Three Race February – 2 bl00dy seconds!

Main thing I’ve learnt from February is I’m still a chunky monkey.   Look at this picture from the MK Winter Half.  It’s the finishing straight.   That guy behind me is damn near transparent compared to me.  I’ve eaten (too many) spare ribs with more meat on than him.  I’m not going to get an eating disorder over it, but may need to accept that if I want to get faster I might need to eat like a normal, fully functioning adult, not a kid in a sweet stall.  Either that or campaign for weight categories for running like in boxing.  I might not get a Good For Age but I could be in with a shout at Good For Chubby.

Cross County at Campbell Park

First February race was also my first go at cross country (running as guest for second claim club Redway Runners so a good excuse to borrow the wife’s green top).

Another first – my first go in proper cross country spikes.  15mm spikes look menacing and likely to be classed a dangerous weapon.  The difference they make on the course is amazing and powering through slime whilst those in fancy trail shoes that cost multiple times more money struggle to get any traction demonstrates the real difference.  Once again I’d been tight fisted and found a nearly new pair on ebay for £7 and longer spikes for £3.  There is so little to trail shoes in terms of support or cushioning you really don’t need to spend big bucks.  The minimalist design also means very little sticks to them so you don’t get the usual ‘walking on stilts of mud’ that trail shoes create.

The course was ‘only’ 5 miles which is far below my usual race distance but route was brutal.  Three loops of Campbell Park in Milton Keynes sounds mild but when the course picks up every incline, boggy crossing and sharp uphill it takes a real toll.  I’ve never been closer to wanting to quit at 4 miles before but soldiered on and found myself gaining some places back in final mile (maybe endurance training has helped after all) and finished at an average 7:36min/mile pace so not awful either.

Cattle Creep 10k Night Run

Second race of Feb was the Cattle Creep Night Run.  A 10k race using the same course used for the summer run.  Starting at 7pm through unlit country footpaths and fields it’s a case of stick head torch on and run as hard as you can.  Although I’ve run through the night (well more like ambled) on a couple of ultras it’s never been at a pace that would even be quantified as running so was a first to be pushing it in the dark.  The course is mostly flat with a few cattle gates to go through and a few sudden bumps the headtorch failed to show up.  The lead runners lost me pretty soon and by about halfway I broke away from those around me and had a solo effort to finish 4th place in 42 minutes in what felt a controlled effort and gave me some morale boost for the forthcoming HM.

MK Winter Half

Final race of Feb was the rescheduled MK winter HM.  Optimistic plan was to try and break 90.  Had some last minute nerves in terms of kit.  It was cold so stuck with long sleeve top and club vest.  Regretted it soon after as it warmed up and I overheated.  Made another classic mistake of running straight through first aid station (only one with bottles) so had to make do with thimbles of water from the cups at the next two or three.  The 90 minute pacer was open about intention to go off a little fast to make up for the inclines and twisty nature of the second half.  Sadly that meant for me I couldn’t stick with him so tried to hold steady 6:52 pace with a target of ‘even pacing’.  I’ve heard other people talk about it, never done it myself.

Had a brain melt somewhere around mile 8 and figured I was well off pace and on for more like 1:35.  Still a respectable time but given I normally go through halfway on marthons in a similar time it was a kick in the teeth.  I walked the final aid station to try and get some water in me and ploughed on.  Only with a couple of miles left did I recalculate that I wouldn’t be far off the 90 minutes so pressed on.

With a mile to go I knew I was on for a PB, somewhere around 1:31.

On the final stretch I kicked on and saw the finish line clock click over to 90 just ahead.

Stopped my watch and it showed 1:30:07.  So close.  Why hadn’t I run 8 seconds faster!

Checked the time on the race timing PC, 1:30:02.  Even closer.  Why hadn’t I run 3 seconds faster!

Later that night checked official results online.  1:30:01.  For fox sake!  Why hadn’t I run 2 seconds faster!

It all highlights what a stupid world running is.  We push ourselves to run an arbitrary distance in an arbitrary time and punish ourselves for failing.  Had I run 1:29:59 I would be checking online race predictors to see what my new marathon target would be (either 3:07:36 on the traditional formula or 3:20:28 using the new tool adjusted based on actual data collected), two seconds slower and I might as well retire.  😩

Next stop is March and a marathon PB attempt at a small local Enigma event, and a HM PB attempt at the opposite end of the scale, at the behemoth Reading Half Marathon where I’m hoping a flatter route, more crowds, maybe some sports drink on course will outweigh the negatives of congested routes.

The quest for sub20 – fast for a fat lad

Last year I started attending the 6:40 session with Redway Runners to try and maintain some pace despite the demands of ultra training.  I was just skirting around the edges of the required pace on a good day but fortunately on a repeated 4 or 5 mile loop there isn’t that much getting lost potential (although one week we ran it reverse and I did got lost, found myself the wrong side of the road, swearing profusely and wondering how I did it).

It was a very mixed training week going from (attempted) 6:40min/mile on a Tuesday to long slow double runs at the weekend, often on hills and at double that pace.  It seemed to work though and despite the morale kicking from ALWAYS lagging along at the back of the runs and finishing the 4 mile loops often a minute or more behind the rest I managed to sneak a few seconds off my HM PB and be within 2 minutes of a marathon PB twice.

The main gripe was my 5k time.  The intensive, uninterrupted effort seemed beyond me and so at odds with the death march, relentless forward progress approach of ultras I despaired of getting a PB again.  On the net downhill Rocket 5k (part of the amazing MK Marathon weekend) I just managed to dip under the 20min again but was a few seconds off the previous year and it was only my second success at the elusive sub20 despite entering the Marston 5k every year (a super flat, chip timed, Friday evening 5k with a great turnout of local talent and a race I always, always sucked at).

Back to this year and my unconventional approach to get quicker until March and then lay on the miles for the May ultras.  Could I sneak another sub20?

I love parkrun but longer runs and the boys football matches mean I typically only make a handful a year, and often joined by the dog who knows nothing of pacing and is happy to lead the run on a sub 5:30 first half mile then stop for a call of nature and jog it in, stopping to sniff all the trees on route and have a paddle in the lake.  Her only goal is to be the first dog home which she’s not failed to achieve largely due to lack of competition.

Fortunately commitments this year have worked out that I’ve managed a string of parkruns and the consistent, regular nature of the max effort has really helped.

30th Dec – 20:31, a PB at MK parkrun.  Due to the low turnout I ended up in a weird void behind the fast runners and spent most of the last mile on my own, wondering where everyone was and managing 8th position.

1st Jan – attempted to PB at the flatter Linford Wood course but struggled and managed 20:41.  Then followed by a few dog assisted weeks.

20th Jan – 20:29, a PB at MK parkrun – pleased with another PB but 2 seconds chunks were a slow way to go.

27th Jan – 20:17, a PB at MK parkrun – 12 second chunk despite strong wind upped the confidence but felt hard effort throughout and I nearly stopped at 2 miles as my brain asked what the hell I was playing at.  It wasn’t a race, the time didn’t matter, why was I putting myself through this?  Mentally this is the point you need to push but it’s so against the ultra-training.  Your breathing is ragged, muscles ache, everything feels maxed out and there is nothing more to give.  Yet cross the line and within seconds you’ve recovered and kick yourself for not pushing harder.

So could I push harder?  Was sub20 possible?

In the following week I managed a hard 5 mile session with the 6:40 group managing 6:42 average, the fastest in months despite nearly tripping over a dead swan in the gloom.

For the Wednesday run I pushed the pace a little and was only seconds off a course PB for the 9 mile loop I’ve run over 100 times.

Thursday I took the club run really easy (in the new found belief in easy runs).

Friday another easy 30 mins, more to take the dog out than get the miles in.

Saturday – 3rd Feb – A chance discussion with Matt, a proper fast (as in annoyingly fast) clubmate and he offered to help to pace me to a sub20 at Milton Keynes.  He’s coming back from injury and able to jog a sub20 to keep me motivated.  He could probably do it in an elaborate fancy dress just to make the point…

Arriving at the start and a local running club is also providing official pacers for the day so I have both Matt and a chap called George from Ampthill & Flitwick Flyers to get me around.  Can I really drop 18 seconds in a week?  We set off and I’m told to slow down, then maintain the pace.  We’re just behind the 20 min pacer and keep that way with Matt issuing reassurance and advice the whole way.  The main commandment is “Thou shalt not look at thine watch” and I have no idea of pace, trusting  Matt and the back of Georges head.

At 2 miles the central governor starts to kick in.  This is hard work, why not slow down?  I think I’m on pace.  Matt says so.  I can’t check my watch.  Mentally this is probably good.  If I’m a little slower than desired pace I’ll stop.  If faster it will give yet more fuel to the “slow down” alarm in my head.  Matt advises just to control breathing and run with your knees.  It sounds painful.  I decide to run on my feet instead.  Also concentrate on keeping head up and shoulders down as running form is not my forte.

With less than a mile to go I’m ordered to change up half a gear.  I try.  It makes no discernible difference in pace, maybe I should check my watch? No I can’t.

When you get passed in a race by a lady it’s known (very un-PC) as being chicked.  I’m not sure what the phrase is for being beaten by a buggy but fellow 6:40 session runner Andrew cruises past pushing a buggy with about half a mile to go.  Not the best morale booster when you think you might be on for a PB.

With more shouting from Matt I start to reel in George the pacer.  He joins in the shouting and it’s just an all-out effort for the line, hoping at least one of them is accurate on pace as I have no idea.  I’m only a few feet in front of the sub20, will it be enough?

Pumping arms like a loon and panting like a sweaty dog I hoof towards the sweet release of being able to stop, pause the Garmin and attempt to keep breakfast down.  Once composed I check my watch.  19:48, a nice safety margin under the 20.  With the help of Matt I’ve managed a 29 second improvement on the previous week and only a few seconds away from my all-time PB on a downhill course.

Next stop is a 10k, HM and Marathon PB.