A marathon training run

Yesterday I did something I’ve never done before: I ran a marathon.

Okay, let me qualify: I’ve actually done that five times before, but what was different this time was that it was on my own, on a local trail called the Downs Link, as a training run. To add to the challenge, it was 30 degrees Celsius, I had to arrange my own aid stations (thanks to my Dad and Southwater Co-Op). Oh and I’d done a long run and a 92 mile ride the day before!

The Downs Link itself is a fantastic multi-use trail following the old railway line route linking the North and South Downs. It stretches for 37 miles from Guildford to Shoreham-by-Sea – my family home is conveniently located mid-route in Henfield, West Sussex. I enjoy running in London: gritty, urban, yet quiet and almost social in the parks, by The Thames and along Regents Canal. But there’s something liberating about running free in the countryside, feeling the clean air fill your lungs, drawing strength from the beauty of the landscape surrounding you.

The run itself was tough. For 2hrs I felt great: low heart rate, easy pace, taking on sports drink (using a Fuel Belt) and making water stop #1 in Southwater just on the hour mark. But as I hit the turn around – mile 13 – at Slinfold (near Horsham) the heat was starting to become a bit of a factor. I’d agreed to meet my Dad by a little hump-backed bridge outside Christ’s Hospital school – 2h20 on the clock and as I saw the car I felt elated. I think I’d been dreaming about water every few minutes or so since about 1h30, not helped by running past a load of kids splashing around in a big water sports lake! Fluids consumed I resumed the mission and trotted off southwards back towards Southwater.

My heart rate remained low throughout, but I must have been dehydrated as my energy levels dropped in the final 45mins and every step felt painful in my calves and quads. It seemed an age before Partridge Green emerged; I had to focus mile-by-mile, landmark-by-landmark to get myself home. Seeing people outside the old Cat & Canary pub in Henfield (where the station used to be before the Beeching axe fell), sipping beers and getting ready for the footie really drove home what a bizarre morning I’d just experienced! If I’m honest, I’d say it was possibly the hardest marathon I’ve run – maybe even harder than my first in Stockholm in 30-degree heat; perhaps harder than my PB run in London last year. I finished in 3h42, average HR 132bpm and a pace of 8.30 minute miles. I lost 5 pounds in weight despite taking in over 3 litres of fluid.

Well, technically that’s my sixth marathon under the belt then. I’m pleased to report no soreness today and as Coach says it’s “money in the bank”. In recent years I’ve been a disciple of Tim Noakes who argues that there are no physiological benefits from runs over 2hrs. But this Ironman training schedule has challenged a number of principles I’d hitherto firmly held. Will I see the benefits from going VERY long?

I’ve put my faith in Steve Trew. I’m not one to do things by halves; in for a penny in for a pound….and hopefully – going into Ironman Switzerland in 4 weeks’ time – he’s absolutely right about how much is in my training bank.

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Caution runners: Sussex Beacon Half Marathon 2010

Sunday 21st February marked my first race outing of the new decade, and what better place to do so than my home town of Brighton. This year was the 20th annual running of the Sussex Beacon Half Marathon, a race that has grown beyond all measure over the years.

Just three years’ ago I ran this – as I started out on a metamorphic journey from former national-level high jumper and loosely active twenty-something, to obsessed amateur endurance athlete – and was one of 3208 finishers. Incidentally, so too was former GB track star, Olympian and Sussex resident Sally Gunnell, with whom I had the fortune of running for a few miles, until her superior pacing kicked in!

Yesterday, 6064 brave souls battled heavy rain, at moments sleet, fierce icy winds and biting cold to run 13.1 miles up and down the sea front. The starting area was understandably filled with plenty of cautious faces before the gun went off. And – as the weather battered the coastline and Palace Pier – there were plenty of hardy supporters looking even more cautious about the next hour or two.

Substituting this event for a scheduled hard training run and using it as a barometer for form/Ironman training progression, my race plan was simple: go out at 7s and see what happens. I hit mile 3 (the only marker I saw) in 20mins – slightly too quick – but then faced the headwind going west after the turnaround; it was really testing, but I held form as best as possible. Of course, a headwind never seems to manifest itself as a tailwind when going back the other way – sods law! – but the going was easier on the return and I came in under the finish banner at 1.32.35. A race day PB (although I’ve run quicker in training!).

Overall I am delighted to be running this sort of pace off less than half my normal marathon training volume/frequency. Moreover, thanks to end of ’09 season niggles, Britain’s January big freeze and reckless North London drivers, I’ve had a few knee problems to contend with. This is a real boost going into Coach Trew’s next training block and what will be a crucial period in the build to Ironman Switzerland.

Now for the criticisms: how difficult is it to 1/ issue and police proper colour-coded race numbers corresponding with finish times? 2/ label starting pens clearly? 3/ set out 13 mile markers (not just random barely visible signs)? Okay, the entry levels have skyrocketed, but this is a real mass participation race now and other organisers don’t allow such elementary problems to occur.

Saying this, the Sussex Beacon is growing year-on-year for a reason: it’s a top race on a flat scenic course, ideally timed before the spring marathons. And with the inaugural Brighton Marathon on the horizon, running on the south coast is really on the UK road running map. Great for the sport and great for the city.

Congratulations to friends Simon Clarkson (1.42.22), Richard O’Connor (1.43.37) and Louise O’Connor (1.43.12) – PBs across the board.

Train or train?

Following on from my post on training routine, I’ve been searching for further ways to economise my time. Catch the train? Or train…whilst making your way home? My journey to my new job is – frankly – ridiculous: three modes of transport, plus two 10-15min walks either end, adding up to – at best – 1h15, and on Friday evening a round 2hrs. The real loose cannon is the train; the tube doesn’t help, and the buses are less-than-consistent. Enough is enough.

Where possible, I’m running home. The below route can take in up to three green spaces – Wandsworth and Clapham Commons, and Battersea Park – as well as London’s spectacular skyline from Chelsea Embankment past Westminster, The Eye, and the best of the north Thameside, before cutting through the City of London. The river section is a favourite for my 3hr runs. There are also options for diverting up to Hyde and Regents Parks for variety.

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Why….

…have I agreed to run this?

Birmingham Route

Like my season needed an extra 1/2 marathon! Glutton for punishment. A group of friends are running – all doing their first ever long distance race – so it’s great to see ever more people join the endurance sports fraternity! It should be fun; post-70.3 I’ll go in with no expectations and just try to enjoy it for once.

The race is also hosting the World Half Marathon Championships, and Paula Radcliffe has just announced she’ll be gunning for victory. Looking forward to it.

Back after the intervals

Interval training for distance runners

Track

Interval training can be an extremely effective technique for improving your running speed. However, a common misconception prevails: they are only used to sharpen speed during a ‘peaking’ training phase. Interval training works both the aerobic and anaerobic systems. Utilised with care, running intervals early on in a training plan and at the correct pace can increase your lactate threshold, enhance your body’s ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles, and improve neuromuscular co-ordination. This will enable you to maximise the effects of training through the ‘build’ phase of your program; I find it gets me running quicker within each heart rate zone and gets me tuned to my training.

“No no… I was not very talented. My basic speed was low. Only with willpower was I able to reach this world-best standard in long-distance running” – Emil Zatopek, the father of interval training.

There are four variables for intervals: 1/ itensity (speed) of workout; 2/ duration of work (fast burst); 3/ duration of recovery interval; 4/ number of repetitions. Treat the intensity of your workout with caution; set a pace that is just above your threshold pace and do not be tempted to run flat out. Threshold pace is typically defined as your 10k pace (see Lore of Running for more depth on training pacing). Note that during the peaking phase this is gradually increased to 5k and 1-mile pace to sharpen.

Try this great workout: 300m @ 10k pace / 100m or 2 minutes recovery. If you are new to intervals, start with 10 repetitions; more experienced runners can perform 15-20 repeats. Use the pace calculator to establish your target pace. If you’re using a heart rate monitor, your HR should recover to the 120s during the interval. Your local track is the ideal place for interval sessions; failing that, mark out the distance on a flat, smooth, quiet section of pavement or go to a nearby park.

I ran 15 reps at 1.06 per 300m – based on a 38 minute 10k time – with my HR around 165 during bursts. Note this is slightly quicker than my PB as I’m looking to carefully increase my pace. Running too quickly will not lead to noticable training benefits over 10k+ distances.

Run Brighton: new marathon launches

My home town became my home city as part of Britain’s millennium celebrations. As a result the city has seen development to public facilities, a redesign of Churchill Square shopping centre, substantial residential property investment and – finally – the approval of work on the controversial new Brighton & Hove Albion football ground and sports complex. And now the city has announced the launch of the inaugral Brighton Marathon, Sunday 18th April 2010.

Brighton marathon_Course map

The route will take in plenty of the charismatic streets of central Brighton and Hove and the panoramic views along the seaside, before finishing on Madeira Drive (the usual finish for the London to Brighton bike ride, amongst other events). The course looks pretty flat – although miles 5 to 8 in Kemp Town might perhaps be undulating (the site doesn’t show a course profile) – so good times should be possible.

The organisers are offering 8000 entries for 2010. Scheduled for just one week before the London Marathon, Brighton will provide a great alternative. Moreover, if you enter Brighton, the event is offering to refund your entry if you are fortunate enough to – subsequently – make it through the ballot for London. This is a great way to ensure early entries into Brighton 2010 whilst avoiding lots of no shows on the day. 

I’m down in Brighton this weekend so I’ll be checking out the route and – more than likely – entering the event. London will still be my preference, but partaking in my home town city marathon would be an equally terrific experience.

Blackheath to The Mall: 26.2 miles around London

London Marathon

6.30am: Fairfield Grove, Charlton Village. My alarm goes off to signal that the day of the London Marathon has arrived. 99 days of training and a day of rest has preceded this day and – despite a few pre-race nerves (and two surreal race-day calamity strewn dreams) – I’m buzzing with excitement. Memories of gorging on two main courses at an Italian restaurant in Greenwich with friends the night before quickly comes back, and forcing down yet more food is – frankly – the last thing I want to do. But two bowls of Dorset muesli with water (not milk), two bananas, a Lucozade energy bar and several pints of water are gobbled before 6.45am. I ensure my pre-race meal is finished 3 hours before the start time and stop drinking 2 hours before.

8.20am: Blackheath station. The packed train arrives and scores of runners jostle and bounce their way up to the Blue start in Greenwich Park. Feeling relaxed.

9.15am: Greenwich Park. Where the hell are my gels?! A moment of blind panic as I scrabble around in my bag for three gels taped together. Are they on the bedroom floor in Simon and Reena’s flat where I’d stayed? Can I call them? Is there time?

9.17am: Greenwich Park. Thank heavens for that. I’ve found the gels hiding in my bag, and calm pre-race thoughts can resume.

9.42am: Blue start. I down a small bottle of mineral water to aid hydration. This fluid will be used by the body well before it passes through, alleviating the risk of an unwanted toilet break.

9.45am: Blue start. The horn sounds and the 2009 London Marathon is under way. I’m pretty close to the front so it only takes 1 minute to cross the start line. Notwithstanding, it’s still tricky to run free due to the volume of runners and my first mile is 8.04 – behind pace. From mile 2 congestion eases and I settle into a comfortable 7.15 tempo.

10.08am: Mile 3. The route drops down from Charlton Park to Woolwich and I clock a 6.57. This is too quick; I must keep the adrenalin in check! The saying ‘if it feels too quick, it’s too quick; if it feels about right, it’s still too quick’ comes to mind. But the problem is that months of training has got you to this point, this precise day when you’re in peak condition and it’s the hardest thing to move down a gear. Despite notions of a 7.40 pace, 7.15s feel comfortable, smooth and – well – about right! The mind plays tricks on you, constantly re-assessing splits against target pace and likely finishing times. I guess this is where the elites develop the ability to create and execute a firm race strategy without deviation.

10.21am: Mile 5. Friends Jon, Moray, Simon and Reena cheer me on. Today is warmer than expected and grabbing sips of water at most stations is crucial. London is very well organised in this regard: long tables on both sides; lots of volunteers; it’s very easy for the runners.

10.36am: Mile 7. The crowd support through Greenwich is incredible, especially by the landmark Cutty Sark. At mile 7 I see my family for the first time, sporting flags and banners and smiling faces. This is a real adrenalin rush. As mile 8 approaches I suddenly find myself on the shoulder of Gordon Ramsay! “Go on Gordon” I say, with a thumb up. “Go on son”, he responds.

11.19am: Tower Bridge. Amazing feeling crossing this monument of London; really lives up to expectation. I go through the half way point in 1.35.46, definitely under target pace. It gives me a good cushion, but will I pay in the second half? I always do this and really shouldn’t; maybe one of these days I’ll execute a negative split. I pull back as the Wharf looms and aim for just under 7.40s to reserve energy for the last 6 miles.

12.03pm: Canary Wharf. It’s getting tough now. Passed someone receiving oxygen in Narrow Street and also saw a guy veer off course and stagger into the crowd – dehydration is a risk, but my experience from 30-degree Stockholm 07 helps me balance fluids and carb intake. Isle of Dogs is probably the most demoralising part of the race, but the sight of my family at the Wharf gives me the boost I need to push for home. 1 hour to go.

London Marathon 200912.36pm: St Paul’s. Feeling better now. The crowd support through Lower Thames Street is brilliant and I can smell The Mall in the distance!

12.53pm: Embankment. Hanging on to 8s to 8.15s through gritted teeth. I’m still on for a PB, but it’s going to be close on a sub 3.20. Houses of Parliament remains just out of reach.

1.03pm: The Mall. The last 800m are cruel, and the way the finish hides out of sight around two corners compounds the pain.

1.06pm: The Finish. Marathon number five is over! 3.19.23. Sheer relief. And the beer in The Clarence on Whitehall tastes wonderful.

I narrowly beat Chris Boardman by 5 seconds on the line! And the sight of Nell McAndrew in lycra at the finish line makes it all worthwhile. What a day, what a race. Of my friends: Ewan came in at 2h55 – awesome; “no more fast marathons” he says, but we’ll see! Matt finished in 3h58 despite only six weeks’ proper training for his first marathon; very well done. He’ll be joining me in September for the half iron.

Now, how do I break 3h15 and tee up a shot at ‘Boston Qualifying’ ?!

 

Pace graphSplit times