It’s a glorious spring Saturday afternoon. I’m walking round the park with my family and dog; we’re all enjoying the first really warm sun of the year.
I’m in a good mood. My hip, so very painful since last weekend’s Manchester Marathon, feels ok. It’s not grinding, not burning, not aching. It’s stiff. Stiff I can cope with. Stiff is ok. Stiff is a gentle reminder to get stuck into the rehabilitation exercises that I started this morning after jogging to parkrun to cheer on my friends. Stiff is the nudge that I need to stretch. Stiff is the alert needed to get my foam roller out and gently roll away at the scar tissue at the top of my left hamstring.
Our walk takes us round the parkrun course and to the bottom of a hill that I must have run up close to a thousand times in my life. Training runs, hills sessions, parkruns – it’s a lot of times that I’ve made the trip from the steps at the bottom to the crest of the hill. My boy, just six, starts to sprint ahead with complete disregard for his clearly unsustainable pace. He turns and shouts back, ‘Is this how you run up here, Daddy? Watch how fast I can go!’ It’s a moment of joy. His face beams with the sheer pleasure of moving forward under his own steam; he really doesn’t care that he’ll have to stop to catch his breath before starting all over again. For that moment in time, all he wants to do is run – and he loves it.
It’s a moment of joy for me too. It’s yet another timely reminder that despite the disappointment of last Sunday’s Manchester Marathon, despite the fact that I will need to devote a long time to rehabilitating my hip, running is a gift. And it’s a gift that I don’t want to take for granted anymore. I don’t want to turn up to races just for the experience of completing them anymore; I want to race and see how fast I can go. I don’t want to waste the gift of running by simply running; I want to train methodically, with an aim, an objective, a purpose. I don’t want to waste the gift of running by doing the same things that I’ve done up to this point: the same runs, the same routes, the same pace. All of these things have left me with a chronic injury that is getting in the way of being able to enjoy the simple gift that is running.
And so, as my boy sprints his way up the hill, and as I walk up behind him, grateful that I’m no longer in pain, I vow to myself that the next time I run up here it will be to find out how fast I can go too. At the bottom of the hill I’m faced with a reminder that I can continue to run in the way that has got me this far, or I can take a step back and learn what I really need to do to get faster, stronger, less prone to injury. I can learn what to takes to become a different type of runner. That’s the gift I choose to give to myself from this point on.
Not exactly the most positive of mantras. But at least it was honest. I really was hurting from the moment that we started until the end of the race some ten miles and 1:13:29 later.
I wanted to a hard run to mark the end of a 60 mile week, and this one delivered a nice dose of tough right from the off. My legs weren’t aching, just heavy and unresponsive. It was everywhere else that was hurting: back, shoulders, and weirdly, my neck. At this stage in marathon training it’s to be expected and it was simply a matter of putting my head down and getting it done.
The miles passed steadily enough and I was rewarded with a solid, hilly, off road ten mile effort at a 7:20 min/mile average. Even better was the fact that I’d spent the morning with two club mates who’d also got out of the race exactly what they were seeking.
The Central Lancs 5K is the first race of the Central Lancashire Grand Prix race series. This yearly competition involves ten local running clubs who take part in races ranging from the mile to just over five miles, typically on paths and trails. The first race of the season is always organised by Bolton United Harriers and takes place at Leverhulme Park.
I had no expectations going into this race. On the Thursday I ran just under 13 miles at 7:38 min/mile pace. It was one of those runs that felt very easy, I was just clipping along and enjoying the ride. Unfortunately, the morning after I woke to a burning throat. My nose was the only thing that ran for the following two days.
Although I felt rough I decided that I was going to run. I want to have a serious go at the club championship this year, and this race also marked the start of the competition. So, still feeling somewhat weary, I reluctantly jogged my way through a warm up and some stretching before finding my place on the start.
The start of the race felt brisk enough, but as we exited the track for the park paths the banging in my head made it difficult to work out just exactly what the pace was; all I could do was concentrate on breathing. I’d decided not to wear any watch for this race and just run as hard as my bunged up head would allow. It’s an approach that I’ve written about before, and racing without a watch is something that I’m going to do much more of this year.
Watch or otherwise, this race was a struggle: I just didn’t have it in me on the day. The final mile was difficult. I had neither the legs, the strength or the speed to make anything of it. I was glad to see the finish line arrive in 19:44.
Here’s what I’ve been thinking over the last few weeks:
I’ve been running to build the base. We all know what this means: build the solid aerobic foundations upon which to add specific sessions that allow us to get faster at the distance that we are targeting.
Here’s what I’ve been doing over the last few years:
Nothing other than easy or steady base building.
No regular sessions.
Then, last night I was tagged into a post on Facebook by my good friend Shay Walker. Shay’s no slouch as his PBs will attest: 16:51 for 5K, through to 2:50 for the marathon. His Facebook post drew attention to the fact I had used the phrase ‘gotta get faster’ twice online over the last few days. The weird thing was the fact that I wasn’t aware that I had; a quick scan back revealed, of course, that Shay was right.
And then it hit me. I had used the phrase unthinkingly without knowing what it actually meant. I had used the phrase as if actually typing it would somehow bring about the result that I sought. The phrase was a metaphor for the way in which I’ve largely approached things in my running over the last few years: unthinkingly and without real focus.
This almost spontaneous approach to running does have a purpose. It has allowed me to get back into running properly, it has given me endless pleasure and joy, it has given me fresh air and new friends. But there is a downside. I’ve ended up doing more of the stuff that I enjoy but don’t really need to do, and less (or none) of the stuff that is harder, gnarlier, the stuff that will actually make me faster, presuming of course that that is what I want to be: faster.
I think many of us want to be faster. I know I want to be faster. I believe that I can be faster.
Here’s what I am going to do:
add a repetition session of some sort each week (track/hills/fartlek/road reps).
add a tempo run of some sort each week (progression run/parkrun).
I’m going to vary the nature of these sessions over a two week cycle.
I’ve enjoyed my running this week. I’ve trained everyday again for a total of 52 miles. I got back into the habit of running 10 milers in the week. The aim will be to build these up into 15 milers over the course of the next 5 weeks. Thursday’s run was perhaps the most enjoyable of these as the 8 minute miles felt comfortable again and it felt nice to be chipping away along an undulating road route.
On Saturday I ran Bolton parkrun as a steady effort. I was annoyed with myself for getting a bit carried away at the start, I need to remember the purpose of the sessions a bit more. I’m not remotely concerned that a steady effort is now the wrong side of 20 minutes (at least I’m not worried at this stage!)
On Sunday a group of us training for various marathons and an ultra ran a very enjoyable 15 miles on a mixture of roads, paths and trails. It’s great to do these runs without any time or pace pressure. It’s even better to put the world to rights and generally just enjoy the fresh air early on a Sunday morning. It felt great to be home and showered long before 11AM.
The target next week is to continue to chip away at the mileage. I’m planning on a couple of ten milers before running the Four Villages Half Marathon in Helsby on Sunday. On the back of this I’ll put my mind to a target for the Manchester Marathon in April.
It’s not long after seven in the morning on New Year’s Day.I’m in the carpark at Leverhulme Park. More precisely, I’m in my car looking at directions to a parkrun that is due to start at 8:30. I’m waiting for two Burnden Road Runners teammates that I have arranged to meet.The plan is to drive over to Rochdale for the Watergrove parkrun at 8:30; trot round this; drive back to Bolton for the parkrun that is due to start at 10:00. Normal parkrun times have been altered because it is New Year’s Day. In honour of this, extra parkruns have been slotted into the schedule and the ‘double’ is now a recognised way to take advantage of the additional events on offer.
With the directions settled in my head, I wait for Katy and Aidy to arrive while reflecting on the fact that it’s over five years since I had a drink, let alone a hangover. New Year’s Day hasn’t always started so positively.I’m grateful.
A quick pitstop for some coffee and we are on our way. We drive past houses that are still in darkness until we arrive at Watergrove Reservoir on the outskirts of Rochdale. There are already lots of runners here and lots of volunteers donning hi-vis making their way to the start.
We decide to jog for a while to get limbs… well, limber. A local parkrunner tells us that the course is hilly and that we are in for a treat. He isn’t wrong. Hilly it is. By the top of one of the two main assents that make up the course my lungs are protesting. I’m not fit at the moment having spent a lot of time since the start of October just jogging around or worse: resting. I’m trying to resolve this ongoing ache deep within my left hip.
But, the burning lungs aside, it’s a lovely enjoyable course. More like a fell race than a parkrun. I’m sweating by the time I meet my two clubmates. We exchange our views on the course and walk back to the car.
Next up: Bolton. By the time we arrive there it is already looking busy. We’ve twenty minutes to loosen legs before it’s off again, another 5K round Leverhulme Park. I can’t imagine ever being fed up of running around this course. It’s great, and before we know it, it’s over.
The rest of the week passes by just as quickly until I find myself lining up for the Sale Waterpark parkrun. By quirk of the calendar this will be the third parkrun in 6 days. I’ve never done this one before. It’s a simple out and back course along a section of the River Mersey. I muster a 6:23 first mile before taking my mind off it and allowing myself to drift. By the time I realise what I’ve done the second mile has passed in just under 7 minutes despite the course being almost pancake flat. I make an effort to get shifting again and manage another quicker mile and the finish arrives in 20:24.
I run 46 miles during the first week of 2018, and I end the week with a 12 mile ‘long run’ at just over 8:30 pace. It’s not fantastic, but it’s progress of a sort: my left hip is stiff rather than painful. Sometimes in running, that’s enough.
With Bolton parkrun being iced off, I decided to make the 40 minute drive over to Hyndburn parkrun at Clayton-le-Moors. The event takes place at Wilson Playing Fields. Although to be honest, on a cold, damp, dark winter morning ‘playing’ was far from my mind as I pulled onto the carpark. Other runners were just about visible from behind steamed up windscreens, with only the odd one or two dedicated enough to venture out into the rain. And then, as these things do, it suddenly stopped. It was time for a quick change of shoes before jogging to warm up and find the start line.
Despite missing the first timers briefing, I was easily able to find where to go. A path around edge of the field led to the familiar signs and high-vis that marks the all important start and finish. A warm welcome by the run director and we were off.
The first part of the course is uphill on some very solid trails. Despite the heavy rain the running surface was great. Wide enough for the runners who stormed ahead and substantial enough to get a good grip. My left hamstring immediately started to complain of stiffness, but if I’ve learned anything over the past few weeks it is to relax more as this seems to help it to ease off. A sharp right at the top of the hill and the course follows some woodland paths along what I assume is the boundary of the park. With houses visible on the left and the woodlands on the right the path dips and rises through the trees until it eventually reaches a turnaround point. This is located off the paths. The course winds through some off road stuff, that with the winter weather, had become seriously muddy. I chose to cling to the outside edge of this in an attempt to stay upright in my road shoes and to avoid aggravating my hamstring and hip. The turnaround being successfully negotiated, it was back on to the path and back to the start line. Ample signs and volunteers requested that we all keep to the left so that runners don’t impede those coming in the opposite direction. It’s a system that works really well. The start line passed soon enough and then it was back out to complete lap two of this two lap course.
The end seemed to arrive quickly enough in 23:07. It felt like a solid effort. Not too hard, but not an easy run. I’m not going to dwell too much on the fact that it was nearly five minutes slower than my PB. Things are what they are. This gives me a good indication of where I am at at this point in time. There are 99 days left until the Manchester Marathon, and with the Christmas celebrations behind us, it’s time to get focused on this as my main goal for the first third of the year.
On the way home I took a slight diversion and drove past what used to be Darwen Moorland High School. The site has now been completely demolished with just the odd pathway, tree or post signalling where the building used to be.
I spent six years of my life teaching English there before the school became an academy and subsequently moved to a new site in the centre of Darwen. Some of my former colleagues have died. Some have stayed in Darwen. Some, like me, have moved on. But, this morning, sweaty and muddy from an enjoyable parkrun, I thought of them all for a moment before heading for home and the promise of a new year.
My number, alongside a comprehensive race day booklet, arrived exactly on-time. If the Chester Marathon has a reputation, it is for being a slickly organised event that has maintained its human touch in all that it does. While other marathons have opted for exponential growth, Chester has clearly aimed to ensure that all who run experience good times by delivering exactly what it says it will: good times.
I ran the event back in 2012 and, at the time, it was my second marathon. I’d enjoyed the event immensely and as I arrived at the racecourse which dominates the city centre, the warm memory of running 4:16:14 became palpable.
I parked in a car park opposite the race course. It couldn’t have been any closer to the start line. The on-course parking had been cancelled the day before as heavy rain had fallen in the week, and the race course, being so close to the river, is prone to becoming boggy. Not that either rain or dampness was an obvious concern to us runners: the air was mild, still, and without a trace of humidity to be felt.
I made my way into a cafe area to buy coffee. Despite being early, many runners were nervously munching energy bars and drinking from bottles promising electrolytes and various energy forms. Some were going old school and opting for the coffee and banana combination that I favour. Each to their own. I chatted to a first time marathoner who informed me that he’d been training specifically for this event for 9 months. He’d done four twenty-four milers in the build up and yet he still wondered if he could ‘make it round in one piece’. I’m not a gambling man, but I’d like to bet that he did, such was the steely look that he had about him. My brother arrived minutes later. He was in Chester to run the event as training for next year’s Comrades Marathon. And then yet more arrived too. By 7:30 the place was full of the sound of running related chatter as well as the distinct smell of various balms and embrocations being liberally applied to a multitude of aches.
Just before 8AM I left the cafe area and went for a walk. I came across the England team being photographed before a swish looking digital poster. They looked as nervous as I felt. In my twitchy state of mind I’d forgotten to ring my Burnden Road Runners club mate. We’d previously arranged to meet up before the off. Luckily I managed to get in touch, and we too took advantage of the photo opportunity afforded by the digital signage and podium.
On the walk back to the car to get changed I mentally checked in with myself. All felt good. No aches or pains. A quick change of socks and shoes, vest on, warm clothing off, and I was ready to get started.
The start line of a marathon is always a special place to be. I opted for a noisy slot behind the 3:30 pacers. Although my target time was 3:25 I wanted to start deliberately slowly and build through miles 5 – 13 to an average pace that would bring me in at 3:24. A few minutes after carefully positioning myself in an appropriate slot we were off.
The opening miles passed by pleasantly enough. The course winds through the city, under the famous clock, past the Roman amphitheatre, and then it’s out into the countryside for the bulk of the race. By mile four the 3:30 pacers were far away in the distance and I was beginning to wonder if I had made a mistake by starting too cautiously. I had to remind myself several times what my race plan was: start slowly, build through the middle and push on at the end of the race. Mile nine passed in 7:38 and mile ten in 7:38. I ran mile eleven in 7:35 and all felt good. It was on this stretch that the distinctive signs of the 3:30 pacing group became visible, and I relaxed even more as I eventually caught the bus. Although I was pleased to get back to the group, I hadn’t thought that the road would be quite as congested as it was. Put simply: there was no way I could get past the all of the runners. I’d simply have to wait until the road widened.
Miles twelve to twenty-four passed without incident. The miles were being ticked off with the steady consistency that I’d planned on at the outset. Things were progressing nicely. And then… and then I experienced cramp like I’ve never felt before. The whole of my right leg locked rigid and within the space of two strides I found myself shouting out in painful surprise. I thought that the offending area was my hamstring, but to be honest the pain felt so severe that it could have been coming from anywhere in my lower half. My right calf had locked rigid too. I managed to get myself to the side of the road before falling in a heap on the ground. I genuinely couldn’t stand. However, I could get both of my hands round my leg and I instinctively found the energy to squeeze it as hard as I could. For the first time I thought that I would not be able to complete the marathon, such was the way in which my leg refused to unlock itself. With a final squeeze, I resigned myself to the fact that the Chester Marathon was probably over.
And then it went. As quickly as it came, it went. It subsided really quickly and then left, almost without a trace. The whole episode took just over two and a half minutes, but lying there on the pavement it felt like much longer. Oddly, I was able to resume the pace that I was running at before being struck. I just had to hold it all together for the final two miles and I would still be able to sneak in at under three and a half hours. My A target of three hours and twenty-five minutes was now blown, but the B target was very much still on. Right on cue a light drizzle started to fall and the crowds started to thicken. I saw my sister-in-law at somewhere around the mile twenty five mark, just as dark thoughts of cramp were beginning to surface again. I needn’t have worried. Despite the change in surfaces over the last mile, it never returned. I was quickly over the line in 3:28:11, comfortably under 3:30:00, but also comfortably over 3:25:00.
Walking back to the car I reflected on what I’d learned. Obviously, I was delighted to have gained such a large PB. My previous best of 3:42:14 was well and truly smashed. Not only that, I’d managed to do so comfortably and had managed my pace well throughout. I hadn’t hit the wall, and I hadn’t experienced the stomach discomfort that had blighted the Manchester Marathon last year. But I also started to think about my training. It had gone well inasmuch as I had maintained great consistency throughout the summer, but what could I achieve with a rock solid focus on the marathon? It would be a few days later before I could answer this.