Friday, 29 April 2016

Greater Manchester Marathon

I hadn't done a marathon for three years, mainly because as I've got a bit older I've found that doing higher road mileages is neither all that interesting nor all that good for joints and muscles when compared with the altogether more rewarding pastime of running in our hills and forests.

But I had a couple of reasons for this one.

Firstly,  I had a feeling that I was not keeping up the level of fitness that I had done when I had the discipline of the occasional road race to keep me honest. Nowhere to hide on the roads, you can't blame the weather, the mud, or any number of things you can use to kid yourself that you really could have run an ultra faster but you were somehow prevented by circumstances beyond your control. If you take out the more extreme examples such as Snowdon, then a marathon is a marathon, and your time will tell you what state you're in. So running a marathon would be good for me.

And secondly, I had a feeling I would like to run London again sometime. I'd done this back in 2006, but entry was easy then, I was working for the sponsoring company and we got a good number of places for company employees. Nowadays it's more difficult. I can't sign on to the ethics of running for a charity - probably the subject of a whole post so I'll just leave it at that for now - and tales of the ballot were pretty depressing, people being unsuccessful for five years and so on. So my remaining option was to get a "good for age" place, for which I needed a recent "official" time; the requirement gets progressively easier as you get older, for me it's now 4 hours (and in a couple of years or so goes up to 5 hours!). In my last run at Blackpool in 2013 my time was just under 3 hours 43 minutes, so I assumed with a bit of training that the intervening years would not have removed 17 minutes from my potential and I ought to be OK.

I chose Manchester because it's local, I hadn't run it before, it's (in theory) logistically easy because it starts and finishes in the same place, and the course goes through the area where my son and his family live so I could probably get a bit of personal support at least at one point! For one reason or another the training hadn't really gone as I'd planned, but I'd done at least one road run each week since Christmas with a couple of half-marathon jaunts and one 16 miler at just over 9 minute pace. Not really enough but I assumed that it would be OK.

On the day it was a beautiful but chilly morning as I drove over to Old Trafford, parked at MU and walked over to the start/finish area at the cricket ground. I got a coffee and queued 10 minutes to drop off my bag - this contained warm clothes for the finish and the exercise was a mistake in hindsight as the car was only a 10 minute walk away - then made my way to the start pens. It was all quite low key and unstressful, I guess as a result of this not being "big" for a city marathon, I think there were about 12,000 starters on the day. Among the other starters was Katrina Kynaston, here with John; I didn't know that at the time or I would have looked out for them.

The starter was the evergreen Ron Hill  -  a strange coincidence for me as he started the last marathon I ran at Blackpool in 2013  -  and we were soon under way. The course wandered around Old Trafford for a couple of miles then headed out towards Sale. The organisers must have generated some clout because they had got the main road through Stretford to Sale closed for the event - impressive. I set out to maintain an 8.50 mile pace to give me a workable but not excessive cushion on my 4 hour target, but I noticed after 3 or 4 miles that my watch was reading high against the course mile markers. Either my watch was a bit out or the markers hadn't been too carefully sited. To be on the safe side I assumed the former and took my target "watch" pace down a bit to 8.45. This seemed pretty easy so I was happy enough.

There were more than enough water stations so I was able to go with the plan I had used on many marathons previously of taking on about 200-250ml every 10k. I normally walk through the water station as I'm doing this, I think the time you lose is more than paid back by the ease of a comfortable drink and something to eat at the same time, maybe a bit of ultra technique spilling back into marathons. Today I just ate a couple of squares of Shotblok every time I stopped for a drink, it works for me OK.

The crowds at the start had been a bit sparse but at soon as we hit Sale and Altrincham they were brilliant, lots of people and lots of noise. Shortly after turning into Brooklands Road at about 10 miles I saw John with his wife Jade and our two granddaughters on the other side of the road, we all waved furiously but it came and went quickly of course. The course is advertised as flat but there is a steady climb from Brooklands up to Altrincham, where there is a little loop before it works back down to Sale. The halfway point was in Altrincham and I was pleased to see it go by at around 1:55 - just nicely inside 4 hour schedule, my watch seemed solid at 8.45 average from the start.

On the return leg back up Brooklands, now approaching 17 miles, Jade and the girls had gone home but John was still there, now on my side of the road taking photographs and close enough for a quick high five.

From Sale, the return course wanders north out through Urmston, an area I don't really know. This, probably combined with the effects of distance run and the rising temperature now that the sun had really got a grip, gave me the first thoughts of tiredness at around 20 miles. I was still solid on my 8.45 pace "on the watch", but then a quick calculation told me that I was now pretty "safe" on my target and could allow the pace to drop a bit and still get comfortably inside 4 hours. The problem then of course is that unless you are really determined to resist it, once a thought like that that gets into your head then that's what you do! At half way I had considered re-adjusting my target to 3:50, but now although I'm sure it was perfectly possible it wasn't a powerful enough motivator for the bit of extra effort required. I drifted down a few seconds a mile back into a comfort zone, but then was surprised at how many runners I was still overtaking this late in the race. Looking at the splits afterwards it was somewhere around here that I must have passed Katrina, but as I wasn't looking out for her I wouldn't have noticed. She went on to finish in just over 4 hours.

Before long we were back into known ground, turning into the main road in Stretford with barely a mile or so to the finish. Good crowd support again and in a few moments it was done. My finishing time was 3:52:56.  I was pleased enough and feeling pretty good, but still slightly kicking myself that I had let that 3 minutes get away over the last 6 miles because basically I couldn't be bothered to make a better fight of it. Still, if I can still get under 4 hours in London next year I guess I'll be happy.

The finish had its good and bad points. After collecting your medal and goody bag, all runners were offered a free pint of chilled alcohol-free lager; I normally wouldn't touch the stuff but in this situation it absolutely hit the spot. a brilliant idea. Less good was the enormous queue to pick up your clothes bag, which was clearly going to mean a wait of hours rather than minutes. I thought about the rather well used items of clothing I'd left, inside an old dry bag, and decided it wasn't worth spoiling the day over so I abandoned it, walked back to the car in the warm sunshine and drove home.

I later heard that some competitors had been on the baggage queue for nearly three hours. The organisers took it on the chin that they had cocked up, apologised, said they would sort it next time, and offered everyone a discounted entry for next year. More surprising, without my even contacting the organisation (everyone makes mistakes, it's what you do next that counts), three days later my bag arrived home by mail. Well done, Manchester.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Training, Events and the Lakeland 100 Recces

It's occurred to me that I've been a bit slow on the blogging front of late, probably even slower that my normal running speed. The year started well with three posts in January but then declined with only one in each of the following two months. At times like this I often wonder whether it's just because I don't have anything worth saying nowadays, whether I should just call it a day and wrap things up. But it's the place where I dump all my thoughts on running, both on the events and other stuff; I find it interesting to look back over from time to time, so I'll probably continue.

It was puzzling to see where March had gone to after the Northumberland Coast Ultra at the end of February. My main focus was to have been the Hardmoors 55 on the 19th, but I then had the opportunity to go on a ski trip with my daughter and her friends. I'm finding that ski-touring seems like hard work these days so I don't go with the gang I accompanied for several years, but the chance of plenty of lift-served piste and off-piste in the Trois Vallees with an enthusiastic and fairly adventurous young team was too good to miss. As a bonus, we had good snow and great weather.

Back at home it was the normal story for this time of year  -  the odd bits of good weather didn't coincide with my available days and I didn't get out in the hills as much as I would have liked, so I spent most of my time on the trails in my local forest or doing laps on our nearest "mountain" (Moel Fammau in the Clwyds), a rise of all of 900ft from car park to summit! I did a few road runs in preparation for the Manchester marathon, but more of that in a later post I think. So I have the feeling that I need to buckle down and get some quality miles and feet of ascent in before the real season starts, which for me is at the end of May. Assuming I manage to get fit enough, I'm really looking forward to the summer and a great series of events.

First, another little warm-up at the end of this month with the Endurancelife Coastal Ultra down in Pembroke. I like this well-organised no-frills series and this will be my fifth over the last two or three years; up until now I've done the events at Exmoor, South Devon, Anglesey and Northumberland. Pembroke is classed as "moderate" at about 34 miles long and with what looks like about 4000ft of ascent. Pembroke is where we spent a lot of family holidays when our children were young so I'm looking forward to the re-acquaintance. I won't go for broke on this one but it will still be my last "run all the way" event until the autumn, a good test of whether I have a bit of the speed/stamina combination required.

Things get more serious with the Northern Traverse starting on the 30 May. This is a new event taking on the well-known Wainwright "Coast to Coast" route from St Bees to Robin Hood's Bay. Starting at 10am on Monday morning,you have 5 days to complete the route which is just short of 200 miles and 40,000ft of ascent. It's run by James Thurlow's team "Open Adventure"; I've done their "Lakes in a Day" event twice and been impressed, so I think the organisation will be good. An added incentive for me to finish not too late on Friday is that we have tickets to the Keswick Beer Festival that evening! Sleeping is possible at the checkpoints (tents provided) but they are about 40-50 miles apart and don't fit logically with the days, so I guess making the best compromises between getting some rest and not wasting the daylight will be the key. I originally thought I could recce quite a lot of the course but I haven't found time one way or another. I know the bit through the Lake District and the North York Moors section follows the Hardmoors 55 route for about 15 miles, but the rest of it will be completely new to me. 

Then towards the end of June is the West Highland Way, still my favourite event on the ultra calendar. Having done eight in a row up to 2014, I took last year off because it clashed with my (failed!) attempt at the Dragon's Back, so I'm looking forward to getting back on this brilliant trail. I ran the Highland Fling (the first half of the WHW) last year but I don't think I'll go again, it's a bit too big and crowded for me now. All credit to John Duncan and his crew, they've made it one of the UK's premier and high reputation ultras, but that's not really what I go to Scotland for. Limit on numbers keeps the longer WHW a rather more serene affair, much more my scene.

Similar to the WHW in generating its own family atmosphere is the Lakeland 50/100 weekend in late July, with many runners going back year after year. This will be my seventh year of involvement. I marshalled at the start and finish last year, a great experience after competing the previous five years, and this year I'm going back again to run in the 100.

A unique feature of the Lakeland is that the organisers run a series of four recce weekends throughout the year which in total cover the whole course. They are worthwhile events in their own right, usually with some related talks on the Saturday evening and buses to the start on the Sunday, allowing you to run the relevant course section through manned checkpoints back to your car. For the last couple of years I've run as sweeper on the recces and had a great time. Last year I did all four, but this year clashes with other events have meant I can only manage two, the last being the Buttermere to Dalemain section about ten days ago. I was asked to do the Saturday talk for this one  -  they had last year's winner Paul Tierny for one of the earlier talks this year so at least I could speak from a completely opposite point of view in terms of competence! Actually, my main theme was pacing because I believe that many of the runners who DNF in the Lakeland 100 do so because they go too quickly over the first half, particularly the first thirty miles or so where nearly all the hard ground on the course is concentrated. Another thing I touched on was the recce coming up the next day, described by Race Director Marc Laithwaite on the website as "one of the easier sections of the route with relatively good tracks and few aggressive climbs and descents". In fact, Buttermere to Dalemain is 33 miles and nearly 6000ft of ascent - requiring quite a bit more effort that the Pembroke ultra I'll be running in three weeks time! The fact that Marc's statement is completely true just illustrates what a challenge the Lakeland 100 presents.

The recce run went well, we had fine clear weather even if continuous rain for the preceding two days made it a bit sloppy underfoot at times. As on the previous recce from Ambleside to Coniston, I shared the sweeping duties with Billy Burns, who is himself doing all four this year. Last year Billy completed the Lakeland 100 in 33:37, a time which I'm sure is beyond me, but what was more impressive is that he did it on the back of an extremely conservative first half. He arrived at Dalemain, generally thought to be the halfway point in time for a well paced race, in 18:22 in 204th place, and picked up 100 places before the finish. He's going for the 100 again this year and I predict the improvement will be significant!

Sweeping was fun as usual, you get to chat to a lot of nice people about their experiences and ambitions, at a pace that is normally well within your own. Then occasionally the last runner will decide they've had enough for the day and drop out, so you have to make sure they have a reliable route back to safety then put on a bit of a push to catch up the new backmarkers. Billy and I ran on our own from Blencathra to Dockray, with estimates of how much we had to catch up varying between 20 and 40 minutes. We eventually just failed to catch the pair ahead before the checkpoint. but it gave us a pretty fair workout for a while. It was good to get back on the course again, though I don't expect I'll have time to revisit much more of it before the race in July.

And then at the end of August, the UTMB is lying in wait. Back once again to the big Chamonix party!