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.