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?”.

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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.

Runner Paranoia

20140308-114102.jpgI tend to worry too much about a lot of things that don’t really matter. Whenever I’m planning for some work related event at which I will either get the credit or the blame, I usually prepare myself to get the blame when in actual fact things tend to work out well. This then clears the decks for me to start worrying about something else!

I like to think that running provides me with lots of time to forget about the things That are bothering me and have to admit that when I’m out on a long run with my mind wandering, I can generate all I kinds of new solutions to the things I worry about. However, just recently I’ve found myself worrying about things that wouldn’t be an issue if I’d stuck to my guns and remained the non-runner I’d been for most of my life:

1. Injury worries

I’m currently training for the London Marathon, having deferred my place from last year because I had a stress fracture. And now I worry I’m injured again. It’s not a stress fracture, it’s an ache at the top of my leg. I’ve tried stretching, ibuprofen and sports massage. I finally went to see the chiropractor who suggested I should pull out of last year’s marathon. She felt that this year’s injury was not terminal and with a few tweaks I could carry on getting marathon-ready. I did carry on, have done two half marathons at good times including a personal best but I still expect my left leg to drop off at any moment (it still hurts). I think about this more frequently than your average man thinks about sex. I need to deal with it!

2. Fundraising worries

These result from 1. I decided to raise money from my marathon efforts for a charity called CALM. Ironically, one of the reasons this charity exists is because a lot of men don’t deal very well with things they worry about. What I’m worried about here is that I will need to pull out of the marathon because of 1. And then I will need to explain this to the people who have already handed money over. This is stopping me from plugging my fundraising efforts and raising as much as I could. I need to deal with it!

3. Beetroot worries

I have learnt tolove tolerate the earthy taste of beetroot juice, the runner’s ambrosia. If you haven’t read the research then Google it now. But I sometimes forget about my beetroot addiction until I notice its unfortunate side effects. After the Reading Half Marathon last weekend, I think I traumatised a number of men I was sharing the urinal with as the Ribena coloured urine streamed past them in the Madejski Stadium toilets. When this was still happening later that evening I still had the words “internal bleeding” popping into my head until I’d managed to perform a reality check. I need to deal with it!

4. Parkrun volunteering worries

This is a new one. Today I volunteered at parkrun because I didn’t want to aggravate 1. and further jeopardise 2. It also meant I could avoid 3. for once and have a huge coffee before going out instead. I ended up scanning the barcodes as the runners finished, which allowed me to have flashbacks to my time as a checkout operator in Sainsbury’s all those years ago. That was until I realised they didn’t have scanners in Sainsbury’s when I worked there. It was that long ago. There were all kinds of glitches in today’s new role: a dodgy finishing token I had to watch out for and in no circumstances scan, people with barcodes which wouldn’t scan, people without barcodes, a moment when I scanned the finishing token before the runner’s barcode (a serious no-no). I am now worrying that some inadvertent error will mean I have ruined what felt like a really good start to the Saturdays of over 50 people. I will therefore not publish this blog until I see the results have been published. Once this has happened I will have dealt with it (until the next time)!

Tomorrow I aim run 19 miles and hope I make it home with two functioning legs. Beetroot juice will be involved and I wonder if the run will give me enough confidence to go all out to recruit more sponsors. I’m also hoping no disgruntled parkrunners spot me, jumping out of their cars to harangue me about their result or lack of it from today. Whatever happens, I definitely expect to generate more things to worry about, to fuel my Runner Paranoia.

Race Don’t Race Report #2: The BUPA Great Birmingham Run

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I really must work out how to remove that “gloomy” filter from my camera

Birmingham, as any self-respecting Brummie will tell you, has more trees than Paris and more canals than Venice. On Sunday, I discovered, it also has more hills than Hillsville in Hillshire.

I’d been wanting to do this races for a couple of years, ever since coming across it by accident during a visit to Cadbury’s World, in my one time home town of Bournville. I’d trained for it without the usual total devotion to a programme but had managed to fit in a few long runs, including a slow, wet 13 mile effort just over a week ago.

Birmingham was buzzing when I arrived with traffic jams into town and helicopters overhead. After some chaotic attempts to leave the baggage area with everything I’d need over the next couple of hours, I finally lined up with 19,999 others and was set off into the City Centre by super-swimmer Ellie Simmonds.

This was my first “big city” race and being cheered by hordes of enthusiastic Brummies was probably the closest I’ll ever come to scoring a goal in front of the Holte End at Villa Park (in fact I went to Villa Park later that day and most of the team looked like they’d not be scoring in front of the Holte End any time soon either). I was then in for a long trip down Memory Lane of sights that either still exist or have long since disappeared or transformed into something else. Before leaving the City Centre I’d spotted:

  • Snobs, in the 1980s this was one of the few Birmingham night-clubs that didn’t insist on a suit and tie. Amazingly it’s still up and running and not exactly living up to its name
  • The Navigation Chip Bar, once the host of Birmingham’s first Space Invaders machine, unfortunately vanished and replaced by a smart office

The nostalgia opportunities during the long flat journey to Bournville took my mind off much of the discomfort that running half marathons can entail. Just before Cannon Hill I got to heckle a spectator brandishing a huge West Bromwich Albion flag apparently thinking this might spur us on. “Up the Villa!” I shouted, learning in the process that sustained physical exertion makes my accent about 10 times more Brummie than usual.

At Selly Park we were diverted up the first hill, turning left at the end of the road my grandparents used to live on and past a big old walled convent. In my school-days I’d always wondered about what went on inside that big old building. Now was the chance for the Sisters to connect with the passing runner, perhaps with a Nuun sponsored water station, but unfortunately the gates remained locked and the mysterious convent remains just that.

Then it was back down to Pershore Road, and towards Stirchley, past the swimming baths (the post-swimming chips and curry sauce outlet was no longer there), along the edge of a series of streets with the same names as the Green section on the Monopoly board and then the potential main highlight for me: Cadbury’s. This giant settlement devoted to chocolate had a big significance in my first 16 years. I’d gone to primary school directly opposite the Willy Wonkaesque factory. The parents of most of the kids in my class worked there and several times a week our playground would be overpowered with the smell of chocolate.

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Sneak preview of next month’s Runner’s World cover star

Today Cadbury’s was quiet, but the Bournville villagers were out in force, several rows deep, including my sister and two nephews. The sight of them brandishing cameras made me immediately think of the Woman off of the Front of Southern Running Guide and here is the result of a moment of lapsed concentration.

The next stage involved a welcome downhill stretch to the 10K point and then it was back towards town with some fairly major diversions. Firstly into Cannon Hill Park, home of the Midland Arts Centre. Years ago I’d gone on countless school trips there to see puppet shows with the fluorescent painted marionettes animated by people in black cat suits (that we had to pretend we hadn’t noticed). I didn’t spot the amphiteatre where I’d climbed up the wall to see some pretty special gigs in the summers of the early 1980s. Is it still there?

A long fairly unchallenging stretch through Balsall Heath seemed to go on for some time – I think the race organisers wanted to keep us in suspense because we all knew that some kind of hill was imminent around miles 10-11…

…And then it arrived. After we’d dropped down into the tunnel at Lee Bank Middleway, we made our way back into daylight and the up the incline towards Five Ways. It was a hill but I’ve known worse and I could soon see the top. However we then turned off the main road and onto the bottom of a second slightly steeper hill. My legs were protesting and I fought off the temptation to walk. At the summit, a woman was handing out Jelly Babies, but it turned out to be the second of three or four summits. I was expecting to start seeing mountain goats and people in lederhosen – was my first experience of running at altitude to be in the West Midlands of all places?

I knew all prospects of a PB or anything close were now dead in the water but I kept going. It was all rewarded by a flat or possibly slightly downhill dash along Broad Street to the finishing line and the huge crowds prompted me into “sprinting” the last 100 metres.

I’ve frequently been reliving this race in mind since Sunday. It was odd trying to maintain the right pace to make sure I could keep going for the full 13.1 miles and still achieve a respectable time only to be confronted by such a huge challenge so close to the end (there are currently 427 comments about those hills on the Birmingham Great Run Facebook page). I’m relaxed about my time (some 7 minutes slower than my “Rogue Run” PB) because I’m confident I could do another half marathon in a few weeks time, somewhere else, and go a whole a lot quicker. Those hills are now a distant memory and I can see myself coming back for more.

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.

Rogue Races

Google "Rogue, running" & this is what you get...

Google “Rogue, running” & this is what you get…

Have you ever run a Rogue Race? You know, when all of your other races and times have occasionally shown tiny signs of progress but out of the blue, you pull off a performance to end all performances. It will definitely be a PB performance, but with hindsight it might feel more like a case of a PBTDWNBIU (personal best that doubtless will never be improved upon). And I’m not talking about the latest race in a “hot streak” where you just can’t help getting faster every time you pin on a race number. It has to be out of the blue and preferably unprepared for.

My Rogue Race was the Worcester Half a Marathon in 2012. I’ve already blogged about it here. The Rogue Race happened after a shocking lack of planning and preparation (I didn’t decide to do it until the night before and it was 120 miles away from where I live. To warm up, I stood in a freezing country lane for half an hour). 1:49:09 might not be much of a big deal in many runners’ schemes of thinking but it’s haunted me ever since. I tend to use this time as a yardstick to measure every running-related thing I’ve subsequently tried to achieve and so far, it’s always led to disappointment.

7 months after the Rogue Race, I did another half marathon, one I’d chosen because it was reported to be generally flat with a downhill finish. I’d trained for this event specifically and quietly hoped to improve on my best ever time. I finished the race over 3 minutes slower than the Rogue Race.

To really rub it in, I put the Rogue Run time into Runner’s World Race Time Predictor calculator to see how fast I should be able to do a range of other distances in and then see how I might fare if the Rogue Race was not a freak one off. This what I found:

Distance Rogue Race Predicted Time Bog Standard Actual Time
Marathon 3:47:34 4:28:57
Half Marathon 1:49:09 1:49:09
10K 49:31 50:41
5 Miles 39:19 41:31
5K 23:45 24:14

“Bog standard” clearly needs to buck it’s ideas up.

So what next – will the Rogue Run be a motivator or a weight around my neck? It’s kind of putting me off committing to another half marathon next month but I’m slowly talking myself into it. Using the Rogue Race pace I accidentally beat my 5 mile PB during a training run last Saturday. It wasn’t easy but I felt like progress. However, the thought of keeping that going for another 8 miles was pretty much out of the question.

Have you ever run a Rogue Race? Have you slowly come to terms with it being your one, never to be repeated moment of glory? Or did it spur you on, eventually turning it into just another Run-of-the-Mill race?

Vicarious Runs #4 – Worcester Half Marathon 15th April 2012

image Once again, I block out the disappointment of not being able to do any races this spring by reliving some of the glories and shambles of my recent running past.

As I continued to prepare for my debut marathon, my seemingly obsessive compulsive disordered approach to following a training plan created a bit of a problem in mid-March 2012. On the 15th March I just had to do a half marathon but a forensic search of the Internet failed to drum up any suitable events remotely near to where I live. One very long listed option was the first ever Worcester Half Marathon which just happens to be on its second edition today.

The downsides included a lonely 120 mile early morning drive, but one upside was that my West Midlands roots made it almost feel like a bit of a “homecoming”. Unlike previous efforts I ummed and ahhed about whether to sign-up for days on end. It was not until the eve of the race, in the middle of cooking a massive curry, that I finally decided to go for it. Therefore, instead of the traditional wholewheat pasta with tomato and red pepper sauce carb loading extravaganza, I prepared with chicken tikka masala, daal, home made naan bread and rice, not the worst pre-race option but one that would inevitably lead to some delicate TTT planning the following morning.

The Worcester Half Marathon recapped:

1. TTTs are comparatively easy if you set out early enough for a long motorway journey. Service stations oblige quite nicely thanks and allow you to stock up on post-race snacks (for more information on TTTs go here)

2. I discovered the concept of “event haterzzz” after this great morning spent in beautiful countryside flooded with spring sunshine. Rather than going home with a feeling of satisfaction and then putting up their feet, the haterzzzz have to log onto Runner’s World and slag off the organisation of the race they’ve just participated in. There were problems with queues for paid parking but curried up rundontrun was there at the crack of dawn, got issued with his last-minute race number without being charged (don’t worry, I pointed this out and coughed up) and got to the start way before the point at which some of the more laid back locals were still queueing in their cars to get into the venue. One of the haterzzz allegedly “froze” because of the 15 minute delay at the start. Other criticisms made by the haterzzz included the flimsy security of the bag-drop area (when they all had cars to lock their stuff in anyway), occasionally missing mile markers, marshals not being willing to give them a piggyback when they got tired and there not being enough for the spectators to do (race organisers bear this in mind when planning your event – remember to budget for a free fun fair for the kiddies)*

3. If the haterzzz hate Worcester then this race is a good option. It goes nowhere near The place.

4. Bad or no preparation doesn’t necessarily equal bad performance. I somehow managed to get a PB. I tried and failed to improve on this later in 2012, after weeks of planning and training for a half marathon deliberately chosen because it looked “easier”.

5. Missing mile markers I can handle but signs saying “Scrumpy” mixed with curry related dehydration could quite easily be my downfall in slightly different circumstances.

6. Races that double up as both half and full marathons (like this one did) are odd occasions. It’s possible to overtake people who look and are twice as fit as yourself, not realising they’re saving themselves to run the whole route again as your energy’s pretty much hitting zero. I also felt a bit of fraud wearing the otherwise rather fetching finishers’ t-shirt, constantly feeling the need to say “of course I only did the half you know” to passing admirers. No my time to finally wear a marathon finishers’ t-shirt with genuine pride was yet to come and will inevitably be the subject of Vicarious Runs #5…

*Okay, I made up one of these complaints