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.

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