18 April 2006

Oxfordshire County Road Relays

Easter Sunday in Hook Norton, renowned for its real ale but I am here to run a leg of a relay race - something over three miles. Relays like this are the most bizarre events: I did this same event several years ago, volunteering then to run two legs as I could only rely on being able to run at one speed and that would probably see me round the course twice. I also ran in the Teddy Hall relay in Oxford, a couple of times: we were a team of ringers, so even our captain was a little unsure about who was involved. My instructions were to take over from the Pole. At least the team members all wore the same tee-shirts.

At the Hook Norton recreation ground (which is an extensive facility, with a football pitch, tennis courts, a pavilion, and a cricket square) there is nowhere to get out of the wind, and we wrap up warm while awaiting our turn. Our first man doesn't seem to be having a good day, and he returns well down the order. By the time I take over, on the fourth leg out of six, we are well adrift but the team ahead of us are in sight and I pass their man just after exiting the recreation ground.

The route passes through the village, and very attractive it is too, before turing left and heading out across open countryside. From there, three more right turns bring you back to where you started. There's little to see, apart from the price of diesel at The Firs garage - 99.9p - and the Witney Roadrunners member in front, who is getting closer with each step. A clubmate, jogging the course against the flow of the competitors, urges me to relax. Apart from him, and the marshals, I hardly see anyone. A relay with no more than a couple of dozen teams competing and over three miles between changeovers is a miserably boring business.

The cold at the start has tricked the Witney man and as I close in with about a mile to go he breaks his stride to remove the base layer under his running vest. I have managed to keep up the ridiculoulsy ambitious pace at which I set off, and eventually cross the line to hand over to Thornton in 21:15. Not a good time for three miles, I think to myself, but later learn that it's about half a mile more than that, so not far off six minute miling. (Thornton beats my time by ten seconds, and apologises to all concerned for being so slow - we missed third place by a narrow margin in the end.)

I cannot believe that the older I get the faster I can still run.

Abbey Road in springtime

Last Thursday was the first morning this year when it was mild enough to run in tee-shirt and shorts. The day before gloves and hat were needed: on Thursday I'd have overheated in no time.

My daily run to work is worth describing, and last Thursday was precisely the day to start to do so. Unfortunately, there has not been time to write it up as I would have wished and consequently I ended up with several thousand words (a literal myriad, perhaps) and had only reached the Abbey Road zebra crossing. However, there is one little sketch that I feel the need to include now, with the rest to come later.

A little further on from the crossing I reached the junction with St John’s Wood Road. One of the many street-sweepers employed around here rounded the corner as I approached and, seeing me coming, withdrew with a wink and let me pass. I can’t place him and his colleagues very accurately – they look possibly North African, or Middle Eastern: I often wonder what they are doing so far from home, sweeping up the rubbish left by more affluent people who should know better (with one of whom I almost exchanged blows a few evenings back – that too is another story). I make a point of greeting them each time I pass, and I hope the wink indicates that he remembered me.

09 April 2006

Reading Half Marathon

Now it's over (and I am on the train home) it seems a bit of an anticlimax. I ran it in 1:47:44 by my watch, so I didn't overexert myself, and I certainly enjoyed the run. But I had been looking forward to this race for a long time, and somehow it didn't live up to my expectations.

First, travelling to Reading by train was not the best idea. It should be obvious that train is the best way to get there - minimum impact on the environment, the fare was less than the cost of parking at the Mad Stad, and shuttle buses were laid on to get the runners from the station to the start. But to meet the organiser's demand for everyone to be at the start with an hour and a half to spare - and not forgetting that part of the purpose of the exercise was to impress the organiser, notwithstanding that he had gone off on one of his epic motorcycle trips - I needed to take the 0745 train. A slow start to the morning meant that went by the board, but the 0809 should have done the job.

Unfortunately, and despite my checking that there were no adverse indications on the train company's web site, engineering works at Oxford had taken their toll. Eventually, the 0830 showed up before the 0809 (though not until 0840), and the many customers waiting in their running apparel for a train - pretty clear where everyone is going to this morning! - took it.

'Was there anyone there you knew?' I was asked when I returned home later. Not at first, I replied, but it hadn't taken long before I had struck up a conversation with a couple of the other waiting runners. One of them, Steve, bemoaned the boredom of running, and I suggested to him that membership of a club might be the solution. Running alone, all the time, is miserable, though I was able to come up with a pretty convincing explanation of how I managed to use running time to good effect.

At the station, the realisation first dawned on me that the one thing I didn't have with me is the timing chip. Without it, I suspect that I won't even get an official time, and clearly won't be doing my standing in the club championship any good. This revelation somehow accorded with the way my mood was developing, as I put on the hat and gloves which fortunately I had remembered to pack, and still shivered on the cold platform. (Happily, I was able to get a replacement running number and chip when I arrived at the start.)

The train journey - first stop Reading - passed with a pleasant conversation with Steve and a young lady on her way to work as a lifeguard at the swimming pool in Reading, for which she was already late. Mobile phone calls at Reading station enable me to find Vanessa and Francis quite easily, but no reply from Martin's phone. I introduced Steve to them (though not, I realise, the other way round) and we took the shuttle bus.

One thing we all seem to have forgotten to do is to complete the reverse of our running numbers, where name, contact in case of emergency and any special information should be written. Vanessa asks for my mobile phone number so I can be contacted in case of an emergency befalling her - more useful, she points out, than her mother 50 miles away. Good idea, I think, and (with her consent, and indeed her active participation as she has to tell me the number) write her name and phone number on mine. She doesn't carry her phone with her during the race, it transpires, so if the worst had happened she would have picked up a voicemail message announcing my demise when she reclaimed her bag afterwards.

On our way to the start I was hailed by Rose, who was understandably doubtful about the chances of meeting up, not helped by her leaving her phone in London (on which she will find a message from me when next she switches it on). Her boyfriend James, who was to have run with us but has been unwell, is with her and ends up taking custody of the high-spec substitutes for bin liners that Vanessa and Francis are using to keep warm, which I had kept in the drawer with my running kit for years. Nice to see them used at last. I've only ever once been well-enough organised to turn up at the start of a race with a bin liner, and then it was Bob Cohen, with whose family we were staying shortly before the New York Marathon in 1998, who suggested I might benefit from one. They had a choice of sizes in the house, and Bob had to judge whether I was (from memory) a forty-gallon or a fifty-gallon man. I don't recall which we settled on, but neither could be considered flattering.

We conspicuously failed to do the most important thing for the start of a big, mass-participation, event like this: get much nearer the front than your expected time really justifies. If you don't, for the first half of the race you are passing runners who would die if they tried to run the distance at the pace indicated by their starting position. I suspect many have never run a half-marathon before, and have extrapolated their predicted time from their 5K, 1500 metres or perhaps even 400 metres personal best. Others simply don't bother about getting in the way and spoiling the event for faster runners. It is one of the reasons why I frequently resolve never again to bother with this event, or others like it, but evidently I keep forgetting that.

As it happens, today I am not bothered. Any thought of producing a fast time was frozen out of me at Didcot station, and the omission from my backpack of the timing chip (although easily enough rectified) confirmed that this was the correct decision. Far better to enjoy a gentle run in the company of my three colleagues, and see how things develop. Rose has already got in with her excuses, starting weeks ago, involving much work and little training, so the important goal of beating her to make up for her beating me two years ago in the same event has lost its significance. She now reveals that her preparation for today involved attending a friend's 30th birthday party the previous evening and retiring, the worse for drink, at 2 a.m. (Three years ago, Salma turned up for the Reading Half, the last part of our preparation for the Paris Marathon, having been out until 1 a.m. at a ceroc evening organised or instigated in some way by David Mundy, although his involvement is not material. Is this a particular thing with members of the real estate department?)

But just when I think there is no pressure on me today, Francis takes off at about the three mile mark and we do not see him again until he is waiting at the finish, changed and looking (though surely he couldn't have been) freshly showered. He's only run with us a couple of times in London, and has been ill in the weeks leading up to today. Vanessa has said that he is fast, and he seemed quick when I ran round the parks with him. Should I chase or stay where I am? I have already decided what sort of run I am out for today, and that does not involve racing the likes of him. (Back home, when I explain that he took about 15 minutes less than me to complete the course, Hilary kindly asks how old he is. That makes me feel better, though I don't know the answer exactly - I should have noted the information when I had his entry form! My guess is still under thirty.)

Another minus point for Reading is how attractive the scenery isn't. The race begins on a business park, passes into an industrial estate, then proceeds to an area of council housing where I believe there have historically been problems getting volunteers to marshal without a sigificant police presence, and residents have seen no reason to recognise road closures. From there it heads up-market and then passes through the grounds of the university before going downhill literally and metaphorically to the town centre.

There are some attractive parts of Reading, and the route this year takes in some of them - the Abbey Gate and Forbury Gardens, and some old buildings around the town hall - but this is a small proportion of the 13 miles plus. (That will be 192½ yards, I suppose. Maybe it's the 13 miles of this route that is unattractive ...) At least it's quite level, although it is on one long climb that I come across Mick and Phil, Mick pushing Phil's wheelchair, and slow down to chat to them as I've done on previous occasions when I've met them. They must average over a race a week, which would be hard going for any runner: doing it pushing a wheelchair containing a grown young man is beyond what I can imagine. It helps me place my own efforts in context.

That was shortly after I was almost run off the road by another runner who was unaware of my presence (or indeed of most of what was going on around him) for one simple reason: it wasn't just that he was listening to music, I was listening to his music. It is possible, I know, to take your preferred listening with you on a run and still take part in conversations with your running mates. Vanessa often does this when we run in London. I find that it limits conversation mainly because I am reluctant to talk to anyone who might be in the middle of listening to their favourite piece of music. Although my take on it is that I enjoy music too much to want to try to listen to it while running, I carried my MP3 player for 25 miles of the Compton Challenge, fearing that the run might get boring, but I had company nearly all the way until I dropped out and when I was alone nature provided more than enough to listen to. Reading probably isn't big on birdsong, though.

Prior to Compton, I gave some thought to what I should load on it, as (being small, on account of its having come free with a laptop I bought four years ago) it was full with two Robyn Hitchcock and about fifteen Richard Thompson songs. One evening, not running in London but taking a bus wearing my running kit, as I waited to alight a passenger standing next to me remarked 'That's rather loud'. I removed the earphones, cutting off Richard Thompson, and said 'Surely you can't hear this?' to which he replied 'Not that - your jacket!'. Anyway, I thought perhaps Thompson was not ideal for an ultramarathon, and might even exacerbate the loneliness of the long-distance runner. I toyed with the idea of loading some of my extensive collection of live versions of Dark Star, on the basis that getting as completely out of it as possible with the Grateful Dead might assist with the pain of running 40 miles, but failed to act on the idea in time. (Would it have helped?) I subsequently realised that, of course, there could only be one appropriate piece of music: Ein Heldenleben.

So, make a mental note to send Hugh an email about the undesirability of runners closing their ears to what goes on around them. And to add that when I have marshalled events I have suffered from runners unable to hear my directions, which is a direct and serious safety issue.

From the point at which Francis decided to run his own race, I stayed with, or just in front of, Rose and Vanessa. Not much point in having a social run without any socialising. We were well within 2 hour pace, Vanessa's target. The two of them did suggest I leave them to give chase to our missing colleague, but he'd been gone for three miles or so at that point and I doubted there was anything I could do about such a lead.
Eventually we came to the long stretch of the A33 heading south towards the Madejski Stadium and the finish. Rose made her feelings about this particularly tedious section of the course known. It didn't seem too bad to me, especially remembering what it had been like two years before, running into driving sleet, frozen to the bone, and with at least half-a-mile further to the finish than this year. On that earlier occasion, I had been surprised to find myself running with David Wilson, an accountant whom I knew quite well through myriad networking events, who was taking part in the relay race so was considerably fresher than me. He kindly waited for me when I lagged behind: I was having such a bad day that I resorted to counting backwards from 300, and completed several complete repeats before I reached the finish where, unsportingly, I outsprinted David to the line. This year, the endgame was much less traumatic, though it still fell some way short of being enjoyable.

In the end I didn't beat Rose, whose pace over the last mile or so turned out to be a little faster than Vanessa's. My hope that we might get a photo of the four of us wearing our Bircham Dyson Bell vests crossing the line together had long gone, and in the end so did the next best thing, but at least two of us crossed the line together, in well under two hours (it now occurs to me, in well under 1:55 which was the time for which, when asked for sponsorship, I had offered Vanessa an unquantified bonus).

On the bus back to the station (and to the bar where we are supposed to attend a client party, which is another story) we examine the medals we have been awarded. I have collected more than enough of these over the years. This year's design shows a large group of runners from the front, and Francis and Vanessa were discussing where we all feature in it. 'Francis is the one in the front, hiding his light under a bushel,' I suggest.
It feels as if this event closes a chapter. There's been a great deal of preparation, training, ordering running vests and all sorts of of other matters to attend to. After this, there won't be the same sense of purpose to our runs in London. I fear that the friends with whom I have so enjoyed running in the parks won't feel the same need to carry on. On the other hand, we do have the Great City Race in July. And perhaps another half marathon later in the year. Maybe there will still be good reason to run through the summer.

For myself, I have the INTA 5K, the Ropley 10K and perhaps the Silverstone 10K, before then. Maybe it's time for some speed work. And those terrible-sounding Kenyan Hills.

02 April 2006

White Horse Half Marathon

If last weekend wasn't as successful as I wished, this weekend has made up for it. 1 hour 32 minutes 49 seconds, which from memory (the only record I have, unfortunately) is a personal best over this distance. I did Reading in one-thirty-something years ago, with Alex and John Scarborough - must have been '98 - but I don't think it was this fast.
Apart from a personal best, my other goal was to break 1:30, so that remains to be done, probably not next weekend in Reading but who knows? Maybe Windsor in September will be the time, when I'll have a complete summer of hard training behind me. And I'll ensure I don't run 25 miles the weekend before - that was a particularly inappropriate form of preparation.
I hadn't given the matter much thought, but when I looked in at the school that served as race HQ (bumping into John Oliver, an Abingdon clubmate, as he departed for the start - or was it the North Pole? - wearing hat, fleece and gloves, while I was making do with vest and shorts) and found a large group of Abingdon Amblers, it struck me that I should find one to run with who could help pace me to my target time. There are some seriously fast people in the club, but I thought that perhaps Thornton, ahead of whom I had stayed on last week's club run for the first time ever, would fit the bill. The age difference would be in my favour, which would not be the case with any other club members I could see. He was amenable, and confirmed that he was aiming for 1:30.
From the start, we seemed to be maintaining a fast but comfortable pace. My main reservation was that Thornton seemed to be breathing with considerable difficulty, but I've encountered plenty of other runners who seemed to struggle for breath, even appeared to be about to expire, and who nevertheless managed to outrun me. At mile 1 my watch showed 6 minutes 30, which I put down to initial exuberance (I remember Mario de Justo, at the end of the INTA 5K a few years ago, asking me whether anyone had ever told me not to start so fast - I had led the race for the first half mile or so - and I had to admit that it was a common criticism). At mile 2 Thornton seemed no more comfortable and the clock showed 13 minutes. Mile 3 we covered in something more like 6:45, and I was there in 19:45, which suggests I should be able to run an excellent 5K this year; mile 4 likewise took about 6:45, and I told Thornton that I'd probably be dropping back. He told me that if I could do each mile in 6:45 I'd be home within the target time, which of course I had already calculated (in fact, my approach had been to run 7 minute miles and hope that the odd minute or two turned up from somewhere, just the sort of hopeless optimism that so often means I don't quite achieve what I want). Reminded of the origin of the word 'laconic', I pointed out that this was a pretty big 'if'.
I didn't stay with him much further. At about this point the route changes direction, and suddenly we were running into the wind - and no gentle breeze, at that. A little late for a March wind, though I've never run this race (and I have three of the souvenir mugs already on the shelf in the kitchen at home) in conditions any different from this. Right on cue, along comes an April shower, just to show that running the event in the month after the usual one isn't going to make much difference. I don't recall what my times were for the intermediate miles, but I do recall that by mile 10 I had lost the seven minute average (let alone the extra two minutes or so I had hoped to find somewhere!).
At nine miles, Andy (from the club) was taking photos and should have snapped a nice one of me, just at the point where I finally gave up using my shades, though the sun came out again a little later. I hadn't been conscious of where I stood in relation to my clubmates: I knew Thornton was long gone (he finished in 1:28 something), and one Abingdon vest had come past me, on someone I didn't recognise (turned out to be a fairly new member, another Frenchman, called Serge, a mere senior so seriously younger than me). A couple of really fast guys had disappeared after the start. When eventually I reached the finish line, I was astonished to see so many clubmates whom I had never dreamed of beating in a race crossing the line when I was already on my second mug of water. I may have been fifth home (in fact, when the results appeared I was seventh) of the Abingdon runners, and there's a good chance none of those in front of me were in my age group (though I don't know whether that counts for anything). I might start taking the club championship seriously for the rest of this season!
The great thing about a half marathon is that it's a comfortable distance. My feet didn't suffer, my legs still work, no problems with hydration (not in a rainstorm!) or nutrition, no need for a two-hour kip this afternoon. It's almost an ideal distance. So what will I do next weekend at Reading? Starting the week with only 13.1 miles in my legs already rather than 25, should I be aiming at 90 minutes or just enjoying the event?