Whilst the act of cleaning my stinking shoes after a race is nothing new, the sight of my spikes drying in the hot August air seemed symbolic of a seaon passed and prompted reflection on what I had achieved and how this compares to my expectations for the season. Strictly speaking the season is not yet over; I’m going to have one last go at my 5000m PB later this week before putting my feet up for a week or two, but with leagues and championships done and dusted and their results consigned to the history books (Power of 10) it is fair to say that the track season is complete.
First of all, this season has definitely been a success. As well as running personal bests for 1500m, mile, 3000m and both steeplechase distances I achieved a long standing ambition to break 15 minutes for 5000m in a race that was by far the most satisfying of my track season. I’ve been in this sport for a decade now but continue to learn new things about myself. One is that I can still get a huge buzz from the simple act of having run faster than ever before. The thrill of running a personal best, in particular one that represents the conquest of a significant barrier, never goes away. The race played out exactly as I imagined it would when I had tried to envisage breaking 15; the conditions were good, the field was strong, I cut it about as fine as I possibly could and most of all it was bloody hard work.
Another thought that occured to me is that at 31 years old and with about as many miles on the clock as a second hand car I am still getting better. My surprise at this fact has nothing to do with me believing I am old and that my body should be weakening at this age, far from it, but more to do with the observation that it is normal for athletes in all disciplines to have a down year or a period of taking a step backwards before advancing. Every year since I started I have improved in some way or other, whether this be measured in the hard currency of PBs, by consistency of performances, or by my positions in events.
My final observation is that I need to take care of myself if I want to stay in this sport for another decade. My left calf has been a constant source of trouble since I tore it last year and hard racing on the track only tends to make the problem worse. The process of managing this starts with a break next week after my last race, and in the longer term doing more work over the winter to strengthen my calf. I have also picked up a fair few bumps and bruises this season, almost all of which were acquired by competing in or training for steeplechase. It is a tough event and requires good technique, high levels of fitness and plenty of concentration. I’m just lucky that none of these falls resulted in anything more serious. I will not be complacent about such a demanding event in future.
Time to take the spikes off the balcony and store them somewhere safe until next May.
I had a shocker of a race yesterday. For reasons possibly related to sleeping in a tent all week and driving for several hours back from holiday the previous day, I just didn’t have the legs for a good race at the BAL steeplechase yesterday. I even took a tumble on the way out of the water jump that left me both bruised and drenched. The fact that I had been roped in to doing a 400 hurdles an hour before probably didn’t help matters either.
But the thing is, I’m not too bothered.
Yes, of course I set high standards for myself and want to perform well every time I compete, but I have noticed that some races are very easy to write off. This tends to happen when I know I am in good shape and that the poor performance was the outlier rather than the trend. With good training and good races comes confidence. What is more difficult is dealing with poor races when things aren’t going well. I’ve been there too, but for now am quite happy to just write this one off as a bad day at the office.
Monday: 14km easy (14)
Tuesday: 15km easy (15)
Wednesday: AM 10km easy / PM fartlek run – 10 sets of 60s,60s on road (20)
Thursday: 10km moderate, strides (10)
Friday: rest (0)
Saturday: BAL Premiership, Cardiff – 400h 6th B in 72.61, 3000m steeplechase 4th B in 10:03.49 (8)
This week I finished first in a race and last in another but second across the line in both.
On Tuesday, fellow steeplechaser Jonny and I travelled to his home town of Kettering where his home club had agreed to put a ‘chase on for us. The third of our party, Matt, had pulled out at the last minute leaving just two of us on the start line. It was intended as an early season warm up race but there was nothing warm about it. By the time the gun went it was 9pm and a cool day had turned into a very cold one. The back straight was windy and the water in the pit was ice cold. Not steeplechase weather at all. We ended the race with respectable but unspectacular times; I was only 6 seconds outside my target for the race, suggesting I am in decent enough shape.
Sunday was the opposite, a 5000m run in intense heat. My club mate Omer, who is from Ethiopia, charged off at the front. Knowing that I would not handle the heat as well as him I let him go, imagining that he would come back to me at some point later in the race. He never did. Fortunately for me, though, the rest of the field suffered just as much as I did and I managed to hang on for second, and first ‘B’ runner, in a time of 15:29. It was an uncomfortable race and if I had known a week in advance what the weather would be like I would have asked to do a 1500 or a steeplechase instead.
Unfortunately, as I have learned this week, you can’t control the conditions, especially in this country. The one thing you can control is your training, however. If I keep up the hard work the good results will take care of themselves eventually.
Monday: 8km easy (8)
Tuesday: AM 8km easy / PM Kettering Open 2000m steeplechase, 2nd in 6:16.28 (16)
Wednesday: 16km easy (16)
Thursday: AM 10km easy / PM track session 8*200 off 200 jog (21)
Friday: 10km easy (10)
Saturday: rest (0)
Sunday: AM 8km easy / PM Midland League 5000m, 2nd and 1st B runner in 15:29.1 (18)
This week, after a couple of weeks of low intensity running due to some calf trouble, I went all in on my return to the track. On Wednesday we did 4 reps of 1km over barriers in spikes. This session was noteworthy for two reasons. The first was the remarkable fact that three people who collectively possess degrees in Mathematics, Economics and Biomedical Science can’t agree on where the start line should be for 1000 metres in lane 6. 100 metres further ahead is the answer, by the way. The second is that steeplechase sessions hurt. You can do all the drills and clearances you like over the winter, but nothing truly prepares you for the feeling of running hard over barriers. Although it got easier as the session progressed, the pain in both my lungs and calves was unexpectedly intense.
One thing that a winter of weekly hurdle drills has prepared me for, though, is being able to hurdle off both legs. Eight months ago, the idea that I would be able to clear a steeplechase barrier with my left leg leading seemed fanciful and ludicrous. Now, after gradually increasing the height of the clearances and forcing myself to do more reps on my weak leg than my strong one, I can hurdle off either leg. The benefit of this is that any foot readjustment on the approach to a barrier is minimal, and thus less time is lost at each of them. It also means that the muscular load of both taking off and landing is spread evenly across both sides of the body.
On Saturday we did a deceptively hard session. A distance runner’s response to hearing that the session is 12 reps of 100 metres is “is that all?” but I was well and truly broken afterwards. Each effort was a series of 6 hurdles, bringing the days’s total to 72 and the week’s total to 116, not including warm up clearances or water jump practice.
I hope it pays off.
Monday: AM 8km easy / PM 12km easy (20)
Tuesday: AM 8km easy / PM 16km easy (24)
Wednesday: 4*1000 over barriers with 300m jog recovery in 3:00-3:04, 2*400 in 67,64 (12)
Thursday: 15km easy (15)
Friday: AM 12km easy / PM 10km easy (22)
Saturday: barrier session – 12*100m with 6 hurdles off 20s, strides (9)
2017 has been a successful year for me as a runner and has shown me that even though I’ve been taking part in this sport for a good decade now, there is still plenty that I can learn. This year I have learned several valuable lessons, and so that I don’t forget them I am going to write them down.
Lesson 1: Speed Kills
This two-word phrase is thrown around so much in coaching and training literature that it has earned itself cliché status, but like all good clichés it conveys a large amount of truth. To be a good distance runner it is essential to possess good speed. I am not an athlete whose legs are packed with fast twitch fibres but that doesn’t mean I can’t improve my ability to run fast. Reflecting on my running goals this morning it occured to me that in order to get my steeplechase time down in the low 9 minute bracket, I need to be in 8:30 3k shape at worst. I am not going to achieve this by improving my endurance; that bit is sorted. I’ll need to be in 4 minute 1500 shape. Which means I’ll need to be in 2 minute 800 shape. Which means…
I have improved this year by doing more speed work on the track. Not so I can unleash a devastating kick on anyone who dares to be in the same postcode as me with 250 to go (nice though that would be) but so that I can handle faster paces over all distances.
Lesson 2: Strength and Conditioning is Vital
Distance running is a brutal sport. It pushes and punishes the body, creates wear and tear (more on tear later) and stress-tests the notion that our species was born to run. Measuring your weekly kilometres with 3 digits is not something normal human beings do. Nor for that matter is measuring your weekly volume at all, but I digress. To cope with such a large volume of training, runners’ bodies need to be robust and strong. This year I have really been trying to focus on strengthening my body at home and in the gym so that I have a strong core and muscles that are up to the task I assign them almost every day. In addition to this, gym work, hill sprints, weights, strides and plyometric exercises all contribute to your ability to run at higher speeds. See lesson 1.
In October I was unfortunate enough to tear my left calf whilst racing for my club. The time that elapsed between the injury and my next race was only five weeks, the time between the injury and my next run a mere two and a half. In part this was because I followed my physio’s advice to the letter and did not try and run too soon, but I also believe that lightly loading and stressing the muscle when it was ready, as well as focusing on all the other muscle groups in the body, was what allowed me to return so quickly and what stopped the injury from returning once I was back to a full training load.
Lesson 3: I can handle more training than I thought
Since moving clubs I have increased the density of hard sessions. I am not running bigger mileage than I was before, but a greater proportion of it is at pace. Some weeks I will do three hard sessions, usually on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Sometimes one of these is a dud and my legs succumb to the workload I am demanding of them and refuse to cooperate, but most of the time I can handle this amount of training. As long as I keep listening to my body and holding back when I need to, I will continue with this.
Lesson 4: 30 is just the start
This year I celebrated my 30th full orbit of the sun. Whilst common sense would dictate that the difference between 29 and 30 is minimal in terms of what your body can and cannot do, the presence of the digit ‘3’ makes you worry about physical decline. At least in a relative sense of course. I’m not talking about getting myself a stairlift and a zimmerframe here, just a worry that I won’t be able to match the times I ran in my twenties.
And then I broke my 1500 PB. And then my 5000. And then my steeplechase. Three times.
I know I can keep improving. 30 is just the start.