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Calf Trouble – 2nd-8th October

Sunday 8th October 2017

I was flying. After, to borrow a phrase from my old team manager Richard, ‘treating the first hill with some respect’ I was moving nicely through the field on leg one of the National 6 Stage. One by one I picked my opponents off, running alongside before lining up my next target and chasing it down. Everything was going perfectly. Until it wasn’t.

I got a small clip from behind from another athlete as we headed out on the out-and-back section of the course. As I stumbled and tried to regain my balance my right foot struck my left calf. Although the initial feeling was one of discomfort it wasn’t hurting and wasn’t stopping me move through the field. This all changed, though, when we started descending. The extra load suddenly caused a cramping in the calf which reduced my fluid stride to a hobble. Unable to stop as this was a relay, I limped the final mile, getting passed by all but four other runners. The finish line couldn’t come quickly enough and when it did I promptly collapsed over it, my left calf in agony.

Today it is sore and it remains to be seen how bad the injury is, but this was a timely reminder that it only takes one small incident to turn you from a fully fit athlete to someone struggling to walk down stairs. Injury can happen to anyone at any time. Hopefully I will be back on two feet again soon.

My week:

​Monday: 16km easy, drills and hurdles (16)

Tuesday: AM 10km easy / PM 3:00 on grass, 6*(400,300,200) on track off 60,45,30, 3:00 on grass (25)

Wednesday: 16km easy (16)

Thursday: AM 8km easy / PM 10km moderate (18)

Friday: rest (0)

Saturday: AM 8km easy / PM National 6 Stage, 80th on leg 1 in 20:18 (18)

Sunday: rest (0)

The Last Race of the Night

Thursday 25th June 2015

No sooner had I hauled myself to my feet than I was back on the track again. Unable to stand up, I lay on the warm tartan once more and took in a welcome lungful of sweet oxygen. The second attempt was more successful. Assisted by one of my competitors, I got to my feet for just long enough to stagger off the floodlit track and to a nearby railing. Mark had crossed the line by this point and patted me on the back, congratulating me on a hard-earned win. These moments are always best shared with friends.

Three minutes earlier I could smell blood. Increasing the pace every lap, I had picked my way through the field from 12th after one lap to second after ten. The leader was in sight and with a kilometer to go I realised I had a strong chance of catching him too. I was already on the limit though. Dan had just called my 4k split and it was faster than I had ever reached that point in a race before. A personal best was in the bag; now I wanted to win the race. With 800 to go I was within striking distance, by 600 I was on his shoulder. I went straight past and made one last push for the finish. In the last three weeks I had led at the bell on two separate occasions but been beaten. I was determined not to let it happen again.

Richard and some of the others from the club were at the finish line, roaring me on as the bell sounded. The announcer was now saying my name, not someone else’s. It was a big boost.

My winning time was 15:09, an 8 second improvement on my PB. This is the biggest chunk I have taken off my 5k time for a while and it now puts sub-15 within my reach. I need Tuesday’s conditions as well as the nerve to commit to the pace from the gun rather than giving away seconds in the first few laps. I’m delighted with my improvement; it is hugely satisfying on the rare occasion when everything clicks.

How great it would be if the next post here contained the number 14.

The first first

Monday 5th May 2014

There’s a first time for everything.

This year’s firsts are two new events on the track, namely the steeplechase and the 10,000. The steeplechase is not an event I had really considered before this year, but the club’s promotion to division 1 means we need all the points we can muster in order to stay there. So I offered my services.

Until only a few days before the race I had been blasé to the point of arrogant about it, and far too relaxed. That all changed when I went to the track on Thursday evening before Sunday’s race and returned home grazed and bruised down one side after coming off second best in an altercation with one of the barriers.

After this I went from a state of not worried at all to, frankly, shitting myself. The barriers are actually much higher than they look on TV and I still hadn’t done a water jump in training. Still, I’d promised to do it and it was too late to back out now, so after more stretches and drills than I’d normally do before a race I made my way to the start line. Once I’d worked out where it was of course.

The first fixture of the season was a 2k rather than the full distance. Good news: fewer barriers to jump over. Bad news: you have to negotiate the water jump 100 metres into the race whilst there is still heavy traffic.

The gun went and I let the Birchfield athlete go. There was no way I was going to let myself go off too fast. I slipped into lane 2 next to the guy from Stoke to give myself a clear run at the first barrier. Cleared. Good.

We hit the water jump side by side and leading with my right foot I made a clean clearance and pushed out of the water pretty well. This was the thing I was most worried about before the race and my nerves were calmed immediately. Just do it like that again and you’ll be fine. Just get round. Nothing silly now.

I ticked off another few barriers, and coming round with 3 laps to go I was now in 2nd, 20 metres or so behind the leader. It was difficult to judge my effort level accurately as it was a completely new feeling for me. Whilst I was working hard to accelerate away from the barriers, I still felt I could go a bit quicker between them so with about 2 laps to go I pushed on and soon found myself on the shoulder of the leader.

I now had a decision to make: do I tuck in behind him or do I take the lead? I was reluctant to go to the front in case I had misjudged it and got passed again, which is one of the most demoralising things that can happen late in a race. I stayed on his shoulder for a few more barriers and tried to give myself enough space to clear them smoothly. I landed awkwardly off the penultimate water jump, jarring my left foot, but had made up the lost time by the next barrier. Just before the bell I went to the front, not wanting to leave it to a sprint finish. I pushed on and opened up a small gap. He was still just behind me going into the last water jump but I made my best clearance yet and got away from him. I knew that all I needed now was to clear the home straight barrier cleanly and the win would be mine. I did. I pumped my fist in the air and I crossed the line, a celebration more of having actually finished the race rather than having won it.

I am under no illusions that the field was a strong one – the steeplechase is notorious for being an event of lower standards – but I was still really happy to have come away with the win. What’s more, Richard won the B race in an entertaining last lap duel with his rival from Stoke. Maximum points for the club!

Next time (yes, I said next time) I will train to clear the barriers more smoothly to lose less time on them. I also need to work on pushing further off the water jump so my landing foot falls just short of the edge and I can push off onto dry land. Oh, and I won’t do a 1500 an hour later. The less said about that race the better.

My first first was great fun and very successful. My second first is on Saturday and involves 25 laps of the Parliament Hill track at the Highgate 10,000m night. Let’s hope I enjoy it as much as this.

72 Painful Minutes

Sunday 2nd March 2014

This morning I lined up, for the 9th time in my life, at the start of my home town half marathon in Berkhamsted. I had won this race for the last three years and was hoping to do the same again. Accompanying me on my mission was Dan, who had agreed to run with me for as long as he could to try and help me out. We had no idea how the race would pan out; my first win was a solo time trial, my second a man-to-man battle in torrential rain and my third another solo effort but a painful one after a needlessly fast start.

The 2014 edition proved to be a tactical race in very windy conditions. Within half a mile a group of 6 of us had formed at the front, soon to be whittled down to 5 after the first big hill. Dan was doing a great job leading it out and blocking the wind. It was hard to tell what pace we were running as some of the mile markers seemed to have been moved from their usual spots, but I did hear someone’s Garmin beep as we passed the 3 mile point in around 16:45. We exchanged the lead like a hot potato over the next mile , no one really wanting to push it on and do the work. I decided that if I was going to break the group up it might take a couple of moves and it would definitely involve taking the race by the scruff of the neck and pushing the pace. After a sharp right-hander in the 5th mile I went to the front on a downhill section and started to put my foot down. I suspected someone would try and go with me, but it wasn’t the two runners I had raced here before, nor was it Dan, who was tucked in at the back of the group. A gap opened up briefly but it was quickly bridged by someone I didn’t recognise. We pulled away from the others and reduced it from a five-man race to a two-man one.

My new companion was running well but seemed unwilling to do any of the work. I led him past the half way point and up the steep hill in the 7th mile. He stayed on my shoulder. I went to the middle of the road. He stayed on my shoulder. I went to the very edge of the road. He stayed on my shoulder. With a strong wind in my face I really didn’t fancy carrying passengers so I slowed the pace down, only for the other runner to pull along side me but not take the lead himself. I didn’t want to slow it down any more and let the others catch us up so I continued to drive my passenger for another couple of miles, exchanging neither glances nor words with the man running directly in my slipstream.

Somewhere between the 9th and 10th mile markers, I made a plan to drop him on an uphill stretch away from the wind. I pushed off the top of the hill and round the corner but it wasn’t enough. By this point my calves were aching, sore and stiff, but I took a guess that his probably were too. I realised that if I was going to get away from him it would require a big move rather than a gradual injection of pace, the kind of surge that can break an opponent but also potentially break you. I knew I needed to take a risk. As we rolled over a speed ramp I swung out to the middle of the road and put the hammer down. This time, it was enough. In my 3 wins on this course I had been running solo by this point and had the race wrapped up. This guy had made me work much harder. All I needed to do now was jog it in, safe in the knowledge that my opponent had fallen out the back door.

Or so I thought. I put in a big effort to increase my lead in the 11th mile but could still hear footsteps behind me. Shit. Not wanting to look back I listened to the time gaps between the shouts from the spectators at the roadside. The gaps were pretty short. One helpful driver even wound down his window to announce that “he’s not too far behind you.” As if I didn’t know already. We were approaching the final climb of the course, a tough 300 metre hill before the downhill finish. I knew that if I let him get back on my shoulder up the hill I would have no moves left and would probably finish second so I ran as hard as I could, whilst trying not to give away the fact that I was in pain. I got to the top still in the lead and began filling my head with every cliche in the book: “he’s hurting more than you,” “stay focused,” “only 6 more minutes to go,” “only 5 and a half minutes to go.” And so on. It seemed to work; as I turned the corner to start the descent into the town I could no longer hear footsteps. I stole a quick glance over my shoulder and estimated my lead at 50 metres. I still had to work hard down the hill but suspected that if I did the race would be in the bag. With calves, quads and hamstrings all screaming at me I covered my ears and ran. As hard as I could. I looked back at the last right-hander before the finish and had a winning lead. Patrick was standing on the corner and high-fived me. This was about all I had energy for. I had a half-hearted attempt at lifting my arms aloft in celebration but this was asking too much of my tired muscles.

I turned around at the finish and shook hands with the man who had pushed me to my limit over a tough course. We exchanged pleasantries and of course, these were the first words we spoke to each other all day. This was by far the hardest I’ve ever had to work to win a race, by far the most focused I’ve needed to be. The battle today was half physical and half mental and I did just enough to come out on top. By eight whole seconds.

One day I will lose  at this race. This is inevitable. But I really am glad it wasn’t today. I don’t want it to be next year either. Or the year after…

The Last 5%

Sunday 9th February 2014

I think it’s fair to say I’ve recovered from my injury.

After a couple of months almost completely off and another couple spent building the volume back up very slowly, I’ve now managed 7 weeks of what I would call normal training. When you initially start training again, it is a real shock to realise how unfit you are. Paces and distances that would normally be no problem leave you gasping for breath and in pain for days. Recovery takes much longer; your body takes a while to adapt to the demands once again being placed upon it. When I was at this stage, Tim said to me “don’t worry – when I was injured it only took 3 weeks to get to 95%” and this has proven to be the case.

After two weeks I raced again and after 3 I was managing Tuesday track sessions without feeling like I was about to die on Wednesday morning. After 4 I almost broke 16 minutes again at the parkrun. Tim was right. The 95% rule seemed to be working a treat. What he never told me, though, was how long the last 5% would take. Clearly this is not an exact science but there is an element of truth to it. You improve very quickly when returning from injury, just as one does when taking up running for the first time, but the difficult bit is when you start to approach your physical peak again. Like climbing a mountain, the summit always looks closer than it is. As you keep climbing, however, you realise how much further there is to go.

Yesterday was a day when I was hoping to notice some improvements. I’d had a light week, tapering down for the race after a very good week of training prior to that, and was confident I could have a decent attempt at breaking the top 30 or even top 25 in Birmingham League Division 1. Sadly it wasn’t my day. Feeling confident, I went off quickly but within a few hundred metres my legs felt sore, heavy and sluggish. To add to my misery, the wind had picked up and seemed to be in our faces the whole way. I say ‘our faces,’ but what I really mean is ‘my face,’ as I managed to get myself stranded after half a lap and ran the vast majority of the race completely on my own. I dragged myself round the second lap of three and as I crossed the line to start the final lap the rain began to pour, cold on my wind-battered skin. I managed to work my way past two people but did not get any shelter from them as they didn’t respond and went straight out the back door.

I held my position for the remainder of the lap and limped over the finish line feeling freezing cold and sorry for myself. One mild attack of hypothermia and one hot chocolate later we were on our way back to Birmingham. It was the kind of race and conditions that make you if you’re in good shape and break you if you’re not. Yesterday I learned that I am the latter.

The last 5% clearly takes some time. I don’t know how long yet but I’m going to keep working hard until I find out.