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The Time Trial

Friday 15th May 2020

In the last eight weeks I have done so many new things. I have worked from home, I have walked through empty streets in the city centre, I have heard birdsong in the morning, I have washed my hands ten times a day, I have breathed clean air on the balcony of my apartment, I have bought a turbo trainer, I have crossed the road to maintain a two metre distance from other pedestrians, I have experienced irrationally high levels of excitement at finding flour on supermarket shelves, I have made and delivered face shields for care homes and doctor’s surgeries, I have read books, I have learned songs. And I have been running. A lot.

Granted, the last activity on the list doesn’t really qualify as ‘new,’ but the way I have been doing it is. I haven’t raced since the first day of March and haven’t done a group training session since just after that. Instead I have filled my time with a sustained period of high mileage, aided by the fact that I have more time to train and to rest and that there are no races to taper for or recover from.

About a week or two ago, I was really starting to notice the fitness gains that were resulting from this block of heavy training. Frustrated not to have any races to put this fitness to good use in, I asked my coach if he could include some kind of time trial or race simulation effort in the next two week plan. He agreed it was a good idea, not just as a means of testing fitness in the absence of races but as a way of adding some variety and novelty to the training. When I saw the plan I immediately regretted asking, though, as he had included not one time trial but two in the next week’s schedule. The first was a 3 mile flat out effort and the second an hour test to establish how far I could go in that period of time.

Doing something new can be equal parts daunting and exciting and I experienced both feelings on Wednesday afternoon before doing the 3 mile test. The fact that it is not a common race distance is a clever way of making sure I have no PB for the distance and am therefore unencumbered by expectation. The main worry I had was that I would not be able to raise my level of effort to anything like the level I would in a race, given the lack of competition and the fact that the result carries no weight or significance beyond being a loose indicator of fitness. I was pleased to hit 3 minutes for the first km but was also very worried I would blow up completely.

One advantage of running purely against the clock is that you have no external stimuli to respond to and can run a very even pace if you are able to judge it correctly. I slowed slightly in the next couple of kilometres but still felt I was running smoothly and in a controlled way; I glanced at my watch just after 3km and was just outside 9 minutes. Pretty good on my own on grass. I tried to visualise what a proper race would feel like to give some motivation and help me push as hard as I could. Every time I looked at my watch I tried to picture how many laps of the track remained. The last few minutes were very tough, a situation that was not helped by the wind, which was starting to pick up. I threw everything I could at the last few hundred metres and stopped my watch as soon as I saw 4.83km. 14:42. I’d have been happy with anything under 15 minutes, so was pleased with the effort I was able to put in. Further evidence that I had managed to get a lot out of myself came the following day; my legs were completely wrecked.

Although any self-timed result must be taken with a pinch of salt, not least because GPS watches are known for measuring inconsistently and unreliably at times, it’s a good indicator that I haven’t lost any fitness. In fact, I’m feeling as strong as I ever have so it feels like a shame that there are no real races for me to take part in any time soon. In the mean time I will just have to make do with running as far as I can in sixty minutes on Sunday. Pain awaits…

The Race That Never Was

Tuesday 1st January 2019

I had heard stories like this from other runners before but never thought it would happen to me.

This was the first time I had done the Gloucester 10 mile race, a small event taking place on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year. After a couple of weeks of really good training I was looking forward to getting one final race in for the year and hopefully posting a fast time.

before the chaos…

Within half a mile I was off the front with Dan and it was becoming increasingly clear that one of us was going to finish first and the other second. My legs felt great and I had just gone through a mile in close to five minutes feeling comfortable. To make up the full race distance, the course does an out and back section on an industrial estate before heading out on to country lanes. We completed this section and at the second time of arriving at a roundabout, were directed my the marshals to go round again. This was surprising, but I followed their instructions as I didn’t know any better. It very quickly became clear that we had been sent the wrong way.

Sadly, the lead car, which had pulled over prior to a narrow part of the course, was nowhere to be seen. Runners were backing up behind me and the marshals had no idea where to send us. Our chance of a fast time already out the window, Dan and I decided to abandon. We both agreed it would be best not to confront the organisers until we had had some time to calm down, so we went for a run of our own and discussed what had just happened. We were both very frustrated by the poor organisation that had cost us the opportunity to run a good time and most likely win some prize money.

The email sent by the organiser later that day did little to resolve the problem. The blame was pinned solely on the one marshal rather than the race director themself, there was no acknowledgment that this had caused huge frustration for a significant number of people (many others also stepped off) and there was no offer of a refund, something I had assumed would be a given in these circumstances. Furthermore, they published results despite an estimated 10% of the field running off course and the remainder covering a variety of different distances. They also gave prize money out, in what can only have felt like a hollow victory for its recipient. A poor showing from the organisers.

I am not annoyed because someone made a mistake; this happens all the time and is completely normal. What bothers me was the way in which the mistake was atoned for – or not, in this case. Dan and I have both contacted the race director asking why prizes were given out and how to claim a refund. We are both awaiting a reply.

Eleven Years

Sunday 9th December 2018

Saturday, 13th January 2007 – Wyken Croft Park, Coventry

I don’t remember much about it, but the records show that I took part in my first ever Birmingham and District Cross Country League race for my university. Aged 19 and competing in division two I managed a lowly finishing position of 87. This was probably no more than I deserved given the half hearted nature of my training at the time. Running was, at the time, vying for space on my schedule with maths lectures, travelling to Birmingham to visit my then girlfriend (now wife), playing football, watching football, seeing bands, working a part time job and going out like any self-respecting undergraduate does.

What I do remember, though, is that it was painful and humiliating. My memory of the day is largely in black and white, though I appreciate that this may be as much due to the passing of time as it is to the fact that most Saturdays in January tend to appear this way when I look back on them. I was unfit and underprepared. Eighty six people beat me and I didn’t make Warwick’s scoring six.

Saturday, 1st December 2018 – Warley Woods, Birmingham

Hoping to make amends for some poor pacing that cost me several places in the field and my club the win on the day three weeks earlier, I set off conservatively, allowing myself to drift back to around 50th at the end of the first lap. Division one in this league is a high standard of competition, but I know that a lot of the athletes ahead of me have overcooked it and will come back. On the second and third laps I move through the field, picking one man off at a time. Ahead of me I can see five other runners from my club occupying positions in the top ten. We are bossing the race at the front and I now need to pick up as many places as I can to keep our team score as low as possible. I continue to move up and into the top twenty. I am starting to run out of room to catch all the guys ahead who are coming back to me. I cross the line in 18th regretting not having taken a few more places in the last mile. Those 18 points contribute to a team total of 48, more than enough to take us to the top of the league. We’re going to be hard to catch now.

Sunday, 9th December 2018 – Telford 10k

I stepped off the road in a race this morning, the first time in many years that I have ended the day with ‘DNF’ next to my name. I never really got going and started to struggle with the pace well before half way. I hadn’t felt right all week and took a gamble on trying to compete. Save it for another day; there are more important races than this one.

When I started running eleven years ago I didn’t realise it was possible to run 15:43 for 5k, let alone go through half way in a 10k with that split whilst feeling terrible. I had no idea I’d be able to get to a stage where I’m making the scoring six for the team at the top of Birmingham League Division One. I didn’t know what steeplechase was, let alone think I could rank in the top 50 in the country for it.

As a teacher, I often encourage my students to reflect on how far they have come in their lives and in their education. Stopping to look down the mountain at everything beneath you gives a great sense of accomplishment as well as the motivation to continue your ascent of it. Now I need to do just that. I had an awful run this morning but I am in great shape and need to remember all the progress I have made. I have improved so much since I started and will continue to do so.

A Sort of Victory – Week Beginning 17 September

Monday 24th September 2018

On Saturday my club won the Midland 6 Stage Road Relays for the first time in a decade with a dominant victory over all our local rivals. No one got within a minute and fifty seconds of our time and our athletes occupied the top three slots in the list of fastest legs for the day. We led from the very first leg. It was a crushing win.

And I wasn’t part of it.

Despite my best efforts in training and our unoffical trial race at the parkrun the week before, I didn’t get selected for the A team. As the seventh best runner on paper there was no room for me in a team of six. It was a bittersweet victory for me; I was absolutely thrilled that my friends and training partners were rewarded for their hard work and had the chance to taste success, but at the same time I was frustrated at myself for not being among them.

I need to remember that this is the exact reason I moved club last year, though. I wanted more competition and I wanted to be surrounded by other athletes who were going to drag me along with them. Sometimes that means being picked for the B team. Now I need to use this as motivation to improve. Next time the road relays come around I want the gold medal hanging round my neck.

My Week

Monday: AM 9km easy / PM 11km easy (20)

Tuesday: AM 9km easy / PM 9km easy (18)

Wednesday: rest (0)

Thursday: 10km easy (10)

Friday: 8km easy (8)

Saturday: Midland 6 Stage, 8th on leg 1 in 18:30 (14)

Sunday: 24km moderate (24)

Not Breaking Fifteen – Week Beginning 06 August

Sunday 12th August 2018

Yesterday I didn’t break 15 minutes for 5000m.

Why, one might ask, is this a noteworthy or remarkable occurence? After all, I have not broken 15 minutes countless times. I am an expert at not breaking 15 minutes. I am reliable and dependable and if you ever need someone to not break 15 minutes, I’m your man. My failures at breaking the barrier outweigh, by some margin, the number of times (one) that I have.

Yet despite my impressive aptitude for failing to get round twelve-and-a-half laps in under a quarter of an hour, I was very pleased with yesterday’s run. In fact, my near miss was almost as satisfying as the time I actually did it. It confirmed my belief that I have taken another step forward this season. Backing up a PB with another time in the same ballpark is reassuring and shows that you are on a new level; it shows that the performance was no fluke.

I also feel that yesterday’s run was intrinsically better than my 14:59. It rained constantly throughout my race and the track was soaked. I went for it, stringing together a succession of 70-second laps in the middle of the race in the knowledge I had nothing to lose, and paid for it later on when I got dropped from the lead group I had fought hard to get on to. Despite this, I had decent strength and didn’t completely blow up having gone off at 14:45 pace. I learned that I am not yet in that kind of shape but also learned that I’m really not too far away. With even pacing I would have run a personal best but wouldn’t have learned anything about where my limit is.

Last night’s race has made me excited and hungry for next season, and in the shorter term, motivated for the cross country races that winter brings. But first a break…

My Week

Monday: 10km easy (10)

Tuesday: AM 8km easy / PM 13km moderate, weights (21)

Wednesday: 10km easy (10)

Thursday: AM 10km easy / PM 12*100 on grass (20)

Friday: rest (0)

Saturday: AM 6km easy / PM BMC Gold Standard B race – Milton Keynes, 6th in 15:00.71 (17)

Sunday: rest (0)