18 October 2009

Promenade sentimentale

Race organisers who'd like to tempt me to enter their events - not that there's much reason for them to do that - would be well advised to steer clear of references to topography in the title. Unless they use words like "pancake". But I take my duties as a race reviewer for Runner's World seriously - of course! - so was I going to be put off by the second word in the name of the Frieth Hilly 10K? Not much.

The course shares some road with the Marlow Half, which is - erm - strenuous, so it was clear that the organisers were being nothing more than honest with the off-putting name. Quite right, too, that they should issue a caveat to prospective entrants who for whatever reason would find it too much.

As well as the roads (with very little traffic, though the organisers had at least one set of "stop" and "go" signals operating, apparently at the insistence of the County Council) it includes a lot of off-road stuff, much of it through glorious autumnal Chiltern woodland (with plenty of roots to catch the unwary). The villages through which the course wends feature lovely flint cottages with fantastic views, most seeming to have a dog or cat watching with bemusement from a window.

I turned up according to my usual "just in time" policy, collected my number, went back to my car (the car park was a couple of hundred yards from the start), took off outer clothing, removed car key from ring, locked up, placed key in pocket, jogged out of the car park, returned to car for race number ... arrived at the start only to turn round almost immediately and head back towards the car park as part of a running millipede, hundreds of feet tramping up and down. So, not the most relaxed start in my running career - is it ever any different? And did I miss the vicar's pre-start blessing which was a feature of the race's first running last year? I must find out.

The race is held to raise funds for the village school, and it seemed that every parent was on marshaling duty unless they were running (there being prizes for parent-runners). The support, from the marshals and the numerous spectators, was uplifting and the sheer number of marshals was extraordinary. This is a tremendously well-organised affair.

The course took to a wooded track before crossing a field and plunging down a narrow woodland path, where the tree roots were hidden beneath leaves. The entrance to this section created a bottleneck, which perhaps was just as well given the nature of the route on the other side: if we'd all funnelled into that path without having to pause and get into single file there would have been trouble. Then we burst out of the woods and hurtled (some faster, more recklessly, than others) down the side of a steep field: I crossed my fingers and hoped that the surface would not be too slippery for my pell-mell descent, and thankfully it wasn't. I passed several people on the way down - they got me back later, of course.

I chatted briefly to a couple of guys as I passed them, though with hindsight I should have saved my breath (as a marshal to whom I called out thanks advised me to do in the first mile). The fourth kilometre mark arrives as the course has begun to climb to its highest point, through woods on narrow pats 9so if someone stars to walk in front of you, it's difficult to find a way past). One young lady bounded past scores of us struggling up the gradient: I felt the complaints of Achilles again, and realised that even a week's rest after the last race (a week after the race that caused the niggle, with no running in between) wasn't enough to see it right. I stopped at the top and stretched it out, then continued on my way - not in pain, not even discomfort, but aware of my limitations, and of Achilles.

A young guy stopped in front of me, as he had done earlier before passing me while I was stretching, and I encouraged him on. He tagged on with me, so I asked him to pull me along when I needed help. He told me he had done this route, or most of it, many times, but never the last stretch - and others had spoken darkly of a hill at the end. As it happened, we parted company before kilometre 9 (not in the way I had anticipated, with him leaving me standing, but with me stepping up my pace), then we were back in the village and the road cruelly stretched, straight as a die, up a formidable ascent. A photographer snapped action pictures of us struggling up: "I'm not at my best" I complained to him through gritted teeth. Head down, driving on with my legs, ignoring Achilles, I reached the top from where it was a short distance to the school behind which the race finished. I even managed to sprint round the playing field, though spectators could have been excused for not recognising this.

Then I splashed out a fiver on a massage - possibly the best decision I have ever taken, at the time, although Achilles is even more sore now than after the race ...

Here are the gory details. After the race I delivered a goody bag to another competitor who ran 7 miles home afterwards and not surprisingly did not wish to be encumbered. Private Passions was on Radio 3 - Ian Rankin making his choices - including Promenade Sentimentale, minimalist piano music from the soundtrack to Diva, my favourite movie and a simple but relaxing piece of music. It seemed a perfect close to the morning.

11 October 2009

5 Miles Out: The Stewart Horwood Memorial Hanney 5

What nicer way to remember a clubmate than to name a trophy after him and run a race each year in his memory. Stewart Horwood organised the Hanney 5 for Oxford City AC for many years, and now it bears his name. Anyone would be proud to have such an enjoyable and friendly event named after them, too, although holding it in October means gambling with the weather – which, this year, was at times refreshing.

Elaborate plans to bring my old INTA running friend Paul, over here from New Zealand, out of retirement failed when he awoke with a cold. A wet October race definitely wouldn't have been a good idea for him, but at least we could still have lunch - which I had to earn by running the race. Not an unfamilar course, because apart from running it in previous years we had a club run here in the summer - and anyway, the territory is very similar to the White Horse Half, which even uses a couple of miles of the same roads (in the opposite direction).

The race attracts a good field of local club members - it features in Abingdon's club championship, so there were large numbers of yellow vests to be seen. There's nothing flashy about it: start in the road by the village hall, one lap of mainly rural, lightly-used roads, a sprint round the village paying field and a cup of water at the end - oh, bacon sandwiches I think for the omnivores, and other refreshments laid on but I had a train to meet. No goody bag or tee shirt, but the novelty of those wore off years ago for me (although I appreciate a nice surprise like the coaster from the Headington 10, and the Cotswold Classic drawstring bag was also welcome, and come to think of it the jacket made the Capital City marathon irresistable, so forget what I said about goody bags - let me just say I'm happy to pay a modest entry fee for a race and forgo the goodies). Only 160 entries (plus some on the day, I imagine), so it's a comfortable size of event.

I succeeded in getting my Garmin device set up and locked onto a satellite so I could press the button as I crossed the start line, so when Mile 1 appeared I could see (squinting to overcome the correction provided by my contact lesnses) that I had run it in 7:10. Not clever at the end of a three-week layoff following Achilles's complaints on the Cotswold Classic. The second mile was 7:36, which amounted to an over-correction, then 7:30, 2:23 and 7:24. The steadiness of my pace is as satisfying as the speed.

It was faster than planned, and faster than I thought I could do, at least in part because I found myself running with Kate, previously encountered on the Banbury 15 in February. When I realised who I was running alongside, I knew her pace would be about right for me - though she had complained that every time she made to overtake me I sped up. So she pushed me along, and I pushed her, for most of the race until after mile 4 she pulled away in the company of a mere 15 year old lad.

The course isn't spectacular, though it is rural and not remotely ugly. It's good for a PB, being flat and (today) so miserable weather-wise - I just wanted to get out of the rain (as this photo by John Harvey amply demonstrates). It didn't help me to a great time, but 37:24 (maybe a few seconds to take off to allow for a senior moment when it came to stopping my watch) was well within my 8-minute-mile aspirational target. The last mile or so involved another small argument with Achilles, but fortunately nothing serious and I was able, with a little circumspeaction, to run through his complaints this time.

07 October 2009


I came across this very useful guide to how to lace your running shoes today, and having suffered from black toenails and all sorts of discomfort around the front of my running shoes in the past I thought it deserved the widest possible dissemination.