09 November 2014

Remembrance Day/Grand Union Canal Half Marathon

Done! It was never going to be the proverbial swift half, and it turned out to be slower than I planned, as I faded in the November heat (!) in the last three miles (as the splits show), but to run a Half with so little preparation and with injuries to overcome is rather satisfying - almost as good as a PB. Almost!

Apart from the heat, the race was also memorable for the beauty of the Grand Union Canal in its route through the western edge of London - just inside the M25. How can such a conurbation have so much green in it? There are some delightful houses along the bank, too, including one with a very airy artist's studio - several canvasses visible through the windows.

The towpath, however, is not ideal for racing on. We started in three waves, so for  most of the way the field was suitably spread out, but a gate after only a few hundred yards (most of that round the park where we started) was a bad bottleneck. The surface was far muddier than I had expected, and in places a wrongly-placed foot could have landed you in the canal, which the organisers explained would necessitate a thorough check for Weil's Disease. I didn't see anyone take the plunge, though I had a nasty moment when an earphoney cut me up as I went past and my foot slipped a little.

My calf injury didn't trouble me, and indeed the exercise seems to have loosened it up a bit (another underuse injury? I doubt it). Marshmallow shoes helped, as I could do some heel-banging or at least run less on the fore- or mid-foot and save the calves. Hills remained a problem, though, and even a canal towpath has them - attached to bridges and locks. I quickly realised that the solution was to attack them sideways, running like I would in a warm-up session, pushing sideways with the injured leg: no strain on the gastrocnemius that way at all. It has probably produced some very strange photos, though, as the race photographers (of which there were many) were usually positioned at the top of climbs.

No crabways running on the hill at mile 12, though: it went on too long, so I just had to grin and bear it - and dodge the football that a small boy saw fit to kick straight at me, his mother remonstrating mildly (rather than giving him the good hiding he deserved, and which would have nipped his antisocial tendencies in the bud.

A 10am start on Remembrance Day poses a problem - what to do at 11? The answer was to have a minute's silence before the start. Not everyone fell silent, and the Portaloo doors kept on banging shut throughout, but the music stopped and proper respect was shown. Well done to the organisers. Starting an hour later might have been a good idea from that point of view, but it was quite hot enough by the time I finished and running through the midday heat (!, again!) would have been trying, to say the least.



08 November 2014

Tomorrow is a long time

A limited goal today: complete 5k, regardless of time, without any gastocnemius or Achilles problems, so I could assess the chances of completing a half tomorrow. A few twinges from the offending part of my right calf, but I made it. Now, a couple of hours later, it's a bit sore, so I'm not sure I have proved myself capable of tomorrow's mission.


27 October 2014

Moscow calling


Taking Parkrun tourism to a new level, I turned out for my fifth different Parkrun in Gorky Park on Saturday morning - bright and a little early, so I had time to jog up and down the course a bit to warm up before any other runners appeared. I knew I was in the right place because of the familiar banner, which I could see from the Metro station. I had been bemused by the map on the Gorky Park Parkrun page showing the Vorbyovy Gory (Sparrow Hills, the area formerly known as Lenin Hills) Metro station in the middle of the Moscow River, but as the train pulled in all was revealed - it is on a bridge, so one may leave the station on either side of the river. Clever. Unfortunately the 'vkod na gorod' or 'exit to the town' signs didn't help me to find the best way to the park, and I ended up scrambling down a bank (a well-worn path: I was by no means the first) which I would have avoided having to do had I turned right after the exit gates rather than left, which was the direction in which I had already seen the Parkrun banner.



My plan had been to shed the fleece top I had worn on the seven-stop journey from Lubyanka (hat and gloves also being necessary, as the temperature remained at least a couple of degrees below freezing all weekend despite the weather actually getting warmer from Friday to Sunday) but it soon became apparent that it would not be a good idea. Having established that the officials at the start, the only people there when I arrived, spoke no more English than I speak Russian (although I was complimented a couple of times on my accent when I uttered some of the few words I do know), I was pleased when one of the runners who appeared a few minutes after I got there (they obviously know not to wait around in Moscow weather) spoke to me. Unsurprisingly he used Russian - so I used the most useful phrase in my limited repertoire: я не говорю по-русский -Ya ne govoryu po-russki. 'I said, you look as if you don't belong here, and it seems I was right!' he said.

Konstantin, as I learnt he was called (the phrase 'как ва завут?', 'kak va zavut?' comes very early in the BBC's Russian Language and People course, and even I have got that far), proceeded to act as my interpreter, although the announcements came from the Parkrun script with which I am pretty familiar. We then obediently lined up along the kerb, as instructed by the race director, and applauded the volunteers before moving to the start and posing for a photo. It's an out-and-back course, with the turn (so Konstantin told me) clearly marked with cones, just like Blandford in fact - only cooler. And smaller: 17 runners this week, though I think at least a couple of them joined in after most of us had started.


I suppose that on average runners in the UK wear about 2.5 items of clothing: most men probably wear two (I am not counting socks) and most women, three. Never have I seen a field assembled for a race with so many items of clothing. My fleece was definitely staying on, even if my Abingdon marathon t-shirt would be concealed. Most had jackets on, and all wore leggings - no bare legs or arms and I might have looked every inch the typical Englishman had I stuck with the original plan. Hats (or other warm headwear) and gloves were also de rigueur. The conditions were not conducive to running in huaraches, although I have used them in Moscow at this time of year before: I was in Vivobarefoot (with socks!). You can see the get-up of the other participants on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.799413070121523.1073741831.702520579810773&type=1) - but not me, because when I got to the turn after a very gentle first half the marshal-cum-photographer was busy taking photos of his glamorous assistant (the lady in the fur-trimmed hood and glasses in those photos) so he only got a snap of the lady who was just behind me, in the greeny-blue jacket and white hat. It also meant that I almost failed to spot the cones, which were off to the right of the footpath we were running on so slightly out of my line of sight - and I was going slowly enough that the runner in front (who must have been the chap in the photos with the long hair and beard who seems to have been running in jeans) was already out of sight by this point. A little guidance from the marshal would have been helpful. The lady just behind me kindly ensured I didn't get lost, although we ended up going round the turn in opposite directions and having to dodge each other half-way round.


I suspect most Parkrun photographers would be pleased to get pictures of 88 per cent of the runners, but when that means 15 out of 17 it's a less than impressive hit rate, especially with runners arriving at the turn several minutes apart! Photographic evidence that I was there would have been nice.


After the turn, my injured gastroc still felt OK and I thought it would be possible to up the pace a little. The path had a couple of gentle climbs and descents, in particular on a stretch by what I took to be the Spanish embassy and a lot of new and very exclusive-looking flats, and climbing certainly didn't agree with the errant muscle. My splits were 8:55 for the first mile, 9:01 for the second (including the confusion at the turn) and a very different 8:14 for the third. Once the finish was close (it was visible from about half a mile out, but didn't tempt me to sprint immediately) and the timekeeper with the beard (see photos) was shouting what I assumed to be encouragement I got a lot faster, and did the last .11 mile at 6:59 pace - still a minute a mile slower than my ambitious target pace, not even close to target half-M pace, but it felt good at the time.


The finish was a bit of an anti-climax: I got the codes scanned, and needing to get back to my hotel for a 10 o'clock departure to the Academy I left pretty quickly. Konstantin was leaving at the same time and accompanied me to the Metro station, and for several stops of the journey: we agreed that we would meet again in February, when the race should be even more interesting, weather-wise, and I look forward to seeing him again. The photos suggest that I missed out on the socialising - although I think I had exhausted the ability of most of those present to make a foreigner welcome.

So I am pleased to have done it, both as an event and as a race performance, and will do it if I can on every Moscow visit, but there were definitely disappointing aspects. Perhaps my hopes that Parkruns were a guarantee of a warm and friendly welcome all over the world were too much: not that anyone was unfriendly, and Konstantin was certainly very friendly. And at least I haven't wrecked my (gastroc's) chances of completing a half the weekend after next.

The previous day when we'd landed we stood on the runway for a long time. The pilot was not prepared to pass a mechanical digger which, with a typically Russian appreciation for the twin gods Health and Safety was parked by the runway. The plane's wing would have passed over it had we continued.
While there was enough headroom, I could understand the pilot's reluctance to proceed until the digger moved - a man climbed into it shortly after we stopped, then spent several minutes clearing the windows. At long last he moved off and we were able to carry on: only later did I learn what a sensitive subject large vehicles on runways at Russian airports are: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-29722498






28 September 2014

Autumn

I heard this beautiful piece on Radio 3 on Thursday, and although it alludes to a rather different autumn from the one I am having - Chaminade's seems a little melancholy - it is too apposite, and lovely, to be ignored.

Yesterday I ran the Blandford Parkrun for the second time, managing to get to the start in time to join the throng and embed myself a few rows behind the serious speed merchants and small boys at the front before the starter shouted "go!" and I had to turn round and head back the way I had just come. Next time I *will* leave at 8 o'clock to get there on time.
Good form, I think! Photo by marky444
Encouraged by my run last Tuesday with Didcot Runners, and specifically with Jean-Luc with whom I had done so many Amblers club runs in the past, I set myself a fast pace and stuck to it. The knowledge that I had kept going at an average 8:18 pace, but mostly at about 8 minutes/mile (a slow first mile accounted for the average - that was the mile in which I was talking to people: I soon shut up as Jean-Luc's pace took all my breath) encouraged me just to keep huffing and puffing and putting one foot in front of the other. The huffing and puffing was hard work, and noisy, sucking air in for two steps then forcing it out over the next couple of paces, but I knew that if I could do it for 5 miles then 5K was going to be a walk in the park - or at least a tempo run on the trail.

Perhaps the fact that I had not been able to find The Watch helped: there was no indication of how fast I was going to distract me from the job in hand. The course rises from the start - it's a narrow track, asphalt for the most part, and giving the impression that before Beeching it served a different purpose - then soon dives under the main road to Shaftesbury and climbs up the other side. Reaching the top of the descent, I realised that people around me were not going to commit to a crazy rush to the bottom, as I did, so I passed a few there and kept the pace up for the uphill section on the other side.

My race was spent mostly in proximity to two men in black, one with a ponytail and the other with a traithlon club tee-shirt - a potentially dangerous companion, from my experience of triathletes. I got to the turn first of the three, taking it wide to keep my speed up - I think my triathlete friend paused to clean his shades ...
Photo by marky444
Somewhere along the return leg the second man in black (but white socks) left the two of us for dead. I thought I had in turn shaken off the traithlete but about half a mile out he appeared at my shoulder again and it took a big effort to drop him before we reached the finish. With it in sight I tried a final effort to catch the guy in front - Mr Ponytail was way off in the distance by now - but try as I might it wasn't happening. I needed to have done it a hundred yards or so earlier, but at that moment I was taking a short breather after attacking the climb from the tunnel under the road.

I thanked my two running-mates for their company, chatted a while with one of them and another runner who remarked on my footwear (ha! that's exactly what you're supposed to do!) and headed off, thanking the marshalls as I went. Running without The Watch meant a sense of anticipation that is completely lacking if I already know my time - although so often I forget to stop it, I don't really know what the time was anyway. So when it came through at 23:11, average pace 7:27, age-graded score 68 per cent, a season's best and only 49 seconds off my best ever Parkrun (from last October), I was delighted - and especially pleased that I made the decision a few weeks ago to focus on season's bests rather than all-time PBs. A much more realistic thing to aim at: although I ought to be able to find that 49 seconds somewhere, and then the elusive sub-20 will be in sight (well, if you have exceptionally good distance vision).

On the way, I will break the 70 per cent age-grading barrier, which I don't think I have ever managed before. It will help if I can shed a few pounds - just as well that the Dorset beer festival was after the Parkrun ...


06 September 2014

September

I avoided the ignominy of a three-digit finishing tag today, and recorded a time which compares reasonably well with others over the summer. My one run during the week hasn't improved my endurance, though (and I didn't seriously expect it to make a noticeable difference): my legs felt tired after only a few yards, so on the race to the gates by the lock - a notorious bottleneck - I pulled over to one side to let faster runners through. After that it seemed to get easier: by the time we left the metal road for the last one-tenth of a mile sprint I was in good shape, and I think my form was OK throughout. When I concentrated on my arms, I sped up noticeably, and I feel able to concentrate on them more now than ever before, as the rest of my form is hard-wired. It might not be good, but at least it is automatic!

I have my dates for Moscow trips this coming year now, coinciding nicely with the ceasefire in Ukraine, and can start planning to take in the Gorky Parkrun which will be great fun.




23 August 2014

Pastoral

I am in the middle of one of those rare periods when things seem to go right. As I drove this morning to Newbury Parkrun, listening to Beethoven's Pastoral sonata on R3 and heading for a nice run in the country (a great deal more pastoral than when the USAF were there), I found myself counting blessings - a most unusual state for me. All three daughters settled into clean and pleasant trades (an expression which has certainly lodged in my memory since Ron Colman first made me ware of it); we have completed the purchase of the dacha, as I like to think of it; next year's lecturing looks promising; and yesterday I had my most productive day's work for many a year, possibly the best of my entire career. That last might not be saying much, but it is progress.



And, an hour or so later, a big improvement over my last few Parkrun times. Strangely, although it was 28 seconds faster than last week,  Garmin Connect credits me with an average pace of 7:45 (hooray! better than target Marathon pace! although I do need to make my target a little more realistic) against 8:00 last week, so over 17 seconds has disappeared somewhere. The eccentric course measuring might account for some of that: Newbury seems to be .03 mile over distance - let's say 50 yards for the sake of argument - and last week Abingdon seemed to be .01 mile short, so actually, at the end of 5K, that's certainly the right order of magnitude.



The age-graded result is 64.38 per cent. I know I was pushing 70 per cent at one time, and might even have exceeded it in the distant past: but at least I know that if I fit in a Parkrun next weekend the age-grading algorithm will be kinder to me. I realised after the race, as I jogged back to the car, that I should stop worrying about PBs and think instead of season's bests: today was not one (23 June is, at 23:47) but the gap is closing. And with my next lecturing weekend looking firmer than I had feared it might, I might be doing a season's best at Gorky Parkrun sometime in October.



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16 August 2014

Hekla - and Abingdon Parkrun 158

A piece of music chosen purely because it came on Radio 3 as I drove home after my regular Saturday Parkrun - perhaps I should have saved a musical description of a volcano for the day I break my PB, but we might have to wait a long time.

Rarely have I felt much less like running. You know the feeling? Legs are heavy, breathing is not quite right, a general sense of lethargy comes over you - the product, I suspect, of a long week with too little running and too much work. Swept up in the start, I probably took the first half-mile or so too fast, and after the furthest turn in the meadow I had to move over to give faster runners space and reduce my pace. Twice. I mean the same happened on both laps. At other points on the course I was quite fast.

Photo by John Harvey
Perhaps the lack of a warm-up caused, or contributed to, the problem. I just felt old and tired. Soon I will be entitled to feel old, but at least my age-graded performance figures will automatically improve.