In the car on the way to Lancashire, we discussed the race we were about to take part in and all agreed that it had the feel of a big event. Big, that is, within the very small pond that is UK distance running. Which is to say not very big at all. When we arrived, however, the event certainly felt serious and important, if not quite ‘big.’ Podium 5k is part of a new breed of no-frills, no-nonsense, no-finisher-medal type events where everyone participating is at very least a serious club runner and everyone goes with the same goal, to run fast. No one is using this one as a tempo run.
Of the four of us in the car, Dan, Mike and I were in the men’s ‘B’ race with a 15:15 entry standard, and Omar was in the ‘A’ race with a 14:30 cut off. We discussed the race ahead, looked at ranking lists and plotted our strategies. Us B racers agreed that ‘hang on to the pack and pick off a few in the second half’ seemed like a reasonable tactic to deploy. Omar, quiet and more prone to letting his legs do the talking than his mouth, decided he was going for more of a ‘get on the front and do some damage’ approach. I think there is a lesson to be learned here.
We walked to the start. The organiser had clearly jumped through plenty of logistical and health and safety hoops to obtain a permit under the new guidance but once we got in the start area it didn’t feel too different to a normal race, with the exception of the small field. Behind the start line was a grid of yellow dots. He called the names of the fastest five in the field (I wasn’t among them) and invited them to stand on the first row of dots. He then half-heartedly implored the rest of us to give each other a bit of room, mentally ticking boxes marked ‘H and S’ and ‘cover your arse in case someone gets ill.’
The gun sounded and we embarked on the first of just under five laps of a pancake flat, smooth cycle circuit. The temperature had dropped and apart from a bit of wind, conditions were perfect. I went straight to the back. Apart from the fact that I didn’t want to go any quicker, this also felt like a good strategy and I had a large group in front of me to block the wind. Because of this I constantly felt like I was going to run into the runners in front; I concentrated and tried not to clip anyone. The last thing I wanted was to trip myself or someone else. It felt too slow. It must be too slow. The first kilometre split is going to be well outside three minutes and I’m going to leave myself with far too much to do. “2:51,52,53,54…” OK, maybe not.
As we went round the next two laps I tried hard to concentrate on not letting any gaps form and on not letting the pace drop at all. When we got on to the long straight with the headwind, rather than running the tangent and aiming for the apex of the next bend as I normally would, I veered out into the middle of the road. The lead bike was doing this and the long line of runners between the bike and me had exactly the same idea: get in the slipstream and get out of the wind. Once I hit 3k in 8:48 I still felt like I had a bit in reserve and that I was definitely going to get under 15 minutes. With my track PB before the race just 14:59 it would have been tempting to ease off at this stage but I kept pushing myself in the knowledge that I could take a big chunk off this if I pushed hard to the finish. In the 4th kilometre I was unable to cover a surge from a club mate who was also running in our heat and found myself detached. By this point, though, I was so close to the finish and knew I only had to grit my teeth for a few more minutes. At this stage of the race a few runners were coming back through the field and were useful targets for me. It is always important to go straight past in this situation though; the reason they are coming back is that they are slowing down. You do not want to lose time getting stuck behind them.
The last kilometre passed quickly and in a blur. Whilst the first part of the race was all about concentrating on form, on pace and on staying relaxed, the last part was all about squeezing out every last drop. The phrase “give more” popped in to my head. It felt appropriate so I kept repeating it. In the long finishing straight I was outsprinted by one runner but held off another, crossing the line in 14:44. Fifteen seconds quicker than ever before.
Dan and Mike didn’t have the races they were hoping for, but were still quick to congratulate me on my time. As is often the case when a race has gone well, I didn’t feel pain or discomfort immediately afterwards or on the cool down. Writing this in significant discomfort 24 hours later I can confirm that this is not because I did not push myself hard enough; I think I was just on a bit of a high from a good performance.
We jogged round the outside of the cycle circuit whilst watching the women’s A race, then headed back to our position near the start to cheer Omar. Coming from a slightly warmer part of the world, Omar is not used to the British weather and whilst the rest of the field did their strides and final preparations in their racing vests, Omar wore a jacket and, almost comically for August, a pair of gloves. I took his jacket at the very last minute and he walked over to the start. As promised and true to form, he went straight to the front, undeterred by the presence of some truly world-class athletes in his heat, one of whom had stated his intention to target the British record.
Watching Omar is an absolute joy and an inspiration. For all we over analyse running, it is, in essence, a very simple sport. Run hard and keep running hard until you’ve crossed the line. Omar is as hard as nails and epitomises this way of thinking. Although he didn’t win the race, he finished fifth in one of the strongest possible domestic fields and made everyone sit up and take notice with his aggressive and uninhibited style of racing. He is one of my running heroes. He is also one of the kindest and most modest people I know. Although I ran a personal best on the night, this evening will be just as much about Omar when I look back on it in the future.
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 National Cross Country Relays is usually the main curtain-raiser for the English cross country season. A relay consisting of four legs of 5km each, it takes place in the first weekend of November every year and is always a good opportunity to brush down your spikes and remind yourself what pain feels like. Fortunately, with the legs being just half the distance that would be covered at league or county level, it is over quickly but it is long enough to give you a chance to test yourself on the mud. The relay format also adds a team element to the racing and means that you are rarely running in a group or with anyone running the same pace as you.
I took part today, as I did on the same weekend last year, and was faced with a very different course. Last year I wore my 6mm spikes on a hard and fast course that was essentially a series of dirt tracks and firm grassy sections. Today I wore my 12s on a course that was boggy and loose underfoot and sapped energy from you with every stride. My time from last year would have been one of the quickest of the day today, such was the difference in times. I was about 55 seconds down on last year despite running what felt like a good leg. I started in 26th and, reeling people in one by one, I passed nine runners whilst only getting caught by two, giving us a net gain of seven places. I didn’t know this, of course, as in reality I was passing significantly more runners than this. The two-lap nature of each leg means that you are often lapping people, particularly on your second lap. It felt good to be the chaser rather than the one being chased.
Next week the season starts properly with the first league fixture of the season. We won the league last year and I want to play my part in helping the team repeat the feat this winter.
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.
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.
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.