with traffic management, but even knowing it was coming, it was pretty hard to cope with being diverted away from the finish when you’d already run 26.2 miles! Still, a wiggle through some trees, and an annoying little climb, and then I was into the meadow next to the race village. And then into the finishing funnel – which went on bit longer than I would have liked!

Nearly, nearly, nearly there.

Then, finally, I rounded the corner, and could see the finish. Damon, who I discovered had been forced to drop out, was right by the finish, and I’ve rarely been happier to see a friendly face and have a high five towards the end of a race.

You know what, I don’t even remember what my finishing time was. It doesn’t really matter. It was a bloody difficult course. It was my first marathon. It went over a bloody mountain. I survived – physically, mentally (just about). But, for the record, it was 5:46:28, an average pace of 12:48 for the whole thing. Pen-y-Pass to the finish was an average of 16:20.

Looking more or less how I felt.

I think this is plenty long enough for the moment – I’ll post about my reflections on the race later in the week.

Piddle Wood Plod: race report

The Piddle Wood Plod is a race that I’ve wanted to do for a couple of years. But each year something else seemed to get in the way. In 2016, we were on holiday. Last year, it came the week after a string of three race weekends in a row. The physical toll of four races in four weeks didn’t really bother me. I just didn’t think that with a two-month-old son, I could push Lolly that far!!

To be honest, I didn’t really know how this race was likely to go. I ran the Crewkerne 10k the previous weekend, and did a midweek ‘race’ with Minehead RC which involved over 750 feet of climbing. On the other hand, I hadn’t done much else. Coming into race-day I’d only run 13.6 miles in the week to that point, and nothing at all Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Not great for marathon training, but a nice ‘taper’ for a 10k.

Although I hadn’t run the race before, I know the first and last part of the course pretty well, as it makes up part of the Herepath, which I have run reasonably often. I also had plenty of Strava data to examine, as plenty of my club-mates have run the race in previous years. I spent a little while examining their elevation and pace graphs to get a feel for the course. It is essentially a lollipop variant. About 1.5 miles out, then two, different loops, then the same 1.5 miles back. The first loop had a gentle climb, then a steep climb before a descent, while the second loop had a steep climb followed by a steady climb. Looking at the paces of my club-mates, all of whom are quicker than me, I noticed they’d all had to walk the steep climbs. I immediately decided that there was no point in even trying to run those parts. Race plan: complete.

Race day

The morning of the race was a little different to normal. With a relatively late 11 am start, and only being about four miles from home, we had time to go to junior parkrun as a family before we headed over to the race. Even after doing this, we made it to the race in plenty of time to get a good parking spot. I had a pretty relaxed pre-race: collect number, chat, get changed, gentle warm-up with Dom. As we gathered for the start, I initially stood a couple of metres back from the start, but soon took stock that there weren’t that many obviously quick runners around, and shuffled forwards.

As we launched off, a leading pack quickly emerged. I was controlling my pace, holding myself back from the danger of the too-quick start. A second pack soon formed behind me, though I could sense that some in the group wanted to go quicker. Who was I kidding, so did I – it was taking all my self-control not to. We turned off the road onto a narrow path through a field, and any thoughts of passing people were gone. I caught up with a runner who was obviously out of position, but just held pace behind him, happy for another excuse to not bomb off too quick. Once we were out of the field and over the road, I made my way past him, while at the same time a few from the pack eased past me. I wasn’t too concerned at this point – my focus remained on controlling my pace for the opening mile and a half, and then see how things went on the loops.

Despite my ‘controlled’ pace, I remained in touch with those around me. The leading pack had disappeared into the distance, but everyone else was very much in play. As the course got a bit more technical and a bit steeper, though still very runable, I started to ease back past people, and soon built up a gap. I’d hoped that Dom might come with me, and was worried that on my own I might soon be running a very lonely race. Thankfully, as I continued up the hill, a fluorescent racing vest came back into view. Josh, who’d done the 34-mile Dartmoor Discovery the weekend before, looked like he was struggling a bit.

I gradually closed in on Josh as we climbed the hill, though my effort was put into perspective as I was passed by another runner on the climb. When the route turned a sharp left, I knew it was the first of the short-sharp hills, and dropped straight into a walk. I’d far rather lose a few seconds to those around me than destroy my legs, particularly this early on. As it was, Caroline behind me had done the same, and I wasn’t losing much time on Josh ahead. Nearing the top, it started to level off, and I trotted back into a run. As the course dropped into a descent however, the tables turned. I followed the inov-8 mantra. Feet first. Head will follow. I passed both the runner who’d overtaken me (who was in a Taunton Deane Aquathlon vest, so in my head was dubbed ‘the triathlete’), and Josh. I expected Josh to come back past me as the route flattened out again, and I wasn’t disappointed. However, rather than him run on beyond me, I was able to use him to push a bit more, and we fell into stride.

In-step with Josh!

When we reached the start of the loop again, we were directed back up for the second loop, and I was buoyed by the call of ‘6th, 7th and 8th’ from the marshal. Although I’d have realised it had I considered, I was shocked to find I was so high in the field. The second lap bore much in common with the first; the triathlete was strong up the hill and went past, while I’d let Josh lead up the hill too, while I concentrated on conserving my energy with a walk up the steep start of the hill. As it levelled off, I kept pace behind Josh, and then he gallantly moved to the side to let me past at the top of the descent. I flung myself down the hill again, though just slightly slower than the first lap apparently! The triathlete, who I’d overtaken on the descent, came back past me on the flat, but I was slightly surprised to see Danny, from Minehead, not too far ahead. He’s far quicker than me on the flat, but on these off-road, hillier courses, I tend to be a bit closer to him.

Although I’d thought that Josh might come back at me on the flat, positions were more or less set from here, and in the end, my finish was pretty lonely, for a time of 43:50.

Post-race

The race was really well organised, and that didn’t finish at the end of the race. Thurlbear School PTA had provided an amazing array on the cake stand, and a barbecue too. The presentation was delayed somewhat, but I think this was a tactical ploy to give people more time to buy food! Unlike many races, where lots of people disappear quite soon after the race, it seemed like everyone was hanging around, so I’m guessing the PTA did pretty well out of it.

Loot!

Considering the race only cost £10 as an EA registered runner, the haul was pretty impressive: a plastic drinks bottle, a buff, a medal… and a bottle of cider! It’s no wonder this race always sells out – definitely one for my calendar again next year.

Snowdonia Trail Marathon: Weeks 3 and 4

“The key to improvement is consistency. Much more than any fancy training schedule featuring interval training, tempo runs or hill repeats. Just run day after day, week after week, year after year at a level where you never become injured.”

Hal Higdon

Sadly, I think Hal probably knows a thing or too about this running malarkey. These two weeks have been anything but consistent. After weeks one and two, in which I was little below my target mileages at 26.1 and 29.9 miles respectively, I was hoping to use my week off in week three to really push on.

Short version

It didn’t happen.

Long version

We flew over to the Isle of Man to visit Lolly’s parents on Monday afternoon, and I was planning a couple of midweek coastal path runs before taking part in the Easter Festival of Running at the weekend. Unfortunately, after not managing much dinner on Monday evening, I had a fever overnight, and then some stomach issues and diarrhoea through until Thursday. So, a whole load of training miles missed. Although I was feeling much better on Friday, I was still pretty weak, and so had to miss the 10k race that evening too. (More on that race in a blog post coming soon from Lolly though.)

My 2015 Peel Hill Race beanie that I never ‘earned’.

On Saturday morning, I reckoned I was feeling up to giving Nobles parkrun a go. Lolly was going anyway, and I figured that I could easily drop out early if I wasn’t as ready for running as I thought. A relatively gentle run of 23:41 was managed without any issues, and I started to ponder the very real possibility of actually being able to run the Peel Hill race. I’d signed up for the race back in 2015, and then not actually raced, as I was concerned about a knee injury. (Although, I did run the 10k that year.) Despite not racing, I still collected my beanie at registration, and have worn it frequently since, something that has always felt a bit odd.

So, it felt like closure when I finally made the decision that I was well enough to race. The race is short and sharp. Very sharp. Despite being just 3.5 miles, the race climbs 691 feet. Starting more or less at sea level, the race goes up the hill, reaching the 475-foot peak at about 1.25 miles. The women’s race turns around at that point, but the men head back down the other side to add another climb. A 1.25-mile downhill sprint to the finish then ensues. This would normally be totally my thing, but unfortunately I was suffering from some kidney pain, and couldn’t really push myself at all. I lost a few places, but managed not to drop off the pace too much, to finish in 29:42.

Photo by Dave Kneen

On Sunday, feeling much better, I headed out along the coastal path for 10 brutal, but gorgeous miles. I clocked up just over 2,100 feet of climbing which, alongside the previous day’s race, destroyed my quads. The route climbed initially to Lhiattee ny Beinnee, which peaks at 988 feet, before dropping all the way back down to sea level at Fleshwick Bay. Before climbing all the way back up to 764 feet for the top of Bradda Hill. And what a climb that is! I was really happy, with both getting a pretty decent long run in, and getting out in the stunning scenery.

Beautiful. Hilly.

The weekend recovered my weekly mileage to 16.7 miles. It could have been a lot worse, and I was looking forward to kicking back on in week four.

Short version

It didn’t happen.

Long version

I got ill, again, and struggled to even make it to work each day. The evenings, rather than consisting of running, involved a nap straight after work, followed by the essentials of sorting the children out, making dinner and preparing for the morning, and then bed, as soon as possible. I was feeling better towards the end of the week, but we travelled down to Cornwall for my brother’s wedding, and I still wasn’t well enough to have energy enough for both the wedding and running!

Hopefully, week five is going to be better…

Snowdonia Trail Marathon: Week 2

After a pretty positive week one, despite not hitting 30 miles, I was looking forward to getting some more miles under my belt in week two. The P&D plan introduced some strides into a general aerobic run on the Tuesday, before a midweek 10 miler on Thursday. With my lower mileages at the moment, the latter was never going to happen, but I was keen to try and incorporate the strides into my running.

Tuesday: 7-ish planned. 0 completed.

As Lolly was travelling away with work, and would be away Tuesday and Wednesday evening, I had to either run early Tuesday morning, or fit my run into my workday. I chose the latter: I planned something like a seven mile route based around Brean Down, which I could do after my first job in Weston-super-Mare. Unfortunately, I ended up coming straight home after that job, as we got a call from nursery to say that our little boy had to see a doctor. As it turned out, he was fine, and went back to nursery that afternoon. But my planned run had been ruined.

At this point, I got into my own head. It was still only 13:00. I could easily fit in a run; more or less any run I wanted. I didn’t have to pick the children up from nursery until 17:30. But for some reason, I just couldn’t quite get myself out the door. After my planned route, I decided that anything from home would be too boring. Fine – that shouldn’t be a problem, a 15-20 minute drive can get me to some gorgeous places. But no. Alas, I couldn’t get over myself, and I didn’t run at all.

Wednesday: Tuesday’s run (8 miles)

It’s not trail running, but it’s still scenic enough.

Not running on Tuesday put a lot of pressure on me for Wednesday. If I didn’t manage to get out for a run, then it was unlikely I was going to be able to match the previous week’s mileage, and my main aim, for the first four weeks of the plan, was consistency. Thankfully, I managed to finish work around three, and had none of the previous day’s head issues. I got home, changed and went straight back out for a run along some of the roads at the base of the Quantocks. The route was loosely based on a reverse part of The Humdinger course. Although it was road mileage, it was pretty lumpy and, with the snow around, simply pretty. I averaged just slower than 8:30 per mile, which I was pretty happy with, considering the terrain, and that I wasn’t pushing myself.

Thursday: Getting out on the river (5 miles)

There’s a huge cliche about the first light evening runs, but they are genuinely so uplifting. I managed to use the last bit of light to start my run along the river, before ducking off around some residential estates to get back home. Like the previous day, I was pleased with the pace given that I never really pushed myself. It was a pretty modest 8:12 per mile average, but after so much time on the trails, I’ve got used to paces in the 9s, 10s and even slower. As I mention above, my focus at the moment is on consistent running; getting the miles done week after week, and building to a decent platform. Once at that platform, I’ll switch my focus more to pace. Trying to build mileage and pace at the same time is just a recipe for injury.

Saturday: Longrun Meadow parkrun (5 miles inc run there and home)

Splash splash.

It’s been ages since I’ve run at Longrun Meadow. Over three months in fact. The underfoot conditions were pretty bad, though far from the worse that I’ve run in there. As I was racing the next day, I was intending a relatively gentle run, though ended up going a bit quicker than expected as I ran with a mate. It was good to be back and to socialise with a few people I hadn’t seen for a while. It’s also a pretty (mentally) easy way to get five miles in.

I’ve got out of the habit of parkrun – partly because I was injured for so long, partly because when I was training before it didn’t fit in very well, and partly because I have given Lolly priority for parkruns lately. It’s a habit I’d like to get back into, even if I can’t make it every week these days. I ran 38 parkruns in 2014, 20 in 2015, 36 in 2016 and 18 in 2017. Based on these numbers, I’m due for 34 this year, though that seems unlikely so far!

Sunday: Race day (11.5 miles total)

Climbing through Butleigh Wood.

For a full race report, see my previous post. While the race was important to me, namely for Somerset Series points, I also needed to make sure to top my mileage for the day up to 10 or 11 miles. A one mile warm-up was followed by the Butleigh 10k. The race went pretty well; I was more or less where I expected to be, though I’d have liked to be 30 seconds to a minute quicker. (Always).

Race done, I caught my breath and chatted for a while, before switching from my race vest into a t-shirt, and my trail shoes into road shoes, and then headed off for another four miles. I opted for a simple two miles out, two miles back route, rather than trying anything fancy and getting lost! I found the miles came surprisingly easy, and although I was a bit bored of the flat roads by the end, it was a pretty nice end to a higher mileage day.

Weekly summary: 4 runs, 29.9 miles

So, yeah… If I’d known I was that close to 30 miles, I’d have cleared tacked another 0.1 miles onto my run. But never mind. Overall I’m happy with what I got done this week. I struggled early on, but in the end, I built the mileage nicely from last week, and the race went about as well as I could realistically expect given the current focus of my training. It’d be nice to get out on the trails a bit more, but sometimes life just gets in the way. More races are due to follow next week, with the Isle of Man Easter Festival of Running; a 10k on Good Friday and then a 3.5 mile hill race on the Saturday.

Butleigh MT 10k: race report

It was the second year in a row running the Butleigh MT 10k for me. Last year’s race summary ended up in my catch-up post in July.

My focus over the past few weeks has very much been looking towards Snowdonia in July. The nature of my training plan means that at the moment I have been adding on distance, rather than looking at any serious speed stuff. While this is absolutely the right approach (I’ll discuss this more in my weekly summary) it does have a slight detrimental affect on my racing at the moment. (If you’ve read enough of these, you’ll know that I like to get my excuses in early.)

As is the case with a lot of the Somerset Series races, Butleigh has a relatively small field, and I wasn’t worried about it selling out, so left it until the day to enter. Even on the day, it was a very reasonable £12. A few of the Somerset Series regulars were missing, possibly because of the Yeovil Half Marathon, which clashed with the race. It was though nice to see Matt Powell, my old sparring partner, back racing again. Well, it was at first.

A gorgeous backdrop that I was entirely unaware of.

We headed over to the start, which was the same as last year, a zig-zag through a field and then out over a bridge. I was chatting to Matt for a little bit as we went around the field – mostly commenting that as his pockets were jangling with some change that he’d forgotten to leave behind, I’d avoid running with him. As it turned out, I didn’t have much of a choice.

Climbing up the first, small hill, Matt passed me and soon opened up something in the region of a 20-metre gap pretty quickly. I dug in to hold it at that as we came onto the first road stretch, just over half a mile, before we turned into the field that had been so horrendous last year. The conditions were definitely better this year, though it was still tough going. Once across the field, we turned into a copse that ran alongside the road. The terrain through this section was fun and technical, though I hadn’t remembered quite what a climb it still was!

When we dropped down the next field, I had hoped to make some headway on those ahead of me on the descent, but no such luck. Or rather, no sudden discovery of previously untapped pace. Back on the road for a short stretch, and then we turned right to head through Butleigh Wood. Or, more properly, the third hill, which feels like it goes on, and on, and on. I made headway up the hill – passing one of the two red-topped runners ahead of me. The pair had been my targets for a while, and I was relatively confident of passing them both before the end.

Climbing through Butleigh Wood.

Coming down the other side, my downhill speed finally seemed to reap some benefit, and I closed right up to the next redshirt.  I remained right on his heels as we dodged the badger holes on the narrow path. I was just behind him through the last bit of field, before we headed back onto the road. Unfortunately, he then started to push away from me again. Or I dropped away from him, I’m not entirely sure which.

So close, and yet so far… After closing in, the redshirt opened the gap back up again at the end.

The bad news (or my bad finish) continued. The second redshirt put on a pretty impressive finish, and passed me just before we entered the playing fields at the finish. Another runner, from Wells City Harriers, also caught up to me during the lap of the football pitch. This time though, I was able to put on a sprint of my own. I had hoped that an initial push would see him off, but he kept coming, so I had to kick again all the way to the line.

Fast finishes aren’t pretty.

I finished in 48:36; thirty-five seconds slower than last year. Most of that was lost in mile two, though I benefited from not getting caught at the road crossing this year. As ever, comparisons aren’t worth too much – the conditions were better than last year, but my training has been anything but. Onward and upward.

Next race(s): Isle of Man Easter Festival of Running 10k (Good Friday) and Peel Hill Race (Holy Saturday)

Snowdonia Trail Marathon: Week 1

Oh heck.

On 15 July 2018, I’m planning on running my first marathon. And because I’m some sort of an idiot, I decided that a good introduction to 26.2 would be off-road. And involve a mountain.

As usual, I plan to keep track of my training on this blog. I’ve found it useful before to jot down what I’m doing. It keeps me accountable, and helps focus my mind on what my training is achieving. So, some background information to start. My preparation for this training cycle hasn’t been ideal; I’m still trying to get consistent mileage after my ankle injury way back in September. I initially planned to follow the P&D ‘Advanced Marathoning’ low-mileage plan, but it seems too much mileage for me. So at the moment, the plan is to spend four weeks figuring out where I’m at. Which leads me onto my first run…

Monday: 5k time-trial (4.5 miles total)

The P&D plan involved running a lactate threshold on the Tuesday, with the hard section at half marathon pace. But I realised that I had no idea what my current half marathon pace even is. My only fast efforts recently have been the Hills to Coast Relay and the Babcary 7.5, neither of which were really suitable for gauging my true pace. So I decided to make use of our club’s time on the running track to do just that. After a mile warm-up, I launched myself into twelve and a half gruelling laps of the track.

It was possibly the toughest workout I’ve ever done. Don’t get me wrong – I love track sessions. And I’m more than happy to run them on my own. But twelve and a half laps of push, push, push. It’s hard. I used 20 minutes as my benchmark. For the first kilometre, I came in just under; 3:54. But my pace dropped off after that, and it was a constant battle not to drop too far off the pace. The second kilometre (two and half more laps) was 4:09, and already I was behind the target. I had to remind myself that I knew that I wasn’t capable of 20 minutes right now, it was just to give me a guide pace. In the third kilometre I lost a bit more time, but managed to steady things in the fourth, clocking 4:18 for both. I maintained a similar pace for the next 500 metres, but a kick over the last half lap pulled me up to a 4:03 final kilometre, and 20:38 for the 5k.

More importantly, it gives me a figure to plug into the pace calculator to work out some race and training paces.

Tuesday: Massage

It’d been a while since my last massage with Ian, and I was a bit worried about some Achilles soreness that I’d suffered from over the past couple of weeks. A good, if painful, rub down of my calf muscles, and all sorts of tinkering with my ankles, and Ian declared that my Achilles were good to go. No swelling, no significant tightness. Good news!

Wednesday: Varied 7 miles

I was staying away from home with work on Wednesday night, and had originally planned to just plod around the roads near the hotel. Unfortunately, I discovered that my hotel was essentially a service station motel, and near the friendliest of roads for running. Thankfully, I discovered that it also happened to be on the edge of the New Forest, and hatched plan B. A short drive on from the hotel, and I parked in a random National Trust car park. (Less a car park and more just a flat, clear bit of land with a National Trust sign, really.)

I had no real plan for my run, other than, well… run around. I headed up the footpath out of the car park… and was immediately met by a “No Public Access” sign. Not ideal. Still, I had the OS Map app, and so swung off to my right, across some pretty boggy grass until I hit a footpath. I followed this until it reached the A36, doubled all the way back, and then headed down the small road I was parked on. Away from my car (intentionally). This eventually led me to Stagbury Hill, a nice little climb, before I looped back to the car, adding on a bit more distance along the road to round it up to a tidy 7 miles.

Saturday: Long run (11 miles)

Long runs are always difficult to fit into family life, and as I extend the distance for marathon training, that will only get worse. I’m looking for ways to integrate these runs into the weekend as much as possible. This week, I suggested that as Lolly didn’t want to run Longrun Meadow parkrun in the wet, she could visit Minehead parkrun, and I could do a long run from there, meeting them at Torre Cider Farm. This turned out to be a fortuitous decision. Given the “Mini Beast from the East” which struck over the weekend, we both got out runs in before things got too bad. The wind was biting, and while it had caused Lolly issues during the parkrun, I was sheltered from the worst of it to start with, as I headed inland. (My original idea had involved running along the coastal path to Watchet – that would have been hideous.)

As soon as I crossed the A39 out of Minehead, I started climbing pretty sharply; initially up the road, but then switching onto footpaths. In the first two and a bit miles of my run, I climbed roughly 800 feet from the seafront to the top of Grabbist Hill. And promptly dropped most of the way back down to sea-level again to reach Dunster. After which… I went off-route.

In my defence, I did intend to vary from my planned route. I just meant to take a different variation. Still, it didn’t make much difference, and I soon found myself back up at 550 ft going past Gallox hill fort. I stopped for a bit of a breather, and for a gel – the first time I’ve tried one. I’ve intended to try gels for ages now, but as I suffer from some.. ah.. stomach issues.. on runs anyway, I’ve always put it off for another day. I figured that I couldn’t keep putting it off during marathon training though. I tried a Torq gel – I’ve bought a sample pack with a range of flavours. This one was Strawberry Yoghurt, and other than being very sweet and sickly, it did indeed definitely taste of strawberry yoghurt. It was very palatable, went down without an issue even though I didn’t have water, and I had no issues for the rest of my run. Well, no gel-related issues.

Still awful at selfies.

The run resumed with a very short descent, followed by more climbing, up to Bat’s Castle, another hill fort. Another break (to take some photos, not because I was out of breath… honest) and then about a mile and a half of relatively flat stuff before a nice descent to Withycombe. I rejoined my originally planned route. For about a quarter of a mile. Heading back out of the village, I was met with a footpath closed sign and a padlock. Oh bugger. Quickly consulting the OS Map app again, I realised that there was no convenient alternative; I would have to run the roads around the fields, which squared off my diagonal. But I had no choice, so off I went, up another hill!

In fact, that diversion meant that with the exception of one shortcut across a field, the last three miles of my run was all on the road. Not ideal – particularly in my Speedcross shoes, but needs must. My planned ten mile run ended up being 11.3 miles. I briefly considered adding a bit more on to round it up to 12 miles, but frankly decided I really didn’t give a hoot.

This run was purely a distance run, but I was happy to average 9:29 per mile over that terrain and elevation profile, especially given that I was navigating paths and roads completely unknown to me. Although 2,000 feet over 11 miles sounds a lot, it was (a) proportionally less than Snowdonia will be, and (b) surprisingly runnable.

Sunday: 3 miles road

Three miles of nothingness. I wanted to top my mileage up over 25 miles, but given the snowy, icy conditions and family considerations, I had little desire to do much. A short pootle around town did the job. It was nothing special, I didn’t even change out of my glasses into my contact lenses!

Weekly summary: 4 runs, 26.1 miles

Honestly I’d have liked to have got over 30 miles done this week, but I didn’t get home from work until after 7 on Thursday, and so any run that night was pretty much out of the window. Each of the runs I got in was a tick in the box. Monday’s time-trial was quicker than my first Yeovilton race last summer, and each of the following runs was completed injury-free, which at this stage is my main focus. The P&D plan, which I’m still loosely basing my training off, introduces some strides next week, while I also have to contend with Lolly being away for two evenings, and a race at the weekend. (A race, however will I cope?!)

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.

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.

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…