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!


Are you a Run-Faffer?


Cap/image from

I lay in bed early this morning, trying to sleep through Mrs Run Don’t Run making heavy weather about whether to go on her usual Sunday morning bike ride or not. It involved a lot of text messages, peaking outside to check on the iciness of the roads, and then, once the decision had been made to get the bike out, a lot of careful weighing up and mind changing about food, drink and the most ideal kit selection. As soon as she returns, I’m planning on immediately heading out on my long run, but you can be fairly certain that it won’t be the smooth handover of a carefully drilled triathlon relay team. For I am a run faffer. To faff is “to muck about, wasting time doing something not necessary.” It’s a real word and a genuine affliction- it must be because it’s in the Urban Dictionary!

The thing is, you might be one too, especially at this time of year. Check out the tell-tale signs:

1. Over-careful route planning – you want a route with no hills, which you’re not bored of, which needs to be familiar enough to avoid getting lost, with no likely puddles to mess up your box fresh new trainers, and it has to end outside your house after exactly 9.5 miles because that’s what your programme says. Cue consulting of maps, cutting bits of thread to measure distances.
Potential Faff-Factor: 60 minutes

2. Deciding the kit you wear has to match, or at the very least, doesn’t clash. This informs the perfect choice of socks. However, you can only find one.
Potential Faff-Factor: 20 minutes

3. Taking extra care over your hydration needs, especially before a 3 mile recovery run. Insisting on filtered water, from the fridge, in your favourite “lucky” bottle which is nowhere to be found, although other vessels are available.
Potential Faff-Factor: 10 minutes

4. Killing the time waiting for your breakfast to go down by snacking.
Potential Faff-Factor: 180 minutes

5. Easily locating your iPod, but then having a last minute wish for a new playlist (cue switching on of creaky old computer, loading up of massive music library, hand-picking of new tunes, sorting into gradually increasing BPMs with a nice bit of slowing down towards the end for your warm-down)
Potential Faff-Factor: 60 minutes

6. Announcing every run, no matter how trivial, on a range of social media.
Potential Faff-Factor: 10 minutes

7. Last minute clothing shuffle when the promised “mild conditions” turn out to be permafrost.
Potential Faff-Factor: 15 minutes

8. Watch-fiddling – entering a new work-out, switching from imperial to metric “for a bit of variety” then spending 10 minutes stood outside, losing the benefits of tell-tale sign 9.
Potential Faff-Factor: 20 minutes

9. Doing a thorough warm-up (the most beneficial faff, and naturally the one I’m least guilty of).
Potential Faff-Factor: 15 minutes

10. Reading running blogs about faffing, thinking “Yes, I do some of those, but he’s missed out the most important faff which is…..” then not being able to remember your log on name or password to add it as a comment under said blog.
Potential Faff-Factor: 10 minutes

So are you a run-faffer? Can you suggest even more ways I can take even longer to get out of the house?

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……


Running Slow (on purpose)

imageToday I went running slowly on purpose. By slowly I don’t mean at a pace that many of us might call “easy”. This was on the borderline between “jogging” and “walking”. I was inspired by an article in this month’s Runner’s World, which can also be found at, about training in different heart rate zones and had been planning to give this a try for the past week.

Part One

This took place on Saturday morning when I planned to measure my resting heart rate by firing up the Garmin as soon as I woke up. I’d toyed with putting my heart rate monitor on before going to bed, but decided that despite 16 years of marriage, wearing an elastic strap around my chest under the duvet would take just a little too much explaining.

I think the lowest I managed to get my heart rate down to was about 39bpm but that took some doing after the excitement of the alarm clock going off mixed with the anxiety caused by the prospect of the morning’s Parkrun. I hadn’t worn the HRM for some time and doing it up and adjusting it suddenly put me in mind of Pat Wright and Dave Arrowsmith:

Once I’d finished amusing myself by talking in a poor Middlesborough accent about my “bra”, the next stage was to find out my maximum heart rate. With my 5K complete, as I clung on to a tree trunk until I was able to stand without support (that’s how we all recover from Parkruns right? Right?), I discovered that today’s effort had led to a maximum heart rate of 189bpm. Later on I programmed the Garmin with my personal heart rate zones in anticipation of the fun-packed geeky running activities that lay ahead.

Part Two

Various domestic and work related stresses got in the way of trying my Slow Run until six days later, when working from home gave me the opportunity to do a cheeky lunchtime run in the style of Leonard from Butterflies. Despite the fact it was nearly dark at 2pm and pouring with November rain, I made it out of the door and set out to do about 4 miles in “Zone 2”, which in my case was 110-130 BPM. The point of running at this speed is that apparently you will be fuelling your muscles with fat and oxygen. Therefore you’re tuning up your aerobic system, it improves endurance and uses very little glycogen. Whatever that means.

The kind of speed I think I go when recovering from fast intervals turned out to be too fast. The Garmin kept shrieking at me: “Heart Rate Too High”, making the blood pump around my veins even faster with irritation. I started to run almost as if in slow motion. After about a mile I finally got into the Zone 2 Groove, possibly because I was now more relaxed and breathing more efficiently in classic, slow running style.

However this was soon undermined by a very gentle hill which got the heart rate up and my Garmin wailing again. Crossing the road, being close to lots of traffic, the sight of other human beings, wiping the rain drops off the end of my nose all seemed to increase the BPMs. Runners of various speeds overtook me, probably wondering why someone going so slowly could be so interested in his Garmin. Every time this happened I unconsciously sped up to try and catch them, only to be chastised by the “Heart Rate Too High” alarm.

I felt like I could have kept going all day but it all felt a bit pointless and the scenery wasn’t changing fast enough. I’d run at my slowest speed ever and it hadn’t been slow enough. My average BPM was 10 beats above target. What a failure!

After 3.5 miles I’d had enough. I pressed “Stop” and ran the mile or so back home at a “normal” speed, oblivious to what my heart was up to. A “junk mile” that felt so much better.

My first ever Run Commute

Last Friday I finally ran home from work. I’d been planning to do this for over a year, an interesting route from one side of London to the other. And with a week to go until the Birmingham Half Marathon, the 13 or so miles required formed the perfect, longest long run.

I got off to a bad start leaving work late with a massive chip on my shoulder about the person I’d last spoken to there and then hanging around in the early Autumn London chill and drizzle, waiting for a satellite to finally loom over Kensington and shake hands with my Garmin.

I then snuck into Hyde Park, at that point shrouded in darkness and got going. As well as the Serpentine, in the North West of the park there’s a round pond interestingly called Round Pond which on Friday night was decorated with the flashes of white wave tops as the wind howled around it. After semi-circling Round Pond I disappeared into the woods, where every now and then I’d see ghostly apparitions of people walking, running and cycling into focus.

I crossed into the back streets of Lancaster Gate, avoiding the gazes of the armed police outside the more sensitive embassies, inhaling the herby aroma of meat being grilled in the more upmarket Lebanese restaurants.

Over Edgware Road, the scene of my only and severely embarrassing bike accident (I’d crashed, in the main road, there was no one to blame but myself), I ran parallel to Oxford Street through one of those expensive but anonymous parts of London that I’ve only ever cycled through and never stopped (and after yesterday, run straight through) until I crossed Regent Street into Fitzrovia. There I dodged the obstacles caused by office workers stood outside pubs (and the temptation to go and join them).

It was then into Somers Town and Kings Cross’ borders to tackle my favourite Central London hill, LLoyd Baker Street. When I cycle up this I like to pretend it’s one of the more testing stages of the Tour de France where I “attack” other “riders” (and more often than not get overtaken by a really old man on a Brompton), but running up it was no great challenge. Maybe I’m a better runner than cyclist after all?

At this point I was increasingly in need of a toilet stop, which was strange because I’ve never needed such a thing during my marathon and half marathon exploits. The question was, where to go? I wasn’t exactly dressed for the various bijou Islington pubs that I’d just loved to have stopped at for a swift ale, and sneaking down an alley seems increasingly unacceptable these days. So I made the decision to drop down by the Regent Canal. It was seriously dark, there were no lights along the towpath so I assumed I’d have the place to myself. I felt my my way down, clutching onto a rail alongside some muddy steps to the water’s edge only to find that there was an endless stream of people who had no qualms taking a night-time stroll down an shady, slippy towpath. Eventually I found a suitably private place, next to a tunnel where the path ended, half expecting a man in a cloak and top hat to appear from the mist.

Relieved, I returned to my route through more nameless bits of Islington and Hackney, keeping the slow but steady pace going. The final section was the most challenging, the long unrelentingly dull stretch that is Lea Bridge Road. 3.5 miles and I’d be home and so I pushed on, even managing to speed up a little as home came into sight.

So I’d finally run what turned out to be 12.9 miles after a day at work, with a bad attitude, in the dark, in the rain though 7 London boroughs. The usual Friday night wine-lust was temporarily replaced with a thirst for water and more water. It was 9 p.m. The onset of muscle soreness was immediate. The weekend had finally begun.

5Ks vs Me – the battle continues

20130807-095755.jpgA few weeks ago I registered my slowest ever 5K time on a hot Sunday morning in East London. Chastened, I resolved to learn to love the distance using aversion therapy, turning up at races at a moment’s notice and trying to find a strategy to enjoy what thousands of others do every Saturday at their local Parkrun. As a little incentive, I stashed away the bottle of beer I received for finishing the 5K on that fateful day, not to open it until I I improved upon the best time I’d set in April 2013.
Since then it’s been a matter of two mid foot struck steps forward, three heel struck steps back with two local Parkruns completed in quick succession. My nearest Parkrun is a comparative toughy, three laps around a grassy playing field with a moderate hill on each lap. I figured that if I could slowly improve my times there, I could then show up at an otherwise “easier” course, smash that PB and open that beer bottle.

After a saintly Friday night with plenty of “helpful” rather than “ironic” hydration, I decided to cycle the couple of miles to the park in an attempt to warm up those weakened weekend limbs. I also tried the last minute caffeine hit tactic, downing a double espresso an hour before the start following the wholemeal toast and honey strategy an hour before that. It was a warm summer’s morning but not as hot as it had been a fortnight before so conditions were ok but not perfect. And progress was made – 20 seconds faster than the “personal worst”!

With the target just a little closer, I had to capitalise so last Saturday I returned to the starting line, making it two consecutive Parkruns in a fortnight. I’d even done some tfast intervals on the preceding Monday and a challenging club run on the Wednesday. However, the night before, I allowed some complacency to creep in, fuelling up on Nando’s and craft beer followed by a late night sleeping on a sofa bed with what felt like an iron bar sticking into my back.

Otherwise the preparation was the same: toast, caffeine, bike, gentle start, “sprint” finish. The result? 9 seconds slower than my personal worst. Back to the drawing board.

I think I need a new strategy and have been dipping into a comprehensive list of ideas on the 5krunner blog which could have been written especially for me. After a couple of weeks of taking it easy I’m going to launch into half marathon training, following a programme rather than the makingitupasIgoalong approach of the past few months. This will mean regular speedwork rather than the less reliable “do a bit of panting a few days before, that’s bound to make me faster” approach. I’m also going to try to keep turning up at random Parkruns but also trying some of the following to see if they help me to get that beer bottle open before its sell-by date:

– Mini-tapers
– Proper warming up
– Pay more attention to what my Garmin is telling me
– Get some lighter shoes
– Get to a race on a cooler day
– Beetroot shots?

Watch this space

5Ks – My Nemesis

Smiling to avoid the usual "racing grimace"

Smiling to avoid the usual “racing grimace”

Running 5 kilometres and trying to run them fast is probably the thing I’m least comfortable with when it comes to racing. The 5K is a short, unremarkable distance. Thousands of British people get up to do one in their local parks each Saturday through the wonder that is Parkrun. I’m sure they don’t start to worry a couple of days before, feel nauseous for the first mile and about to pass out with exhaustion in the final third.

I do all of those things and I think it’s time I came to terms with this supremely normal distance.

On Sunday I ran my first proper 5K of 2013. I’d done a Parkrun early in the New Year with my son, who can run a whole lot better than I could as a teenager, but is indifferent rather that full of hatred when it comes to running for pleasure. He’d bailed out of a previous attempt even though he’d already proved he could run 5K around the streets with ease. For me it was nice to he able to run round at a gentler pace saying “Come on, you can do it” to him rather than myself. At last a 5K without suffering, although I do wish they hadn’t published my time in the local newspaper!

The Sunday race was one of a series of short races as part of a series of inter-club events around East London. It was hosted by Eton Manor, a great little running club with a hundred year history. In fact 2013 is its centenary year. There was a bit of a buzz as we approached the clubhouse.

I was secretly hoping I might be able to pull off a good personal performance. The previous Saturday I’d made an appointment to have a filling replaced at the dentist’s and decided the only way I’d get there on time was to run through the blazing sunshine. The first two miles of my race to the dentists were run at a pace I didn’t think I was capable of. I did the maths – if I could run a 5K at that speed, the days of my current PB might be numbered. Maybe I could get a dentist chair fitted on the finishing line?

Anyway, the race went as per normal, a mile of feeling vaguely sick, followed by mid race neutrality followed by one mile of “am I ever going to get there?” despair. And for the first time ever I was let down by my Garmin (or rather I’d programmed it wrong). Every glance told me I was way ahead of pace and I even had the luxury of choosing to slow down a bit. All was great until at 3.1K it told me my “workout” was completed. I must have experienced the fatal “mile to kilometre conversion fail”. That left me with a couple of kilometres in no man’s land, getting hotter, being overtaken by people, desperately wanting to lie down in a darkened room.image

10 minutes later I was lying down, although in the clubhouse, which looked a bit like some kind of makeshift hospital waiting room, people slumped against the walls, lots of red faces, sweat and laboured breathing.

Looking back, despite the greatest post-race souvenir ever (a bottle of specially brewed Eton Manor Ale), I still need to learn to love the 5K. I’m not going to avoid them, I’m going to do at least three more this year, preferably not during a heatwave and me and the 5K are going to try to get along a little better.