Wednesday, 24 July 2019

The loneliness of the open road (Pan Celtic Race Report)

PCR swag!!!

Until now as I sit here on a train listening to my daily bible study app with teachings about the lies of loneliness I haven't been able to write my race report for the Pan Celtic Race. I didn't know where to start. I didn't even know whether I had the courage to relive the experience or convey what happened out there on the long empty but extremely beautiful roads of Scotland. I've been searching for answers for over a week now. Actually from Day 1 of the race. I still don't know if I have them all. In fact I know I don't but I need to find some closure on what happened and move on. So this won't be a typical race report. It won't be full of stats of miles ridden or an attempt to impress anyone with what I achieved (or probably in this case didn't achieve). I won't describe in much detail about the route which was stunning! The photos I hope will do a better job anyway and convey just how beautiful Scotland is. Friends say that I'm my own worst critic and the expectations I set for myself on these long distance rides are high. And that indeed is probably true. I like to challenge myself. There is no point in going back and doing something that you know is within your comfort zone. 



PCR personalised brevet card
The Pan Celtic Race (PCR) is just shy of 1,500 miles around Scotland, Ireland and Wales and was indeed totally outside of my comfort zone. However it wasn't so much the distance that made it so (although such figures can always be overwhelming when you are battling headwinds on Day 1 and struggling to even ride 1 mile!). In hindsight and after much refection, thought and soul searching it was the unsupported element of this ride that sets it totally apart from other long distance rides that I have successfully completed on my ElliptiGO. Audax rides like Mille Cymru 1000K in 2014, Paris Brest Paris 1200K in 2015 and Wild Atlantic Way 2100K in 2017. They were supported rides with managed controls at the end of each long day. With volunteers to welcome you into a warm village hall or similar, where you could sit and relax, eat, drink tea, chat and reconnect with other human beings, recover and get your head down for a few hours before setting off again and feeling energised for the next stage ahead. The Pan Celtic Race is a very different type of ride (race) and this was made very clear in the promotional blurb on the website. I knew what I was signing up to when I registered for this race and I was relishing a different type of challenge. It was the 'getting out in the wilds' and raw nature of the terrain we would be traversing that was it's core appeal. Okay so I didn't give it a whole lot of thought before I registered but that's just me. I don't dwell on decisions for very long. I go with my gut and prepare as best I can for what is to come.

PCR route

The amount of effort and organisation that went into getting the PCR together by Race Director Matt Ryan, his wife Rebecca, Pete and Toby was on another level! No one reading this should think for a second that 'unsupported' means that they didn't have to do much. That couldn't be further from the truth. This race wasn't the same as an Audax x-rated event where you are just given a GPS route and off you go collecting receipts along the way. Because the PCR was an official race the team led by Matt had to do a huge amount of work to make it happen. One example of this was the need to do a physical risk assessment of EVERY road junction on the route! Just imagine that.... 1,500 miles of roads and junctions and they had to look at and assess every junction. 100s of hours just to complete this one task to satisfy the police and local authorities. That's the level of commitment that they have shown and it's been 18 months in the making. What they have created here is something very special and it's been pretty hard for me to come to terms with my underpar performance on this ride.

So I knew I was signing up to an unsupported ride / race with just 2 controls on the whole 1,500 mile route (one in Scotland at 210 miles and one in Ireland at 900 miles). I loved the idea of being out of the open road. This appealed to me. Me and my ElliptiGO traversing across the best that Scotland, Ireland and Wales has to offer. We were promised breathtaking views, as well as breathtaking ascents (quite literally!). Scotland is somewhere I've really wanted to ride for ages now and this provided just that opportunity.

At the start in Inverness

James on his Brompton and Amy on Bike Friday!! 

But how I imagined that freedom of the open road to feel and the harsh reality were quite different. And this ride exposed a part of me and my complex emotional makeup that I probably didn't fully recognise until now, or more likely something that I just dealt with very badly. Even writing these words now as I sit on a busy commuter train heading to London is stirring up the same emotions I felt on the ride. I'm an emotional guy. I wear my heart on my sleeve and I long for human support and affirmatiion from others and that shared experience. The unsupported nature of this ride put me so far outside my comfort zone that I struggled to manage my emotions and even the basics of what I had to achieve each day. My emotions clouded everything and what I set out to achieve and affected my judgement and  enjoyment from Day 1 onwards. 





And that brings me back to the scripture at the start of my blog. The lies of loneliness is that you are never alone, but on this ride despite my strong Christian faith and my family and friends dot watching my every move online, I still felt totally alone and exposed. I thought I was a person that was perfectly at ease in my own company and I still think I am in most situations, but on this ride the combination of being alone, the enormity of the challenge and the sheer difficulty of the actual terrain and distances to cover from Day 1 onwards caught me out and asked questions of me that I couldn't find an answer for.

Let's go back and show you my prep for this event. Below are photos of what I packed and my final set-up on the ElliptiGO. It looks like a lot of stuff I know but this was me travelling light and I was very pleased with how I was able to pack it all onto the ElliptiGO using a smaller front stem bag than I was originally going to use.




Below is my schedule for the whole ride. To break down the enormity of the challenge I tried to treat it like another Audax ride so I produced my own plan with specific places to stop identified all along the route from start to finish with specific timings for each section based on my predicted average speed and stopping time for eating and sleeping. My schedule was extremely detailed as you can see! It was suppose to instill confidence in me that it was eminently feasible to complete the full distance within my self-imposed time limit of 8.5 days of riding. 





In hindsight the above plan was far too detailed but at the time I felt it necessary to take this approach as the logistics of the ride are quite complex with two ferry crossings between Scotland and Northern Ireland, and Ireland to Wales. I made a fair few mistakes on this ride when it came to decision making but the biggest mistake was the 8.5 day target. It was unrealistic but I only know that now in hindsight based on my experience and knowing how long it took other riders on ordinary cycles to complete. The last finisher to cross the finish line on his Brompton (no ordinary cycle!) was James Houston in 13.5 days. I had the genuine pleasure to ride with James for some short sections as our paths inevitably crossed from day to day in the first week. They were in fact my highlights of the whole trip with that human connection and shared experience on the road. I have nothing but admiration for James and how he tackled this ride. He showed exactly how it can be done right if you approach such a ride in the right spirit with an attitude that what will be will be, and that there are plenty of uncontrollables out there that you just have to let happen as they happen and deal with each one at a time.






I don't know it's worth me going through every day as I experienced it as there will be far more interesting race reports written on PCR that I'm sure are on the net that describe every beautiful road, every valley, every loch, every peak and every descent. The route was incredible and it should be experienced on a bike to fully take in its splendor. It seems totally illogical that in the same moments throughout my time on the road I could both enjoy it and want it all to end at the same time. But that is how I felt. Every day was a struggle. Every mile in fact. As a result I was so pleased and grateful to be able to get through each day and complete just a century ride. 100 miles might sound a long way but to keep to my schedule it required me to ride over 150 miles per day. I was averaging 10 mph in the 6 days that I rode so including stopping time during the day the century was taking around 12 hours to complete. Those extra 50 miles I needed each day required me to ride for an extra 5 hours per day. But as day turned to dusk I had no appetite to ride on through the night. 






There were two very practical reasons for this which was a complete lack of food and drink. There was nothing. Nothing open. No where to buy food. No petrol stations, or late night shops. Nothing. On Day 1 I stopped for a very nice lunch in a road side shop (toasted cheese sandwich and coffee!). That was the only stop the whole day. By 10pm when I rolled into Durness I was done. I could have quit the whole ride right there and then. But of course I was in the middle of nowhere so that's never a feasible option (thankfully!). Of course it was just my energy starved brain and body saying enough already. The second practical reason for stopping early was my outside set-up (one summer bivvy bag). It just wasn't sufficient to sleep outside in Scotland. I didn't adequately prepare or consider what I required to comfortably sleep outside. And I didn't test it. And because I didn't feel it offered adequate protection from the elements I didn't have the courage to try it. Instead it seemed sensible to seek shelter inside each night. I don't think I really had another choice if I was to try and enjoy myself.

When I arrived in Durness at 10pm on the North coast of Scotland it didn't look at all hopeful that I would find anything open. Having started in Inverness some 13 hours earlier and battling a head wind all day I needed food and some restbite badly. I followed sign to a pub that served food. It was closed. Then I went up a road with a B+B sign. I stopped outside the house and there was an elderly couple sitting watching TV in the glass sided sun room at the front. I stopped and stood and looked somewhat awkwardly at them because of the late hour. I hadn't noticed the other bike propped up outside. The gentlemen came to the door and I explained my situation and asked if they had a room free for the night. This was my only option otherwise it was to ride through the night which I had zero desire to do. They did!! It was the happiest I'd felt all day. That feeling of total relief, security and back to civilisation.

They were so good to me. The gentleman's wife made me a supper of eggs, beans and mushroom on toast plus coffee! I felt human again. She was so nice and really wanted to help us both in any way that she could. I say 'both' because Heneric from Spain had turned up 1/2 hour before me and was also on PCR (the owner of that other bike). We had supper together and he was in a similar state to me, both surprised by just how tough Day 1 was and ready to sleep. I was somewhat comforted that it wasn't only me that struggled and covered just 120 miles on Day 1.

I showered and had a bed for the night. I was so tired I fell asleep before setting my alarm which I intended to set for 5am. Heneric had intended to set his alarm for 4am but either made the same mistake or just slept through his alarm. I felt so bad for our host as he told her he would be getting up at 4am so she was up at that time too preparing breakfast for him. I didn't rise until 6am and there was no sign of Heneric. I apologised on his behalf but I think he was oblivious that she had been up since 4. I left at 7am, and the cost? Just £25! I gave her £30 and would have paid more. Such lovely hosts who I'm hugely indebted to for their hospitality.

The reason for going into the above detail is that I think the decision to finish at the time I did (short of the miles in my plan) and seek refuge in the B+B hugely influenced the rest of my ride. It took me the whole of Day 2 to get to the control stop at 210 miles; a hostel in Ullapool. Matt and the team I found out had left just 10 minutes before I arrived. By comparison the first cyclist arrived at the control at midnight on Day 1! 

Arriving at 7pm on Day 2, I had a decision to make. To continue knowing there was nothing beyond Ullapool that would be open for either food, or accomodation for the whole night. Or to stop here take some rest and get up early and continue. It was an easy decision. I got the last available bed in the hostel. This made me happy.

Rain was forecast the next day all day and that's exactly what I got. Almost punishment for stopping I suppose. The climbs were relentless from the start. I left the hostel at 4am and didn't find the first open food establishment (a garden centre) until 10am after 6 hours. There is nothing eventful that happened on Day 2 and beyond that would entertain in this report so below is a short summary of the distances I covered, where I stopped for the night.

Day 1 - 128 miles. Inverness to Durness

Day 2 - 93 miles. Durness to Ullapool

Day 3 - 119 miles. Ullapool to Applecross

Day 4 - 104 miles. Applecross to Fort William

Day 5 - 103 miles. Fort William to Arrochar

Day 6 - 38 miles. Arrochar to Glasgow


Fast forwarding to the end of my Scotland adventure and Day 6 in Glasgow it was very evident that the daily distance I was covering would not get me to end of the PCR within the time I had available. I had a max 10 day window in which to complete this ride (then it was back to work). So it became clear quite early on in my ride that I could not finish as I was not covering 150 miles per day. It was a very logical and practical decision to finish in Glasgow where I rented a hire car to drive to the finish in Llundudo to collect my belongings. It wasn't made with any emotional turmoil or anguish. I'd conceded quite early in the trip that this was the most likely outcome. To ride on beyond Glasgow and cross with the ferry into Northern Ireland would have committed me to riding a further 450 miles finishing in South Wales, out of time, out of money (flat broke and in debt in fact), and no way of getting back from Fishguards to Llundudo. I didn't even think about changing either of my ferry bookings online which was a rider responsibility. In my brain fog and with my focus just on riding each day and finding suitable places to stay I'd completely forgot about the ferry. If I went to Northern Ireland I would have had to have bought a brand new ticket for the crossing adding yet more expense. I just hadn't budgeted for that.

And the was a silver lining to the cloud. I was able to rescue fellow PCR rider Ben from Norway whose ride also finished early due to a knee injury. Ben was stuck in Glasgow with no easy or cheap way to get to Llandudno. So I also had company for the drive south which was very nice. We chatted about the race and what might have been. Upon making it to Llundudo we were welcomed by Rebecca who invited us into race finish HQ. We went out for dinner with a few other riders who had finished the shorter route. Chatted some more and then I headed home south arriving back at 2am. A long long day!

Saved!

Final ride stats (ignore stopping time which is not accurate as I switched off Garmin at night)

So that's it. That was my PCR. Not what I hoped for but they were all my decisions and I was fully in control. I hope this report goes someway to explaining my mindset and what happened even if it doesn't contain all the answers. I'm quite content with things now. I hope too that friends can appreciate where I was and why it panned out this way. Just sorry I couldn't deliver the first stand up bike across the finish line of the inaugural Pan Celtic Race.

Will I be back for a second attempt? We know for sure that this race is happening again. Matt has already confirmed that. I've no idea yet though and lots of time to consider things. IF I do decide to GO again though I will be taking all that I have learned this first time around which can only improve my chances!







Monday, 12 November 2018

Snowdonia Marathon 2018 race report (3in3marathonchallenge)


No I didn't win!! 😂

Completed the set!! Number 8 😝

So as I write this (and apologies as it has taken a long time!) it was over 12 months since I started training for the 3in3marathonchallenge. This challenge finished on 27 October as I completed the Snowdonia marathon. Details of the challenge can be found in previous posts. 

Attempting to run a sub 3 hour marathon at Snowdonia was always going to be a very tall order. Was it even feasible that I should dream about such an audacious goal? Well probably not but that's what dreams are for isn't it...  To motivate you to keep pushing and reaching for the impossible. This was my 8th consecutive Snowdonia marathon. My fastest time to date was 3:16 set in 2016 and my slowest was last year in 3:50. So I was looking for a 50 minute improvement!! 

The predicted weather this year was somewhat daunting. I wasn't so much concerned with near zero temps being forecast (it turned out to be much warmer than that), but the strong northerly wind was looking like being a real problem. I analysed the course profile and thought that we would be mostly protected from the worst of it until the final climb at 22 miles. However the wind turned out to be a factor much earlier on than that. 

This won't be a blow by blow account of the whole race just the highlights as it unfolded and critical points. 

I had committed myself to going out at a sub 3 pace no matter what my fitness and so that's exactly was I did. And I believed it was possible. The route profile is of course far from flat so it requires a slightly more sophisticated pace band to account for the ups and the downs. So using my previous mile splits from this race I calculated mile splits that were extrapolated to run a sub3. Just looking at the mile splits made me breathless. 

It had been 4 weeks since Warsaw as I stood on the Snowdonia start line. Long enough to fully recover from that effort but I was left in limbo during this time and not really able to get any meaningful training miles under my belt. If you also consider that I tapered for Warsaw for 2 weeks before that race meant that I had not completed a full training week with any intensity and meaningful mileage for 6 weeks. This was a concern and I couldn't kid myself into thinking that this would put me in tip top marathon condition in Snowdonia. I just had to hope and pray that my best effort on the day would be enough. That's in fact all you can ever hope for. And as long as I did put in my best effort I could have no complaints. 

Snowdonia marathon course route and profile


START

I wished my Dad a good race running his fourth Snowdonia and edged towards the front with my mum there to support us both. We were off (just me not my mum!) and I fell into my pace immediately. An opening downhill mile so super quick!...  followed by some flat before it climbs 2.5 miles straight up the Llanberis pass. It's not a steep climb but gradual and it goes on! The views are always amazing though surrounded by imposing slate cliffs on one side and lush green mountain side on the other. I was hitting my mile splits and enjoying the effort. It was my quickest opening 5 miles in eight Snowdonia marathons. 

Soon onto a downhill section and a mile of tricky but quick offroad trail where you just have to watch your footing. I overtook the lead female on this section but she stayed pretty much right behind me for the next 5 miles. The miles were fast and once onto the flat the scheduled 6.40 per mile pace was feeling only just about manageable. The TV motorbike was there right beside me because of Emma just behind. At 12 miles in I was one minute inside my target sub3 pace as I waved to my mum who was parked up and cheering energetically. 

Arriving in the town of Beddgelert at the 13 mile half way mark I was still under the pace required. The crowds here are always great with big cheers, clapping and shouts of encouragement. As you exit Beddgelert the next climb begins immediately. A very gradual shallow climb but it goes on for a good few miles and it was at this point in the race that we felt the full brunt of that Northery artic wind that blew into Britain just for the weekend and seemingly this marathon! It was biting and instantly slowed me down. There was no point pretending it wasn't going to effect my mile splits and as I looked at my watch it told the full story. I was suddenly 45 seconds per mile off pace having hit every previous mile split. I immediately accepted the reality that there was no way I would be able to battle against this wind and not for the next 8 miles from mile 14 to 22 and not lose a considerable amount of time. I just accepted it and kept plugging away. 

Emma the lead female passed me around this point followed by a small group of male runners who I had been tucked in behind earlier in the race. They were clearly moving better than I was dispite the wind and I just couldn't match their pace. I was feeling the first half too! But despite the slow down at the mile 16 mark a spectator walking towards the runners informed me that I was currently in 26th position. That was quite a shock to say the least. There were over 2,000 starters in the race. I knew that the way I was feeling at that moment I would be dropping plenty of places in the second half of this race but the news was nevertheless hugely welcomed.  

I cruised along continuing to enjoy the scenery, lakes and mountains even if it was tough and runners continued to pass me. By the time I reached mile 22 and the infamous final steep 2 mile climb up to the top I was feeling quite done in. I've always relished this climb and run every step. I was slightly fearful of it today. It can and does bring many runners almost to a grinding halt. But once I started to climb I adjusted my stride and found a nice rhythm passing many runners who had passed me in the previous miles. 

Reaching the (not) top at mile 24 there is actually a false summit where you have to climb another short but rocky section and then its the steep plunge all the way back into the centre of Llanberis. The descent takes very quick nimble footwork to stay upright. It's mostly off road too until you get near the bottom. You can really tell who the pure road runners are here that look far less comfortable on this tricky descent. 

I was now very aware of the time on my watch. Sub3 had long since disappeared practically by the half way mark. I then thought I might be able to hold onto a 3:05-3:10 time but that had also slipped away by mile 18. It was only on the final climb that I saw I could be close to a sub3:15 finish which would be a new PB for the course. So I pushed up the hill and down the other side with everything I had left. I remembered at the time that my Snowdonia PB was 3:16.XX but I didn't know the exact seconds. And as I descended like a crazy person down the off road section and back onto tarmac I saw that it was looking very close. I hit Llanberis highstreet rounding the corner at the bottom as I turned right and my watch read 3:16. I pushed hard as I knew every second would count now and crossed the finish line in 3:16.29. I didn't know then but it was a new course PB!




I gave it everything I had this year but that still wasn't good enough or even close to a Snowdonia sub3 finish. Only 16 runners out of 2,223 finishers ran in under 3 hours so it's definitely an ambitious goal. I finished 73rd. I still believe that I can get much closer to a sub3 time if I train better and peak just at the right time for this specific race. 

Looking back at my training and other races I can see now that I peaked in fitness and performance in mid-August when I ran my 1:19 half marathon PB in the London Olympic Park. Since then my training backed off to recover in time for the ElliptiGO European Championships which was definitely a big highlight of the year. I have absolutely no regrets about choosing to go over to France and race there. I went into Warsaw in September feeling reasonably fit still and rested but I definitely wasn't where I was a month before. And by the time I got to Snowdonia I felt I had detrained even more. And that's what happens when you try and train and maintain form and increase performance month on month on month over a whole year. In the end the body and mind says I need a rest. 

So that then is how my 2018 '3 in 3 Marathon challenge' finishes right?... Erm, well no not exactly cos I'm a sucker for punishment and just won't give up :-) I can't finish the year without one final go and so on the 1st December I will be on the start line of the Nottingham Christmas Marathon. Training is underway and hopefully I can finally get that sub3 I'm been searching for all year.  You'll got to keep trying haven't you. And I've enjoyed every element of the challenge so far so why not extend the excitement and hope a bit longer and keep the question open as to whether I can break 3!!!??? Who knows....? Only God. 

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Warsaw Marathon 2018 (part of the 3in3marathonchallenge)

PREAMBLE (PACING STRATEGY) 
The Warsaw marathon took place on 30th September 2018. My second marathon of my #3in3marathonchallenge for the year.  The challenge is to run each marathon in under 3 hours. To recap Brighton in April I ran in 3 hours and 5 seconds! The challenge for Warsaw was to find those extra 6 seconds but of course I had much grander aspirations than that. I use to think (until this marathon) that we owe it to ourselves in every race to always push ourselves to our absolute limits. To realise our full untapped potential. I would of course be extremely pleased with a sub3 this weekend but training had been going very well following Brighton and posting PBs since then in 5K, 10K and half-marathon distances. All the signs were very good and I was confident of running quite a bit faster than 3 hours. 

So taking everything into account from my training times and recent races I decided to go for a time of sub 2 hours 50 minutes which equals 6.30 minute per mile pace. But this was Poland and I was running 42.195 kilometers not 26. 2 miles! The whole course was in KM so I needed to think in kilometers and thus know the corresponding pace in KM's too. The maths was actually dead easy. All I had to do was run each 5K split in exactly 20 minutes which would see me cross the line in sub 2:50 ~ my new A goal.

To be clear the maths was easy but doing it wouldn't be!! At 4 minutes per KM this was an ambitious plan but I was confident in myself that I could pull it off. My final 18 mile training run for example saw me the alternate between 6 and 7 minute miling for each mile (3min43sec and 4min21sec per km pace). So I was use to this pace. I was also treating the extra 10 minutes as a safety cushion in case I couldn't hold the pace the entire way. I did not think I was in anyway jeopardizing my goal of running in sub 3 hours or my 3 in 3 challenge. So confident was I from my training and the last 5 months build up since Brighton that it did not occur to me that such a plan could in any way back fire. Haha hello Mr. Hindsight I hate you 🤣 

So as you have probably guessed or already know via social media this story does not have a fairytail ending. I don't intend to drag out every agonising detail, instead let's pick out the key moments from the race. It was certainly an eventful one as you will see! I'll then reflect a little on what it all means, what I have learnt and what is next.

THE RACE

I got to the start with just 20 minutes to spare. I'll save you the detail of the frantic dash across Warsaw! Final adjustments to lacing, a wee and bag deposited and I was all set. 1 minute to go... Shuffle forward in the sub3 pen as the ribbon gets lifted and a small surge and we were off.

At the start
START TO 15KM

Time to relax and get straight into my stride. The thing about 6.30 pace (oops...  4 minutes per kilometer ;-) is that where as I'd normally be concerned about going off too quick that just isn't a concern. Why? Cos it feels fast from the very start even though that was my target pace. I was wearing my heart rate strap too so could use this to judge my effort. Anything in the low 170s was fine. I was hovering around 165 at this early stage and so I fell in with a small group of runners and just stuck with them.

Early in the race 
My Garmin pinged up my first mile split. (the lap counter was still in miles which was actually helpful as I had the best of both worlds tracking in KMs with mile splits too). The first mile was a 6.18! Oh heck. The 2nd mile calmed down with a 6.30 and then 6.18 again for the 3rd. However this was a fast course and there were a few long gradual decents contributing to the fast splits in the first 5K section. I didn't think I was overcooking it as I was right on pace for a sub 2.50 (2:48.05 to be exact). 

Coming through at 5KM
As we crossed the first 5KM check point I glanced down at my watch. Exactly 20.00! Bingo. I just had to repeat that another seven times! The course had plenty of variety and really showed off the best Warsaw has to offer. A new section between 5-10KM was introduced for this 40th Jubilee year of the marathon taking runners straight through the city zoo on the East side of the river. We would cross the river 4 times during the race. The zoo was a unique experience in a marathon seeing buffalo and large cats. It certainly makes you run faster right 🤣 

Whilst the sights were indeed nice this was no sightseeing trip. I was taking in some of the scenery and atmosphere but unlike Brighton where I was relaxed and the pace felt very settled and flowed this was different. With no physical pace makers either I was far more reliant on my watch and checking pace at least a few times per KM. I had also set up an audible alert that sounded when I fell below 4.10 pace. In the early stages this only happened on the very few short ascents. Later I would be hearing it a lot more.

Working hard in the group at 7KM
We were soon at 10KM (we being the same 3 or 4 runners I fell in with). Again as I looked down exactly 40.00 was on my watch. Nice. I love hitting split times in training, and the comfort that came from hitting them so precisely in the race was great. But it wasn't lost on me that they only represented what I had done so far, not what was ahead of me. I remembering thinking to myself a quarter of the race complete (not withstanding the final 2.195KM). Some comfort came from thinking this but I still knew the effort I was putting in to maintain pace was high. I couldn't relax for even a second. My heart rate was constantly around 174 BPM. 

THE PARK AND THE HILL! 

At 13K we turned into the very green and pretty Royal Lazienki Park. The running surface changed to compact dirt and gravel ~ not hard to run on and a nice change and distraction. A nice section of the course. What was coming next though couldn't have been more of a contrast. At 14.5K you come out the Park and turn right and right again and hit Belwederska Street. The only significant hill on the course ~ much bigger and longer than anything in London but thankfully not Snowdonia! I actually enjoyed it and focused on keeping my stride smooth and cadence high.

Running though the Royal Lazienki Park

15KM TO 21.1KM (HALF WAY) 

At the top of Belwederska Street was the next milestone ~ the 15KM marker which as I went through once again my game of split time bingo was spot on rolling through in exactly 1:00.00. 1 hour for 15K. Nice. So far so good, but I wasn't celebrating. I knew to hit these splits was taking a huge amount of effort and in the next 5K section up to the half marathon distance my quads started to complain a little.

That is far too early in a marathon to be feeling such discomfort. I was trying my best to ignore the slight discomfort but it was there and it wasn't going away. I was 5 seconds slower per KM between 15-20KM. It doesn't sound alot and at that stage it wasn't. I was still just under a 2:50 finish time too but I knew the slowing down was something I would need to control and try and limit the damage. 

To compound matters [I can't remember exactly where on the course I first starting feeling uncomfortable] my stomach was not in a good place. I felt laboured and nothing was coming easy at all. I just tried my best to dismiss the feeling and ignore it.

Yep it was hurting 
I hit the half marathon marker in 1:24.25. My third fastest half marathon split ever including half marathon races. And my fastest half split in a marathon race 5 minutes faster than at the same point in Brighton. But I can't remember rejoicing or thinking anything about this in the race as I was just hurting. In hindsight this is also quite odd. The pace to half way was 30 seconds per mile slower than my recent PB in August where I clocked a sub 1.20. In that half I didn't feel battered and my quads were okay whilst running a constant 6 minute mile pace from start to finish. Here in Warsaw I was running 6.30 pace (sorry to swap back to miles!) and I felt pretty crap. Lower pace but really feeling the effort. Obviously every race is different and you can't expect to feel the same each time or deliver the same performance but this still surprised me. 

21.1KM TO 30KM

I hooked up with a local chap called Raff. The only person I would speak to in the entire race. I really missed the camaraderie of Brighton where I ran in a group 15-20 runners deep with two pace makers and chatting with them. That made such a huge difference to perspective and just made the miles go by quicker. Here I was alone. So when Raff pulled up on my shoulder just after the hill at 15K I made a deliberate effort to strike up conversation in a bid to find out his target time and buddy up. He too was looking to run 2.50. His PB was 2.52 which he ran this year. Great I thought I just need to stick with him. So we worked together. We almost held the 4K pace resulting in 5KM split for 20-25K section of 20:21. For me that was a huge relief as I hadn't leaked any more time from the previous 5K split.

Raff and I in Warsaw Old Town

THE UNRAVELLING

It was somewhere after 25K where my race started to unravel not from the pace (initially) but from the growing discomfort in my stomach. I had been dismissing it up to now and running with Raff was a great distraction. However it was now becoming clear that I needed to do something about it if you know what I mean! 💩 But I carried on regardless for fear of losing touch with Raff and a pack of runners who were evidently running 4 minute KMs too and had just eased passed us both. Raff gave chase and latched onto them but I just couldn't. It was also here that my stride had significantly altered. This was quite a shock as I became very conscious of my left heel slapping the ground with each step... thud, thud, thud. That wasn't good. My quick light cadence had been replaced with a slower sluggish inefficient stride that sounded awful. And that of course starts to compound the impact on your muscles and quads as each thud sent a bigger shockwave through my leg. And it's a vicious circle.


But that was the least of my worries. As more urgent matters more concerning me right now was whether I had to stop and find a portaloo. For me stopping in a marathon whatever the reason is a white flag to the internal-self (the Central Governor). A slight chink of weakness appearing to upset the balance. If the brain picks up that it's okay to stop no matter how legit the reason then later it will say it's okay to stop or slow down for another 'good reason'. I was really reluctant to stop and passed by some portaloos and then another one further up the course as one or two more KMs passed. Shortly after passing that last portaloo though I immediately regretted the decision. I was in a bad place now and my marathon plan was unraveling. It was causing me to slow further as the pack moved further and further ahead of me. I knew then that I was waving goodbye to any hope of running sub 2:50. 

I continued on in slight distress and turned a corner and there was an amazing sight...  more portaloos!!! [Believe it or not if there is one marathon that you would wish to have stomach / toilet trouble you would chose Warsaw. Unbeknownst to me they have more portaloos than any other major marathon! No idea who counts them all but I read this fact in my new marathon book that I bought at the airport. I thought it was a funny fact to include]. 

Exiting the portaloo (no detail required!) I felt a whole lot better. It didn't fix my legs of course but the stomach discomfort had reduced and I felt then like I had reset the watch and could now tackle this second half just as I had the first. And for a short time I was feeling quite positive about progress and my returning pace. My form wasn't back but in the first full KM after the stop I was pretty much back on pace.

30KM TO FINISH

So I saw out that drama and reached the 30KM check point. Clearly it was my slowest 5KM split so far ~ 23.26. But if I could stem the tide (poor choice of phrase perhaps 🤣💩) I believe I was still on for a finish time of sub 2:55.00.

This section marked a noticable change in the course. We had at around 28KM I think transitioned largely from city streets to long flat straight highways. They should of been super fast. Perfect for marathon running, but they didn't feel it. They seemed to have the opposite affect on me. It felt slow going and I was indeed slowing down. Of course I knew this as I was continually checking the Garmin. The pace alert I had set to 4.10KM was now chiming repeatedly. I just couldn't hold the pace and was falling off pretty significantly. My quads were pretty battered and the heel striking wasn't going away. I just didn't have any spring in my stride. I knew then that the last 12K was going to be really tough. Even tougher than my very first marathon in London in 2006 where the wheels fell off. 

The problem now as well as the obvious slowing down was my maths! My watch was only displaying KM pace I only knew that 4 was my original KM target pace. Beyond that I had little clue. When running in miles and mile pace I could do the maths on the road with the time remaining and work out what pace I would need to run. For some reason even though the course was all marked in KMs, I had KMs on my watch, and I knew the time elapsed I still couldn't work out what KM pace I had to run to make sure of a sub3. The real issue was that I thought I had a comfortable time cushion so no matter how much I slowed I thought it wouldn't get so bad that a sub3 would come under threat. Surely not! Or perhaps the Central Governor was back to its mind games, saying it's okay to slow down because you are still on target for sub3. You'll be fine. 

But I wasn't on pace. I just didn't have a damn clue. Initially I was holding my pace at steady 4.20s, then 4.40 as other runners started to pass me regularly. My pace fell further to 4.50s and then 4.56s. This wasn't a case of stemming the tide anymore. This was a full blown tsunami.  I knew at 5 minute per KM pace that this equaled 8 minutes per mile and I thought that would be safe. I was doing the maths with 4 miles to go, 8 x 4 = 32 minutes. I had 35 minutes. Yeah I thought, I'm fine. The sub3 was still on. But I wasn't running with any urgency. Neither my mind or body was cooperating with me. Of course I wanted to run a sub3 but as I floated along fairly oblivious to the real peril of my situation I wasn't actually engaged in the task of ensuring a successful outcome. I have no other words or explanation that will explain it other than I was battered, knackered and I was done. Stick a fork in me.


The sub 3 hour pace maker with his flag and band of merry men and women came alongside and past me in the final 4KM. I sped up and ran alongside the group for all but 50-100 metres. But I didn't have anything left. I wasn't checking out mentally (at least I'm pretty sure I wasn't), I really wanted this. But 6.52 mile pace (I still don't know what that is in KM pace) was far to fast for me. Only 4KM left I kept telling myself. I visualised my local Parkrun course and wondered if I might just be able to keep up. Why couldn't I? Why couldn't I motivate myself to push that little bit harder. Where was my drive? Was this everything I had to give. Seemingly so. 

I didn't actually 'feel' anything much at this point. There wasn't any major wave of disappointment or sense of failure. I wasn't gutted. I had taken a big but calculated gamble deciding to run at a certain pace and clearly that gamble had not paid off this time. I said earlier that I didn't think for a second that my target pace was risking my #3in3marathonchallenge. I was 200% confident that I would run sub3 in Warsaw.

The final kilometer

In the final 2KM I was actually just admiring how brutal the marathon distance is. What it had done to me to put me in this state. No matter how good your preparation and training has been, if you don't get it 100% right it just chews you up and splits you out. The distance will find every weakness and expose it. My race had completely unraveled in the last 15K from me accepting that I wouldn't run a sub 2:50 to finally crossing the finish line in an actual time of 3:12.11.

Still smiling at the finish despite the outcome

Great medal to mark my first VET40 marathon

The final two miles took me 24 minutes! I ran the first three miles in almost that time. My first half marathon split was 1:24.45 and the second half 1:38.33. At 30KM the live race tracker was predicting me to finish in 2.53. At 35K with just 7KM to go the prediction had fallen to 2.57 but still comfortably inside a sub3 finish. The point I'm making here is that there is nothing remotely predictable about the marathon. It's the marathon's unpredictability that draws people to it time and time again. And even when you think you have cracked the secret of the marathon you have a race like this that reminds you just how much you still have to learn. Back to the drawing board!! 

5KM SPLITS

20.00 (0-5K) ~ est. finish time 2:48
19.59 (5-10K) ~ 2:48
20.08 (10-15K) ~ 2:49
20.18 (15-20K) ~ 2:49
20.21 (20-25K) ~ 2:50
23.34 (25-30K) ~ 2:53
23.32 (30-35K) ~ 2:57
29.09 (35-40K) ~ 3:05
15.59 (last 2.195K) 

SETTING GOALS AND THE 3IN3MARATHONCHALLENGE 

Some friends have asked about my 3 in 3 Marathon Challenge...  so what next? Where does this leave the challenge? Well the broader challenge is over. I won't dress it up. I'm not afraid of failure or fessing up. It was bold and ambitious. However Snowdonia is most definitely still on. I have 4 weeks to recover and prepare fully for my final marathon of the challenge. 

But as I was thinking about this blog, and the challenge this got me thinking about the process of setting goals. How do we set goals and why do they change? I think this is where I really lost my way and led to the outcome in Warsaw. Let me explain... 

I chose Warsaw late in 2017 as my A race in 2018. I chose it because it was a super fast flat course. My goal was to run sub3 here. That was it. Just one goal. I didn't have any other goals or plans apart from that. But along the way ambition creep kicks in. 

Brighton was 'only' a training race to check my form and progress towards Warsaw. Because training was going so well I thought why not set a sub3 target for Brighton too. Wouldn't do any harm right. It was just a training run after all. There wasn't any pressure in that race and I enjoyed every second and came very very close. But whilst in the mood for setting goals and because I run Snowdonia every year that's where the 3 in 3 Marathon Challenge was born. Why stop at setting the sub3 goal for Brighton and Warsaw. Let's make it all three!! Why the heck not. 

Let's start with the amazing news about the Challenge. I've now raised over £2,000 for my Church to support a new youth and community project. That in itself makes the whole challenge worthwhile. That's a given and I wouldn't change a thing for this reason alone. 

But setting all these goals has definitely clouded my thinking and my approach. My only original goal for 2018 was to run a sub3 marathon. That was it. Two marathons down now and still no sub3! Why? Because over ambition can effect our judgement. Training has indeed been going very well and I was/am in good shape but why risk all that and the last 10 months of training (from November 2017) to run a time just 10 minutes faster than my original A goal. 

Sometimes it's just too easy to get ahead of ourselves. I hadn't even achieved my sub3 goal yet but was seeking to over-achieve to be the best I could and demonstrate this to others. Why wasn't I simply content with sticking to my original goal. I don't think this is just a simple case of hindsight either. I really do think I lost my way and took my eye off what mattered most. But what is done is done.

Time to move on. That's where I am. And now it's all down to Snowdonia! The last marathon of the 3 in 3. Who would have thought that it would come down to the least likely race of the 3 for me to achieve my original goal. But perhaps that's where it is supposed to happen. And interestingly ever since I first started running Snowdonia 8 years ago it has always been my inner-ambition to run sub3 at Snowdonia. That's why I made it a part of the challenge so perhaps it's now more appropriate than ever that to should do so. I'm certainly going to give it my all.  

4 weeks and counting.....

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