Training journal | week 12 | Beachy head marathon

Back in 2012 just after the most uplifting and momentous three weeks of sport in London, I had a sort of momentous event of my own. I had an entry to the Berlin marathon.

Iconic, fast, flat and with entry easily secured in the days before ballots. Berlin was a wonderful weekend in a wonderful city. I could have happily moved out there. The marathon itself was everything you would expect from a world major. Seamless organisation, iconic route, weighty medal and wonderful marshals. It also turned out to be one of the most dramatic marathons I’ve ever done.

The race advertises a 6 hour 15 minute cut off. At the time, I was semi-trained, but a busy summer had put pay to a ‘perfect’ build up. In any respect, 6.15 was comfortably do-able and I arrived at the start with a plan and a happy countenance.

Berlin is a fast course, which invariably attracts fast runners. It was telling when the start pens were allocated in 15 minute sections between 2 hours 30 and 3 hours 30. Everyone running 4 hours plus were collated into the last pen. Which inevitably meant a starting position at the back of the race. I had also assumed the cut off related to chip time (ie the clock started when you crossed the start line). Wrong again, it was gun time and would occur at a specific time of day. 3.15pm to be precise.

The happy countenance slipped slightly. 

It took almost half an hour to cross the start line. Rather than 6 hours 15 minutes, I now had 5 hours 45 minutes to complete the route. A much more challenging proposal. I tried not to panic, sticking to the plan to run for 2 minutes, then walk for 1 minute – my traditional ‘blag it’ marathon approach. It worked beautifully for the half and I hit half way around 2 hours, 50 minutes. Still feeling good and very, very aware I had no ‘slippage’ room I kept going. It started to get uncomfortable around 16 miles, painful by 18 and around 22 miles in I was hanging and just wanted the whole thing to stop. 

I wondered what happened at the cut off. Would they adopt the Comrades Marathon approach and turn their backs while firing a gun to indicate the finish (unlikely). Or, would they be more Ironman, stop the clock and remove medals and finishers t-shirts from the finish (more likely). Would there be a chance to sneak in or would marshals stand across the line and resolutely prevent people from crossing the line. This was Germany, and Germans are renown for efficiency and discipline. I imagined there would be almost no chance to sneak past. 

So, I had no choice but to carry on and bury myself. Weeping gently as I made my way through the city centre. I watched folks who had already finished displaying their medal, chatting, laughing and drinking beer.

Bastards, the lot of them.  

Finally, gloriously, I turned the final left hand corner and stared up the wide avenue to the Brandenburg gate. It was a depressingly long run way.

It was going to be close.

I noticed marshals lining the approach with tape in their hands. They looked menacing and I feared the worst. I was now close enough to see the clock, I had less than 30 seconds to cross the line. I used every last ounce of strength I had and picked up the pace, crossing the line in 6 hours 14 minutes and 57 secs (chip time 5.48.37). 

I had made it. 

Approximately four weeks later I stood at the foot of Beachy Head for the start of the marathon. I stared up at the sharp climb from Bede’s Prep School, the race HQ. I had done this race before and knew what was coming and yet, the happy countenance was back. There were no impending cut offs in this event. At least none that would threaten a happy demeanour. The weather was good, visibility was clear and I had all bloody day to finish the race.

That race was one of the easiest races I’ve ever participated in. I embraced every hill, took in the amazing views and loved every single step.

Last Sunday G and I lined up again for what would hopefully be my seventh Beachy Head marathon finish. After nailing six finishes quite comfortably, the seventh has been a challenge.  For the last three years, illness, injury and plain old lack of bravado has meant we’ve transferred our marathon entries to the 10k. So, in truth, even starting at the start line donning a marathon number was a win.

We had no goal other than to enjoy ourselves and run for as long as we could. We were delighted to get to tea and buns at Mile 17 before getting the bus home. Although I was disappointed not to get to the end, this race is not the most important battle right now. Next year when we return for their 40th anniversary, we’ll get the job done.

My Beachy Head marathon 2012 experience always comes to mind when I line up at the start line of any race. A positive affirmation that even the hardest race can feel easy, depending on perspective and goal. That whole experience marries up quite nicely with the views of Matt Fitzgerald in his book, ‘How bad do you want it – mastering the psychology of mind over muscle’. In which he argues, that ease of perceived exertion is very strongly linked to success. Especially when athletes perform at a level higher than thought possible for their physiology.

We’re now a quarter of the way into the training. Most traditional Ironman training plans start around 30 weeks out. After a great 10 week training base, things are starting to feel easier and with that, we’re winning the war if not each individual battle. With 30 weeks to go, the real hard work starts now.

Training journal | week 10 + 11/41 | tenacious illness

Oh golly these last two weeks have been bloody frustrating. I’ve been hampered by a cold/breathing problems that just Will. Not. Go. Away.

This week is a story of glimpses of exhilaration and reasonable performance in between the lurgy.

Week 10 started off at a fair kilter. Recovery runs and rides to shake out the legs after the excitement of the week before. Jubilation was short lived as a fever and general feeling of meh hit Tuesday.

I shuffled sessions around to buy some recovery time then hit the garage for the brick ride/run on the Wednesday. After just 5 minutes on the bike I was heaving and sweating like a good ‘un. The only problem being my HR was languishing in Zone 1. I worked my ass off to try and get into the prescribed session, which I managed… just before giving up the brick run as a bad job. Calling it a day, I showered and headed to bed to try and get some recovery.

The rest of the week became an unscheduled rest break in the effort to get better. Nights were sweat fests and even more disconcerting, I’d developed what could only be described as a death rattle, loud enough to keep me awake and I’m sure, hampered any recovery. 

Feeling mildly better on Saturday we headed over to Woolacombe for a weekly dose of #Vitaminsea. I swear, I’m addicted to the place. The purpose of the trip was twofold. Firstly, to get in my scheduled long slow run (Beachy head marathon is looming people) and secondly, try out my new cheat sticks AKA hiking poles. (After literally years of envying walkers with cheat sticks at Beachy Head, I have finally succumbed – I don’t feel the least bit bad about it either).

Every week, G and I turn up at parkrun and try to convince ourselves and each other we are going to take it easy. We all know how that pans out right? Well this week, it was imperative that I did. I didn’t want to make myself worse. So, despite the almost perfect conditions, I walked sections I’d normally push through. I took scheduled walk breaks on the sand and resisted the urge to push on the last mile uphill sections. 

The result was really quite surprising, I finished in my second quickest time ever. Comfortably smashing my old PB that I’d been trying to beat for months. Testament to an improvement in fitness – woohoo, I’ll take that.

Once through the finish line procedure, G and I headed back to the car to pick up some water and my hiking poles and off we headed to Morte Point to carry on the run/walk. The poles were great and I’m looking forward to using them in anger.

The following day we headed back to the garage for another turbo set. I was struggling to breathe again and worked for every damn minute of the session before spending the rest of the day on the couch. Monday’s speed work was aborted. I was gutted. I (ahem) love 400m reps but couldn’t even catch my breath for at least 10 minutes after just one rep.

Tuesday was a rest day and then Wednesday, for the swim we had planned something special.

On arrival at Bude sea pool

Westward Ho! open water swimming group, in collaboration with Bude Open Water Swimmers (BOWS), had planned a night swim over at Bude sea pool. It was scheduled for 6.30pm kick off, just as it was getting dark but before high tide, due around 8pm. Although only around 35 miles away, Bude is a good hours drive and so G and I set off early to get there and make our introductions before getting in the water. 

We were there early and rather than wait, made out way to the agreed meeting point near the huts above the pool. I was really quite alarmed that the sea at this point was already smashing over the wall of the sea pool and that sea was really very rough. A lady saw us and waved us into the rather large concrete hut. She explained the spring tide was much bigger than expected and if we were to get in we needed to go now. Even if just for a bob around.

With the promised of tea after, we stripped off to swimming costumes and with no time to get into wetsuits, ran down the steps and eased ourselves into the water. It was cold but much warmer than I was expecting. The edges of the pool were indistinct. Big waves were rolling in off the sea and we were shunted and pushed about by the increase swell. We swam a little front crawl but mostly just tried to ride the buffeting. 

After about 10 minutes, I was scared I wouldn’t be able to get out and instead would get swept out to sea. G and I made our way back to the steps, sometimes using the buoys (there as permanent ‘lane markers’ in the ‘quiet’ part of the pool) to pull myself along. Being careful not to get decapitated by them as the waves pushed and pulled.

We clambered out and walked up the steps to hot tea and chatter. It was a marvellous experience and worth the long drive for 15 minutes of sea therapy. 

Inevitably the fever and general feeling of being unwell returned on Thursday and once again, I shuffled sessions to take advantage of a scheduled rest day, bringing it forward.

We headed back to Woolacombe on Saturday for our long slow run. The forecast was wet, consolidating what has been a very wet week. We drove through some very heavy rain but fortunately managed to dodge the rain at the other end.

Instead of getting up early, G and I had succumbed to tea in bed and so there was no time for a quick half hour warm up before parkrun. We lined up for park run, a diminished field this week, and set off.

The first kilometre went quickly. I was at the back, the last of the runners, trying to take it easy and still keep up with the rear of the field. This time the sand was really soft, the easier conditions of late gone. The beach became a trudge with lots of walking. But, I was managing to keep my heart rate under control. This was new territory for these conditions. Even up the dune and the steady climb back to the finish. It was all just a bit easier.

In the end I clocked my third faster time over the course. But this one I was most happy with, as it had been an honest course. I’m more confident that despite feeling rubbish, the improvement in fitness is now measurable and tangible.

G and I garnered our breath then turned around to complete the course in the opposite direction. A different perspective is never a bad thing.

At time of writing, the death rattle and coughing are still unwelcome visitors. But hopefully, with an easier week this week, recovery will be strong in time for Beachy Head on Saturday.

Training journal | week 9/41 | breakthrough week

I came back to running in my late 20’s when I decided to join the police service and needed to prepare for the fitness test. After a few miserable weeks (where I insisted on channelled Paula Radcliffe for the first 100m – until I collapsed in a heap of heaving sweat), I learned the importance of pacing and fell back in love with it.

For the first few years I ran mostly on my own, until I landed a job in the training unit at Gypsy Hill police station in Lambeth. There I agreed to go out running with the wife of a colleague, who was returning to running after having a baby. After the first few runs where we constantly discussed pace (too fast, too slow?) We settled into a rhythm, improved and then joined the local running club.

During that time we established regular routes of varying lengths. In those days I lived in Sutton, a mostly uninspiring place to run and so I would travel to Ashtead to run on the common and the Surrey Hills to run in places my partner was more familiar with. As we tracked out our runs, invariably we would reach a fork in the path and she would ask, shall we take the easy or the hard path. I would always choose the hard path.

It wasn’t until some time later I realised a) that’s what we always did and b) taking the easy path was even an option. I figured that if you went long or hilly (the definition of hard in this example) there would always be more of a benefit later. ‘Hills are friends’ was a mantra long before I met the pirates and was introduced to the rules of training. Choosing the ‘easy’ path was never really an option.

These days, I find myself constantly choosing the easier option and wondering what happened to that fearless girl.

It came to a head a couple of weeks ago when I said here I didn’t believe the task I had set myself was achievable. Quite rightly that comment was questioned and I’m grateful to you all for doing so. I’ve spent the last week or so prodding, poking and analysing strategies to turn it around.

I’m currently following a training plan set by my coach, Jon from 4 Performance. It takes quite a lot of the decision making out of the training and provide accountability for any choices I do make. It also provides a ‘why’ for each session, something I’ve started to observe with more clarity. Understanding what the session is trying to achieve helps to piece together the bigger picture. Each session achieved also helps to build confidence in the end result. I guess the difficulty is that sometimes, the increments are so small, at first it’s difficult to see any progress.

So, this week has been one of those breakthrough weeks where progress has become a little more tangible. I felt it in my recovery run during the week. It’s hard to describe but it is there in the ease in breathing, the ability to vary pace ever so slightly, the ability to hold better posture.

The positivity was derailed slightly when I woke up Thursday feeling rotten and woolly headed, a dreaded cold. I took an impromptu rest day and shifted the sessions to Friday instead, which did have the effect of loading the weekend somewhat. But on Friday I felt a lot better, settled the swim session without drama and then after work headed to the garage for a loaded session on the turbo.

I could feel the session in my legs on Saturday morning, when I headed out for a long run. This session was split into three. An initial warm up along the undulating South West Coast Path out and back to Woolacombe before doing the parkrun then turning round and headed back down to the beach to Woolacombe Village to finish the session.

My legs felt strong on the downhill sections but on the up, golly they were leaden. Half an hour later, we were lining up to a much depleted parkrun turn out this week, despite being bolstered by around three quarters by tourists. They including the local running club from Ilfracoombe who had come to ‘take over’ the marshalling for the day. I’d already made my mind up to take it steady, conscious of a weights session scheduled later and bike ride the following day.

After a week of stormy weather, it became apparent that Woolacombe becomes an ‘easier’ course in the winter. The storm winds had blown quite a lot of the fine sand from the paths, leaving sand that was firmer and more compact underneath. It made for easier running through the undulating first mile before dropping onto the beach for the flattish section. This was also quite firm and pleasant to run on. I plodded along, trying to keep my heart rate under control, in preparation for the climb up the sand dune. Soon enough, I got there in good condition and in reasonable time, a PB was potentially on.

Ignoring my screaming quads, I heaved myself up and forced myself to ‘run’ some of the bits I would normally walk. We could have had a good debate about whether my run was actually a jog or even faster than regular walking but it didn’t matter. For once I had chosen the difficult path and since matching my PB a couple of weeks before, I knew every second counted. My breathing and heart rate went stratospheric. I carefully focussed on relaxing and trying to get both under control while trying to make progress. All the while dealing with voices in my head trying to chip in with their own views.

‘ This is NOT a good idea’, they said, ‘you’ve got weight training later and you agreed to take it easy’. I tried to counter with ‘I can postpone it to Sunday or do it with lighter weights’. But they would not be quiet until, with exasperation, I shouted ‘Now is NOT the time to have this discussion’. Thank God there was no one around me to hear, but it did the job and after that, all I could hear was my laboured breathing.

The route climbs pretty much all the way from the sand dune. It was with relief I got to the top of the made road and turned left for the final climb back to the finish. I didn’t dare look at my watch but instead focussed on watching the finish come into view around the bend and my slowing pace as the course kicked up one final time. I was definitely running out of steam.

I stopped my watch on crossing the line and then looked down. I’d smashed my personal best by over a minute and a half.

I took a few moments to scan my barcode, gather my breath and my husband who’d also ran a fabulous time. Then, we turned around to head back down the hill to complete the session.