Training Diary (28/11/16 – 05/12/16) 8 weeks to go until the Gran Canaria Marathon

Monday was 6 miles recovery in the gym in the morning. This was a nice easy start to the week. My legs were quite sore from the road running I’d done on Sunday and it took a couple of miles for them to loosen up. I’m not sure if your legs get used to road running the more you do it but I don’t really want to take the risk and find out. I think it probably is important to do some road running in training, since my marathon is on the road, but maybe not the long run every week.

Tuesday was 8 miles general aerobic with 10x100m strides on the treadmill. The pollution was bad so I jumped on the treadmill as soon as possible after school, despite the gym being filled with teenage boys lifting weights. The run felt fine and passed quite quickly, although my legs were quite sore from the strength workout I did in the morning. I’ve been doing a lot more strength work in this training plan but I’m still unsure about whether squats and lunges are worth doing. They are supposed to make you less injury prone and it’s true that I’ve had hardly any problems despite doing more miles than ever before. On the other hand, they do make my legs quite sore and that has got to affect the quality of my workouts. As with so many things, I don’t know what the answer is.

Wednesday was 10 miles with 4 miles at threshold pace on the treadmill. Oh dear, I got this one all wrong. It’s rare that I don’t complete a training run but I just had to stop today. After my “suspiciously easy” 5 miles at threshold pace last Friday, I was feeling confident about the one this week and I had already decided to increase the threshold pace to 15.6kph. When I got to the gym, I noticed that it felt quite warm and stuffy but I told myself it would give me an extra level of challenge and I remained confident. I started with 4 miles to warm up and did those with no problem. I noticed that my heart rate was a little higher than it normally would have been but, stupidly, I didn’t adjust my goal. Then I started at the threshold pace. Within 5 minutes my heart rate was way up, the sweat was pouring off me and I was doubting whether I’d be able to hold that pace for 25 minutes. I told myself that my heart rate would even out soon and that I needed to grit my teeth and get the miles done- it was only 4 miles. Unfortunately, it just got worse and worse, even when I eventually gave in and reduced the speed to 15kph. My breathing became more and more shallow and I was starting to lose my form so, after 3.5 miles, I had to jump off and sit down. I got back on to do my planned 2 miles warm down but couldn’t face going back up to full speed for that last half a mile. I need to learn my lesson from this and adapt my threshold pace according to the temperature in the gym!

Thursday was 15 miles medium run outside. This was a really enjoyable morning run before work, although it started badly when I stepped out of the door from school at 6am and realised that the battery was dead on my GPS watch. I like to think I’m not a slave to technology and, on a normal day, I would have just gone ahead with the run anyway but it wasn’t possible today. With only 2 hours 15 until I had to be changed, showered and ready to start work and with my 15 milers generally taking 1 hour 50 there wasn’t any margin for error. To my rescue came Marathon Talk podcast episode 230, which was exactly 1 hour 54 minutes long. I decided to listen to it while running and start heading back to school when it sounded like they were coming towards the end. I got going and felt quite good, given yesterday’s over-the-top effort. The temperature was a little higher than last week and the wind wasn’t so strong. I enjoyed running by feel rather than looking at the heart rate on my watch and it has made me wonder whether I should do that more. The main thing stopping me is a worry that I won’t be able to judge my effort levels consistently. I think it only worked today because I had done an identical run the week before and knew how each part should feel. On the other hand, I’ll never get better at running by feel until I do it more and so maybe I should ditch the heart rate monitor forever. Whatever the answer, today’s run was a good one. The podcast method worked perfectly and I completed what must have been about 15 miles in what must have been about the right time.

Friday was 6 miles recovery on the treadmill. Oh how I needed this recovery day. From Thursday lunch time onwards, each of my legs turned into two blocks of wood joined by a creaky hinge. Standing up and sitting down was a real challenge so I taught most of my lessons from a chair at the front or leaning against various walls of the classroom. Maybe I ran that 15 miles too quickly without having my heart rate monitor to slow me down. Maybe I was feeling the effects of the hard effort on Wednesday two days later. Maybe it was the lack of time for stretching after each of those two runs. Maybe it was the lack of sleep Thursday night. Or maybe it was all of those together. Having said that, the 6 miles went by without incident, although there was a slight pain in the arch of my foot. I also desperately need some new trainers. Shoe companies would tell me those two things are connected but I’m not so sure.

Saturday was 7 miles general aerobic with 3x100m strides on the treadmill. What’s the point in doing only 3 sets of 100 metres? Well, after the third, my left hamstring started to tighten up and so I decided not to do any more damage, especially with 18 miles tomorrow and big week next week. My legs felt sore during the 7 miles and the slight pain in my foot was still there, although everything eased a bit when I got going. I had a good stretch afterwards and hopefully things will be ok for tomorrow.

Sunday was 18 miles long run on the treadmill. Even though it was slightly lower mileage than the two previous, this has been quite a hard week overall and it has resulted in a few niggles. My left leg has a range of possibly inter-connected sore points, including my hamstring, calf and the arch of my foot and so I was a little apprehensive about the 18 miles when I woke up. In the end, the miles went by quite easily, even though it was on the treadmill. Next week is a big week I’m going to keep running as much as I can but need to watch out for the sore points getting worse. One positive I can take is that I’m getting used to doing long runs without food or sugary drinks, which should mean I’ll not need to eat too much in the marathon. Goodbye stomach problems!

Total mileage for the week: 70. Another full week. I celebrated with more dumplings and a single beer.


Training Diary (21/11/16 – 27/11/16) 9 weeks to go until the Gran Canaria Marathon

Monday was 5 miles recovery AM on the treadmill and 5 miles recovery PM outside, on the way home. I decided to run home today as a way of saving some time and making the most of the clean air. The reason the air is clean is because strong gusts of icy wing from the north have blown the pollution away and have also dropped the temperature down to -7°c. Running home was chilly and the concrete pavement wasn’t the best way of giving my legs a break.

Tuesday was 15 miles medium run outside. 15 miles, 5.45am, -5°c. This is one of those that I can look back on and think, “If I can do that training run, I can do any training run.” I decided to do the run in the morning to make the most of the clean air and because I wasn’t going to have time after school. My original plan was to go without breakfast and start training myself to use fat as an energy source. Unfortunately, breakfast is the reason I get out of bed in the morning and I couldn’t face getting changed, let alone setting off, without some porridge in my belly. In the end, the porridge acted as a kind of rocket fuel, propelling me to average under 7min/mile on a medium-long run for the first time ever. I felt good the whole way, even though the tips of my fingers gradually froze inside my gloves and even though the streetlights were switched off half an hour before the sun showed up. Admittedly, I was running on the road for the first 9 miles and I had the wind behind me for a disproportionate amount of time but I’m still taking it as a sign that I’m getting fitter. The only issue with doing such an early long run is that it makes you want to fall asleep at your desk around lunchtime.

Wednesday was 6 miles recovery outside around the school fields in the morning. This was my most clotheful/clothy/dressed-up run for a long time: I wore tracksuit bottoms over the top of my shorts, a fleece jumper, a scarf and gloves and still I was a little cold. It was nice to enjoy the clear air for another day. Legs felt quite good for the rest of the day.

Thursday was 13 miles medium run outside on the roads and then the fields. This was another early start, with less wind this time but more of a chill in the air. The tips of my fingers were numb by the end and I had to cover my face with a scarf for some of it (not great for breathing). Despite the cold, I was running fairly fast and was below 7min/miles on average again. I enjoyed the run and I enjoyed the hot shower afterwards even more.

Friday was 10 miles with 5 miles at threshold pace on the treadmill. This was supposed to be a hard workout but it felt easy, suspiciously easy. I was able to control my breathing and maintain good form all the way through, even at a pace that should have been outside of my comfort zone. I got to the end of the 5 miles at threshold pace (15.4kph or 6.16min/mile), lifted the towel that I’d used to block the distance counter and found that I’d run 0.3 miles extra, which almost never happens. I got off the treadmill and my legs felt like I’d just done a recovery run rather than my hardest workout of the week. Had the treadmill accidentally been on the wrong setting? Had I made a mistake converting the miles to kilometres? It was difficult to know. Fortunately, my watch told me that my heart rate had been in the right zone for the whole run (hooray for heart rate monitors) and so it must have had more to do with feeling good psychologically rather than physically. Part of this might be about running in the morning, which I have started really enjoying. Once I get over the shock of a 5am start (by eating a bowl of porridge laced with honey) I feel fresh and alert and more able to cope with harder running. So I’ll keep running in the morning for the next few weeks and I’ll take this run as another sign that I’m getting fitter. I need to increase the pace of the threshold section to 15.6kph next time.

Saturday was 6 miles recovery on the treadmill. All day I was watching the pollution very closely to see when it would clear, as the forecast had said it would. It was only at 5.30pm when I realised it was going nowhere and so made a reluctant journey to the gym. Yesterday’s “suspiciously easy” hard run was actually quite hard, as evidenced by the feeling in my legs this morning. I took it very easy over the 6 miles, with the only hard part being the struggle to contain my laughter at Alan Partridge’s new audiobook.

Sunday was 17 miles long run on the roads. This was the furthest I’ve run on the roads for quite a long time but my legs weren’t feeling too bad afterwards. The run itself passed pretty quickly because I had Gail cycling with me for the first hour until her toes got too cold and also because I was glad not to be doing the same one kilometre loop that I always do. The only problem is that, in Beijing winters, you trade clean air for freezing winds and so that made it a little harder, but I can’t complain. These were almost perfect running conditions, my run went exactly to plan and my legs felt fine even at the end of my biggest ever mileage week. Celebrate the good times!

Total mileage for the week: 77. A full Pfitzinger (minus one strength session that I’m going to make up for next week)!

Training Diary (14/11/16 – 20/11/16) 10 weeks to go until the Gran Canaria Marathon

Monday was 13 miles medium run outside around the school fields. On what was forecast as the only non-polluted day of the week, I took the opportunity to get back among the crunchy leaves of the school playing fields. I shuffled my schedule around so that I was doing 13 miles rather than 6, just so that I could get more outdoor miles under my belt. It did meant running a 13 miler the day after an 18 miler and my legs did feel quite stiff to begin with, but they loosened up as I got going. In the end, I really enjoyed having to push hard, increasing my heart rate every few miles, as I always aim to do on long and medium runs. After a hard day at work, there’s nothing better than a run in the cold fresh air to clear your mind. I just wish I could do it more often.

Tuesday was 5 miles recovery AM outside and 5 miles recovery PM on the treadmill. I sneaked in an extra 5 miles in the morning before the pollution descended. Legs feeling quite tired after 18 followed by 13 on the previous two days. The double recovery runs and double stretching did definitely help.

Wednesday was 8 miles general aerobic with 10x100m strides on the treadmill. I included about 4 miles worth of hills as well because I don’t do enough of them. The whole thing seemed to drag because I’d had a long day at work and I didn’t feel much like running on the treadmill. I had to resort to counting my steps to keep going.

Thursday was 13 miles medium run on the treadmill. In contrast to yesterday, this 13 miles absolutely flew by. I was feeling great and my heart rate was very low in relation to my speed. The only issue came at about 10 miles, when I increased the gradient a few per cent and my knee starting feeling funny. I slowed down and it felt fine enough to keep running but I didn’t want to push too much. I think it’s a symptom of a tight hamstring. I’m not sure if cycling to and from work is making my hamstrings tighter- I’ve heard that cycling can do that- but it is definitely the part of my body that starts complaining first when I increase the miles. I do stretch them before and after every run but I can barely touch the top of my shoes, even after stretching. I might have to cycle slower or take up yoga. Not sure if the half hour strength session this morning might have affected it too – I did do some squats. The whole thing is a mystery. Hopefully it’s a small niggle and I’ll be ok for Saturday’s big run.

Friday was 6 miles recovery on the treadmill. I took it very easy with tomorrow’s effort in mind. My tight hamstring felt fine.

Saturday was 19 miles with 10 miles at marathon pace (6.40min/mile or 14.5kph) on the treadmill. The big one! On paper, this is probably the hardest workout in my whole 12-week training plan. 19 miles with 10 miles at marathon pace so early in the schedule is a big test and it’s only two weeks since I barely scraped through 17 with 8. Knowing that it was going to be tough, I did everything I could this week to be ready for it. I backed off near the end of the 13 miler on Thursday, I took it even easier than usual on Friday and ate a few more carbs than normal last night. The sweet potato chips set me up perfectly because I completed the run at exactly the right pace the whole way. It was definitely not easy- that was clear from my involuntary grunts and permanent grimace throughout the last 40 minutes- but my average heart rate was only just over 160, which is about right for that kind of effort. I also didn’t need to eat anything, which means I didn’t have to worry about stomach problems. There were just two negatives: the funny feeling in my hamstring/knee returned and, although I was able to keep running with it, my knee is definitely not happy now. I’ll have to foam roll and rest it as much as I can in the next few days. The other is that I emerged from gym into bright sunshine and blue skies. If I had waited another hour or two, I would have been able to do the run outside on the roads, which would have simulated the marathon even better. Oh well, I’ve learned not to trust the pollution forecast so much. The run is still a big confidence booster and makes me feel like I’m really making progress.

Sunday was 6 miles recovery on the roads. The rain has come and the pollution has gone! It was supposed to be snowy today but I’m glad it wasn’t. Instead it was the kind of fine drizzle that you get so often in the UK and it was lovely after a week on the treadmill. The run felt easy, despite using up all of my three-beers-a-week allowance earlier in the day. The hamstring is feeling ok but I’ll take it easy tomorrow as well just to be sure.

Total mileage for the week: 75. A full Pfitzinger!

Training Diary (07/11/16 – 13/11/16) 11 weeks to go until the Gran Canaria Marathon

Monday was 6 miles recovery. The pollution was gone for the day so I ran round the school playing fields, dodging U11 girls’ football practice. Nice to get out.

Tuesday was 10 miles with 4 miles at threshold pace on the school fields. A second day in a row outside- what a treat! The pollution was just starting to scrape 100 and I might have decided to stay in on another day, but I felt like I needed to get a hard outdoor run under my belt. I averaged 6.23min/mile for the 4 miles at threshold pace, with my heart rate averaging 162, which I think is about right. It didn’t feel too hard and the miles went by pretty quickly. Loved running through the crunchy leaves. Listened to a Marathon Talk podcast on the way home, which included an interview with a pro-fat, anti-carb nutritionist. He was quite convincing about the long-term health benefits of not relying on carbs alone as a fuel source but less convincing about the performance benefits. I won’t be switching to the Paleo diet any time soon but I will try to eat fewer carbs, especially before runs.

Wednesday was 10 miles general aerobic on the treadmill. I could feel yesterday’s hard effort in my legs, especially when I introduced hills, so there was nothing fast about this run. I got through the miles quite easily though and it didn’t feel like a long time to be running. I also managed to do 30 minutes of strength work this morning before school, which means the first of this week’s three double days is done.

Thursday was 4 miles recovery AM on the treadmill and 6 miles recovery PM on the road (I came home first and then went out). This is my first double running day of the training plan and I’m glad there won’t be too many more! In terms of distance and intensity it’s no problem, and running twice does help with recovery, but it’s difficult finding the time to get changed twice, run twice and stretch twice on an already busy work day. I listened to the second half of the Marathon Talk nutritionist interview that I mentioned on Monday and picked up another tip: the carbs you eat during a marathon aren’t providing energy to your muscles, but they are useful to remind your brain that there is some energy left and not to give up. It makes sense to me because, on my long runs on the treadmill when I’m sweating a lot, I sometimes have an artificially sweetened electrolyte drink. It has absolutely no nutritional value other than providing rehydration salts yet I always get a boost from drinking it. Surely it’s my brain’s reaction to the sweet taste. This means I only need to have a little taste of something sweet when I’m racing and will mean that I can avoid the stomach problems associated with eating too much sugar during a race.

Friday was 12 miles medium run on the treadmill. I made it to Friday! I need to get used to long runs at the end of the day Friday because they’re only going to get longer as the weeks go on. This felt pretty good and I was almost at marathon pace while still within the right heart rate range near the end. Maybe didn’t drink enough as I was running and so felt a bit weak near the end.

Saturday was 6 miles recovery on the treadmill. I take these recovery runs very easy. That’s not to say that they don’t take any effort: it’s nearly always feels like an effort when you’re running on the treadmill and you can’t exactly relax when running around Beijing streets. But I have found the right pace (about 8.20 min/miles) at which to do the six miles and I am learning how to stay relaxed while maintaining good form.

Sunday was 18 miles long run on the treadmill. This was a killer and I’m not sure why. Long runs are always hard on the treadmill but this one seemed to take an eternity. It might have been because I introduced about 4 miles-worth of 5% hills to the middle third of the run, which meant I slowed down quite a lot and the time dragged. It might also have been the warm gym. It might have been the effects of the extra mileage this week. Anyway, I did it and I can move on.

Total mileage for the week: 72. A full Pfitzinger! Considering this is equal to the biggest mileage week I’ve ever done, my legs feel surprisingly fresh. Let’s see if that continues into next week.

The 2016 Brussels Marathon: beer, chocolate waffles and a 78-minute P.B.

At the beginning of October, I ran my third marathon ever in Brussels. In the months leading up to it, I spent a lot of time browsing the web looking to get a sense of what the race and the city would be like, but there weren’t many recent posts that I could look to. I thought I’d share my own experience of the race and the weekend for anyone thinking about it as a future marathon destination.

Why Brussels?

I could say that I chose Capital of Europe as my marathon destination in order to make my feelings about Brexit quite clear. I could say that I was making a noble stand against terrorism after the bombings that happened there earlier this year. I could even just say that I wanted to indulge a love of Belgian beer, or chocolate, or waffles.

Unfortunately, none of that would be true. The much less exciting reasons for choosing Brussels involved, firstly, the date: it was the only city marathon that fit with my holiday time from work and, secondly, the location: it is relatively easy to reach from both the UK and Beijing (well, sort of). This scheduling and geography aside, I honestly had no particular reason for choosing Brussels, hadn’t planned on visiting any time soon and don’t didn’t even like Belgian beer.

Brussels, please forgive me.

Before the Race

I got there on Saturday morning, the day before the race. A ten-hour flight and seven-hour time difference left me feeling somewhat tired, but I got to meet my partner Gail, my brother, his partner and my sister and that made everything better. We wandered the tourist district, ate a nice meal and played a really good escape room game before I retired to bed quite early, which meant that I was feeling surprisingly fresh the next morning.

With 1,500 marathoners and 6,000 half-marathoners, Brussels is not a small marathon by any means, but it is nowhere near the scale of London, Paris or Berlin, where up to 40,000 take part each year. As such, I had no problem collecting my number and t-shirt on the morning of the race at the beautiful Parc du Cinquantenaire.  What’s more, Gail and I were able to have a romantic cup of tea on the floor of the expo venue, surrounded by people applying Vaseline and adjusting their compression pants.

Image credit: Matt is running

The hour before the race was incredibly laid back. In fact, on strolling down to the start line 10 minutes before the gun, I began to wonder if, in a jetlagged haze, I had actually turned up a few hours early. It was all so undramatic. Even on the start line, standing with the 3.15 group only 10 metres from the front of the race, the feeling was very subdued. I kept expecting hoards of extra runners to appear from nowhere wanting to shove their way into a better start position.

Some might complain about a lack of atmosphere but, when you have spent four months preparing for something and it finally arrives, fireworks and loudspeakers aren’t going to make it feel any more special. It was enough to be standing quietly with the other runners, thinking about all the time I’d invested, all the miles I’d run and all the doughnuts I’d rejected since signing up May. The 30-second countdown began before I knew it.

The Race

Ok, it’s time to come clean about that 78-minute P.B. statistic. This was no superhuman performance and there is no special training revelation to share. The truth is that Brussels was only my third marathon and my first experience of a flat(ish), city course. My two previous marathons marathons on Devon’s South West Coastal Path and on the Great Wall of China had each involved  at least 3,500 feet ascent on top of the 26.2 miles, and so I came to Brussels with a best time of 4’26. Unless something went seriously wrong, I was always going to run faster than that. My original target for the race was 3’15 but the Pfitzinger and Douglas 50-70 mile 12-week plan had got me in good shape and I had lowered that to 3’10.

I remembered to take it easy in the opening few miles, although I think I was the only one. Even the 3.15 pacers were running sub 7min/miles at first and so I let them go ahead, knowing that it would help to reel in those early speedsters later in the race.

In order to judge my pace, I spent the first quarter of the race obsessively checking my GPS watch. It was difficult to stick to 7.15min/miles on an undulating course and, by 10km, I was sick of having to speed up and slow down and I realised that running the whole race in this way would be no fun at all. I switched the display to show my heart rate instead and tried to run at a consistent effort level throughout, regardless of the pace.

Image credit: Matt is running

This worked quite well and I was able to enjoy the course as it left the city centre and stretched into the surrounding suburbs and parkland. Spectators and supporters were quite sparsely scattered but there were a few who diligently cheered for every runner by name, which really helped, even if the pronunciation of ‘Matthew’ eluded the French speakers. The volunteers at the aid stations were brilliant, despite the risks associated with handing paper cups of water to frantic runners. I must apologise to the one lady who, on placing a skinless banana into my grasping hand, found it projected back towards her like a slippery bar of soap. Feeling stupid, I half-stopped to apologise but she just laughed and told me to “Go, go!”

The first 13 miles were a breeze, with the temperature a perfect 12-15°c and series of wide roads bordered by trees and lakes. I had read in places that Brussels was a hilly marathon “most suitable for serious runners” but I would dispute that. It is definitely not flat, but the hills are more like long drags and they actually offer some nice variety, without disrupting your rhythm too much. I was feeling in control and was able to concentrate on passing those people who had gone out a little too hard. I went through half way in very pleasing 1’34, a minute quicker than my target time, without feeling like I had pushed too hard. Everything was right with the world.

Of course, a marathon doesn’t really start until after half way. For me, the difficulties started from mile 15 onwards when we ran round an oddly shaped lake in Teruven Park next to the Palais des Colonies. I saw the 3’00 pacers on the other side of the lake and stupidly told myself that I had a chance of catching them if I could just increase the pace a little more. The next ten minutes felt like an eternity, as I trudged around the edge of the lake, the opposite side never seeming to come any closer. It started raining, I realised just how far ahead that group were and I started to wonder if I’d slowed down without realising it.

It was also then that my stomach started giving me trouble. I’ve since realised that I had probably eaten too much in the days before and I had also had a veritable three-course meal of raisins, bananas and sports gel while running. This slowed me down a little more, as did the longest uphill section of the race at around mile 18. A few people passed me for the first time and I began to talk myself down from 3’00 back to 3’10 and then 3’15.

What helped was the arrival of the half-marathon runners, whose course joins up with the full marathon route at around 5 miles to go. They were a relatively fresh and adrenaline-pumped bunch, wooping and panting their way up the hills with random bursts of speed. This was also where the majority of spectators were positioned and the atmosphere slowly built as we approached the city. I felt slightly better and enjoyed running through the European Quarter of the city, around the edge of the Parc du Bruxelles and past the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula.

In the last km, we dropped into Brussels (the only really steep hill on the whole course) and ran along the cobbles right through the Grand Place. That was where my family had placed themselves to cheer me on and it was where the emotion really hit me. I’m not usually a crier but, as I passed them and thought about how proud I was to be finishing and how pleased I was that they were there to support me, I had a tear in my eye. Powered by emotion, I ended up absolutely flying over the last 500 metres and almost kept running past the medals, the foil blanket and the free waffles at the finish.

That’s not to say that I forgot about the race clock. I hadn’t looked at the time since the halfway point and I felt like I had slowed significantly since then. To my delight, I crossed the line in 3.08.45, two minutes quicker than my target. I was so pleased that I marched off down the road to the ‘official meeting point’ without spotting my family standing a few yards away.

After The Race

Brussels offers the weary marathoner an unrivalled range of post-race treats. After some beers, a chocolate waffle, a three-course meal, some French fries and another chocolate waffle, I’m sure I quite comfortably reached a state of calorie surplus for the day, despite the 2655 my watch was telling me I used up during the race.

That afternoon, we spent some time at the Royal Museum’s Bruegel exhibition, which I really enjoyed despite having to sit down every ten minutes. I also tried some beautifully fruity lambic beer at the Café de la Mort Subite (Café at the Sudden Death- see the website). Unfortunately, marathon runners don’t make great travel companions and I found myself wanting to go to bed at about 7:30pm.

The Verdict

I had a brilliant time in Brussels and I would recommend it to anyone wanting a European city marathon without the massive crowds of the bigger races. It was impeccably organised, with the finish line handily placed right in the centre of town.

The route was enjoyable and I only wish I had known more about it before running (I later found out some amazing facts about Tervuren Park, the place where my crisis of confidence happened). Despite the inclines- I refuse to use the word “hill”- it is a place where a runner in good shape can get a P.B., and Eric Kering’s winning time of 2’16 shows what is possible.

I was very pleased with my own performance. I ran the race in a controlled way with roughly even first and second half splits. I perhaps ran it slightly easier than I needed to in the end and, with the exception of the last 5km, my heart rate never went into the red zone. In fact, my highest heart rate of the weekend came the next morning on receiving the bill for breakfast in a trendy café (the Pound is oh so weak against the Euro!).

It was not a cheap weekend, but it was a memorable one. It has given me a taste for city marathons and a real desire to try and improve my time. No doubt I’ll go back to trail running eventually but, for now, I’m officially a roadrunner.

Training Diary (31/10/16 – 06/11/16) 12 weeks to go until the Gran Canaria Marathon

Monday was a 10 mile general aerobic run and it was my first proper outdoor run of the winter. The cold north wind was back and it blew the pollution away for 24 hours and also dropped the temperature below freezing. It felt good to be outside, even if it was getting a bit to dark to be running around the school playing fields by the end. I ended the run with 10×100 metre strides before running back across the fields and inside school to warm up my fingers (must get some running gloves).

Tuesday was 6 miles recovery on the treadmill (the pollution was back). I listened to a Marathon Talk podcast from February 2014. It was brilliant.

Wednesday was 12 miles at 10-20% slower than marathon pace (what Pete Pfizinger* calls a ‘medium long run’). It actually turned out to be 11 miles running and 1 mile on the elliptical trainer because the treadmills were full when I got to the gym just before 5pm. The run felt hard, even though I was judging the effort by heart rate and the distance shouldn’t have been a problem. I think it was a combination of the long day at work, the stuffy and hot gym and the feeling that, compared with the workouts I have coming up, this one should have felt easier. But the fact is, I finished the run and the miles are in the bank. I’m training my brain as well as my body.

Thursday was 6 miles recovery on the treadmill because the pollution continues to get worse (352 as I type). I continue feel like I could eat a horse. Is it the weather, the increase in mileage or just my mood?

Friday was 11 miles at 10-20% slower than marathon pace on the treadmill. Compared with Wednesday, this was much easier. It might have been caused by the sugar high I was experiencing after having consuming three or four sweet pastries, two biscuits and a cup of hot chocolate at different points during the day (there was a training day at school and I’m terrible at resisting free food). Those sweet treats probably also caused the need for a bathroom stop after 9 miles, which was not so good. Need to eat better.

Saturday was 6 miles recovery feeling good, feeling easy, feeling ready for tomorrow’s first experience of marathon pace.

Sunday was 17 miles with the last 8 miles at marathon pace on the treadmill. Phew. It was always going to be tough having such a long marathon pace run at such an early stage in my training and so it proved. This was the hardest training run I’ve done in a long time. I even had to reduce the gradient on the treadmill to zero for the second half (my ‘flat’ is usually 1% to make it as difficult as running outside), so I technically didn’t complete it. I had to use every mental trick in the book to keep myself going but I got there. It feels good to have really pushed myself after 4 weeks of steady running since the Brussels marathon. Bring on the 72 miles of next week… after a good night’s sleep.

Total mileage for the week: 66. A full Pfitzinger!

*Advanced Marathoning by Peter Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas (2009)

Book Review: From Last to First by Charlie Spedding

From Last to First by Charlie Spedding (Aurum Press, 2009)

I have been reading a lot about the golden era of British distance running recently. The late 70s and early 80s were a time when some of Britain’s all-time greatest runners were at their peak. Seb Coe won gold at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, Steve Cram set three world records in nineteen days in 1985 and Steve Jones set the British marathon record in Chicago in the same year. A look at the greatest British male marathon performances of all time shows what a rich period this was for marathon running in particular:

2:07:13   1985   Steve Jones
2:08:21   2014    Mo Farah
2:08:33   1985    Charlie Spedding
2:08:36   1997    Richard Nerukar
2:08:42   1996    Paul Evans
2:09:08   1983    Geoff Smith
2:09:12   1974    Ian Thompson
2:09:16   1985    Allister Hutton
2:09:17   2002    Mark Steinle
2:09:24   1982    Hugh Jones
2:09:28   1970    Ron Hill
2:09:28   1981    John Graham
2:09:31   2005    Jon Brown
2:09:43   1983   Mike Gratton
2:09:54   1989    Tony Milosorov

Seven of the fifteen sub-2.10 marathons were run in an amazing four-year period between 1981 and 1985 and three of the top ten came in one year: 1985. In the middle of this boom was the man third on that list and the 1984 Olympic marathon bronze medallist, Charlie Spedding.

I chose to read his book in the hope of finding out exactly how the runners of his era were setting such great times and to consider why today’s best are largely unable to match their achievements (Mo Farah aside, no British male has run under 2.10 in the last 10 years). I wanted to hear about his brutal workouts, legendary training groups, 150-mile weeks and weekends in the pub. I wanted to hear the story of a working class boy who, through sheer guts and determination, dragged himself- as the title suggests- “from last to first.”

Well, this was not what I got.

Firstly, the “last to first” title is quite misleading. Spedding was a very good runner from a young age, winning the national school’s 1500m aged seventeen. He did suffer with some difficult injuries throughout his career, as do many runners, but he seems to have had an almost supernatural ability to recover from them and reach a competitive standard quite quickly. He was winning races and running at a national and international level throughout his career. In other words, he had talent.

The book also provides relatively few insights into the running culture of the 1980s. Although Spedding was training with runners like Brendan Foster and Mike McLeod at Gateshead Harriers, he gives little sense of being part of a great generation. Indeed, he moved to Boston in 1980 and explains how being removed from the fiercely competitive environment of the UK helped him grow in confidence. Rather than being inspired by the great things happening around him at that time, he was stifled by them and felt the need to withdraw.

So for running readers looking for an insight into the success of the 1980s, Spedding’s book does not really deliver, but it does offer something no less inspirational.

Embed from Getty Images Embed from Getty Images

The real “last to first” journey happens inside Spedding’s mind and his strength as a writer is in the vivid way he describes his inner conflicts. He seems to have always been an under-confident runner, even from a young age, and was forced to overcome his low self-esteem by coaching himself to think differently. He describes losing races in slow times because he wasn’t mentally prepared to run them and also describes dragging an extra 2% out of himself when it really mattered. He acted as his own sports psychologist, many years before the job existed.

In the most effective chapter, he describes sitting in a Newcastle pub waiting for a train, a few months after missing out on the 1980 Olympic team. With the help of some writerly conceits (he happens to have just bought a new dictionary in which he can look up definitions of some key words), he begins to define success for himself. He realises that, rather than comparing himself to other people or arbitrary standards, his success should be “how much I fulfil the talent I was born with”- a way of easing the pressure and making success seem possible- an idea that many runners, me included, would do well to take on board.

This precision when writing about his state of mind also means that Spedding’s race descriptions are very compelling, especially his opening-chapter account of the 1984 Olympic marathon, when he outran Alberto Salazar, Rob de Castella and Toshihiko Seko on a hot day in Los Angeles. His mental toughness and self-belief gave him the edge that day and took him to the bronze medal.

The final few chapters offer some insight into his training regimes and even a session-by-session account of his build up to Los Angeles, but I will come back to the book more for Spedding’s refreshing way of thinking about training and racing. His story, better than any other running book I have read, illustrates that every athlete has untold reserves of strength if only they are willing to have the right attitude. It is a question being open to changing your beliefs. As Spedding says, “[People think that] sport is all about seeing what you can get out of it, but they are wrong, because sport is all about seeing what it gets out of you.”