How not to finish a race

Last weekend I completed my ninth half-marathon on what was probably the hottest day of the year so far. Usually after big organised races there is the long wait for the race photos. There’s the secret hope that instead of the disappointing sight of someone looking very much like yourself, gurning and coated in salty deposits, the photographer will have finally have caught you looking as awesome as you felt for at least 5% of the race.

Well last Sunday was different – my race photo was quickly uploaded onto the official race Facebook page and I was immediately receiving tip-offs from friends, both real and virtual: “Have you seen that photo – is it you?”.

20140628-104952-38992038.jpg
It was simultaneously a great and awful photo.

Great, because it captured the selfless things that runners sometimes do for each other when suffering towards the end of a race on a sweltering morning. It showed two strangers who had spotted a fellow runner on the last 200 metres of the finishing strait, staggering about as if he was not long for this world. They had grabbed him, held him up and made sure that he crossed the finishing line, dashing any thoughts of a sprint finish or super-fast time for them.

Awful, because that staggering runner was me. Despite the heat, I’d felt as per usual for the first 10 miles before we we marshalled into the vast unsheltered spaces of London’s recently opened Olympic Park. Then I think bad water planning on the part of both myself and the race organisers combined with June sunshine started to take its toll. If I had a fuel gauge then it probably would have started flashing wildly and a red alert siren would have started to wail.

“Just a parkrun, just a parkrun left”, I kept reassuring myself with three miles to go, but it felt increasingly like a parkrun in a desert, with mile markers that seemed to go up and down in value and constant switchbacks adding to my disorientation. I kept on running, or rather not walking, until what might have been a finishing line mirage loomed in the distance.

I’m not exactly sure what I was doing, but this was when I must have really started drawing attention to myself and was suddenly adopted by my two running Good Samaritans. I’m not sure what would have happened if they hadn’t come to the rescue – I might well have ended up face down, out cold (and very hot) yards away from the big pink mirage of the finishing arch. The photo makes me look as though I have a huge speech bubble coming out of my mouth saying “Vitality” which couldn’t have been further from the truth.

At long last I (or we) “finished”.

So it was time to say goodbye and give heartfelt thanks to my two unsung heroes for their intervention (at least I very much hope I thanked them, everything was very hazy at that point). I then paid my second ever visit to the mysterious world of the medical tent, full of similar casualties who’d made it to the end but were unable to walk any further, as opposed to the many others we’d seen slumped on the roadside at various points along the route. The only treatment I needed was a twenty minute sit-down, a pep-talk from a fellow sufferer and a bottle of water and I was on my way, hoping I could slip away quietly.

That final 200 metres seemed to go on forever but I suspect that photo will ensure I’ll never forget it.

Run Don’t Run Race Report #2 – Virgin Money London Marathon 2014

It’s grey and cold in London today and it’s making me look fondly back to last Sunday when it was warm and sunny and I was out and about enjoying myself. And running 27 and a bit miles from Blackheath to the Mall (yes, I know marathons are 26.2 miles, read on).

It felt like a much longer journey to get to the start line of the 2014 Virgin Money London Marathon. This included:

  • a decision never to do another marathon again after an unpleasant debut 26.2 (forgetting I’d already entered the London 2013 ballot)
  • “failing” to get a ballot place but then being swept up by peer group pressure and gaining a 2013 place through a running club ballot
  • overdoing it in the January 2013 snow, developing a stress fracture and pulling out of that year’s marathon
  • the dubious honour of being able to defer my place to 2014 as a “sick and injured” runner
  • the ups and downs of a 16 week training programme including a couple of pbs, a 10 week parkrun streak (including a shameful 5k after a very big Friday night out involving several cold drinks and throwing of shapes) and relentless niggles and injuries
  • the expense (but also indulgence) of 5 sessions of sports massage and osteopathy (to think, 5 years ago I refused to let anybody I didn’t know do anything resembling massage because I’m ticklish and thought I would collapse into hysterics)

There was a great sense of camaraderie when we lined up in the huge start pens up on Blackheath with hot-air balloons nodding at us in the breeze but once we set off it was the people of London who got us through the mile after mile after mile. There were crowds lining the whole route, initially stood outside their houses, some in pyjamas, but from Greenwich onwards we were treated to the same volume of crowds and tunnels of noise that Mo and co had run through earlier. There were bands and DJs too and I think it was Deptford where I heard Pharrell’s “Happy”. It sounded so authentic, I thought it was a DJ but I did literally “laugh out loud” when I discovered it was a live band with a singer, probably twice the age of Pharrell who looked like he’d spent the last 30 years in the pub.

My paranoia about my stroppy left hip ruining my big day proved unfounded although I could have done without the sudden jabbing pain in my right knee after a mere three miles (I ignored it and it went away). There were other niggles that built up and faded away over the course (note to self: if there is a next time, do those strengthening exercises and stretch more religiously, so boring but you know it makes sense). The heat was another potential spoiler but although I remember it being sunny, I don’t ever remember feeling too hot. However it might be a factor to bear in mind if I want to one day go faster (and I think one day I probably can).

I thought I could possibly do this race in under four hours but had six targets to spur me on:

1. To get to the start line (believe me, there were times as close as 3 weeks before that I thought I might not make it).
2. To finish.
3. To run the whole thing (I used to have a golden rule never to walk during a race, which I’m ashamed to admit I broke towards the end of my 2012 marathon).
4. To beat my debut marathon time (4:28.57).
5. To beat my wife’s marathon time (set in 2004).
6. To go below 4 hours.

It was good to tick one target off as early as 10 o’clock in the morning and I felt on course to achieve all six after three miles, slowing down or speeding up to make sure that I reached every mile marker in 9:09 minutes. However, at the Cutty Sark, the road narrowed, the volume of runners increased and my legs started to slack off. From then onwards I started to watch the likelihood of achieving targets 5. and 6. slip away, trying to balance up the need to go faster with the impact this might have on targets 2. to 4. Eventually I stopped paying too much attention to my Garmin and just soaked up the occasion.

Delirious at Mile 20

Delirious at Mile 20

One of the bonuses of London 2014 was that I think this time I avoided The Wall. Seeing those familiar faces at my running club’s water station at mile 20 at gave me a boost but this also marked the point at which walls typically start to appear. Although the option of lying down for a couple of hours would have been very welcome, the legs kept going, especially after the wild scenes at Run Dem Crew’s 21 mile spot which is just like midnight in a night club on New Year’s Eve which goes on for hours.

The Embankment is often described as the “home straits” for marathon runners but I know it doesn’t end until you get to Big Ben. Running along it last Sunday, Big Ben was temporarily Small Ben or the Embankment is way longer than I’d previously imagined. It went on forever, and I wanted to argue back “No I’m not!” to all the people screaming “Keep going! You’re almost there!”. In fact the Embankment was so long, my Garmin told me I’d actually done 26.2 miles when I finally reached Parliament Square and I still had two thirds of St James Park to run around.

And then, after what I hoped looked like a sprint finish, but was probably more like a drunk man stumbling after a night bus, it was all over. And I couldn’t stand up. I kept trying to but my head started swirling around and I had to grab on to the nearest fence. 10 minutes later I still couldn’t stand up without feeling like I was going to faint. Eventually I had to be escorted to the medical tent where I had my pulse and blood pressure checked along with lots of questions about how much water I’d drunk and my medical history (thank you so much St John’s Ambulance, you are now my heroes). Finally I got my act together and was discharged to find my family (including the reigning house marathon record holder) and go for a long anticipated pint of beer.

15 minutes after being unable to stand up....

15 minutes after being unable to stand up….


Although I couldn’t fault the London Marathon, for now, I could barely walk and had no desire to do another. Ever again. By the next day I was double checking on the deadlines for the 2015 ballot. The whole occasion had fully rewarded all the time, emotion and effort I’d invested. I had achieved the first four of my targets and think I know what to do if I want to reach the remaining two. I think one day I will be back!

Run Don’t Run 2014 London Marathon Freebie Guide

If you thought the only reward you got after all those early morning starts, Sunday long runs, visits to physiotherapists/sports masseuses/osteopaths/podiatrists and generally wearing out your shoes was the chance to slog around London with 35000 other people then think again. For this week and probably this week only, a Virgin Money London Marathon race number or finisher’s medal pretty much gives you the keys to the city (well, access to lots of free stuff). Most of these offers were harvested off Twitter so it might be wise to double check terms and conditions beforehand.

Free Travel

Transport for London are offering free travel on the Tube, bus, London Overground, tram and Docklands Light Railway for all runners in the big day, from early morning until 5pm. To qualify, show your race number.

Those coming from further afield are entitled to free travel on any Chiltern Railways services on Sunday, 13 April. To get the free travel runners just have to present their official Marathon tabard or race number to ticket inspectors.

Free Services for Runners

If you need a bit of last minute intervention to get you to the start and finish line, Runners Need are offering free Kinesiology Taping for marathon runners courtesy of @SixPhysio @TheOnlyWayIs_UP on Friday 11th April between 11am and 2pm at their Strype Street store (E1 7LQ) near Liverpool Street station. Holborn and Southwark Street branches are also offering this service (contact stores for details).

Over 70s running the marathon qualify for up to 3 months free membership at the Jubilee Hall gym in Covent Garden. The gym has the latest Life Fitness Engage series treadmills as well as almost 100 other pieces of cardiovascular and strength training equipment to keep runners in the groove.

Free Food

MEAT liquor are offering a free burger to medal holders on race day plus 50% off for official volunteers. MEAT liquor is at 74 Wellbeck Street, London W1G 0BA

Meanwhile Gourmet Burger Kitchen in Jubilee Place, Canary Wharf are offering a free burger to all London Marathon 2014 medal wearers, valid April 13-15th. They’re also throwing a mini bottle of Prosecco. Supporters eating with you will also get a complimentary bottle of Prosecco when they order a main from the menu.

From 7th April runners with a Marathon number can have a free meal at the Mayfair Pizza Company The offer runs until Friday 12th April and Mayfair Pizza Company is at 4 Lancashire Court, New Bond Street.

For other marathon free food fests, the Daily Telegraph has these and a few other places for the likes of Peruvian style breakfasts, macaroni cheese, grills and post-race cocktails.

Free Sightseeing

The Shard are offering the first 100 medal holders turning up from 13th to 17th April free entry to London’s highest viewing platform. They’re also offering a 20% discount for friends, family, and supporters who accompany a medal holder. Offer details and terms and conditions are here.

.

Can parkrun be my religion?

20140201-233306.jpgI’ve resisted organised religion for many years, but towards the end of 2013 I decided that parkrun is the closest I’ve come to filling my spiritual void. I’ve recently found myself heading off for the same natural high at 9 a.m. every Saturday morning for 9 consecutive weeks.

I’ve got some friends who are committed followers of a more commonly accepted religion. Sometimes when we’ve gone away with them for the weekend, they’ve sought out the local church to go to a Sunday morning service. I used to find this odd, but one Saturday last December, I found myself 200 miles away from home and similarly seeking out the local parkrun. It then felt totally right to find myself doing three laps of an unfamiliar park with 280 people I did not know but with whom I shared a common bond.

Most Saturdays I meet the rest of the regular local “congregation”, a hard core who come every week along with the parkrun-curious and the recent converts. Parkrun is a highly inclusive religion. The only types of people not represented are those who will never quite be able to imagine themselves being up and out at such a ridiculous time on the first morning of the weekend. There are no expectations that people wear their “Saturday best”. Some are kitted out in state of the art gear but others wear whatever they’ve got to hand. I’ve seen one man photographed finishing a South London parkrun wearing stiff leather shoes and the kind of clothes that gave no indication whatsoever of someone planning to go out for a run.

So how does parkrun measure up when compared to the other great religions?:

Formal ceremonies: Registering and printing out your barcode is the first sign that you are considering heeding the call of parkrun. Then there’s the stages of confirmation that include the award of the 50 run red shirt or even the hallowed 100 run black shirt and jacket. Otherwise it’s all pretty informal.

A recognised leader: Paul Sinton-Hewitt, the founder of parkrun is the closest we have to this. His first event in 2004 included 13 runners. He seems oddly overlooked and low profile given that his initial idea has inspired what is expected to be up to 60,000 people running a UK parkrun every single week by the end of 2014. If he turned up at my local parkrun I doubt anyone would recognise him.

The network of Race Directors are the closest we get to “clergy”. They are distinguished by hi-viz jackets, but this is not usually in recognition of the many sacrifices made in their years of training. You or I could get to wear the garments of the “inner sanctum” just by emailing a race director and offering to scan a few barcodes.

A holy book I don’t believe there is such a thing when it comes to parkrun. No doubt one of the obsessive band of “parkrun tourists” (or should that read “pilgrims”?) who try to visit and run every one of the 200 plus events has something in the pipeline, but the weekly newsletter will have to suffice for now.

Sensitivity to blasphemy: One of the things I like about parkrun is its tolerance. We tolerate the quirky behaviour of other non-parkrunning park-users, even the ones who are clearly outraged that we dare to run in their park. The man who kicked a football smack between my legs during my first ever parkrun was only sworn at and wrestled to the ground in my imagination. The man who insisted on walking very slowly slap bang in the middle of the narrow path at last Saturday’s parkrun was not barged out of the way but politely negotiated by 180 runners wanting to get past him. In fact it’s very hard to upset the parkrun faithful, so long as you don’t ever claim to “win” an event or take to Twitter to berate the race director if the results are taking too long to get published.

Hymns: There is no rousing parkrun song of praise, although this one’s crying out for a rework:

Next Saturday I expect to find myself waking up in a hotel miles away from home after a going to a wedding on Friday (along with all the unathletic activity that’s likely to include). The one bit I was apprehensive about was having to miss my Saturday morning “enrichment”. However, after a quick check of the parkrun website, I was amazed to find out the hotel was 1.7 km away from a…..you’ve guessed it. As well as packing my suit and tie, my running shoes will be in my bag. It would be rude not to.

5Ks vs Me – An Update

I droned on about running 5Ks over the summer, how much I hated the distance, how little improvement I made, how I’d just run a personal worst, because it was “too hot”. So I resolved to learn to love them, using aversion therapy, otherwise known as doing more of them, more often. And as a bit of a motivator, anyone who’s read this blog before might remember the bottle of beer I was presented with, which I managed to restrain myself from drinking and promised to leave it unopened until I got a new 5k PB.

Two weeks after my personal worst, the new regime kicked in, with a visit to my local Parkrun, a couple of miles downhill bike ride away from home. Since then I’ve done 11 local Parkruns and it’s been a bit of a “journey” (well a 65 km journey if you include the other 2 races I’ve done for a bit of variety). As is the way with Parkrun, I’ve made friends of all ages and abilities and developed a few secret animosities, as people I thought I was on a par with got better and better, while I plateaued and then actually got worse.

Yes, for a period from September to November, my times got slower. The course was mildly challenging and got a bit tougher with the Autumn weather but I think it was reasonable to have assumed that I would slowly get stronger and faster over time.

When I used to get the bus to school, we often used to pass a physics teacher who was an early adopter, a trendsetter, one of the first ever “run-commuters”. At the time we thought he was deeply uncool and the fact he wore a rucksack on his back, with bricks in it, made us conclude he was probably bordering on insanity. I thought of this teacher from time to time as I toiled up the muddy Parkrun hill for the third and final time each Saturday morning. His logic was that if he learnt to cope while carrying a heavy weight, imagine how fleet footed he’d be when he got to run brick-free. My logic was that if I could gradually learn to cope with this course, then imagine how awesome I’d be when I tackled a flat, paved version.

And yesterday (spurred on by the fact that my unopened beer was “best before 31/12/13) was when I finally put my theory to the test. Putting aside the guilt I felt about “playing away” behind the back of my regular Parkrun, I strayed over to a different park, famous for its flatness. I’d been visualising this run regularly on the days leading up to it. I saw myself unhampered by hills or mud, running with ease, almost flying, with my feet barely touching the ground. In reality it was the usual slog, although a different kind of slog, probably because I assumed I could go just a little bit faster. I set my “virtual partner” on my Garmin to do 5K in the time it would take to equal my PB and although I felt I was giving it my all, it kept showing me tailing the bastard little digital stickman. The last mile was really heavy going, not only was I panting, I was audibly groaning with every breath. Fortunately I wasn’t drafting behind any real runners because they could justifiably have turned around to either check I wasn’t about to keel over and die or simply tell me to shut up.

I have to say that the finish line came into view a little earlier than I was used to but I wasn’t confident I’d made up for the deficit as I stumbled over it. As the faster runners stood around chatting casually as though they’d spectated rather than participated in a timed run, I vaguely remember stopping my watch, then grabbing a bollard to hold me up while I slowly returned to normality. When I thought to check my time, my watch showed 24:37, probably my fastest 5K this year but not the PB I craved. A few minutes later I checked my watch again and the time was now even worse – I clearly hadn’t stopped it properly.

When I got home, the official results were already on the website, and I’ll leave it to you to work out whether or not I’d finally smashed that PB……

image

My Fantasy Race

Yes, a bit like fantasy football, if you could specify the ingredients for your perfect race day, what would it look like?

1. I wouldn’t have to spend months planning for it, just keep those running legs ticking over every week and one Saturday, after say, a big glass if red wine, I’d say to myself and anyone else in earshot “That 10K I was half thinking about doing. It’s tomorrow morning, and you know what, I think I’ll do it.”

2. I wake up, in winter, in daylight. It’s just before 9 a.m. and I have still have time to get some porridge down me and fire up the espresso machine. Then spend an hour “pre-race faffing” – getting kit ready, changing my mind, losing stuff and finding it again.

3. In a last minute change of plan, I decide to drive there, risking spending too long trying to find a parking space in a busy part of London. I arrive and find a perfect spot, right next to the gates of the park.

4. I walk the 20 metres or so to the race HQ, wait in a line of one to sign up and get my race number. I pick up my free race t-shirt and am advised to “try it on, if it doesn’t fit, bring it back and I’ll get you a medium”. Passing on the free pre-race massage, I’m ushered into the baggage drop area, ask if I can drop my baggage later and then brace myself for the pre-race toilet stop turmoil. There is a queue of one person to join. Later on I see someone else waiting in a queue of one. Someone from the running club apologises and points out there’s a second toilet around the corner. This is 20 minutes before the race starts.

5. I pass on the plates full of home baked cakes, the tea, coffee and water and head for the start. It’s a dry, cool, autumnal day and after a surprisingly effective group warm-up, we’re off. Four laps around a flat park. My watch is set to a target time I know I could achieve on a good day. Every time I check it, it tells me I’m ahead of schedule.

6. There are 12 marshalls stationed around the 2.5 mile laps. Once I get over the shock I experience in every race (“yes, it’s me, I used to avoid running with a passion, and now I’m running. Outside. In a race! And I’m not last!”) I notice that the marshalls are holding placards with little messages for us runners. Usually I’m cynical about motivational messages, but today some of them make me smile and, how should I put this, motivated?

7. I also imagine that the course must have some hills somewhere, but they’re too subtle to notice. We must be going uphill at some point because there’s a nice long incline towards the end of each lap. I give up checking my watch. I’ve still got time to spare. I’m soon on the fourth and final lap. I overtake a couple of people who’d overtaken me on the third. My energy’s running low but I have enough to step up the pace a lot sooner than I’d usually entertain.

8. Then all too soon, it’s over. There’s a little machine into which I type my race number and get my time on a slip of paper. I’ve done lots of races before but I’ve never got to use a gadget like that before! (It was like the first time I used a Dyson hand-dryer) Almost three minutes faster than my target time. My second PB of the year. I’m beaming.

9. I’m back in the clubhouse. The massages are still free, the chocolate brownies have gone but there are still cakes. Apple and cinnamon or banana and ginger, I’m on such a high that I choose the banana one, the devil’s fruit. And I like it. I pick up a certificate, an Oyster card holder and some more water. I head home – it takes 20 minutes.

That would be my fantasy race. Only I actually did it this morning. I’m going to think long and hard before I let anyone know which race this was and where it took place. In case it was all a dream.