London Marathon 2005

I’m reading a book by Rob Macfarlane called ‘The Old Ways’. It’s a book about journeys on foot, essentially an exploration of walking both physically and metaphorically. Macfarlane is passionately interested in place, the use of space by humans and their interaction with the environment. He is also interested in ghosts, not in the traditional haunting sense but rather as companions on our own journeys. Old wayfarers travelling old pathways. Somehow we have an awareness of those who have walked the path before us.

As well as the ability to recall metaphysical travellers, in The Old Ways, Macfarlane argues we can take those landscapes with us; ‘we tend to think of landscapes as affecting us most strongly when we are in them or on them, when they offer us the primary sensations of touch and sight. But there are also the landscapes we bear with us in absentia, those places that live on in the memory long after they have withdrawn from actuality, and such places – retreated to most often when we are most remote from them – are among the most important landscapes we possess’.

I’ve long suspected both to be true. Many times over the years I have felt companionship while travelling paths alone, both urban and rural. Companionship that is ethereal not animal or vegetable and in some of my loneliest times, has been a source of comfort to me.

I also love to recall routes of runs I have done. They create a backdrop to my conceptualised happy place, (the dentist is never quite so scary when I can recreate the London Marathon in my head). I can while away hours, travelling virtually while on lockdown. And the mind is so clever, I can recreate emotions, smells, sights and other events happening in life at the time of running the event.

I started running with my father when I was small, it has been a faithful companion ever since. I’ve not always run regularly but I’ve always held the possibility of it in my heart. I picked it up again after I moved to London and wanted to train for the Metropolitan Police fitness test and then gradually increased distance. It was through work I learned of the local race circuit that existed in both running and triathlon.

In those days, before Ironman gained the popularity it has in recent times, running a marathon was the pinnacle of sporting prowess for the ‘average’ person. The London Marathon application process was still via ballot, but instead of online, a paper application needed to be completed and posted to Marathon HQ in London, then the long wait began.

London Marathon cashed the accompanying cheque before notification. So, instead of waiting for the magazine announcing the result to arrive, you could tell by checking whether your cheque had been cashed. My bank statement arrived the same day my friend rang to see if I had heard anything. I sat on the floor with phone wedged between ear and neck while I opened it. I saw it immediately, the line on the statement showing a cheque for £23 had been cashed.

I laughed and threw a few ‘Oh fucks’ to the sky, I was in.

The lead up to the first marathon is dominated by uncertainty. At that point, you genuinely don’t know whether your body can withstand being dragged around 26.2 miles. It turns out, that actually the dragging (as such) is not the hard part. The difficulty rests in having a reason to do so knowing it’s going to hurt. But in those days I was still naive so I downloaded a training plan from Runnersworld and followed it pretty much to the letter. (It’s the only time have ever really done so – but that’s another story for another day).

Running the marathon is much more of a mental than physical feat. When hosting my marathon training seminars, even now, I always start by telling the audience if they had to run a marathon the following day, they could. Sure, it would hurt, and they wouldn’t necessarily achieve their best performance and almost certainly would struggle to get out of bed the following day. But the key point was they COULD.

All they would need is a good enough reason to do it. So the training is about making the run more enjoyable and getting out of bed the next day a less exciting and painful experience. I would advise them to make sure they knew why they were doing it. The ‘why’ is the most important part of the whole bloody thing.

In truth, before the race I couldn’t have answered the why with any real altruistic reason. In the year or two before I had ridden John O’Groats to Lands End before running my first half marathon in the New Forest the weekend after. I ran too fast in the first half and so struggled over the last three miles but it didn’t feel terribly difficult. So, I felt enticed by the challenge of the marathon, the thought of which scared me.

The training went ok actually. I did most of the prescribed runs, even during a trip to New Zealand over the Christmas period. I was lucky enough to be working in Kennington in London at the time and took advantage of being able to run on a significant portion of the last four miles of the course.

I was starting from the blue pen, my conservative finish time putting me into pen eight of nine. One of the first things that strikes you when entering the start area is the energy. A latent flow with the potential to be either nerves or excitement depending on your interpretation.

There is an immediate sense of having a common goal. But instead of competitive it is supportive. As though the energy regardless of its original intent, is being concentrated on a specific direction (from start to finish) and is as powerful as a tsunami.

Other marathons have a similar feel, but none is so explicit as London. I suppose this is partly due to the narrow streets of London concentrating the flow of the runners and bringing supporters into close proximity. It is a life affirming place to be.

The first few miles from Blackheath were dominated by a sense of the mundane, expressed in the street furniture, the road humps, signs for schools and zebra crossings. I felt the domesticity of the place and felt out of sorts, a blot on the landscape.

The urban environment surprised me. One comes to assume the route is a plethora of landmarks. In fact the first 12 miles are made up of a cacophony of residential streets, car parks and high streets in the less salubrious parts of London, broken up by a fleeting view of the Cutty Sark in Greenwich.

I was extraordinarily excited to hit Tooley Street at the twelve mile mark. It was the first time I knew where I was and my own mind map kicked in with ghosts of my past visits.

Those were in the days before an upgraded London Bridge Station, drinking extortionately priced wine in Hays Galleria in the early nineties and earlier still, visiting the London Dungeon before it moved to the Southbank.

The eagled eyed among you will notice the sponsorship banners from Virgin. This photo was actually taken in 2013.

Of course, we didn’t get as far as London Bridge as the route turns right off Tooley Street and onto Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, iconic and undoubtedly recognisable. Once off the bridge the route turns right again and onto the Highway, the out and back section leading to the docklands, Isle of Docks and the city.

I was fascinated to get to this part as it was an area of London I had barely explored. People often describe the Isle of Dogs as a difficult part of the run, as then it was devoid of supporters (that’s not the case today, the route is wall to wall spectators from start to finish).

Personally, I loved it. After the sensory overload of the previous miles, the quiet was welcome and provided a pause, time to regroup and refocus. There was no doubt it was starting to hurt now.

In later marathons, I have always thought that if you can get to half way in a reasonable condition then the finish is in the bag. But in this run, I set my ‘get to’ distance at 16 miles, figuring beyond that I was in single figures and could walk it if required.

Once out of the Isle of Dogs, the route meanders into Canary Wharf. Tall buildings and lots of turns, it was really difficult to get a sense of of where I was. Lots of people have since reported a similar experience.

I don’t remember much about the first time through here, other than a sense of weekday workers streaming in and out of the buildings. They were represented in my mind as a blur of colour around the building entrances. It felt frantic and claustrophobic and I was very relieved to get out.

The last four miles of the London Marathon is a showcase of iconic skylines. Once off the highway, the route passes the Tower of London for the second time and then hugs the river along the north bank along the embankment towards Big Ben.

I was exhausted but supremely excited. I knew where I was, I had trained on these streets. I had walked and cycled along these roads a hundred times and they felt like old friends. It was here I felt the pull of the finish. Like a magnet strong, powerful and impossible to ignore. Despite my fatigue and drawing energy from the crowd lining either side of the road, I picked up the pace.

Just before Big Ben and the turn right across Parliament Square to Birdcage Walk, I bumped into a colleague from work. Strangely, in subsequent years I was to bump into him in practically the same spot twice more. It happened so often, I would wonder whether it was a coincidence or he was stalking me or indeed, I was seeing a repetition of our first meeting in my mind. We exchanged a few words and then I lost him in the crowd.

I read prolifically in the run up to the marathon. I tried to absorb as much information as I could and in the end, there was only one piece I retained sufficiently to use. It came to me in Birdcage Walk as I mentally prepared to run across the front of Buckingham Palace to the finish. The advice, was to ensure you check around you in the final minutes to make sure a bloke in a rhino suit wasn’t preparing to sprint past and ruin your photo. I had heard horrendous stories involving wombles, bananas, fridges and several groups carrying boats. I did not want to be a statistic!

So, I glanced over my right shoulder and to my eternal horror, saw the grim reaper with full scythe looming just beyond. Whether this was an omen or just fancy dress can not be determined. But I refused to accept being beaten by either. So I put my head down and sprinted for home, ruining forever the first ‘glory hands aloft as I cross the finish line’ shot.

The medal and post run comedy walk were not my only mementos of the event. A few days after the pain subsided, I was left with a budding passion for ‘going long’ and a feeling that soon my life was to change forever as a result of it.

Flora were the sponsors that year. Their ‘thank you’ advert featured an exhausted runner, lying on the grass under a tree. His shoes had been taken off and discarded next to him. The caption read ‘your heart loves you but your feet think you’re an idiot’ and that pretty much summed up what it was like to run my first marathon.

Training journal | Week 25| The Eden Project

Exploring new spaces was one of the goals G and I set ourselves at the start of the year. We’re relatively new to Devon and still laying down favourite paths and mapping out new routes. So, the pinnacle of this weeks training would be a trip to the Eden Project near St Ausell in Cornwall. The site, originally a china clay quarry was developed over the end of the last Millenium and opened in 2001. Designed as a charity and social enterprise with its feet firmly in the environment, it opened to great acclaim. I had been desperate to visit it for years.

But first, at the start of another week to excel, I had training to do. I had missed a running session the previous week and started the week with good intentions to nudge the session to the rest day on Monday. I’m sure it’s not the best way to plan training (my plan, certainly not Jon’s) and I’m sure I’ve read that Fink would advise to let the session go. In any respect it was a moot point. I was still sore from the previous weeks efforts and couldn’t bring myself to get dressed, never mind complete a session. Tuesday we were back in the pool and still trying to find the best time to go. We opted for after work – G met me there and we were delighted to find a rather empty pool.

It was an unstructured hour swim, my favourite! For some reason I could not get my arms and legs to work in rhythm, so it ended up being rather a slog. I was happy to get it done nonetheless. It’s no secret that I’m desperate to get in the sea. Open water is much more refreshing and invigorating. And therefore more satisfying. But as Hollywood pointed out, I may be waiting a while for it to warm it!

The weather in the first part of the week was gorgeous and I was a little envious of people posting outdoor training sessions while I was looking at the sunshine from my desk. I snuck outdoors for a weights session during the week which I loved. I love the freedom of riding my bike or exploring new places on foot but nothing generates exhilaration than lifting heavy weights over my head. But, it was with some relief I headed outdoors for a rescheduled run and first of the week on Thursday.

It was only forty five minutes long, so not enough to head for trail on the South West Coast path (at least not the bits that are still firm enough to make progress on). So I opted for a gentle loop around the peninsula through Appledore and back up the hill to Northam. It was one of those runs! The good ones where you felt liberated and like you could run forever. I was aware of fresh air and space around me. I felt like I could finally breathe deeply. Which is rather fortuitous considering what I was doing! After being cooped up all week, it was delicious.

On Saturday I woke just before the alarm with a sense of excitement not normally experienced by this 47 year old. We were off to Eden. G and I got dressed, filled the travel mugs with coffee, picked up packed bags and headed off on the two hour journey into Cornwall.

It was dark and at times foggy. Despite that, we made good progress, not hampered by too much traffic on the roads and arrived just after 8am. My scheduled run was longer than the time it would take to do parkrun so I headed out on one of the cycle trails into the hills behind the park. The trail was (ahem) undulating and would have made for a very exciting ride. But for running it was perfect.

The trail climbed steadily over a variety of surfaces. Occasionally swinging sharp left or right through a gate until I was properly up and away from Eden. I plodded steadily, feeling the effort of yesterdays run in tired thighs. I was keen not to get lost, so stuck to the path and planned an ‘out and back’. The up was more up than I thought and so I made much better progress on the way back, falling short of the extra half an hour by five minutes or so.

Even so, I reached the new runners briefing just as they finished (some would say perfect timing) and looped round the car park a couple of times to try and makeup the lost time.

As you would expect, the run attracts a lot of tourists and I estimated numbers of around 300. The start was a gentle climb out of the car park, over the lip and down what I assume is a service road into the park proper. It offered an unencumbered view of the whole site. And it was exactly how I had imagined with steep sides, geometric biomes mushrooming out of the ground and lots of structured areas for planting. My legs felt tired but strong enough not to collapse under me so I pushed the pace slightly down the hill. I made up a reasonable amount of ground and despite starting at the back, I was certainly not last as we entered the park.

The route was described as two and a half laps of the venue. It became clear that this was actually almost three. It was wonderful seeing runners looped around all of the paths and I stopped a couple of times to take photos and just take it all in. Then to the business of running. I was surprised, that despite the loops the climbs were relatively short and steep and the descents were long and steady. A much faster course than I had originally imagined. The course was narrow in places and once the faster runners started to lap back markers, it got a tad congested. Here I was happy enough plodding along and looking at all of the plants until the paths opened up again and I was able to push on.

G was back running after a persistent knee problem. Taking it easy but still faster than my efforts. At times he was walking faster than I was running! But despite this, we finished together strongly and I was overjoyed with a time of just a smidge over 36 minutes.

We popped for a quick coffee before heading back up to the car to get changed. Then headed back to the project for a good look around.

I paid for the effort and particularly the downhill the day after. My quads keep locking and I couldn’t bend my leg . Not really conducive to a two hour cycle so I opted for a gentle walk to aid recovery and start getting things moving again. Not he perfect end to the week but a week where I feel like I’ve made progress nonetheless.

Training journal | week 13 | Bideford 10

The picture above sums up my feelings entirely on crossing the finish line at the Bideford 10 last Sunday. Tired, slightly red of cheek and supremely happy.

This weeks training has gone well. With little time allocated to ‘recovery’, it was business as usual in the early part of the week. On Wednesday I decided to mix it up with the weights. I’ve been doing the same routine for the last few weeks so a change was due.

Out went my much loved and traditional powerlifting routine and in came a more ‘core’ focused routine. The new set was based on a routine I used to do with PT Pete. It yields tremendous results in improved strength and posture – something that I felt was lacking in the later stages at Beachy Head last week. As well as clean and press, it incorporates squats, lunges and the dreaded ab wheel.

I finished the session a quivering wreck, even sticking to light weights.

Oh crumbs.

It’s one thing for your PT to give you DOMS but another altogether to inflict it on yourself.

A steady turbo consolidated the effort and left me slightly broken going into an easy run the next day. I was clearly looking a bit rough as I was approached by a lady on route who flagged me down to ask if I was completing ‘couch to 5k’. That was a boost to the confidence and I called it a day soon after.

I’m still struggling with feeling rough, temperature control and a recurring problem that involves not being able to swallow either food or drink. Friday saw a trip to the doctors to have some tests to rule out anything sinister. I’m still awaiting results but in the meantime I’ve been told no swimming, gentle run/walking and cycling only and live every day life in moderation.

Training journal | weeks 14 and 15 | Drogo 10

Since Beachy Head the weather has turned colder and much more unpredictable. It’s impossible to know what to wear. I’ve spent lots of time either freezing or boiling.

I’ve got wet. A lot.

My new running shoes unveiled a few weeks ago have never come back from a session dry. They’ve enjoyed more newspaper in the last few weeks than I have the entire year. Frankly, I’m getting a little weary of rain.

Happily, G and I enjoyed a break in training and weather to head north to Ayr to see our wonderful friends Lee and Penny. All three are Scorpios and celebrate birthdays within a few days of each other. As a result, it had become a bit of a tradition to get together for a birthday dinner. Since Pen was celebrating a special birthday, it was a priority to get a chance to celebrate.

We drove to Ayr on Friday with plans for a weekend stopover before heading to the Lakes for a couple of nights to extend the weekend into a proper break.

I didn’t have access to a bike or pool while up north, but could still run. So on the Saturday we headed to Ayr parkrun for a little fresh air and exercise. The park was quite close to Lee’s residence, so we ran up and met the ladies there. The parkrun was beautiful. Wooded and undulating enough to make it interesting on made paths and woodland trails covered in leaves and littered with roots. It was vibrant with the aroma of decaying leaf mulch and vegetation. Deliciously earthly and a pleasure to run through.

It was a lot more technical that we were expecting. As a result, we were a lot slower than we expected. The times, not much off what we would run at Woolacombe. I tried not to be disappointed and just relish the chance to run somewhere different.

The lakes are hiking country and we had come prepared to spend a day outdoors exploring the terrain surrounding our B&B. We had deliberately chosen somewhere slightly off the beaten track for that reason. The inevitable rain was tempestuous but waiting for it to blow over was futile. So, we dressed in waterproofs and headed out to make the best of it.

To the rear of our accommodation was a byway heading steeply uphill to a tarn signposted about two miles away. That was our first destination.

We huffed and puffed our way up the hill. The wind was now howling and the rain driving and we pulled down hoods to protect our eyes from the weather. We met a farmer on a quad bike coming downhill towards us. He muttered something that we didn’t quite catch but could have been ‘you’ll get wet feet if you carry on’. As the weather howled around us those words developed via our own personal Chinese whispers into ‘you’ll die if you carry on this path’.

This was the somewhat dispelled when we bumped into a family coming down the hill with two children who could not have been more then two years old and toddling down the hill quite happily and certainly unmoved but the worsening weather. What a reality check!

We laughed at our own folly and carried on until we reached Hawkshead, where we enjoyed a hot coffee and a drip dry in the local cafe.

Later that week I travelled to Surrey for work. It presented an opportunity to head to the relatively new leisure centre for a swim. It was really impressive. Deliciously cool and quiet. I had a lane to myself for 15 minutes before another swimmer got in. I loved it. Definitely the best swimming experience for quite some time.

After a couple of days in Surrey and a very sleepless night in the van due to the cold, I arrived home feeling a little jaded around the edges. But there was no time for tiredness, as a race I was really looking forward to was finally here.

The Drogo 10 is a hilly, off road ten miler hosted by the National Trust at Castle Drogo in Drewsteignton, South Devon. It’s organised by South West Road Runners, strangely as there is barely a stitch of road in the whole thing.

The race director in the briefing promised mud and hills, beautiful trail routes and flat bits along by the river. This race was right up our street. We did the usual registration admin and then lined up in our usual spot at the back ready to go.

With absolutely no idea what was coming, I decided to start conservatively. The first few hundred metres were up the gently sloping (upwards) drive. We then forked right and onto a narrow trail through the woods. The trail led to some traditionally national trust steps (think uneven and muddy) before turning right back onto a trail that traversed the ridge at the top of the gorge. The picture at the top, shows the view from the bottom of the steps.

I knew we headed down the gorge to the bottom because the course description mentioned running alongside the river below. The path down was gentle in gradient but hard on the feet as the path was covered in loose flint and other stones. It was narrow in places and I was astonished at how much progress the leaders were making as we watched them descend.

The gap between ourselves and the rest of the field grew very quickly. At this point I didn’t panic, as a few of the back markers often start too quickly and we catch them in the later stages. Sure enough, as we reached a narrow bridge over the river leading to a stone stile, a queue of runners were waiting patiently to cross.

Over we went, then turned left down a rutted unmade road. Once again the field moved away, easily putting in distance between us.

We never saw them again.

The path in front was undulating – in the true sense of the word. My legs screamed on the uphills. Even though they were gentle in comparison with what was to come. In fact, this section of the route is described as flat. Although in Devon we’re quickly learning the concept of flat is ‘relative’.

Eventually we reached the water station. I tried to sound perky but the truth was, I was struggling. This was despite the romps around the Devon coast and our trip to Beachy Head a couple of weeks ago.

Once we left the water station the route turned right and steeply uphill. I struggled. I had to keep stopping. I couldn’t breath and started to panic. Then I started to cry. I just felt so dreadful. G was so patient and kind, with nice encouraging words and no judgment at all.

I debated turning back. I was rendered inert by panicking about being last and the gap that was inevitably growing. I worried about the poor marshals stood waiting for us. I worried about the judgment those marshals would inevitably throw at me. ‘What was she thinking doing a race like this’. I worried about the burden of Ironman Lanzarote. I wondered what I was thinking.

And then I pulled myself together and formed a plan. If, when we got back to the water station we were indeed last, we would formally withdraw from the race and find our own way back (I had an OS Map on me).

The route climbed and dropped for the next few miles. The NT were in the process of tree management in the area (although no work was happening at that point). The works gave me the feeling of being in the middle of a sawmill. Piles of logs everywhere.

It felt remote, stunning and normally I would have loved every second of it. But at least now I was less miserable. Although still shaking and weak, my legs were strong enough to trot down the hills.

We made progress and eventually, after eight miles we returned to the water station again. Enquiries revealed that in fact we were not last, there was one chap behind us. It felt churlish to remove numbers and ourselves from the race at this point. Especially after the marshals had waited so patiently for us. So, we carried on.

The next mile was a brutal climb on a narrow path which led back to the top of the gorge. I had to resort to counting steps to keep going. Taking frequent rest breaks to get my breath back. The views were stunning. Enough to lift your heart for a week. We crawled up and enjoyed the views and chatted to those coming down towards us. Until, we were back at the bottom of the original steps once again and Castle Drogo was in view, just over the crest.

We crossed the (now dismantled) finish line. Very relieved it was over but vowing to come back the following year and give it some justice.

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.

Woolacombe revisited

A couple of weeks ago, I told you I had shelved the idea of trying to better my time at Woolacombe parkrun and volunteered to be tail walker instead. That way, I could contribute a little and still get some quality activity in. I’d been dabbling with the idea of adopting the Maffatone method to help improve my running anyway. So, I would carry on wearing the heart rate monitor to register effect. Even without it, I was certain it would still be a work out.

I turned up the following week, slightly apprehensive but looking forward to a different challenge.  It was overcast and humid as we waited for the start.  I donned my fluorescent bib and took up a place at the back of the pack and introduced myself to my fellow sweeper ‘Chris’.  It turned out Chris and I had a lot in common.  Interest in multiple sports, an extensive history in running and a previous life in Surrey.  He had even run the Tempest 10 at Dunsfold back in the day.

As we stood there, I overheard a couple of ladies chatting. This would be the first parkrun for one of them and she intended to walk the whole way.  ‘Whoop’ I thought.  There’s nothing more demoralising than sweeping and not being able to keep up with the back runner.  So, hopefully all would be good there.  

Five minutes later I realised there was something more demoralising than sweeping and not being able to keep up with the back runner. Our newbie walkers were so quick, we had to run to keep up with them. At least Chris salvaged a bit of my dignity by having to run too. These ladies were fast – and worse, consistent no matter what the terrain. So where I would normally gain on the downs and have to work harder on the ups. Here, I lost all my advantage on the downhills and had to work even harder to keep up with them on the dunes.

I didn’t need my heart rate monitor to tell me what my heart was doing.  I could hear it thudding in my ears! Fortunately, it had rained a lot during the week and the sand was hard packed for most of the route.  Ironically, it made it much faster and I almost regretted my decision to sweep. But volunteering is a pretty cool thing to do and I was enjoying myself. Although I did manage to set a strava PB on the dune, how I laughed.

Once we had got beyond the big dune, we started to pick up dismissed marshals. They joined us to walk back to the finish. We fell into conversation naturally as we walked. About running and parkrun and our various experiences, including the course we were now walking.

‘Of course’, he said as we made our way up the final dune back to the road, ‘you know the attraction of this one?’ I said yes, hills are friends and yadda, yadda, yadda. ‘More than that’ he said, as his eyes gleamed with mischief, ‘this course suits no one’.

He asked me to think about it in the context of a 5k specialist, fell runner, road runner, hill specialist. Because of the medium (mostly sand which changed week by week) and the percentage of hills and flat, the profile truly suited no one. He also told me that when we first started running the parkrun, he ran to be competitive. For the first three weeks as he learned the course he improved his time slightly, then started to get slower and slower. Often up to a minute behind his PB. And that was the beauty of this course. You can’t beat it, but you can learn a lot about yourself. He also said that comparing times to monitor improvement should be done over months, not week by week as I had been. And suddenly I felt much better.

When I got back, I volunteered to sweep again the following week. It was only fair having made a commitment to myself to volunteer for the next few weeks and anyway, I enjoyed it. But in some respects, it was job done. I was looking forward to getting back on the dunes in anger, and I knew next time I would be kinder to myself.

Ironman Austria – the supporters view

It’s widely acknowledge that when you don’t succeed at your first attempt, it takes guts to go back to the start and try again. But what about if you have a recent history that’s littered with non starts or starts that don’t result in a desired outcome?

In essence, that was the view G faced when he lined up at Ironman Austria in Klagenfurt a couple of weeks ago. G has already written about his endeavours here and so I’m not about to tell his story other than, in the interest of spoilers, the picture above shows the happy outcome of this attempt. I guess it’s just nice to put something down for posterity for when we’re old and reduced to racing bath chairs instead.

G signed up for Ironman Austria the Monday after the event last year. His failure to finish due to going off course burned bright and after a heart felt chat he decided to give it one more go. Once he’d entered, our friend Lee decided she would come back to support too. Klagenfurt is so beautiful, you can’t help but fall in love with it (and Lee was determined to upgrade rooms to experience the coffee machine and umbrellas we’d all been raving about 😂).

Ironman is hard and I felt for G. When I was training for my first attempt at Ironman Switzerland in 2009, a friend of mine, on his return from Nice a couple of weeks, before, burst into the shop and said ‘prepare for the possibility that you might fail’. It was almost laughable at the time. I had considered the possibility many times. But hidden underneath the self doubt was a glimmer of something stronger, hope that I was tough enough to get through it. My friend, the ultra runner it seems had not considered failure may be an option. It had come to him half way up the mountain climb on the cycle leg.

Plenty before and after had not finished their events either. I figured that was kind of the point of Ironman. Not the guarantee of success rather the possibility of failure. It was my motivation anyhow. But no matter how determined you are, you also require a dose of luck. And in previous attempts, G had been short of luck.

G and I were celebrating our first wedding anniversary just before heading out to Klagenfurt. We managed to squeeze in a couple of nights in Vienna before making our way over. It was beautiful, and a real highlight was swimming in the Danube launching ourselves, from one of the purpose built pontoons on the river.

Eventually, we made our way by train and bus to the Plattenwirt, our usual resting place for race week and fell into a routine, while we counted down days until the race.

On race morning, once we’d completed the domestic duties we headed over to the race start slightly earlier than normal. The race had dispensed with the mass and wave starts of the previous year and now operated a rolling start of athletes drip fed into the Worthersee.

In an attempt to given himself plenty of time at the interim bike cut off (where he had fallen foul at Hamburg, when the swim start had taken much longer than they had forecast) G decided to start further up the self seeding field. As he made his way, Lee and I took up residency on one of the piers and waited the start of the pro field. They use a cannon to announce the start, and although I know it’s coming, it really makes me jump. It’s really loud. Lee laughed so hard, three times the bloody thing got me.

Even seeding higher up the field, it still took G over 30 minutes to get in the water. Once safely in we headed back to the hotel from breakfast.

We then headed down to the swim exit and waited for G. He had predicted a time of 1.45. It came and went and nothing. But no surprises there. After days of speculation, the swim had formally been announced as no wetsuit at the race briefing. 1.50 came and went, 1.55 and then I started to worry. Nothing at 2 hours and then finally, a few minutes later he popped up at the other side of the bridge and ran towards us. It was tight but he had time if he got a shufty on. He shook his head while Lee and I screamed at him to get going. Which happily with T1 taking 7 minutes and shrapnel, he did. As he headed back towards us, this time on his bike, he had his game face on.

It was a new bike course for 2019 and would head back past the hotel at around 54 miles. Until then, the tracker watching started in earnest. Lee and I headed back to the hotel and discussed whether it for too early for alcohol.

We cheered as G crossed each timing mat and it registered his time and pace. Most importantly, the tracker also predicted finish time based on average speed. It was gratifying to show G comfortably under the interim cut off and with an hour in hand of the final T2 time. We headed out to cheer again when he came back past the hotel. He looked comfortable and was still wearing his game face as he headed out on the more familiar southern loop.

We returned back to the bar, relieved to get out of the hot sun. It was humid as well as hot and it would be tough for the athletes out there. We knew G would probably lose some time against the tracker prediction as he hit the hills early in that loop. But he would definitely gain in the later stages as the last 10 miles or so, I knew from experience, were a fast descent into T2.

Storms had been forecast for early in the afternoon. As the first of the runners started to come past the hotel, Lee and I watched in dismay as clouds started to build in the mountains to the east. The hotel was suddenly swamped with people, many of whom had been in the finish area, which had been evacuated for safety because of the suspected high winds. The first rumble of thunder growled from the dark clouds on the horizon. The crescendo built until around 10 minutes later we were consumed by the storm.

Poor G, out in the mountains, the clock ticking and no protection from the storm. We had no way of knowing where he had got to, or whether there was any shelter. I felt sick with worry. Hoping he was ok and obsessively refreshing the tracker as the clock ticked down towards his predicted 121km time.

The predicted time came and went. Five minutes, 10 minutes then 15. Each minute felt like an hour. Texts and messages started to come in. ‘Where was he? Did we have any news?’ Well, no we didn’t!

And then finally, blissfully his 121k time appeared on the app.

He was ok but he’d lost around 20 minutes to the storm. Combined with a couple of other slippages, the race to T2 was now on. More time slipped by to the next check point. This was not unexpected as it contained the climb up Rupertsberg, the biggest climb on the route. But the slip was not as big as expected, he must be flying.

The storm had now totally cleared, almost like it had never happened and I could only hope that roads were dry enough for him to welly it.

Well he did welly it and squeaked into T2 with just three minutes to spare. He had a reasonably quick turn around in transition and then headed out on to the run. Conveniently competitors came past the hotel five times before heading to the finish. We would see him first around 3km into the run, a great place to assess and see what frame of mind he was in.

Soon enough he appeared into view. He stopped and we hugged and shared tears as he expressed his fatigue at having to chase cut offs all day. It was emotionally draining. He looked well though and was in no distress. He knew what he had to do and was now calm and in control. With plenty of time to march it, barring disaster he would get to the finish.

We embraced again and then he set off. The timing mats were plentiful and he crossed them almost metronomically within a minute of his predicted time. It was a masterclass of pacing. I was so proud of him. It was great to see him pass each time, growing in confidence and smiling.

Once he’d passed the final time to head out towards the town in the final 10k, Lee and I made our way to the finish line. We danced and cheered as we waited for G watching others make their way down the magic carpet after a long day.

When G passed the timing mat just up from the hotel, he had a kilometre or so to go and we waited expectantly, trying to glimpse him through the gaps in the banner on the approach to the finish chute.

Compare Paul Kaye announced that Daniela Ryf, the female champion had made her way to the finish line to hand out medals. How cool was that and a great honour for G when he got there.

And then he was there, loving the crowd as he made his way into the chute. Lee and I were screaming at him. He almost missed us but at the last minute turned to see us and stumbled over for hugs and more tears. Then he made his way to the finish line to get his medal from Daniela. He had done it, he was an Ironman.

Woolacombe parkrun

Parkrun is a funny old beast. It’s not a race, we’re told on a weekly basis. But I get the impression, from listening to conversations over many years, that people care about their time. A lot.

I’ll be honest, I’m still not reconciled with the role that parkrun plays in my life. It ignites very conflicting feelings. There is no doubt that it eroded elements of my previous life. Caused damage despite the protestations of those cheerleading it. On the other hand, it has been a very useful tool. And I, as others have before me, am as guilty of getting dragged into the time debate.

This thought occurred to me the other day when I failed again to beat my parkrun personal best at what has become my ‘home’ event, Woolacombe parkrun. The race director inadvertently reinforced my thinking by commenting on my regular attendance with an indirect comment about being at the back of the field then said, ‘well at least you’re improving’. I’m not, in actual fact I’m getting slower.

We first became aware of Woolacombe as we researched parkruns close to our new home in Devon. Bideford and Barnstaple were ruled out (flat, lapped courses) which left either Tamar Lakes on the Devon/Cornwall border to the south or Woolacombe Dunes to the north. Both were around 20 miles from home so we decided we would start with Tamar Lakes, one lap, scenic and most importantly without the word ‘Dunes’ in the name. I’m not the greatest fan of sand and Woolacombe sounded like it came with lots of it.

Tamar Lakes was lovely. Lovely enough to secure a resolution from us to make it our ‘home’ parkrun. But before we could act on that resolve, our friends Hollywood and Shiraz made the trip to Woolacombe from their temporary holiday spot in nearby Ilfracombe.

They raved about the beauty, talked about the ‘dune of doom’ and confirmed there was lots of sand. Their enthusiasm was infectious and so in the weeks following we made the journey over.

Even the drive was stunning, ending in a 1:4 descent with views over Woolacombe Bay.

We parked up outside the newly opened porthole cafe, wandered up to the start to tried to pick up tips from listening to the chat of those around us. The only useful thing we discovered was that participants for this event are primarily ‘tourists’.

The run is essentially split into three parts, all roughly a mile long. The first mile is descent on hard trail, road and then soft sand, including a steep section dropping down onto the beach proper. The second mile is a long flat stretch along the beach. The third incorporates the ‘dune of doom’ and an undulating section through the dunes on hard and soft sand then the return to the finish up the steep concrete road and trail.

With no idea what was coming up, I focussed on enjoying it. And I did, I LOVED the challenge and different terrains. I finished with a sense of elation and unchecked enthusiasm to come back and do it again the following week. My time was 45.47, very much back of the pack and roughly 7 or 8 minutes slower than Mole Valley parkrun, considered one of the toughest in Surrey.

The following week we did return and I was a minute and a half slower. Over cooking the first mile to try and get a faster time, I ran out of steam (no pun intended) in the last and walked far more than I had the previous week. I was a tad disappointed as we’d started to inject a bit more consistency into our training and I was hoping for some improvement.

It was nearly a month before we could get back. I felt strong so picked up the pace downhill. The sand on the flat section was also lovely and firm, at least for the first half, and I made good progress. The climb up the dune sent my heart rate up over 170 (theoretical max is 178) and I had to stop and walk again to try and get it down. I pushed on and managed a 1.48 pb. Whoop. That was more like it.

The next run out, confident in my regular training I flung myself down the hill to the beach and hit much softer sand. Reduced to counting steps I logged a much slower middle mile with a correlating high heart rate over 170 again. Struggling to get this down over the climbing sections I finished back in the 45 minutes plus again.

The following week I resolved to run the first mile easier to leave it in my legs for the later stages and got stuck behind loads of runners in the narrow dune section. I had resolved this week to not allow my heart rate over 150 across the flat beach. The sand was soft and energy sapping. I’d regularly do less than 50 steps before stopping to walk. Even with the easier start I hit the dunes with nothing left and dragged my sorry arse back to the finish in 48.42.

For fucks sake.

It was then I had the conversation with the volunteer about my regular appearance at the back and relative (actually none existent) improvement.

This week I left the heart rate monitor in the wardrobe (that’ll teach it) and would run to feel instead. It’s getting close to school holidays and numbers had swelled accordingly. I took it easy down the hill but once on undulating dunes before the beach found it a lot harder going than usual.

The sand on the beach this week was also really soft and I was reduced to running 30 secs and walking 30 secs to get through it. The dune climb was horrendous and I had to stop a couple of times to catch my breath before carrying on. As I crested the top and descended back onto the hard path, the marshal at the top congratulated me and commented that it was really tough going this week.

At this point I was wondering what the hell I was to do to register even a minor improvement. I was getting myself tied up in knots as I ran/walked my way up and down the paths to the start of the climb back up the road. And then it hit me. I had become so bogged down in trying to improve, I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. I’d taken to dejectedly looking at the sand in front of me without taking the time to look up and around me at the stunning views.

‘Fuck it’ I thought and immediately ditched any idea of pace (at which point had gone out of the window anyway). I lifted my head to look around and concentrated on just being in the moment, enjoying the wildflowers, chatting to the folks around me and in quiet times just pondered. With the pressure off I realised that this is one of the most difficult of runs to pin down to a time. The shifting, mercurial dunes could be either firm or soft depending on weather, tide, use and all manner of other things. All of which were out of my control.

I thought about G marshalling (blisters from his recent Ironman definitely didn’t need sand in them) and wondered what I could do to contribute. I recalled a conversation at the start with the tail walker who was holidaying in a nearby village and heading home the next day. Maybe tail walking would a good idea for a while? That would help to keep heart rate down and focus on fun rather than trying to beat the course which instead kept beating me.

This time at the finish line, I celebrated my slowest finish to date at 49.27 and immediately volunteered for the following week.

Race report – Cotswold 113

Last year G and I entered the Cotswold Classic, a middle distance triathlon in the Cotswolds, not a million miles away from Cirencester.  The day before the event we rode four and a half miles to Cirencester to do the parkrun and then four and a half miles back.  The race was in August and the weather was hot, as most of the summer seemed to be last year.  30 degrees, almost too hot to induce sweat, but rather just that sense of being swollen and uncomfortable with no relief.  

The temperature of the lake was almost at the point of being too hot to wear a wetsuit. The organisers had deemed them ‘optional’. As hot and swollen as I was – and not just from the heat – I knew that getting into the wetsuit would be a struggle. I was torn with indecision to wetsuit or not to wetsuit almost to the point of inertia. In the end the inertia won. Still exhausted from the parkrun effort the day before, G and I opted to stay in the van that was our temporary home for the weekend and to my eternal shame, did not start.

Depressing as it was, it was not surprising. I almost had to go back to 2015 to realise a race that I had started with a level of competence. That was Ironman Austria. There, I’d had a rough day but started a few stone lighter with a couple of year of solid training. Not finishing was never an option, both mentally and physically.

Since then just dealing with life has taken almost all the energy I had and had left a trail of DNS or DNF that was demoralising and were now starting to become a barrier in themselves.

I entered the 113 middle distance triathlon almost immediately afterward the failure at the Cotswold Classic, swearing that things would be different.  The event is sister to the Cotswold Classic and run over the same course.  The only difference is the time of year, scheduled for June instead of August.  I could only hope that I would go into better prepared and it would be a tad cooler.

There are a million excuses why I wasn’t as well prepared as I could have been, but I won’t give them any credit.  After recently changing life circumstances again and hopefully for the last time in such a dramatic fashion, now is the time to start setting down routine in the quest for a healthier lifestyle.  So, this event was definitely a way to draw a line in the sand.  Although granted, a half Ironman is probably not the best event to do that with but there you go.

So targets then were pretty basic:
* Get out of the van
* Get into a wetsuit and put myself on the start line
* Finish the swim
* First lap of the bike
* Compete the bike leg
* First lap of the run
* Finish the race

Our alarm was set for 4.45am. Since we had been allocated a later swim wave, 6.40am for me and 6.50am for G, we had planned to go and rack and then come back for breakfast. Alarms started to go off at 4am and so we were well awake by the time ours joined them. Pulling on our tri kit we slid out of the van and to an almost empty campsite. Still, with the first target achieved we were already winning.

Transition closed at 6am so we had to be in and out by then but as it was, we were back at the campsite by 5.30am and sat staring at the kettle willing it to boil. Breakfast over and done with, we collected wetsuits and swimming garb and headed over to the lake to get ready for the race start.

The wetsuit had shrunk considerably since the last few times I’d clambered in. G very kindly blamed the osillations of heat and cold they would face being in the loft. Kind but not true – it had more to do with my burgeoning weight. Eventually I was shoehorned in and despite unable to bend my elbows fully was ready to go.

I was frankly bloody uncomfortable but at least had achieved the second goal and as I pulled on my hat and goggles, resolved to get at least half way round the swim where an option to come back to land and clamber out would be available.

I loved being back in the water – resolving immediately to clamber in the sea more when I got home. It was cool and refreshing and wonderfully buoyant in the suit. Too buoyant actually and I could feel my legs sticking out of the water. After a five minute countdown we were started, I hesistated a few seconds to let the others go and then flung myself forwards and started to swim.

The plan was to swim from buoy to buoy and that’s what I did. After a few hundred metres as the option to bail approached, I realised that while it was slow, it wasn’t getting any more difficult so I decided to carry on. The last wave passed me by, despite me having a ten minute head start. I’m used to this though, so I didn’t panic and just plodded on, very close to last but doing it all the same. It was a relief to get back to dry land – mostly because now I had an opportunity to ride my bike. Which I genuinely couldn’t wait to do.

All the way round the swim I was wondering how G was getting on and so was delighted to see him in transition when I got there. He must have passed me in the final stages of the swim, it was lovely to see him safe and well.

After taking off the wetsuit (bliss) And a bit of a faff I grabbed the bike and headed out of transition to the mount line. Steadied myself, hopped on and Piri and I set off.

I love this bit and it didn’t disappoint. I’d been promised a flat route and golly, was it flat. After some quite ropey conditions the weather was just perfect, 17 degrees, sunny and no wind. While not fast, the bike and I were able to knock out a comfortable 15mph. To tell you the truth, I find flat courses really hard work. Relentless, and unforgiving, I’d much prefer something a bit lumpier. But we managed the first loop and I as I headed back to the turnaround promised myself a bit of time to stretch before heading out again.

Instead, I turned and went out first before the stretch, to remove the temptation to stop, thus scoring another win. As I continued on the second lap, things slowed a little and my back got more sore. The desire to run left me completely. After thinking I’d start the run and do a loop, I decided that by the time I’d got back I’d be done. And so it was. Enough for one day but happier than I’d been on a ‘race’ day for a long while. I’m still miles away from where I want to be but the wins were valid and confidence building. Happy days.

G finished the bike strongly and went on to complete the run conservatively, perfect for IM Austria in a few weeks time.