Centurion 50 Grand Slam part 3 – Chiltern Wonderland 50 (and then some)

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It’s been a while since we last caught up. Happily, this time, I’ve actually managed to finish a few races – unlike during my radio silence around this time last year. Unhappily, the reason for my radio silence this time is a little less trivial than a couple of DNFs.

Could I say that life “got in the way”? I mean, I could, but it would be a little disingenuous to life to suggest that my responsibilities are to running above all else; a little beyond my efforts to prioritise running over the everyday, at least. This time, Life earned itself a capital L: family pulled rank. So, apart from a feeble cursory mile a day to maintain my run streak (an exercise which has barely anything to do with actual running these days), my run diary has had very little to show for itself.

Meanwhile I’ve hit something of a plateau, both in running terms and in life terms. I don’t get excited about anything any more, I just feel a bit numb. Not anymore, at the moment; it can’t last, I have to remember that. So I plan things to look forward to – we’re getting married in 9 months for Christ’s sake – because I want to feel the thrill of anticipation again. Plans can be made, but I no longer believe that they will really come to pass; I convince myself something will pop up and take precedence. So I’m not afraid of anything, either. I’m not afraid of failing to meet expectations because I have none. I just don’t care about anything enough to worry about being disappointed.

If Life hadn’t pulled rank on my race calendar I would still have passed August without a race – it was a conscious decision to “rest” and also there just weren’t enough weekends, as there often aren’t. March through July saw two fifty milers, two 50ks, and a trail marathon in 30 degrees of heat. I dragged myself through those, barely, and decided that I wanted to finish the third of the Centurion fifties feeling like I actually had enough in the tank for the fourth and final race. See, now I look back on it I realise that’s an ambitious race calendar for someone who is actually fit, never mind for a training regime that consists of “I might as well be running to the tube since the buses are so unreliable”. That’s two solid junk miles right there. More than once, I’ve done it in Toms espadrilles and holding my Kanken bag over my back to stop it from bouncing. It is transport, not training.

Should I keep finding challenges in the hope of regaining that spark, flinging muck at the wall until it sticks? Or should I hold back, take aim? Deciding to run the Farnham Pilgrim Half Marathon on a day’s notice was to aim what spinning round to take a blind shot in action movies is; and weirdly, just like in action movies, it only bloody worked. Knowing I’d done no long runs, knowing I’d barely even managed to run off road a week before the Chiltern Wonderland 50, I decided I either needed to stop running altogether (i.e. break my run streak) and hope that rest would give my legs half a chance of lasting the distance, or I needed to fire things up a bit, go for broke. So I posted a message with the Chasers to find out if anyone was doing a social trail run on the North Downs, and the answer came back that yes, twelve of them were, and also picking up a medal for it. The idea of running the full marathon was just a little too far-fetched, even for an emotional nihilist, so I plumped for the half and got back to the pub in time for lunch. I ran with my club, as part of my club; I was the slowest, as usual; I danced around the course like a loon, and I had a fucking good time.

It’s a beautiful course, a circular route around the Farnham end of the NDW taking in bridlepaths and connecting trails, scooting around ponds and through golf courses (as one often does in Surrey), and generally pissballing about in the woods. And very runnable too – between the need to shake my legs out and the need to get back to the pub I pushed myself fairly hard, finishing in a not-unrespectable 2:08, and I can’t say I really busted a lung either. There’s definitely no speed in my legs, which I know because trying to get them to turn over was like flipping tyres, but my heartrate never felt too taxed. It was just enough to fire me up for the CW50 in six days’ time. Definitely the right call not to go for the full, although every time I saw a 100 Marathon Club shirt FOMO gripped me like a fever.

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The following week I kept up my daily run streak with the minimum mile a day, as I had been pretty much doing for weeks. The difference, I noted, was that where that mile usually ran between 9:30 and 10 minutes, sluggish and rhythmless, the miles in the week after Farnham suddenly threw up a couple of 8:15s and felt more joyful, more like a workout than I had had for a while. It helped being back on office hours rather than event hours too, so those runs occasionally happened at lunchtime instead of at the end of a strenuous working day on legs worn to a stump. Had the gamble paid off?

Come race morning, although there was still a dull ache gnawing at my muscles, there was something even more dangerous – a flicker of anticipation. I was more nervous at the start of this race than I think I’ve been for any other race ever, for the most part because finishing it meant keeping my hopes for the grand slam alive and that comes above all else this year, but I think partly because – for the first time in a long while – I actually cared about the result. The thirteen hour final cutoff limit (proportionally split across the checkpoints) would be hovering over me all day, but I would be focusing instead on two other times: eleven and twelve hour timings which I had worked out and written on my checkpoint plan. One would be a measure that I’m doing well (and more importantly, perhaps too well) and the other would be the more realistic boundary. If I’m too far ahead of the first one I know I’m beasting myself; if I slip behind the second I’ll have no hope when my legs finally give in and I have to hike. Those numbers would guide me through the day like a virtual pacer.

I ended up on the same train as King of Centurion Ilsuk Han, who is usually either running or volunteering their races but rarely misses them, and a gaggle of other runners who all seemed to know the route from Goring Station to the race HQ in the village hall. Ilsuk also helpfully pointed out that the train I (and most other competitors) had planned to get home wouldn’t actually be running, thanks to some last minute engineering works at Reading; someone mentioned two rail replacement buses to Maidenhead and I zoned right out. I didn’t have the energy to worry about how I was going to hobble home after folding my cramped legs into a bus seat for three hours; I just had to think about getting back to Goring in the first place.

Nonetheless Ilsuk represented, as he always does, a good omen. We met on my first attempt at the North Downs 100 and later discovered that we had friends in common through Fulham RC, and it seems that every time I run an ultra these days he’s there. He’s such a warm, friendly and knowledgeable man I can never help but be comforted to see him. He buzzed around the village hall introducing first timers to regular faces, gathering lone runners wandering around aimlessly and making sure everyone had a friend at the start line; and he does this every time. A real unsung hero of the ultrarunning community, he is a true representative of the spirit of our sport, not to mention a shit hot runner in his own right. Even so, he privately admitted that he was just as anxious as the rest of us, and when we lined up at the start he didn’t go off with the frontrunners, choosing instead to stay with the midpackers and the newbies. Whether that was an act of kindness or just his way of dealing with nerves I don’t know, but I for one started the race with excitement just outweighing fear, and set the tone for the rest of the run.

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The route takes in one long loop around the Thames Path, the Chiltern Hills, the Ridgeway and explores the unmatchable countryside of Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire. The Ridgeway is definitely up there for my favourite ever trail route and the added treat of the Thames made this race a big star on my calendar. The first ten miles to checkpoint one at Tokers Green flew by, partly because of the stunning views but also thanks to a runner named James I got chatting to, only to discover that we’d run much of this area together once already on the Druids Challenge two years ago (a race I’m gutted not to be running this year). Feeling much less leg-heavy than I have been recently we went hell for leather on every single downhill, of which there were plenty thanks to the undulating but runnable elevation. I could easily have passed on the snack table, but I knew that I needed to lay the foundations now for sustainable energy levels later, and crammed my pockets with chocolate chip cookies.

Downhills we were bossing together, but James was obviously fitter than me on the uphills and eventually he pulled away; it wasn’t worth overstretching myself to keep up with him at this stage with forty miles still to go, so I just pootled along at the steady pace I’d been maintaining so far. Predictably, I was way ahead of my eleven hour pace already – in fact we passed the checkpoint in 1:49, ranked 138 and 139 out of what would end up as 187 official finishers. In fact, if I’d sustained that pace I’d have been on for just over a nine hour finish – yeah, no. If I didn’t take the decision to dial back now my body would do it for me later, in much more dramatic fashion.

Before long I was caught up my a chap called Steve and we began running together. I don’t remember exactly what I said now, but I do remember hearing him chatting away to another runner behind me and as usual bigmouth struck again; I couldn’t resist butting into their conversation. It set the tone for the next forty miles – we spent the whole rest of the race together talking about everything under the sun. Steve was an ex-squaddie, ex-paratrooper, self-made businessman with a penchant for bloody silly races, and between Tokers Green and Bix he recounted the tale of his four attempts at the Lakeland 100: two successful, two not, considering a fifth go to settle the score once and for all. I’m telling you, that man knows the Lakeland 100 yard by yard, so if anyone’s planning to run it you need to look him up. As one would expect from a military man, his meticulous preparation included a week spent in the Lakes recceing every inch of the route in daylight and dusk. I really didn’t need the iPod.

We left Bix aid station together by which point I’d actually gained two places and he, having paced the first section somewhat more conservatively than me, was up nearly twenty. We were coming up against much more meaty hills than we had done so far, and even had to pause the conversation for power-hiking every now and again. But the course was just so stunning. For totally different reasons, I still can’t quite decide between this and the South Downs Way for a favourite so far – certainly the SDW50 was a better experience and the fastest finish so far, but if you want fairytale woodland and runnable rolling terrain I think Wessex might just edge out Sussex. Ask me again in a week.

Having got through a potted history of our running careers, the conversation turned to politics, economics, history, sociology, the EU referendum result (obviously) – and two people with more diametrically opposing views you would be hard pushed to find. The fascinating thing for me was that, although our positions were poles apart, our values tended to align. We spoke as two people who felt equally let down by the parties they supported, who sought the same reassurances from two different approaches, who feared the same threats and chose different weapons to combat them. It sounds like a mad thing to say but as much as I was enjoying the run I really enjoyed our discussion – we had, I like to think, a good honest respectful debate, a sharing of perspectives, a chance to find commonality, and ultimately the biggest thing we had in common was a love for endurance tests and the courage to be humbled. I rather think that if the referendum had been debated over the trails there would have been a lot less mudslinging. There you go, that’s my future campaign slogan: Less mudslinging, more mud.

Having put the thorny issue of politics to bed we reached the Ibstone School aid station just before twenty six miles and spent a few minutes to refresh and reload. I was already struggling to get calories in but I force fed myself cookies and cola, and I had been steadily working on a bottle of Tailwind all day as well. All the aid stations so far offered Tailwind as well so I knew when I finished my bottle I’d be able to refill, and would more than likely be relying on it for the end of the race. Slightly stiffer than before, and having lost a handful of places, we carried on our way. By this time I was still within my eleven hour pace but by a smaller margin than before, and a margin that was shrinking by the mile. Still though, plenty in hand for a finish. As long as it didn’t all go wrong.

Steve had planned to meet his wife around mile thirty with a mysterious and hitherto untested smoothie concoction which would save or slay him. Oats, oat milk, fresh fruit, protein mix and chia seeds – it sounded bloody amazing. But having never tested it in anger before he had no idea if it would give him the boost he’d need for the last twenty miles or if he’d be in the bushes for the rest of the race. Only one way to find out.

He made a brief stop to pick up the drink while I carried on, making use of the momentum I had now that the pain in my feet had passed and simply become numbness. Pain? Ah. It wasn’t until this point that I realised I’d been running through pain for about ten miles already, such was the quality of the company and the distraction. Well, this would get interesting – pain doesn’t often feature for me, and it certainly doesn’t stop me as often as fitness, low blood sugar and temper tantrums do. When he caught up again I asked him about his war stories – the military ones rather than the running ones – and he obliged with some hilarious, some frankly terrifying and a fair few eye opening accounts of the life of a non-commissioned officer. Having heard that it wasn’t hard to imagine someone capable of finishing multiple 100-milers in the Lakes; the mental strength required to withstand the rigours of ultra-running being bread and butter to someone who has survived para-training.

At least I lasted longer than my watch…

We had slipped a few more places by the time we reached Swyncombe, and I really started to feel the distance by this point – a quick stretch on the cool grass and a moment taken to put on my waterproof jacket both turned out to be excellent decisions as the rain we’d been promised all day finally made an appearance. I had slipped past my eleven hour pace by this point, but still well within the cutoffs and about to hit Grims Ditch, one of my favourite trails ever. Another lady caught up with us at this point and started swapping 100 miler stories with Steve, which was a fascinating exchange to say the least – there really is no point in spending time with this amazing group of people if you can’t take the time to learn from them. I shut my trap (at least until the conversation turned to cars, which I couldn’t resist bowling into) and listened to them like I was listening to a podcast.

The final aid station would be at the other end of Grims Ditch and just over nine miles from the end. A long old stretch to finish on, but it did mean the last intermediate cutoff to worry about was cleared and we passed it with over three hours to go. A slow walk would have made it, but I really didn’t want to cut it that fine. Sadly, I wasn’t entirely in charge of that decision – my legs were screaming and I was doing my level best to tune them out. I succumbed to the chair, just for a few moments, and stared mournfully at the empty Tailwind barrel wondering why I hadn’t filled my bottle up earlier. Luckily the volunteers there had made up a batch of the best white bread butter and cheese sandwiches you’ve ever seen, and with some effort I chewed my way through a couple of them and washed them down with Coke. It was a bit awkward to swallow, and I noticed then just how dehydrated I’d become despite the inclement temperature. Next race I’m sticking a signpost at thirty miles saying “EAT NOW DAMMIT, YOU’LL THANK ME LATER”. As it turned out Steve’s smoothie had been an unqualified success, so much so that I’m tempted to try it myself on my next long run. Liquid calories that don’t taste too sweet are surely the way ahead.

We left the aid station still optimistic, and at the very fringes of daylight, a little bit smug about the fact that we hadn’t had to use our headtorches yet. Within a couple of miles however dusk fell – plummeted really, as it does in the woods – and I was cursing myself for not fishing out the torch when we stopped at the aid station. Talking was becoming increasingly difficult to me as one by one my various functions closed down. There’s almost no chance I’d have finished the race if it wasn’t for Steve; not only had he very kindly offered me a lift to Gatwick Airport on his way home, where I’d have a fighting chance of getting a train since the Reading line was down, but his tireless storytelling and patience dragged me through the deepening gloom. To say we were hiking now would be flattering the pace we kept up, but he insisted on staying with me instead of pushing on and getting the job done. I decided that I couldn’t reward his kindness with whinging so I kept my negative thoughts to myself and kept moving forward, mutely. You can’t complain about pain in front of a soldier.

The last couple of miles back to Goring were profoundly dark, and our torches were doing bugger all to cut through the blackness. We had been joined by one of Steve’s friends and a couple of other runners by this point, all moving in single file along the single track, all just looking for the streetlights and the end. When it finally arrived my feet and legs were burning – just half a mile of pavement to go, and it felt like walking fifty miles of hot coals. Unable to restrain myself any more I started audibly whimpering, choking down tears just to get to the end. We decided to cross the line together as a group of three – when it finally came it turned out to be the side door to the hall and we had to file in one at a time, but we were reunited on the other side. Twelve and a half hours, and we were done. I was dizzy, slurring, in agony, but relieved.

Ilsuk was still in the village hall doing the rounds, despite having finish a couple of hours earlier, while I forced down some coffee and tried to sit. While we recovered we saw the last few finishers stumble including two guys who finished just inside the cutoff and at least two that, heartbreakingly, didn’t. To struggle that far knowing that you wouldn’t even get the medal is a special kind of tough. I came to enough to force down a sausage in a roll – it took a good half hour to do so – and settled into the warm of the car, suddenly overwhelmed by gratitude. And then, horror. I still had Wendover Woods to do to complete the grand slam, and that was so hard the cutoff was two hours longer. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?

Thanks to Steve’s hospitality I was home within a couple of hours and out the next day for my one mile hobble around the block to shake out my legs and keep up my streak. But come Monday morning – a heavy day at work which started with me carrying my own staging around because my crew had been accidentally cancelled – the hobble became something much worse. Somehow, despite my legs taking the brunt of the battery, I had actually pulled muscles all across my chest and ribcage and breathing became a serious issue. Like, I could talk or breathe but not do both issue. All day on my feet with a trailer shoot I hoped I would just shake it out, but by the time I got home I knew for certain there was no chance of me running. Pain in general has never stopped me before, but chest pains, that’ll do it. The streak, and my heart, were broken.

So I relinquished it in the hope that I might still save another, much longer lasting streak – I’ve run every Ealing Half Marathon since it started in 2012 and I have no intention of giving that up so easily. My one day off turned into two days, and having booked off the Wednesday as lieu time I finally got a chance to catch up on some rest (and a load of Air Crash Investigation). When Sunday came around I felt, though not entirely in shape for a road half marathon, like I had a chance of not embarrassing myself, and like I had at least enough breath to finish. Proudly wearing my QPR shirt I settled in in front of the 1:50 pacers, hoping to stay in front of them but prepared to let them go. I resolved to enjoy the atmosphere, return every high five and every shout of “YOU RRRRSSS!”, smile all the way round, remember that I do this for fun. And bloody hell, it was.

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I actually managed to keep the pace up for a good ten miles before my body refused to respond to the command to push harder. It was painful, but I could run through it – i just couldn’t turn my legs over any faster. The real turning point however came just after mile eleven; just as I tried to give another burst of energy, my chest cramped up like an imploding star. I could barely breathe. I kept running, but I let my pace ease up until the cramp passed. That’s it – you don’t dick around with chest pains. The pacers finally overtook me and I let myself glide to the end, saving my last bit of energy for a leap over the line – there wasn’t even enough to sprint. As I landed, almost knocking over guest commentator Susie Chan in the process, I smiled. I had done it in 1:51 and change, and only five minutes out from my all time PB (a time set with at least half a stone less weight).

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Embarrassing as my CW50 time was, I have to concede that it’s a lot better than I deserve having invested so little time in running recently. This shouldn’t be about pity or excuses or self-flagellation, but equally I want to recognise that a little anticipation goes a long way. Either I’ve become complacent or I’ve stopped caring altogether; either way I must be able to do something about it. Perhaps right now running can’t take priority over everything else; it could still take priority over 90% of everything else. Perhaps I’m not fit enough to enjoy a fifty mile trail race at the moment; I have two months to change that. And if I don’t, I’ll have thrown away all the hard work that brought me this far. Perhaps I underestimate what I can do, setting myself unwieldy and contradictory targets, because I don’t want to admit there’s such a thing as an unattainable target.

Perhaps I’ve forgotten this is meant to be fun.

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Going to that London

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I remember planning for my first marathon – Edinburgh, 2013, with my mum, after missing out on the London ballot (of which more here). Lots of weight still to lose, lots of lists and logistics, lots still to learn about how to finish a marathon. Eventually you learn that nothing and nobody can teach you how to finish a marathon. You learn that what you really need to learn is how to listen to your own body.

When I crossed the line at Manchester last year in a little over 3:41 the first thing I thought was that I really hoped they didn’t change the Good For Age qualifying time for London, having just about squeezed in. I still didn’t quite believe I’d done it when I applied, still thought that something would change at the last minute or that I’d read my time wrong or they’d lose my application or something. I almost didn’t believe it even as I clutched the cheerful “Congratulations, you’re in!” magazine in my quivering hands. It didn’t really sink in until after my last marathon of 2015, when every time someone asked me what I was training for I had to amend my answer from “Oh nothing really, I’m always doing something or other,” to “London.” London with a full stop.

Perhaps it’s time to start training seriously for this marathon lark then – you know, training plans, strength and conditioning workouts, speedwork and pacing, eating real food and cutting back on pints of Honeydew. All those articles in Runner’s World I usually skip over to get to the stories of iconic races and Tonks’ column might actually come in useful. My goal is to get under 3:30, taking around twelve minutes off last year’s time – a tall order, but an achievable one. After trying one off the shelf plan and finding that it isn’t pushing me anywhere near enough, I ask my clubmates at Clapham Chasers and discover – almost too late – that many recommend the high-mileage Pfitzinger and Douglas (or P&D) training plan. I like running a lot, so this seems like a no-brainer. I do a few sums and work out that I can just about fit in the 12-week version between now and 24th April, since I already average 40 miles a week. So I draw up my calendar for the next 12 weeks and get stuck in.

Then I compare it with my work calendar. Ah. Three broadcast events in six weeks. Yes, that will be tricky. I’m used to squeezing runs in around work, but with this new job the broadcast days will rarely be less than 18 hours on my feet, and I’ll be learning my job as I go. It’s stressful both on my body and my brain – not to mention my digestive system, eating rancid Pret sandwiches for breakfast lunch and dinner – but I know if I’m going to do this it’s going to hurt occasionally so I suck it up. I stubbornly persist with the speedwork and tempo sessions whenever I can fit them in; then one Thursday, after a particularly stressful day at work I get halfway round before suffering a panic attack and need help from Cat to get my breathing back under control. Cutting one session short is not the end of the world, but the planned hours of speedwork I’m failing to make are slowly stacking up. Perhaps the panic attack is brought on by more than just work.

I get the first half of the project out of the way and hit the ground as soon as I get back. This is mid February now, a couple of weeks away from the small matter of my third attempt at the Moonlight Challenge. I’m in with half a chance of getting first lady if only I can finish all 33 miles and remember my bloody torch this time. I’m going around Battersea Park one freezing evening, not quite hitting tempo pace but not exactly struggling, when I feel a sharp pain develop behind my right kneecap, then it seizes up completely. I try to lollop along in the hope that it will loosen up but the camber and anti-clockwise loop isn’t helping, and I miss the last lap of the session again. This feels bad. This feels worse than the normal run-weariness I can shake off by, well, running. This feels like An Injury. And An Injury means Rest. I am not good at Rest. My metabolism is not good at Rest. I have gained almost a stone in weight since Christmas, and it feels like an actual stone tethered to my feet.

I’m superhuman, so these little setbacks don’t affect me, obviously. No, wait. The other one. Just a bog standard dickhead human who’s too stubborn to recognise something going wrong. I give the knee a few token gestures towards helping it heal – which is to say, continue to run into work once a week at the same intensity, hitting the pavements only slightly less hard than normal, occasionally give it a bit of a rub – but I never get more than 5 miles before it blows up again. I barely run at all in the week prior to the Moonlight Challenge, and unsurprisingly it starts to get better. But a week is not enough. 20 miles into the race, boom.

If I had a coach they would probably ask me which of the 8 marathons or ultras I’m already signed up to this year is actually my A race, then do something sensible like advise which of the others to drop; almost certainly that drop-list would have included Moonlight. The problem is that all my races are A races to me, for one reason or another. I just really love running marathons and ultras. And in a completely unscientific spirit that really only serves to enable this obsession, I am convinced that I run best when I’ve run lots, in as varied and exciting a range of ways as I can. Moonlight is important because of the people who run it; London because it’s the road marathon I always wanted to do; NDW100 is obvious; Giants Head is a party; Jurassic Quarter is Cat’s birthday and a big club weekend; the list goes on. I’m reminded of when I was 9, and we were planning to move to Cyprus: my mum asked me which of my toys were my favourites because we couldn’t take everything. I came up with infallible reasoning for every single thing. I don’t buy shit I don’t like. EVERYTHING IS MY FAVOURITE.

So if I’m not willing to choose my favourite toy, I have to look after them all equally well. Moonlight was a wake up call, not least because my bum knee was pretty much the only thing that stood between me and the first female finisher. I can’t go for sub-3:30 but at least I can do myself proud, and it’s one of only two races Andy will attend so I’m buggered if I’m going to be a tourist – when he sees me pass I want him to see me running like I’m about to win it. I finally knuckle down to a program of gradually building up long slow miles again, supported by cross training on the bike (subtitled: if I don’t have to pay TfL to travel to work I’m winning twice), yoga and strength exercises, a serious effort to lose the winter weight. If I can’t be faster I may as well be stronger, lither, tougher. Is it lither, or more lithe? Whatever. I channelled Caballo Blanco – easy, light, smooth, fast.

On a whim, I signed up to the Wimbledon Half Marathon (not to be confused with the Wimbledon Common Half Marathon) at the beginning of April to test my roadworthiness. I had no idea what sort of time I was capable of (and as usual did absolutely no research on the course profile beforehand) but I figured I would start off at 8 minute miles and see how far I could go before I naturally slowed down. Despite the hills it was further than I thought; I ended up finishing in 1:47.53, not exactly a PB or the equivalent pace for a 3:30 marathon, but not a stretch either. The figures by themselves aren’t much of an indication of anything, but coming away from that feeling like I could run again with no pain was a boost.

Since Lucozade Sport is supplied on the course at London I thought I’d try running Wimbledon on that alone rather than carrying a fistful of gels (which didn’t entirely agree with me at Manchester last year anyway) and road tested my shoes and kit, all with success. The only failure, it turned out, was my ability to stay on my feet. At the end of the first lap I’m crossing the road via a traffic island, over one of the flattest bits of the course when suddenly I’m doing a Superman impression and gliding along the road on my front, and I have no idea why. Pride might come before a fall but a huge rush of adrenalin usually comes directly after it, so I picked myself and my bottle up almost in one movement and carried on before the pain kicked in. The runner behind me reassured me that if I’d stayed on the floor he’d have stopped my watch for me, which is basically the most charitable thing anyone’s ever said to me during a race. Next time round I looked for the trip wire, huge tree root or bear trap that must have been responsible for me going flying. Nothing there. Just the road markings. And as I went over them for the second time my toe brushed the edge and it clicked: I, a person who runs in hills and trails for fun, had tripped over paint.

 

As I’m sitting on the grass afterwards waiting for my massage, I inspect the wounds on my elbows, hips and knees. Pissing blood and covered in dirt; luckily the only thing that hurts is my pride. I’m a little concerned about the delayed effect of the impact on my poor patellas, although only time will tell for those poor buggers. But what struck me most of all was how quickly and thoroughly I shook off the fear of falling over. The fact is, it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the tension gripping my whole body each time I’d been out for a run when I knew, deep down, that I wasn’t properly healed yet, that I was falling into a classic overtraining trap. And just like that, I felt as though I had begun to regain control of my body again.

OK, three weekends to go. Three weekends of balancing the desire to go straight back out and run ALL THE MILES with the memory of what it feels like not to be able to run even for a couple of days. It’s a pretty classic situation. As I read about other runners’ experiences with overuse injury a trend appears; those that listen to their body, give it a proper chance to recover, actually come back stronger. Whether that’s down to an increase in strength or some other physical improvement, heightened responses to the body’s signals that reduce the temptation to overtrain, a higher likelihood of practising effective conditioning work and “pre-hab”, or a consciousness of what happens if you don’t, is impossible to tell – you’d have to know their full medical background and training history. On top of which, there aren’t many people lining up to tell Runner’s World how running ruined their life. Still though, you get the idea.

Of course you can’t always tell someone how to avoid disaster; you have to let them experience it for themselves to be sure that the lesson really sticks, and hope they have a chance to recover. Have you ever tried to tell a kid not to jump off a wall because they’ll get hurt, only to find them them biting back tears a few minutes later because they found out the hard way that you were right? Sam Murphy‘s column on coming back from injury in May’s Runner’s World – worth a read if you’re in a similar position – references a quote by ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov: “The more injuries you get, the smarter you get”. Now that I know what it feels like not to be able to run I’m more attuned to the signals telling me I’m about to push it too far, that I’m playing chicken too close to the cliff edge.

Lesson learned – hopefully, just in time. I’ve finished the course, I’ve fudged the homework, I’ve scraped through the mocks and there’s no amount of cramming that will help now. The big test will come on the 24th April 2016.

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Ealing Half Marathon 2014

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September is something of a spike in birthdays in our social group – presumably all my friends’ parents had more than their fair share of fun on New Years Eve – and 1984 seems to have been a particularly popular year. Obviously, all the coolest people were born in 1984. Ahem.

So how do we celebrate three 30th birthdays within the space of 8 days? Why, by watching QPR play away of course! Duh.

Which is how I found myself, the day before the Ealing Half Marathon, smuggling four bottles of vodka onto a rattler train from Southampton Central to London Victoria via most of the south of Britain (including a stop on the Isle of Wight, I’m sure of it), accompanied by eight miserable QPR fans all lamenting a poor display by the team and an even poorer one by the fans. St Mary’s is a ground QPR had never lost at before the game and Southampton are often excellent value; not for no reason did they start the day nudging the Champions League spots. Last time we visited St Mary’s we got a stopping service there which took us on a grand tour of the Home Counties, costing less than a tenner for the return fare. We ended up with a win for QPR (one of only four that season), our photo in the local paper with a man in a bath full of baked beans, a disco in the first class compartment, and one of our number spent the night in Paddington hospital. Yeah, we’re that sort of football fans. Sorry.

That was great fun last time, we thought. Southampton are terribly good hosts, QPR have half a chance of getting points, and the two and half hour journey back on a basically empty train will doubtlessly turn into something even the Romans would find OTT. Not so.

Bad enough as it was that QPR lost – despite a swoon-worthy second half volley from Charlie Austin – the day was pretty much ruined when a coked-up meathead two rows away rounded on a guy and his 8 year old kid in the row in front of us – ostensibly for the crime of complaining about a poorly executed short corner but odds are anything would have set him off – and started laying into them. I mean he properly went for them, screaming and throwing arms and everything. And after he’d been removed by the authorities his son took over, shouting abuse at a terrified (now crying) kid and his dad, for no reason. Scum of the earth.

A little shaken by the episode, and having missed about ten minutes of actual football by now, we turned back to the game when an unfamiliar chant came drifting down from the back row of the visitors stand. It had been going for parts of the first half too, but we couldn’t hear then what they were saying over the rest of the cheering. We heard them now. Suffice to say, it succinctly covered every angle of bigotry and violence imaginable, aimed at a black ex player who recently left for a rival club. Never have I been more embarrassed by a QPR fan. Although it has to be said I never saw that cokehead family or the racist idiots make it to Yeovil away or Sheffield Wednesday away (midweek) or Middlesbrough away; there’s maybe a handful among the thousands of decent people, they only really come out of the woodwork for the brief spells QPR spend in the Premier League, and they represent only themselves.

So, Saturday night was not a well slept night. Obviously I didn’t get drunk, I’m not completely stupid – the four bottles of vodka were an ambitious gambit on Andy’s part – and I made sure I was in bed by half ten at the latest. But I still couldn’t sleep for hearing that poor kid’s terrified cries and the racist chants ringing in my ears. Some things cannot be unheard.

I got up at 6.15 on Sunday morning, bleary eyed and heart already racing, and stumbled to the station. At risk of a real first-world-problems moment when I got to Wimbledon and found all the coffee stalls still closed, I rounded the corner for the District line trains and found a bunch of similarly bleary eyed runners and a girl manning the till alone at Costa, somewhat surprised to see so many people before 7.30 on a Sunday, and still trying to find the scissors to open the milk. Insufficient baristas in a coffee shop on race day is like insufficient bar staff on match day: playing with fire.

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I’d been looking forward to this race for months – this fixture is always a highlight for me, it would be the first race I’d run for six weeks and it was my first time running a half marathon since Ealing last year – but I was far more nervous than I’d like to admit. Since last year, I’ve lost a fair bit of weight and my form, pace and stamina has improved in leaps and bounds. Question is, how many leaps and how high the bounds? I knew in theory I should be aiming for sub 2:00, which would mean shaving over 8 minutes from my previous time, but was that really realistic? Would I be knackered from the night before (attendance at which, needless to say, was a three line whip), and was I overestimating how long I could hold up a decent pace? I’m not fast, I’ve never been fast, I kept telling myself. Just keep around the 9 minute mile mark for as long as you can.

So I squeezed into the starting pen behind the 2:00 pacers, switched on my iPod, and shuffled towards the timing mat. Ealing is very well organised, but like any large race it takes a while to let the pack thin out through the opening straight. Hovering too near the pacers was a dangerous game, and a game that plenty of others were playing too, so I pulled in front of them into clear air where I could follow them from the front, so to speak, and if I dropped my pace too much later in the race they could scoop me up.

It was a gorgeous day; slightly too hot and dry to be classed a perfect day for running, but just sunny enough to come away with some dodgy tan lines. Feeling strong but not taxed around an 8:30 minute mile pace, I basked in the sun for a bit and enjoyed stretching my legs. Before I knew it, the 2:00 pacers were nowhere to be seen.

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Race tactics is a thing you only really learn through experience. How do you strike the balance between going out too hard and leaving it too late to make up time? While there’s anything more than a mile to go, the only strategy I know of is to run easy. By that I don’t mean within my capacity or slower, I just mean listening to my body, allowing my limbs to move the way they want to rather than forcing them into an uncomfortable rhythm or straining to keep pace. Sometimes, that means speeding up when a slow plod is making me feel heavy, or lifting my knees when my feet hit the ground too hard, or pulling my shoulders back when I find myself reaching forward for the next step. You’d be surprised how much faster you can run with good posture.

Another good reason to keep your back straight and head high is the local support. Despite being only three years old it’s clearly already very popular, and although it doesn’t exactly have the party atmosphere of London or Brighton there’s rarely a ten yard stretch without someone clapping and cheering everyone on. In fact I quite like the civilised, genteel applause that follows you round and the dozens of kids eagerly waiting for high fives – although you know me, I’m not exactly a party person. Unless I’m on a rattler train to Southampton.

And then I realised what had been making me smile all the way round. It wasn’t the sun, although that was lovely. It wasn’t the high fiving kids – well, it was, but it wasn’t just them. It wasn’t the exuberant and tireless marshals, or the local residents cheerfully helping out at the water stations so no one would have to wait for a bottle. Everywhere I looked, among runners and supporters alike, I saw QPR shirts. A community of fans wearing their colours with pride; dads and their children in matching strips, a gang of girls with hand painted hooped vests, middle aged men running in their replica shirts, all reminded me of the motley gang of Rangers fans that kept an eye out for me when I first moved to South Africa Road. These are the people I call my fellow fans, not the cokehead clan or the bigoted Neanderthals with their nasty songs. This is West London – not glamorous or perfect, but home to me and home to my team.

Unsurprisingly, given that it’s a London race, there are quite a few switchbacks along the course which means plenty of opportunities to see the elites and faster runners glide by. It also means, on a course with a few short sharp inclines, that what goes up must come down, so it’s rare that you’ll have to climb a hill and not get to freewheel down it later on. In actual fact, the course isn’t quite as hilly as it seems but there’s definitely enough twisting and climbing to keep you on your toes.

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I’d been keeping half an eye on my pacing band, but I was way ahead of it by the time I turned the hairpin on Cuckoo Avenue at seven and a half miles and even spotted the 1:50 pacer about 300 yards ahead. Of course, I’ve done this before – ooh look, I’m on track for a good time I KNOW I’LL SPRINT THE REST OF THE WAY oh no crash – so I kept my cool and held my pace steady, reasoning that I could gradually catch him up over 5 miles without too much extra effort. Having run it twice already I knew where the sneaky inclines were hiding and when I could really open the throttle, and when I finally saw the 12 mile marker I switched to my playlist of upbeat music to carry me home.

The last mile wraps around Lammas Park – site of both the start and finish lines – before turning in towards the centre so it’s quite easy to think you’re closer to the end than you actually are. For most of this stretch the route is lined with supporters cheering you on to the end, giving everyone a hero’s welcome. The last two times I ran this race I peaked too soon and found myself tiring before even reaching the final 400 mark, unable to appreciate the crowds, but this time I shifted up a gear and kept an even pace all the way home. I crashed into the finisher ahead of me at 1:50:39, nearly 18 minutes faster than before.

I’m always saying I’m a long runner not a fast one – and I’m under no illusion here, after three years of busting my balls to reach a pace many others start off at – but my improvement didn’t come through a program of intense speedwork, or high-altitude training, or eating only minted peas for a month. It came from a gentle increase in miles every week, drinking a little less alcohol and eating slightly less junk food. The weight loss made running easier, and the running helped the weight shift quicker, simple as that. But most importantly I ran only for enjoyment, not as a chore, and without denying myself the little pleasures that get me through a week.

Last time I made a concerted effort to improve my speed I did too much too soon, became disillusioned with the lack of improvement and almost gave up running altogether. It became an exercise in self-flagellation. I had to convince myself to leave the house, I felt guilty about every pint or packet of crisps and started to compare each lost second to potential culprits – was it that Snickers bar that made me go slower? Did missing that run to go to the football ruin my chances of a PB? I was miserable.

Since Ealing last year, the only sub-marathon distances races I’d run were the Petts Wood 10k and Bromley 10k, and they were both pretty taxing. I knew then it wasn’t the race’s fault, it was mine. I knew I had to change my mindset, incentivise myself with something that wasn’t finite or unsustainable. And I had to stop punishing myself. The 50 Mile Challenge back in July – and the inspirational Gil: “miles mean smiles” – switched on a lightbulb for me.

So, I’ll continue to follow QPR around the country with my obnoxious little band of train yobs, and I’ll enjoy that as much as I always have. And at the same time I’ll continue to run whenever and wherever seems like fun. I’m 30 years old this year. I’m too old not to have fun.

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