29 December 2006

Last Friday of the Month

I've not often had quite such a sense of "what the hell am I doing
here?" as I did lining up for the start of the Last Friday 5K this
lunchtime. My running vest was little protection against the cold and
rain, and I rather wished I'd worn a long-sleeved top - though the day
before it had been more than I needed for a luncthtime run.
I shouldn't have worried. Before I reached the 1K marker - at the right
pace, 3:57 on my watch - even my hands were warm enough. Up the slope
from that point towards the police station I was working hard to drag
oxygen into my lungs, and I could feel I was slowing just a little:
down the slope towards the Serpentine again I was reluctant to let
gravity take me. Under the bridge, I did what I could to attack the
gentle climb but I know I need to train to improve this part of the
course: the drag to the end of Long Water, though it's generally
downhill again, seems to go on for ever and it's hard to take it fast.
I pumped my arms and tried to lengthen my stride, but it didn't seem to
make much difference to my pace, and having rounded the end of the lake
I reached 3K - where was the 2K marker? - with 12:20 on my watch. 4:10
for each of the last two kilometres wasn't bad, but clearly 20 minutes
wasn't going to be on today (not that I had ever thought it might be!).
Here the wind started to make itself felt - I'm sure it was calm at the
start (though it was calm at the finish, too, so perhaps the wind was
only blowing out on the course) and the long haul to the Lido was
miserable, not to say lonely as the A race pulled away and B race
competitors started to pass me. Up the slope behind the Lido I closed
my eyes and worked my limbs as hard as I could manage, so I managed to
reach the top - nearly - without losing any speed. A couple of yards
short of the left turn at the top, however, I slowed a lot more than the
turn alone justified.
Along Rotten Row, I reached the 4K marker with 16:40 showing - not too
bad, given the headwind - and, gritting my teeth, put my head down and
tried to coax as much speed as possible from my legs. Approaching the
final straight, I gritted my teeth and attacked the climb before
mustering the best sprint I could for the line, which must have looked a
mess and involved me closing my eyes as well as gritting my teeth: as I
passed the 5K marker I stopped my watch on 21:22 (a very slow final K,
in spite of it all, and a whole 2 seconds faster than last time) and
immediately bent double until that familiar feeling of being about to
vomit passed.
Still plenty of room for improvement. Watch this space.
On the way back to the office, waiting to cross the road at Hyde Park
Corner, I met another competitor - he had running number 5 to my 4 (a
function solely of how far ahead we had sent in out entries). He'd done
18-something, despite missing the start and having to join the B race (I
think he passed me on the way to the Lido). As we parted, he introduced
himself as Gerard, and told me he runs a restaurant near Trafalgar
Square - Mint Leaf - "Google it", he suggested, and I did, and
immediately felt hungry.

20 December 2006

Pud Run

Some people might consider it eccentric to spend large parts of one's spare time running, so I guess that a pre-Christmas half-marathon would seem the height of eccentricity to many. Certainly, a serious race in middle of the party season has elements about it that aren't present at other times of year.
Last Sunday was in fact a near-perfect day for a run, neither too hot nor too cold, too dull nor too sunny. There was no wind, no rain, and no fog. Its greatest drawback as a day for a run (for me) lay in the fact that it followed the Writers in Oxford Christmas Party, so I had spent the previous evening drinking an unaccustomed amount of Champagne.
Being an event event for club members only, the Christmas Pud Run lacks the degree of organisation that is applied to the Abingdon Marathon. The course is of uncertain length, further extended by the insistence of county officials that it finish at a gap between two hedges either side of the path to the sports centre at Tilsley Park. This, we are told before the start, will add some 40 yards to the distance. Another reason not to try for a PB.
As with every club run I have taken part in, I set off with only a hazy notion of the route, dependent on others to lead me round. So I fell in for the first section with Andy, returning from injury and therefore for the first time ever not as fast as me, then Dave. Mile one came up in over eight minutes, which took me slightly aback, but mile two was quicker - much quicker than was really wise, or was it just that they weren't true miles? The positioning of the markers is often dictated by the availability of a lamp post rather than strictly by the measurement.
Past St Helens, a couple of miles gone, and the field was stringing out. On the bridge over the A34 I caught Dave, who pleaded that the hill slows him down. I told him that after that one at Streatley (on the Compton 40) I'll won't use the word "hill" lightly again.
The miles passed uneventfully, and not uncomfortably. No trouble with either of my knees. I began to regret wearing a long-sleeved top: in the shade it was cold, but the sun was warm and the idea that I'd come prepared with gloves and hat seemed absurd.
At four miles, by the Black Horse at Gozzards Ford (the venue for lunch with the Kochanskis on their visit to England several years ago) Chris had set up a water station and I stopped to drink. I've never mastered drinking while running, so that allowed Dave to pull away from me and it took me a while to catch him again. "I thought you were seeing how many times you could pass me today", he said, but this time I preferred to stay with him. He pointed out that there was a group ahead of us - a nice group, to use his precise words - so I suggested we chase them down: he demurred: I suggested we return to the matter after half distance: he muttered something about the hill at nine miles. I remembered Streatley again.
Just before half distance we passed the Merry Miller at Cothill - lunch with Grace and Raney, last year - where runners taking part in the relay event were waiting, so cheery greetings were exchanged. Then coming towards us, doing her warm-down, appeared a competitor I hadn't recognised, who'd passed me and disappeared into the distance on the first mile: it was good to find that she wasn't running the whole race!
By eight miles we had meandered through Dry Sandford and Wootton, where Chris was established with water outside the church where we went to Tony Slade's funeral - what, four, five years ago? I stopped to drink again, needing the water to compensate for the dehydrating activities of the previous evening, so Dave disappeared again and I set off again in company with Andy. Shortly, the road started to climb up Boars Hill, a feature which does merit the name, and soon we were among the big houses set in their own wooded grounds, behind huge gates, served by private roads. I put my head down and attacked the climb, swinging my arms and forcing the breath in and out of my chest. Reaching the top of the climb, I felt in excellent shape, and after nine miles of steady seven-and-a-half to eight-minute miling it seemed I had plenty in the tank for the last section.
Past the ten mile mark, with Andy once again dropped and Dave in sight in front, the road started to descend, quite gently at first but then, after a pause, more and more steeply. I hurtled past a man struggling uphill on a mountain bike, weaving from side to side like I do when trying to ride up a steep ascent, so I gave him plenty of space. Dave was closer, and using the downhill sections less exuberantly than me: I lengthened my stride, flailed my arms and let gravity take me - easier than fighting it. Through Bayworth and along the road towards Radley, then right down to Lodge Hill, I was reeling him in steadily. On the A34 bridge he had to dodge a briar overhanging the footpath, and seeing his evasive action I diverted along the grass verge to avoid it.
The two of us crossed the road simultaneously though still yards apart, but once I was on the correct side (and with the 12-mile marker looming) I let the hill pull me along, and suddenly I was flying by him, muttering something about a second wind as I passed.
At the foot of the hill I paused to allow a car to negotiate the roundabout, round which we had been instructed to go clockwise (so, three-quarters of a circle). Stopping on the island in the middle of the entrance to the roundabout, I felt myself falling backwards - perhaps just an illusion, after about a hundred minutes' forward motion - which I tried to check by swiftly resuming running: but my legs steadfastly refused to get going again, and I waddled to the other side of the road, then across the roundabout's next junction, by which time Dave was with me again. Passing him on the last descent now didn't seem to have been such a good idea.
"C'mon, only another half mile", he urged me, and I forced my legs to keep up with him. I stayed with him just long enough to get under way again, but all I could do was keep him in sight until we reached the entrance to Tilsley Park. From there, I could muster something resembling a dash (eyes closed, arms pumping) for the gap in the hedge, and a time of 1:44:36, which suggests I should be able to do reasonably well in my next half - if I prepare a little more sensibly.