Monday, November 21, 2011

Dublin Intermediate XC 2011

Team Rathfarnham (look at the camera... stupid)

Yesterday marked the penultimate race of what, for me, been a long and demanding year of competitive running and training.

In recent years, November has represented my ‘post-Autumn marathon’ off-season. A time of year when the mileage is reduced for a few weeks and you’ll be more likely to find me at a gig, or sitting by the fire in a local pub, than running a set of 400 metre repeats on the track. But this year is different. Since I’ve put marathon running on the back-burner, I’m now working to a new schedule that has me racing right up until mid-December. Whilst I am not, in principle, averse to the extended season, my body seems unwilling to cooperate.

After running well and training hard through the summer, I hit form in September. The run-of-form culminated in a solid performance at the national half marathon (1:12:15), and another decent run at the Dublin Novice XC Championships. However, it wasn’t to last. At this point, I have to cast my mind back several weeks to the last time that I ran well and felt a spring in my stride. It was on Saturday 15th October at Bushy Park when we ran a 35 minute (10.1km) XC pace run. Since then, my form has taken a dive, compounded by a nasty cold/chest infection last month, and a series of back-to-back niggles. Training has been a constant battle.

My training diary over the period is revealing. Where my September log is upbeat and full of positive reports along these lines - ‘felt strong’ and ‘ran well’ - my October and November logs reflects a period of struggle that has manifested itself in the following ways: constant fatigue/lack of energy, illness, muscle soreness, non-recovery between sessions, falling behind at training. There was no actual change in my training over this period. It just started feeling much harder.

This photo fails to capture the despair, because you can't see the guys that I'm chasing

For these reasons, I was a little tentative heading into the Dublin Intermediate XC championships in Tymon Park on Sunday. My trepidation was justified, because (true to form) I failed to fire. Right from the start I lacked the energy and strength that I had in the Dublin Novice XC Championships on 2 October. In a search of answers, I have undertaken a grim analysis of yesterday’s results compared with the Dublin Novice XC results.

Yesterday I finished in 16th place, whereas I was fifth in the Dublin Novice (only ten seconds short of a bronze medal). Of the guys who beat me yesterday, seven are lads whom I beat in Dublin Novice (including yesterday’s second place finisher).

By my calculations (taking a sample group of runners who ran both the Dublin Novice and Dublin intermediate races, averaging out and comparing their times between the two races), and based on my time from the Dublin Novice race last month, I would've expected to finish Sunday's race in 30:15. Whereas I finished in 30:35. This highlights the extent of my underperformance: twenty seconds. In these competitive XC fixtures, twenty seconds makes a huge difference to your result, and the result of your team.

Although not surprising (given recent form in training), this is rather disappointing because I trained very hard in the intervening period, and I even rested up in preparation for the race on Sunday. On the face of it, there is no reason why I should be going backwards.
Assuming I can get over the gluteus medius injury that I'm currently managing, the last race of my season (and the year) is the National Novice XC Championships on 11 December. In the absence of some sort of dramatic turn-around in form, I can’t really see the national novice going well for me. Don’t get me wrong, and I’ll have a good crack at it, and I'm by no means writing myself off. But training seems to have become ineffective for the timebeing, and in any case it’s difficult to design a training plan that would bring me to be where I want to be within such a short time-frame. 

 On the other hand, maybe form can change quickly in both directions.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Dublin Novice XC Championships

On Sunday I raced in the Dublin Novice Cross Country Championships. The Novice grade means that previous winners cannot race (they can still race the Dublin Senior Cross Country Championships in November). The field of club runners is still very competitive, with plenty of 15/16 minute 5km runners in the mix. Only club runners can race. So it’s a hard fought battle, while at the same time offering up-and-coming XC runners a chance to claim a championship medal. The race route was just over three laps of a 2km course (approx), a total of 6.8km.

There is no need to bother with a stop watch in these races, since courses are not comparable and it is all about beating your opponents on the day. Times mean nothing on a XC course. The pace in these short XC races tends to be full on, especially at the start when guys are jostling for a decent position. The first 400m of the race is basically a sprint, since nobody wants to get stuck in the middle of the pack. I took a couple of sharp elbows off the start, and as a result woke up on Monday with a dead arm.
The 2km lap winds around a big field before entering a section of forest with a few hills and sharp corners, then emerging from the forest and winding back to the start/finish line.

I had a few goals for the race. One was to race smart, and hopefully take a medal. The other was to improve on my performance from the previous week’s Rathfarnham 5km, where I got myself boxed in off the start and then sent myself into oxygen debt trying to make up lost ground in the first mile. Having little experience myself in running XC, I had taken some advice from my club mate and XC specialist, Louis McCarthy, about how to approach the race. And I went about following that advice.

So after the initial frenzied surge off the start line, I settled into my own pace and was 16th after the first lap (according to the race official on the start/finish line). I felt strong. So in line with the plan, I started picking off the guys ahead of me. I figured that quite a few of them would be track runners based on their pace off the start, and I recalled that track runners tend to start very fast and then struggle to sustain the pace for the full distance.

I passed 6 guys in the second lap, and found myself in 10th place at the bell (after 2 laps/4.4km). With 2km to go, the plan is really just to run as fast as you can to the finish line without blowing up. I steadily picked up the pace (or maybe I held constant and others slowed down) and I passed four more guys. I could see the 3rd, 4th and 5th place runners just up ahead of me and I was making ground on them, but I was starting to hurt too.

With 500m to go, my club mates in the crowd boisterously alerted me to the fact that one of the guys behind me was really going for it and was about to pass me. Normally you can hear someone coming, but on the soft grass there are no footsteps and hence zero awareness of what is happening behind you. I was already pushing so hard, but I couldn’t fathom being passed at this point. So with 400m to go I managed to find even more in the tank and kicked as hard as I could in attempt to repel the challenge from behind. It seemed to work, because I never saw him.

Meanwhile I was holding ground a couple of steps behind the 5th place guy, and we were going full tilt and  closing in on the 4th and 3rd place runners. But at this stage I didn't think we’d catch them. I was giving it absolutely everything. Pain tore through my body and I could feel that my face was all screwed up like Mo Farah in the World Championships (confirmed by Alison post-race). Alison was there on the side-line yelling for me, and my club mates were there in bright green Rathfarnham colours. Great atmosphere. I held my position to finish in 6th, only 10 seconds shy of an individual bronze medal. Also managed to beat a couple of guys who got the better of me in the Rathfarnham 5km, so happy enough despite failure to take a podium spot.

Distance: 6.8km
Time: 22:36

Monday, September 26, 2011

Need for speed

Three weeks ago I decided to kick the habit of running marathons, and I already feel like it’s one of the best decisions that I’ve made.

The marathon is a great event, and this is by no means goodbye forever. But I've honed in on my goal: to reach towards my potential as an amatuer runner and to take maximum enjoyment from the sport. And I’ve come to realise that the best way for me to progress towards this goal is to take a step back from marathons for a year or two, and instead train for speed.

As I’ve said in earlier posts: in order to run a fast marathon, one first needs to run a fast 10km. In order to run a fast 10km, you first need to run a fast 5km (note: Patrick Makau ran a WR time of 2:03:38 yesterday which is average 14:40 per 5km pace). You can follow this logic right down to middle-distance speed. In other words, you could argue that raw speed is a foundation, and in fact a pre-requisite, for a fast marathon. This is why most of the top marathoners have a track background. Speed is only one piece of the jigsaw puzzle. The other, more obvious pillar, is endurance.

Unfortunately the majority of us long-distance runners, with our modest athletic CVs (and in particular, without a background in track running), are at a significant disadvantage. Because whether we like it or not, time-trials over short distances are usually a good indicator of what we are capable of running over marathon distance (with the right training).

For example, if a runner is not capable of running under 19 minutes for the 5km (3:48 min/km) at a given point in time then he/she will have difficulty breaking 3 hours (4:17 min/km) over the marathon distance (without improvement). This is for the simple reason that, even with ample endurance, the required marathon pace would feel 'uncomfortably fast' and will probably push him or her into the anaerobic zone too early in the race (most likely blowing hard and running out of steam with a good way left to go).

With this in mind, it makes sense for me to shelve the marathon away as a long term target. Or to put another way: 'learn to walk (run fast over short distances) before I run (marathons)'. Instead, I've plotted out a race plan for the season, comprising of shorter distance races on the road, hills, track and cross country. And since August I've training towards shorter races by running these types of sessions:

8x1km off 90 seconds
12x400m off 60 seconds or short jog recovery
10x800m off 60/90 seconds
5x1 mile off 2 minutes
30 minute tempo run
10x300m off 60 seconds or jog recovery
Short hill repeats (30 or 60 second)

It already seems to be working since I already ran a 5km P.B (15:53) over the weekend on the back of a big week of training. Plenty of work still to be done. Just need to focus on training smart: consistency and quality. The results will come.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Copenhagen for runners and non-runners

On the weekend Alison and I went to Copenhagen to attend a wedding. This was going to be a complex balancing act involving the following activities:
  • Running training
  • Watching the rugby world cup inaugural weekend in a country that has not heard of rugby
  • Attending wedding and associated activities
  • Sightseeing
In order to prepare myself for this plethora of events and exercises, I undertook to (a) seek out an antipodean establishment where I could watch live Rugby World cup matches in the morning - we found one called ‘the Southern Cross’ (b) download a Copenhagen tourist information Iphone Application – simple (c) find out where we needed to be and at what time for various wedding events happening throughout the weekend and lock them into Google maps app on Iphone and (d) find some good places to run.

The later three bullet points on the list sorted themselves out. The wedding (of Alison’s friend Caoimhe and her Danish partner Thomas) was a fun-filled day involving meeting lots of friendly intelligent folk and even included a canal boat cruise around Copenhagen, which to an extent also covered off bullet point number four in the list. Here is Alison at Nyhaven.

I was thinking about how cool Danish people are. But then it occurred to me that I may have just met lots of ‘above average coolness’ Danish people, since everyone at the wedding was friends with Caoimhe and Thomas who are cool themselves, and who are friends with my cool girlfriend Alison. Perhaps my observable sample size was too small and not representative of the population. But I am told that this coolness phenomenon is widespread in the city. One thing that is clear is that Danish people all speak fluent English, which makes communication easy for the linguistically challenged. It also enables more enriching conversation with local people, than what you might experience in certain Southern European cities.

Copenhagen is a nice place: combining the grandeur and seriousness of the great Northern European cities (Berlin and Warsaw) with some of the charm and quaint architecture of its cousins to the distant South (Paris and Barcelona). The beautiful people of Copenhagen whizz around on their bikes, with their abundance of wealth and the backing of the World’s most generous social security system, and seem happy to be living there. The city is clean and sophisticated. If Copenhagen were a person, he would look down his nose at the reckless abandonment (partying) that is common on the streets of many of its Anglicized or Spanish counterparts. I suppose that’s why you don’t find many Danish people in Temple Bar on a Saturday night.

The retro bikes and hip style of outfits adorned by people on the street hints at an edginess that doesn’t seem to manifest itself in the bars and cafes throughout the city (with the obvious exception of Christiana, which seems quite culturally and geographically detached from the city). Initial impressions after two short visits have been that Copenhagen is an understated city. I reserve my judgment on that because I suspect that more time would be required in order to ‘discover Copenhagen’.

One’s experience of the city can be somewhat overwhelmed by its expense. We might have enjoyed the broad range of culinary experiences and beers on offer more if it weren’t for the sour taste inevitably left in our mouths by the bill. Once you get your head around the conversion between Euro and Danish Kroner, you all of a sudden feel like you’re being robbed every time you step into a shop, bar or restaurant. This frustration came to a head on our final morning in the city when I was charged the equivalent in Kroner of €7 for an orange juice in an Irish bar while watching Wales v South Africa. I was displeased, even before Wales handed the game to the Boks on a plate.

Anyway, I found some good places to run in Copenhagen:

The Soern (lakes)

There are five adjacent man-made lakes that form a part-circle around North-western Copenhagen. It starts in Vesterbro and finishes in Osterbro. Soern looks like this from the sky:

There is a well-beaten gravel path circling the lake/s, which seem to be very popular with the locals for walking with strollers, cycling, and running. The lakes themselves, along with the surrounding area is picturesque, and the trail is a pleasure to run around. Lots of trees and greenery, and there even a few playgrounds and cafes/bars on the lake-edge if you feel like stopping for a Carlsberg mid-run. This is one of my favourite runs. Here is what it looks like lakeside:


This is a park at the north-eastern end of the five lakes in Osterbro. It is a nice place to run, and has a decent 2km loop around it on wide gravel path. Nice place for intervals or a pace run. Plenty of people around, but not too many that they get in the way.

Amagerfaelled (park)

In radical contrast to the sculptured and well maintained Faelledparken in the North, this place is an overgrown vegetative wasteland of sorts in the southern flank of Copenhagen. While Amagerfaelled park is by no means pretty, it is good for running in because it is large and has a more extensive network of trails throughout.

I jogged to the Park from the city centre for a scheduled 25 minute pace run. Soon after I started I followed a trail around a corner onto a main path and found myself in the middle of an organised race. I was somewhere near the back of a dispersed field, and I spent the rest of my pace run (at 3:33 min/km pace) working my way up the field. Certainly kept things interesting. 

The river near Amagerfaelled is a good spot for jogging too.

If I had more time I would explore the canals and trails behind Christiana, because I think there might be some interesting running routes there.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Irish National half marathon champs race report

Event: National half marathon championships
Location: Waterford
Distance: 21.1km / 13.1 miles
Time: 1:12:15
Pace: 5:31 min/mile 3:26 min/km
Speed: 17.5 km/h

Nerves were running high on Saturday morning when 800 odd runners took to the streets of Waterford for the Irish national half marathon championships. Conditions were good for racing: 11° cloud and drizzle and nothing but a light breeze. The well-established course takes in a loop through the Waterford town centre then follows an ‘out-and-back’ route along the Tramore road. The road is a quality surface and, although undulating, the route is ‘PB friendly’.

My main goal was to run 72:00, which is 5:30 min/mile or 3:25 min/km pace, or 17.6km/h. That would mean running through 5km at 17 minutes, 10km at 34 minutes, 10 miles at 55 minutes. And then just as fast as I can sustain for the final 3 miles (5km). My secondary (and more optimistic) goal was to beat my club mate, Paul Fleming. Despite having being well-beaten by Paul last week in the Tinryland 4 mile race, I thought that I might have an improved chance of beating him over the longer course. Besides, I figured he’d be good to keep within my sights because he would probably run somewhere around my goal time, if not a bit quicker, and would be likely to run a steady and smart race.

The pace was aggressive from the start. The first mile felt good, if not slightly downhill. When I say ‘good’, I mean that the world was going by quickly (fast pace) but on this particular day it felt comfortable. No heavy breathing and no complaints from the legs. Phew. At the 1 mile mark the clock read 5:12. Significantly faster than target pace, but my lungs seemed to be unaware of this so I figured that it was ok. Despite the fast pace, Paul was still about 10 metres ahead of me so I figured that this was a good place to be.

Meanwhile up front, Brian Maher took the early lead behind the pace car, closely followed by my Rathfarnham club-mate Sean Hehir and Barry Minnock. Another club-mate, Mark Ryan, sat in behind them. For the first couple of miles I enjoyed race commentary broadcasted from the loud speakers on the roof of the pace car. I eagerly listened and was silently willing on my club-mates until they, along with the speaking car, disappeared off into the distance. I supposed that in any case, it was better for me to concentrate on my own race than the battle up front.

The Garmin read 16:40 at the 5km mark, which meant that I was 20 seconds ahead of schedule. On the other hand, I knew that the next part of the route was the hilliest and toughest, so it would be good to have that time buffer in the bank. At around this time I was running on my own about 15 metres behind Paul’s pack. Although the breeze was not strong, it would still be easier to maintain this pace in a group. The problem was that they were really moving, and the additional effort involved in catching them would be risky. I knew I could catch up with them, but I thought that closing the gap might draw on my reserves and leave me in debt later in the race.

Fortunately a couple of lads pulled up beside me. Declan Power from Clonliffe and Cathal O’Connell from St Finbarr’s Athletics Club. Declan gestured ahead and said ‘let’s close the gap’. I wasn’t feeling confident about the push so I just went back to concentrating on my own comfortable pace. But reassuringly, after several minutes I found myself next to Declan on the back of the group. Unfortunately at the same time Paul Fleming pushed off the front of the group with a few other runners. I kept it steady and let them go, saving my energy for the upcoming hills and the final miles. When we hit the main hill (off the Tramore Road, up the lane onto the back road section) at around the 5 mile mark, the group seemed to break up around us.

I rolled over 10km at 33:50, which indicated that the hills had slowed the pace somewhat. I wasn’t concerned because I running the same pace as the guys around me. So I reckoned that the drop in pace was mostly to do with the terrain.

After seven miles the course turns back onto the Tramore Road towards the start finish line in Waterford – the home leg. A pang of fatigue struck me at this turn, made worse by the uphill drag. Within sixty seconds I was wishing away the miles. By the time we reached the 8 mile mark I was wondering how I was going to keep this up for another 5 miles. I convinced myself to just hang in there with the three lads. The struggle continued and at the 10 mile marker I began to feel a bit closer to home. I was encouraged to see my Garmin reading 54.57 as I passed the sign, since that meant I was still under 5:30 average mile pace. I realised that despite feeling very tired, I had managed to sustain a decent pace for the previous two miles. All of a sudden seemed plausible that I might hang on, even though it was clearly going to hurt.

At this stage I wasn’t much interested in racing the guys around me. I was much more interested in holding it together until the finish line. The guys around me were merely acting as pace indicators, and surprisingly I was doing ok (except that Declan Power had pushed ahead about 40 metres).

Once I hit 12 miles I knew I was going to make the finish line because I still felt just the same as I did at 10 miles. Tired. So I turned my attention back to the actual race. After all, this was a championship race and my coach, Adam Jones, always says that every place counts. I boldly decided to push ahead of the lads whom I was running with, because I wanted to avoid a sprint finish by putting a gap on them now. Unfortunately after putting a gap of five metres on them, I quickly fatigued and decided that a sprint finish might be easier after all. The three lads caught me back up, sat behind for a bit, and then all passed me with half a mile (800m) to go. Just the kind of confidence booster that I needed at this point.

The finish line is on the athletics track at the Waterford football stadium, and the last 200 metres of the race is around the track. My legs felt ok but after my failed pre-emptive strike and a bout of dizziness approaching the gate for the stadium, my confidence had taken a hit. But a few things happened that re-ignited my confidence. (1) One of the lads looked around to see if there was anyone behind us (which I perceived as a weakness/lack of confidence) (2) we hit the track (normally track racing is faster so all of a sudden I felt like I was actually running well within myself) and (3) I saw the finish line at the opposite end of the track. I recalled the 200 metre repeats that I ran with club mates Louis and Greg on Thursday, and thought ‘just one more 200m is all I need now’.

I bolted on the rubber and this time thankfully managed to make a more decisive move. I passed two lads on the outside of the corner and hammered down the straight so as not to encourage a late challenge, not letting up until I was safely across the finish line. PB. Close enough to target time. Pints.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

High altitude training in the French Pyrenees

After a week of hard training combined with eating and drinking too much in Paris, I said goodbye to Alison and took a long train ride down to the French Pyrenees, to a small village in the clouds called Font Romeu. The plan was to meet my club mates Sean, Kevin, Brian and Louis for a week of high altitude training.

The train journey in itself was quite an adventure, involving catching three trains and 9 hours of travel time from Paris. The final two hour train journey was on an alpine railway line that precariously wound its way up through the mountains to Font Romeu. I elected to sit on an ‘outdoor carriage’, which had no roof or windows. It turned out that this train ride was actually a tourist attraction - nobody else on the train had luggage and everybody else had a camera. It was quite a buzz, particularly the vertigo experienced when crossing one of many deep canyons on the awesome viaducts, with nothing more than a handrail between you and the deep valley below.

Font Romeu falls somewhere between being a quaint village and a bustling town/ski station. It is fairly quiet at this time of year (summer), but the concentration of hotels and apartment complexes hint that the place has a different vibe during the winter ski season. During the summer you’ll find mostly athletes and some hikers/families floating around. There isn’t a lot to do in Font Romeu, other than to train, eat croissants, and to visit one of the many outdoor sports stores and pay extortionate prices for mountain running gear. In other words, there are few distractions and it’s the perfect place to go for a training camp.

We met and trained with a number of athletes who were visiting from the UK and Ireland. Including Joe McAlister from Belfast, Gary Thornton from Galway, Steve Vernon and a few other guys and girls from Manchester. Though these lads are international-class athletes, so keeping up with them was difficult enough even during their supposed ‘easy runs’. On the hard runs we would start together and then the group would split during the run.

For anyone interested in training in Font Romeu, here are a few things to know before you go:

  • Fly to Carcassonne or Perpignan (in the South of France) or Barcelona or Girona (in Spain). Font Romeu is less than two hours drive from any of these places.
  • Unfortunately hiring a car is almost essential, since many of the best running locations are a ten or fifteen minute drive from Font Romeu village.
  • Eating out in Font Romeu is not cheap and you might not end up eating what you wanted (if you don’t speak French). So it’s probably better to stay in an apartment rather than a hotel. That way you can make your own meals and dine in at least some of the time.
  • Apartments tend to be fairly compact, though cheap. Our apartment ‘slept four’ but that actually meant that there was a bunk and a double bed. Four was a crowd, but the company was good and at €15 per person per night you can’t complain.
  • There is a decent supermarket in Font Romeu where you can stock up on whatever supplies you need. And at least two even better supermarkets within five minutes drive.

Places to train

Lac de Matemale / Los Angles: Just 15 minutes drive from Font Romeu lies the lake which is surrounded by both flat and hilly forest trails (depending on what you’re looking for on a given day) and provides the perfect environment for laying down some base work. This is also a good place for sessions, because there are more flatter trails than most other places in the area.

Note that Lac de Matemale is located at an altitude of only 1550 metres, so it is a good place to acclimatize over the first few days. But even running steadily at this altitude is noticeably tougher than running at sea level. The shortest trail around the lake is 5 miles, but this can be extended to at least 13 miles by running further out into the forest that lies between the dam and Los Angles. There are several miles of trails at the dam end of the lake alone that can keep you busy without needing to circle the lake.

After your run, I would suggest taking a dip in the lake at the populated beach area on the Los Angles village side. The water is very fresh and is not too cold. You can also hire kayaks, sail boats and wind surfers here (if you have any energy left) and get some lunch from the kiosk.

The national centre for altitude training (track and swimming pool): This facility is located beside the village at 1850 metres altitude. The track is decent and you’ll see plenty of other athletes around. To give you an idea of the affect of the altitude. We ran a set of 6x1 mile intervals on the track and my splits were 20 seconds slower than they had been the previous week in Paris.

Pyrenees 2000
(1700 metres altitude) – this is a forested area located ten minutes drive from Font Romeu on the main road leading to Los Angles. Here it is on google maps. There are marked loops through the forest, which would be hard to follow without a map or a leader who is familiar with the routes. Hopefully your group leader is not sub-14 minute 5km runners, like ours were (either hang on to the leaders or try to find your own way out)

The plateau – potentially the most interesting and impressive area to run in the area. We were lead by the UK lads from the circular car park (which has a 400m long circle line painted around it) up the steep ski slope to a plateau at 2100 metres altitude. Up here there are a network of trails that run through scrub and sections of scattered low forest dense. From here you have an excellent view of the surrounding mountains while you run. That may be why I tripped on a stone and face-planted in the dirt (cutting my knee up pretty bad). You'll find it only about five minutes uphill drive from Font Romeu. Follow the Sola de la Calma Est road up to the car park and run up to the platue from there.

Once again, you can probably just follow your nose around these trails for a few easy miles, but it helps to be lead by someone who knows where they’re going because it can be tricky to find your way from the plateau back to the car (since the car park is below the plateau).

Mountain trails – there are loads of mountain trails around that you might like to explore. We might’ve done if we were there for longer, and if we were training for a hill race rather than a flat road race. They'd be fairly steep. You can buy maps at the local stores.


  • Quite a few of the lads I met there had a track background (plenty of speed) and are now running longer races, with training focused mainly on mileage and building a base. That means running very few actual speed sessions, but instead lots of miles at steady pace (as distinct from easy pace). But I suppose they already have the speed in the legs, so are afforded the luxury of almost entirely working on endurance base.
  • Progression runs (where you start slowly and increase the pace each mile) seemed popular, and are probably worth introducing into a training program.
  • Re-emphasised the importance of marathon pace runs when training for marathon. Second most important piece of the puzzle after the Sunday long run.
  • It took six days to start feeling more comfortable up at this altitude, and then the next day we left. It just meant that for the first six days the easy runs were not particularly easy. Hard runs were slow, as in you’ll feel like you’re running 3:30 min/km pace but you’re actually running 3:50 min/km pace – hard to get your head around.

Running circles around Paris

Everyone knows that Paris has a lot to offer as a tourist destination. But who would have thought that it would be such a good place to train for a half marathon.

Alison I spent a week taking in the sights and sounds of Paris, at which time I was also in full training for the Irish National Half Marathon Championships (to take place on Saturday 3 September in Waterford). Sometimes it can be difficult to fit training in around sightseeing activities when abroad. Particularly in large and busy cities, where the options for suitable running routes can be limited.

But with the help of the Iphone, google maps, and the velib city bikes scheme (so that Alison could come adventuring with me), Alison and I industriously explored the city and uncovered some excellent running routes and facilities that made training easier. We were also assisted, in no small part, by this useful website about running in Paris. I didn’t get a chance to check out all of the suggested running locations that I’d heard about (because I was busy running track sessions), but I was impressed with the routes that I ran.

It turns out that Paris is an excellent place to train (as well as just to visit generally). Here is why:

Promenade Plantée (garden path)

This is a 4.5-kilometer elevated pedestrian walkway on what was formerly a railway line. The path starts near Place de la Bastille (close to Gare de Lyon), winds above the streets of the 11th and 12th arrondissements of Paris, occasionally dips to street level, and ends near the Bois de Vincennes (conveniently, right beside the Paul Valery running track and outdoor pool). Access is also available via several gates along the way. Bizarrely, the Promenade Plantée on its raised platform above the city is lined with all sorts of trees and gardens. It has been accurately described as 'a running oasis of traffic-less-ness and nature that bypasses the hustle-and-bustle of the Parisian streets below'. Well worth checking out.

Bois de Vincennes (Vincennes Park)

In the 11th century, the Bois de Vincennes was a royal hunting playground. Today the public park is the largest and greenest area in Paris. Essentially it is a forest park with a web of trails (and some roads) spanning through it, not unlike ‘the Labyrinth’. Once you disappear into the surprisingly thick and rugged forest, you forget that you are still in Paris. I reckon the Park is probably just over 10km in circumference. So you could probably jog around it in about an hour. But you’re much better off getting lost on the trails within the park and trying to find your way out. The Park is on the eastern side of the city, about 4km from Bastille or Republique. The park is home to several lakes and gardens, a château, a zoo, and even a Buddhist monastery. You can hire boats and paddle around the lakes. It’s a very cool place.

The Seine

The Seine is the river that runs through central Paris. Running along the Seine pathway (which runs continuously for several miles) will take you past some of the city’s most famous monuments and under some of its most famous bridges. You will be distracted along the way by numerous impressive and noteworthy sites including Notre Dame, the Grand Palais, the Eiffel Tower. At this time of the year the path is busy with tourists, and there is also a man-made beach on the edge of the path crowded with sunbathers (strangely). The path is fairly wide, so as long as you get your run in early (before 10am) then you should be able to hold a steady pace without too many tourists getting in the way.

Public access athletics stadiums

Parc de Vincennes alone has five running tracks within its boundaries. We paid a visit to the Paul Valéry centre on the city side of Vincennes, after reading that a couple of running clubs train there on a Monday night. The track is part of a sports centre with tennis courts and 5-a-side soccer pitches etc. There is also an outdoor pool across the street. The track was accessible through an open gate from the southern side of the sports complex, and there is also a hole in the fence on the eastern side. I ran four sessions on the track over the course of the week: 16x400 off 60 seconds, 5x1mile off 2 minutes, 10000m tempo (25 laps), and 10x800 off 2 minutes. This was particularly handy since my Garmin was out of action.

Parc de Luxembourg

This is a relatively small park (about a mile around) in the South side of Paris. Yet I’m mentioning it as a jogging option because it’s so beautiful that you’ll be happy to run several laps around it. This is a ‘must see’.

Paris to Versailles

The Paris to Versailles race is a big event on the local running calendar. The 16km race starts near the Eiffel tower and finishes by the Palace of Versailles. I decided to reccie the route in case I ever decide to run this race. It was pretty boring, and quite hilly. On the upside, you can save yourself €3 by avoiding the train fare and the spectacular panorama of the 'Musical Gardens' behind the palace is worth the hike. Not to mention the ice cream. You'll need a map, preferably a GPS map on a smart phone, to negotiate your way there through the suburbs in the south-west of Paris.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The battle of Snowdon

Finishing time: 1:16:40 (Summit 51:40)
Distance / ascent / descent: 10 miles (16.2km) / 1085 metres of ascent and descent
Finishing position: 27/500

The Snowdon international mountain race is one of the big races on the British fell (mountain) running calendar, and this year became a ‘stage’ on the European Sky Race series. The race offers big prize money (£10,000) and attracts plenty of top runners from across Europe.

The course is an exciting and demanding 10 mile ascent and descent of Snowden, the highest mountain in Wales. The route is out and back (5 miles each way) from the village of LLanberis at the base of Snowden, and involves 1085 metres of vertical ascent/descent. I was thankful this year to finally secure myself an elusive entry for the race (only 500 entries available), after getting in early for a change.

Having reccied the route last summer, I was anxious and a little unnerved by the epic nature of the race. The climb was long and painfully steep in parts. For this reason, I altered my training over the last few weeks by running hill repeat work-outs each week in place of a second track session. And I added some additional mileage on the hills to prepare the legs for the climb.

There was a large and intimidating contingent of international team runners crowding the start line in their national vests. This included the Irish team of Tom Hogan, Stephen Cleary, Roger Barret and Robert Malseed, whom had staked their claim for the Irish vest with strong performances at the Irish European mountain team trial last month.

I took off at a cautious pace from the gun, watching unconcerned as the Irish vests moved ahead on the steep tarmac. Climbing has never been my strong point, and on this unforgiving and grueling ascent it is essential to conserve leg strength for the latter part of the climb (if you think it's bad blowing up in a road race, you should try blowing up half way up a mountain). Having said that, the hill repeats seemed to be doing their job because I felt comfortable hopping up the boulders. I tentatively pulled up beside Stephen Cleary about 15 minutes into the climb and went ahead, for the time-being.

I then passed a Northern Ireland Irish runner who seemed already to be struggling, and pulled up next to a local runner, before recognizing him as Iain Ridgeway. Uncannily, Iain is a flying Welshman whom inspired me to take up the sport of mountain running years ago when I met him in Wellington, NZ. I hadn’t seen him since he’d moved back to Wales in 2006. We exchanged a few surprised words upon recognizing each other, then back to the matters at hand.

The field thinned out after 30 minutes of climbing and the legs began hurting. I was reduced to a clambering walk on the last steep boulder climb, but was still moving well and pulled back a couple of struggling runners. Iain passed me about 500 metres before the summit, and Stephen Cleary (in the Irish vest) then came past and I followed the lads over the summit boulder steps.

My quads were burning furiously at the summit. The first few boulder steps of the descent are very steep, and I struggled to keep my legs from buckling under the weight of my body. I took a few seconds to gather my breath and collect myself. All was going according to plan. Regain composure, it's almost time to attack the descent.

First thing is first. In a mountain race where you’re not overly familiar with the route, it normally pays to follow a local guy who knows what he’s doing. I knew that Iain would know the course like the back of his hand because he lives at the foot of the mountain, so I decided that I would do everything I could to stay with him.

The leaders were being diverted off the summit onto the train tracks. Iain dived through a gap between boulders off the edge of the trail below the summit, down onto the train tracks. I followed him and exclaimed to Stephen – this guy knows where he’s going - gesturing towards Iain.

I knew that Iain was a class mountain runner, but the way he tackled the descent took even me by surprise. He took off so fast from the summit that he managed to put 100 metres on us by the time we hit the tracks. Stephen and I launched into overdrive to pull him back over the next five minutes. Tearing down the mountain dodging the multitudes of meandering and unpredictable pedestrians.

We had managed to get within about 25 metres of him, when he followed a goat track onto the grass to take an alternative route alongside the main track. By doing so, we managed to avoid many more tourists whom littered the main trail. Our efforts to close the gap on Iain paid off, because we were now able to follow his line, which (being a local) he had no doubt run and tested hundreds of times before in training.

Over the ensuing ten minutes, Iain, Stephen and I descended like mad men and passed over ten runners whom had beat us to the summit, including two of the Irish team runners – Robert Malseed and Roger Barrett, who were less accustomed to the terrain. Such was the pace (sub 5 minute miles over steep grass and boulders) that with 2 miles to go I began to feel fatigued. Stephen moved ahead of me on a flatter section of the course, and I lost a few seconds on the pair of them. But did my best to stay in touch before the final steep technical descent down onto the road.

By this stage the soles of your feet are burning due to the pummelling they've been getting for more than twenty minutes. Massive blisters had formed and I could swear the soles of my shoes were melting. Just to make things worse, the last half-mile involves an extremely steep paved road which flattens out towards the finish line.

I managed to pull back a few seconds on the steep road but had nothing left to give once the road flattened out. Iain was 30 metres ahead and Stephen was about 10 metres ahead. I was operating on the threshold between running an optimal race (leave nothing in the tank), and collapsing in a heap a couple of hundred metres short of the finish line. The short uphill stint at the road junction into Llanberis (I'm talking 30 metres) nearly finished me off. The best I could do was to keep pace with my two comrades and cross the finish line just in behind them.

Well done to the lads, I enjoyed the epic battle. It was the most intense and physically demanding mountain race I’ve ever run. The climb was a killer (51:40) but the descent was even more gruelling (5 miles down a mountain @ 5:00 mile pace or 3:06 min/km).

Days later, I’m still hobbling around like a geriatric, in significant pain all through my legs from the pounding – D.O.M.S. No chance of running until later in the week. Will have to hit the pool instead.

Back in the game

After taking a few weeks out to concentrate on training and hitting the hills for fun, I decided to race last week as a warm-up to the International Snowdon mountain race on Saturday 23 July.

So I tentatively took to the start line at the Phoenix Park 5 mile on Saturday 16 July. On the one hand I was confident because training had been going well. But I hadn’t posted a good performance in a race in 9 weeks, so was worried that my form in training might not translate into race fitness. The hilly and wind-swept course was not about to deliver fast times, so my best hope for the race was to finish strong and take back my confidence by racing smart.

Things went to plan. After running a steady race throughout with several runners sitting in behind me, I attacked at the magazine fort where the course turned left uphill and into the wind for the last mile of the race. In doing so I shook off the runners who had been sitting behind me, pushed past a couple of runners and made some ground on some usual (friendly) adversaries who were up ahead.

Most runners were disappointed and somewhat alarmed by the ‘slower-than-expected times - checking in with each other to make sure that they weren't the only one to fall short of time expectations. But slow times were inevitably due to the course and race conditions. On the whole, this was a promising first race back for me.

Four days later I took a bold step and signed up for the Dublin Graded 3000m at Irish town track, alongside a few fellow Rathfarnham W.S.A.F club mates.

The 3000m event involves 7 ½ laps of the Olympic distance athletic track. Track racing is often very tactical, and it takes practice to get the hang of the pacing and race-strategy. Unfortunately I missed most of the track season due to illness in the first half of June. So as it stands this was my first, and will be my only, track race of the 2011.

The top lads went off ahead while myself and a couple of club mates settled at a tempered pace of 74/75 second laps (3:06min/km or 4:58 min/miles) and ran more-or-less together for the first 5 laps (2km). The pace seemed to slow a bit after the first two laps and I was feeling ok after three laps so I tried to push past, but my club mate Brian Furey had different ideas, and accelerated as I pulled beside him. I wasn’t used to running 3 minute kilometres and was nervous about blowing up, so I decided not to rise to his challenge at this early stage of the race (after painfully watching too many breakaway cyclists last week getting pulled back by the peloton throughout the TdF last week).

Two laps later, I felt strong and decided to go for it. I pushed to the front of the group with 600m to go and imagined myself running intervals at Bushy Park (Tuesday training ground). The adrenaline kicked in then, and I surged ahead, confident that I had enough gas to shake off any late challenges. I then had a clear run into the finish.

Finished in 9:19 on the stopwatch, so approximately 3:06 min/km pace. I would have needed to run harder in the middle part of the race to run a fast time, but I enjoyed the race and it was a good confidence booster for the Snowdon race, so it served it’s purpose.

My season goal after returning from Kenya was to run under 9 minutes for 3000m. That was based on a plan to race and train for track all through the summer. So this result was quite acceptable considering how things actually turned out.

Observation: track racing, alongside a fast paced mountain descent, is probably the most exhilarating type of running race. There is something about the pace, combined with the shoulder to shoulder battles that play out on the track, that make it such a buzz.

I look forward to having a decent crack at the track next season. Fingers crossed for a clean run into it next time.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Peaks and Troughs

This could be me - Fitzwilliam tennis club is right across the road from my house

It’s not fun writing about running badly.

After the disappointment of failing to perform in the London marathon, I recovered quickly and was ready and able to train again only ten days later. Having built up a solid marathon base over the winter, I decided to decrease the mileage to 100km per week for a while and focus on track work to improve the speed for the summer. By the third week of May I was running better than ever in training, and things looked promising. The idea that I might salvage something from my winter training efforts was comforting, and I began lining up some races for the summer.

But just as the Santry stadium opened its gates for the first graded track meet of the season in late may, I fell sick with a nasty unidentified virus. This problem arose during an aborted IMRA race attempt in Ballinastoe (first ever race abort), where the harsh climb was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

After a few days in bed, I took a risk and dragged myself over to Berlin on a Friday evening to meet with a friend from NZ, on the hope that I would come right. Instead, my condition went from bad to worse, and I was admitted to hospital in East Berlin the following day suspected of having contracted E Coli. All manner of testing was carried out, and with no conclusive diagnosis I was released later in the week after some relief in the symptoms. Pain had subsided and I was finally eating again (I won’t go into the other details). I was still weak and queasy, so training was still a way off.

I flew home to Dublin and spent the next few days resting up on the couch, not able for much else. I tentatively got back into the jogging over the following couple of weeks, because my body was resisting anything more demanding. Finally, last week I managed my first full week of training, including two track sessions and one of hill repeats. Then a 25km long run on Sunday. Generally the sessions went fairly well, and I felt ok during. But I must admit they took a lot out of me each time, and left me feeling queasy in between.

Having managed the sessions ok, last night I decided to test my body by running the Docklands 8k race in Dublin city centre. The first 2km felt ok but then I felt the energy levels drain and the lungs tighten, similar to the Ballinastoe incident four weeks ago. It’s a bizarre and deflating experience to running at training pace (tempo) yet hurting as if in the latter stages of a race. It feels like being a novice runner again i.e. running is hard. That would quite acceptable if I trained like a novice, but unfortunately that is not the case.

I kept plugging away, passing the 4km mark at about 13:20. 5km passed at 16:50, which would have been ok except that my body had given up, and my head had gone with it. I stuck at it until the 6k mark, at which point I pulled out and jogged home (second aborted race). So then... test failed.

The last couple of months have been mentally tough. It’s hard to continually motivate myself to train hard when I’m going backwards. As runners, we invest a sheer amount of gut-busting effort, day-in day-out, into training. This level of effort is difficult to justify on an ongoing basis, in the absence of tangible achievements. Hard work has been aplenty, but so far this year achievements have been few and far between.

At this point I’m about ready to throw in the towel, and take up a more forgiving and leisurely sport like Tennis or lawn bowls. Ahhh now that's the life. Probably better to just toughen up though.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Getting back to nature: Prince William's Seat race report

This year’s Prince William’s Seat race was essentially 4km up a hill and 4km back down (315 metres of vertical ascent/descent). The course started with 800m of wide open fire trail, then entered the forest and wound its way up a steep dark track. After exiting the top of the forest and joining the Wicklow Way trail briefly, the course takes in an anti-clockwise loop that meanders across open country (no trees, for the most part just a narrow muddy trail through scrub and heather) via the summit of Prince William's Seat, before eventually rejoining the forest trail and taking the same route back to the start/finish line. This was not a course for the feint-hearted. It is rough under-foot, that requires not only strength and fitness, but also a good bit of agility, surefootedness and concentration.

The field assembling at the start line was worryingly strong, with a larger-than-usual contingent of Rathfarnham club runners hoping to secure a lucrative spot on the club’s Wicklow Way Relay team, plus considerable threat from unaffiliated runners. So much for treating the race as a mid-week tempo training session in the hills – this was set to be quite a battle.

There were no big surprises off the start. Barry Minnock and Wexford runner Tom Hogan pushed the pace from the beginning. A crew of Rathfarnham runners comprising myself, Aaron O'Donogue, Kevin Bolger, John Brennan and John MacEnri tucked in behind them, with Brian Caulfield close behind.

My legs were burning more-or-less from the start, whereas the other lads seemed quite un-phased by the steep ascent. Some days climbing is very difficult, and this was one of those days. So I revised my race plan to: reach the summit without having lost too much ground, and then try to pick guys off on the way down.

Barry and Tom seemed not to notice that we were running up a hill, and as a result managed to build up an un-closable gap on us by the time we reached the summit. John Brennan pushed ahead on the Wicklow Way section and was probably 80 metres ahead of us at the turning point. I reached the summit in 6th place – four of the guys ahead of me were Rathfarnham runners (i.e. not looking good for my prospects of running the WW relay). I needed to step up my game. Thankfully my descent is normally better than my climb.

Four kilometres remained in the race, three of which were narrow trail which can make overtaking very difficult. Passing involves trying your luck running through heather or deep bog on the fringe of the track. John Brennan was in third position, and I wanted to catch him. Either the three of us would pull him back together, or I would have to overtake Kevin and Aaron and go it alone (if possible). But before any definite decision was required, we reached the brow of a hill to discover John Brennan standing ahead of us on the edge of the track, have just salvaged his mud-clad dislodged shoe from a deep quagmire. We sailed past him, not quite knowing what to say.

The game had changed again - now we just had to worry about each other. There were just under 3km remaining in the race – 2km of narrow technically challenging trail and then 800m of wide speedy fire trail to the finish. From a tactical perspective, there were two options.

If I could overtake the lads on the rough stuff then there was a chance that I'd be able to open up a gap, and take the pressure off a bit. But attempting to overtake here would be risky, because there is a good chance of falling or making harder work for myself (e.g. by going knee deep into a hole under the heather on the track-edge). In any case, it’s one thing to overtake a tentative road-runner who is struggling with the terrain, but it’s another thing altogether trying to pass these lads!

Or I could sit in and wait until the fire trail where the track widens and hopefully be able to out-kick the lads close to the finish.

I decided to hold back until the fire trail and then try my luck.

The forest tunnel was eerily dark, you could barely see where you were stepping as you descended the steep tree root ladder. As soon as I saw the light penetrating through the forest wall below, I found a gap and accelerated past the lads out onto the wide and welcoming fire trail. I’ve run enough 400 metre repeats with Kevin to know that he has a fierce kick, and decided that I’d rather push him hard with 800m to go than leave it to a sprint finish. The three of us bombed it down the hill, hurdled the “Beechers Brook” gate and rounded a couple of corners to finish in 3rd, 4th, and 5th respectively.

No doubt that this is just one of many battles that take place every week throughout the field of IMRA runners. You can’t beat IMRA races for a bit of healthy competition and exciting racing between mates.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Tough times in London

It was one of the most exciting race starts I have experienced. I stood on the start line of the London Marathon in Greenwich last Sunday at 8:57am, surrounded by hundreds of club runners from all over the UK. Just a few feet ahead of me, Martin Lel raised his hands above his head to greet the crowd as he was introduced by the MC. Lel, the marathon legend and twice winner of London marathon, stood shoulder to shoulder with some of the biggest names in the running world. Meanwhile, 38,000 runners waited anxiously behind me for Richard Branson to drop the starting flag at the sound of the gun.

Despite the grandeur of the event and the associated intense atmosphere, I felt fairly relaxed and confident that I was in for a good performance. The conditions were pleasant, if not a little warm (cold is good for marathons). I had a near perfect build-up to the race, and the legs were fresh and ready for action.

At the sound of the gun, the sea of runners burst across the start line and the race got underway. My plan was fairly simple – start off with a steady pace of 3:36 min/km (or 5:48 min/mile) and hold the pace as long as I could.

As expected, the first ten miles (16km) were relatively non-eventful. The pace felt fine, and it is really just a matter of passing time. The crowd was always there, but was relatively quiet at this early stage in the race. I noticed over these early miles that my heart rate (as reported by the Garmin) was higher than it had been in Rotterdam marathon and in Berlin marathon last year. In both of my previous two attempts at the marathon, I had started off sitting at around 158 beats per minute, whereas on this occasion I found myself sitting closer to 167bpm at the same stage of the race. I also noticed that I was breathing a bit harder than I had done at this stage in Berlin last September.

I was not overly concerned about this because I felt ok, but I did consider pulling back the pace from the ten kilometre mark so that my heart rate would settle. I decided not to reduce the pace because (a) I backed myself. I felt that my aerobic capacity was stronger than it had been last year, and that I would be able to sustain a higher heart-rate for the duration of the marathon (b) I had run conservatively in Berlin and Rotterdam, and I wanted to push the boundaries this time (c) I was not ‘here to play tiddlywinks’: I had trained much harder than ever before, and I wanted a fast time to validate it. So I decided I’d rather try my luck. I figured that it was better to go out in a ball of flames, than to run a mediocre time and wonder whether I could have done better.

The clock hit 58 minutes as I crossed the ten mile mark, and at around that time the clouds made way for the unwelcome sun, and the air became humid. As the spectators sat back and enjoyed a good dose of sun, for the first time I felt like I was working. The first real sign of things going awry was a pang of fatigue that struck as I crossed the Tower Bridge, approaching the 20km mark. This is an epic section of course, with an immense atmosphere emanating from the roar of thousands of spectators combined with the impressive backdrop as you reach the north bank of the Thames. But on this day, the anticipated sense of exhilaration was overwhelmed by rising concern.

The fatigue that I was experiencing was worrying, because on a good day I should feel strong and ready to raise the game at the half-way mark of the marathon. I passed half way at 1h17 minutes and felt ok, but I was not confident about the thought of running a consecutive half marathon in the same amount of time.

Things deteriorated quickly from there. I knew what was happening, but I didn’t know why it was happening. My build-up for the marathon, including race performances, had suggested that the pace I was running would be manageable for most, if not all, of the race. But my mile splits had been inexplicably slipping since the ten-mile mark and the pace began to feel forced.

By the 25 kilometre mark I was starting to hurt, and I had a long way to go. By now my race plan was out the window, and I stopped looking at the clock. I could have sustained marathon pace for perhaps another few miles, but I felt doing so would have only lead to the embarrassment of pulling out or walking later. These were not viable options, particularly since I had plenty of supporters waiting for me on the last few miles of the course. I had decided by now that it was not my day, and that I just needed to settle on a new, more manageable pace that would get me to the finish line in one piece. This is, of course, easier said than done.

Running out of steam is a horrible feeling that only an athlete can really understand. For those of you who are not athletes: you are demanding that your body continue to operate when there is no fuel left in the tank. Everything hurts, tunnel vision sets in, and you effectively lose control of the situation as your body tries desperately to convert fat stores into sugar at a rate that is sufficient to keep you from passing out. There remain no options about whether to speed up in response to the cheering of friends (let alone to wave or say hello), or to strategise and work with other runners. You are no longer racing or competing with anyone. All of your goals and expectations go out the window, and you resort to merely trying to stay on your feet and move in a forward direction.

I have 'hit the wall' before, so the feeling is all to familiar. Fortunately the thousands of miles of training that I have recently accrued meant that this time around finishing was not in doubt. But many of the symptoms were there, and it is still a long and arduous journey to the finish line.

The resignation was hugely disappointing. After months of hard training, a painfully slow and labored jog was all I could really muster up in response to the relentless drone of the huge crowds lining Canary Wharf and the embankment as I closed in on the finish line. The miles ticked by slowly and began to reflect on the hard training it took to get there, the early mornings with burning lungs in Iten, the dark snowy nights running 1000 metre repeats around Nutgrove park. Embankment was supposed to be a reward for all of that effort, but it was not to be on this occasion. Instead I was jogging along at a pace that was slower than my usual ‘long-slow-training run’ pace wondering what had happened.

It wasn’t all bad though! The saving grace was the brilliant support that I received from Alison and my friends in the final stretch. Being greeted by a loyal support crew at the finish line was an excellent boost for the spirits (especially when they think that you were awesome!). I also took some comfort from the fact that despite having a bad day, I was able to hold it together over the second half of the course enough to salvage dignity. Even though the hard work didn’t deliver the performance I was looking for on the day, it wasn’t for nothing because it got me to the finish line. The other redeeming factor is that my legs have recovered quickly because they didn’t work as hard as they should have, so hopefully I can get back into full training soon and set my sights on the summer racing calendar.

In summary, I went out and had a crack at a goal that was challenging (2h32 marathon). I still believe that this target (or something close to it) was achievable, but only if the everything came together for me on the day, which it did not on this occasion. As a result, I blew up and failed to even run a personal best (2h39). That is despite training much harder and smarter in the lead-up to this marathon, and being in much better shape than ever before.

The lessons I have taken from this experience are that:

• Some days it is harder, physiologically speaking, to run fast. Despite being physically prepared and in a good state of mind last Sunday, it seemed on the day like I was having to work harder than usual to sustain the target pace. I chose to stick with the pace rather than back off, and then I paid the price for it (though I don’t regret my decision).
• When you set your sights high and definite, the margins are tight and there is a fine line between success and failure. Small variables have large implications.
• Until now I have only run marathons in cool conditions, and have relied on drinking water alone. I have refrained from gels and sports drinks because I have experienced stomach problems in the past and I these products are commonly known to exacerbate them. But the weather was warm in London. The body dehydrates faster in those conditions and loses salts/electrolytes at a greater rate. This can lead to depleting energy levels. Elite runners use replacements like gels and sports drinks to sustain energy levels. I will train myself to do the same in the future.

Half marathon split: 1:17:30min

Finish time: 2:42:20min

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The waiting game

The last two weeks before a marathon are the hardest. This is because this period of time mainly involves: waiting around/resting, and attempting to lose weight. As you may have noticed, these pass-times/behaviors do not typically go hand in hand.

Picture: there was lots of down-time in Kenya too, but at least I had daisy to keep me company!

At this stage you’ve been focused on the marathon for months. With eleven days to go before the race, you’re fatigued in the body and in the mind. You haven’t had a sip of beer or a piece of chocolate in weeks, and most of your personal/leisure time in recent memory has been spent resting at home instead of socialising or enjoying the usual pleasures of life (hill walking, holidaying, leisurely cycling to name just a few). But when you’re in the midst of a demanding training regime, you barely have time to notice what you’re missing out on. And the training is often quite enjoyable, so it’s all good. This all changes when the taper starts. From here on in, training will be tapered back in order to let the body recover in time for the London Marathon.

Right now it’s hard to imagine running a marathon at my target pace. In fact, if I were to attempt to run the marathon tomorrow I would fall well short, because I’m tired. To prepare for the race then, I’ll spend a significant amount of time stationary and off my feet. Sitting around or sleeping is usually a luxury that should be appreciated, but it can also get boring fairly quickly. Especially when you’re also trying to lose weight.

Training for a marathon is hard, but sitting around on the couch for two weeks thinking about not eating is even harder. As well, it’s not particularly relaxing sitting around waiting when you are anxiously awaiting the marathon itself! It's the unsettling ‘calm before the storm’.

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely won’t be starving myself. I need to stay strong and healthy so there is absolutely no benefit in depriving myself of essential nourishment. But I will be carefully controlling my diet/food intake in order to shed a couple of kilograms before the race. The idea is that you don’t want to carry any more weight around the marathon course than you need to. So I’ll only be eating as much as I ‘need’ and no more. I won’t be running as much so I’ll be eating less than usual, and I’ll only eat and drink healthy food types with low fat and sugar content. My diet will be fairly unexciting. Not dissimilar from the Kenyan approach, except that now I’m in Dublin so I’ll be surrounded by people who are enjoying the full western diet.

I’m not sure what will come as more of a shock to the body – the marathon itself, or the Big Mac Combo that I throw at it after the race.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The next station is... Greenwich

With less than three weeks to go until London marathon, it seems like as good of a time as any to take stock of where I’m at and assess the task at hand.

Last September I ran the Berlin marathon in a time of 2h39 minutes and 23 seconds. Since then I have spent approximately three months drinking pints and eating chocolate (admittedly I was also training to some degree through November and December). Then I organised my London marathon entry, and I knew that my only chance to get back in the game was to spend a month training in isolation in Kenya.

So after scoffing several pounds of turkey over Christmas in anticipation of a period of culinary austerity, I flew to Iten for some altitude training. These were Spartan times, which gave me little to do except to focus on improving my running and involuntarily (but happily) lose a few kilograms. I then returned to Dublin to work, and more importantly, to continue my training. I also rekindled my relationship with chocolate and beer, but this time I restricted access.

Upon returning to Ireland I ran two good races, including the National Intermediate cross-country and the Ballycotton 10 (54:13). I also ran two disappointing races at the National Senior teams Cross country and the Fr Murphy AC St Paddy's Day 5 mile in Co. Meath (admittedly it was more of a tempo run, but either way I got whipped and ran badly). But I’ve been training through all of these races (not interrupting training to rest up), all of the while focused on Sunday 17 April: the day of the London Marathon.

Here is the course:

As you can see, the marathon starts in Greenwich Park in South East London. The course veers East before turning back on itself and heading West along the Thames towards the city centre. The course crosses the London bridge at the half marathon mark, then meanders eastward around the financial centre before folding back on itself along the Northern side of the Thames. In the last few miles runners pass many of the famous landmarks of London, before passing Big Ben and Westminster Abbey and finishing in the Buckingham Palace Gardens.

Setting a target time

After completing the Berlin Marathon in September, I set myself a goal of running 2h32 minutes in London. This goal was the driving force behind my motivation through the cold dark months of winter (ok fair enough, it wasn’t that wintery in Kenya). But in the final lead-up to the race it is important to set a ‘target time’ which will underpin my race plan and pace throughout the race.

When the starting gun fires at the beginning of a marathon, the field takes off and everyone feels super. Well prepared runners have fresh legs for a change, and should feel well rested after a decent taper period (rest). The adrenal glands are firing rounds of borrowed energy into the bloodstream, courtesy of your anxiety combined with the buzz of the crowd. For this reason, many people are over-confident and take off like a rocket from the gun. But as these folk learn when they hit the half way mark: adrenaline doesn’t last for 26.2 miles (42.2km). There is no hiding from your actual physiological capacity and preparedness for the task.

The fastest way to run a marathon is to pace it more-or-less evenly throughout the entire race. Common theory holds that if you run the first ten kilometres one minute too fast, then you’ll probably run the last ten kilometres two minutes slower than you otherwise would have done. So it pays to be acutely aware of your physical condition, and to get the pace right. The best way to assess your physical capacity is to analyse your race results and training performances. I have yet to complete my test sessions. But based on my performances and training so far, my goal time of 2h32 minutes remains a realistic target, if not a little ambitious.

Last year I targeted sub-2h45min in Rotterdam marathon and ran 2h44min (in April), then targeted sub-2h40min in Berlin Marathon and ran 2h39min (in September). Both times I felt that I had run well and had paced it conservatively, but perhaps could have run quicker if my target time had been quicker. So this time I’m happy enough to take a risk and set a more demanding target time. Time will tell whether that is a good decision.

Next is to break-down the race based on the target time.

Finish time: 2 hours 32 minutes

3:36 minutes/km (or 5km splits of 18:00)

5:48 minutes/mile (5 mile splits of 29:00)

When I’m standing on the starting line in Greenwich, I’ll be thinking almost entirely about getting my pace right and listening to my body. My Garmin watch will bleep at me every kilometre during the race and display my kilometre split. And there will be mile markers along the way with large clocks fitted. Initially, this prescribed pace should feel very comfortable (in fact easy). If I have set my target time and pace correctly, then all will feel comfortable for a good while, before getting steadily harder over the last ten kilometres. By the time I hit the 40km mark if all goes well I’ll be giving it everything just to hold on. If I have over-estimated my fitness however, then I'll suffer a long and painful struggle to the finish line.

Hitting this target is anything but a foregone conclusion. As I said in my blog post before Berlin Marathon, there are many obstacles that could present themselves (wind, stomach cramps, toilet stops, heat). These need to be accounted for on the day. Failure to be flexible in light of extraneous factors can be catastrophic to performance. For example, if it’s hot, I’ll probably have to recalibrate the goal time to a slower time and pace the race accordingly from the start. Otherwise there is a high risk of blowing up.

Despite the focus here on pace, in reality you have to run based on how you feel. If it feels hard when it shouldn’t feel hard (i.e. early on), then I’ll slow down.

More to come on the pain that it took to get here…

From the depths of marathon training

When I first began running with a club in September 2008 (Rathfarnham W.S.A.F), I was preparing to attempt a sub 3 hour performance in the Dublin Marathon. I introduced myself to the coach (Adam Jones), whom then introduced me to the lads with whom I would run a set of 5x2000m on the grounds of Terenure College in South Dublin. Welcome to the world of pain. Many of the lads who were kicking my ass around the park at training looked at me like I was mad, or extremely brave, when I told them I was training for a marathon (and especially an ‘Ultra-marathon’). I was puzzled by this sentiment, because these guys were clearly not afraid of pain, and were obviously extremely fit. They were notching up as many miles overall as I was in my marathon training, and at a greater intensity. Most of were capable of running well under three hours for a marathon, if only they had decided to turn up on race day. To put this in context, only about 5% of runners typically break the three hour mark in any given marathon.

They clearly knew something that I didn’t, and over time I have come to realise why so many serious runners (club runners) steer clear of marathons. Of course there are the obvious reasons, like the arduous and largely unpleasant 30km plus runs that are required to train your body for the marathon (let’s be honest, long road runs aren’t much fun). But that didn’t add up, because these club guys actually like running, and would normally run 90 minutes on a Sunday anyway.

The less obvious reason that so many competitive runners don’t run marathons is the toll that marathon running takes on the body. And perhaps more importantly to competitive runners, it is feasible that running marathons can slow down a runner’s rate of improvement.

About a month ago I was running well in training and in races. Since then I have really stepped up the long runs (23 miles at 6:30 min/mile average, or 36km at 4 min/km), and have been focusing on getting the endurance together in time for London Marathon in April (sitting on 140km total per week). After a month of peak marathon training, I’m struggling to hit the same interval splits or pace in training sessions that I was a few weeks back. I’m chasing my own shadow. This is because every Sunday I get out and flog myself on the pavement for 2 ½ hours. And then try to hammer out three sessions per week on legs that are never fully recovered.

The constant fatigue that is synonymous with marathon training prevents me (and I presume other marathoners) from extending myself and pushing the pace in training. It is logical then that speed and in particular the development of anaerobic capacity is sacrificed in the effort to improve endurance. This effect is easy to detect when you begin the season running side-by-side with club mates, then as the season goes on you fall behind in sessions, despite putting in hundreds of miles of good quality uninterrupted training.

But that’s only part of it. The taper stage, combined with the recovery time after race day, knock a marathoner out of serious training for at least a month. Meanwhile, my cross-country and track focused friends are hammering out quality training sessions time and time again. It makes you think.

Having said all of that, there is almost no feeling like the satisfaction of honing in on the finish line at a big marathon, knowing that months of training have gone into this moment and it is paying off. That atmosphere of mass crowds and celebration (see photo of starting line at the London Marathon - 40,000 runners and over a million spectators). Crossing the line, and knowing that in about an hour you’ll be smashing a Big Mac combo (for the first time in six months) and will already be on your second pint or stein after weeks of strict dieting - probably in an amazing city like Berlin or Amsterdam or London! By contrast, if you were a 5k runner, you’d cross the line, look at your watch, chat to the guy who just outkicked you at the line (or vice versa), then casually drive home (because the race would probably be local) and check online to see whether there is another similar race on next weekend.

Marathons are a high stakes game. You only have one shot every six months to nail it, so you’d better get it right.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ballycotton 10 Mile 2011: Race Report

Race distance: 10 miles
Finishing time: 54:14 (5 mile split 27:11 negative split)
Average pace: 3:22 min/km
Average speed: 17.8 km/h
Finishing position: 20th (2500 starters)

For the second year running, I took to the start line on the crowded main street of Ballycotton for the annual ‘Ballycotton 10’ road race. The race is a classic ten mile event on the Irish calendar, and draws a large crowd of club and fun runners from across the country. The race organiser limits the number of entries to 3000, and it’s hard enough just securing a place on the start line. The Ballycotton 10 was one of my favourite races of 2010, and serves as an excellent warm-up for a spring marathon (in my case London Marathon in April).
Ballycotton is a small and charming coastal village in County Cork, Ireland. The village essentially consists of one narrow main street that runs parallel to the coast, which is bordered by rows of shops and houses on each side. The race starts and finishes at the top of the main street, and for the first two miles descends down the main street towards a junction just outside of the village. The last two miles of the race goes back up this street in the opposite and up-hill direction. The mid-section of the course is fairly flat, with only a few undulating parts.

The race has a reputation for a fast start (on the downhill), and the unforgiving and seemingly endless uphill drag to the finish. My race strategy was to avoid getting carried away with the current of over-confident runners off the start, and to keep something in the tank for the last two miles. My goal pace was 5:25 min/mile, or 3:24 min/km, and I normally try to set an even pace. If possible, I would try to join a pack of runners for the following reasons (a) running in a pack is easier because you’re less exposed to the wind and (b) a pack can help you set the pace, and stick to it throughout (c) being in a pack feels easier, as if you’re in it together.

As expected, the lads took off at a decent clip, led by some of Ireland’s top runners (including Sergiu Ciobanu, Mick Clohisey, Sean Hehir and James McCarthy). When I reached the 1 mile mark and the clock on side of road read ‘5:06’ it became apparent to me that I had failed to implement the first component of my strategy. But the pace felt entirely comfortable, so I wasn’t worried. I consciously backed off and settled into my target pace, if not slightly quicker.

The crowd thinned out as the top runners surged ahead at ridiculous speed, never to be seen again. Meanwhile other over-ambitious starters quickly hit their anaerobic threshold (because they’d gone out too fast) and fell away. At the 2 mile marker, I was running alone but there was a group of about ten lads forming 15 metres ahead of me. It was decision time. Should I ramp up the pace and attempt to pull them back, or let them go. If I manage to catch them without busting myself, then I gain all of the benefits of pack running (mentioned above). The risk of going after them is that I would exert too much effort catching them, and then not be able to hold on to the group.

I felt comfortable, so I decided to go after them. I would be able to recover a bit at the back of the pack once I caught them. I focused my sights on the group and accelerated after them. Good decision – I caught them without much trouble and joined the group, immediately feeling vindicated.

The group ploughed on for the first 8 miles at a steady pace between 5:25 and 5:30 per mile (Garmin was ticking over at 3:22 min/km). It was led for the most part by a couple of runners from St Finbarr’s AC and by Rob Cross from Crusaders AC, whom was also looking strong and steady. The pace felt quick, but also comfortable, as the group pulled back a couple of guys who were out on their own (not a good place to be).

It became obvious that this was going to be a race of tactics. Pushing ahead of the pack before the eight-mile mark was not a viable option, because the lads would most likely work together to hunt you down before the finish line. The course reaches a junction and turns onto the climb with 1.5 miles to go, and we all knew that this was a natural point in the course to make a move. The hill would almost certainly break up the pack, and it would be ‘each man to himself’ from that point on. The question on my mind was – who would make the first move, and what would they have left in the tank?

The pack swung a left at the junction and hit the first hill. The race leaders were well ahead (out of striking distance), so this show down was to be ‘a race within a race’. Rob Cross pushed off the front. Rob is a class runner, with a background on the track. He beat me only last week in the National Senior Cross Country championships, so I was happy enough just to be running in a group with him at this point. I knew he’d have a decent kick (last 400 metres), and that I couldn’t afford to give him any space. So I broke through and went after him. The pack followed suit, and we remained a unit. With a mile to go, one of the St Finbarr’s lads stepped out and pushed to the front of the pack, but didn’t make any further ground and the group closed in around him. Then Rob pushed the lead again. The group remained intact.

As we closed in on the ‘1000 metres to go’ sign-post, I felt ready for a battle, and I recalled (to inspire confidence) all of the dark, cold and rainy Tuesday nights I’ve spent running 1000 metre intervals with my Rathfarnham club mates at Nutgrove Park. The pain of running 1000 metres at pace is certainly not an unfamiliar feeling. I stepped to the left of the group and accelerated. I could hear the footsteps and heavy breathing behind me as I approached the 600m to go mark, so I changed up a gear and dug deep. All of the speed work I’ve been putting in must be helping, because with 400 metres to go I couldn’t hear the sound of footsteps any longer.

The performance represents progress for sure (near on a 4 minute PB). Though it is clear that there is still a long way to go before I close in on the top ten lads in these big races, so I have my work cut out for me over the summer! The good news is, that I’m on track to hit my target time in London Marathon next month (sub 2h32min). The bad news is, that the next month of training is the hardest part.