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)
Results: http://www.ballycottonrunning.com/

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.