Sunday, 30 January 2011

Parliament Hill fields XC race report

This weekend saw me swap the long run (although i havent done one of those for a while!) for the infamous Parliament Hill Fields cross country. This XC race is the South of England Cross Country Championships which is always staged at Parliament Hill. It's 15km in length through an extremely undulating and muddy Hampstead Park in London. All clubs in the South take part sending the best they have. Leighton Buzzard AC sent me! Oh dear... Luckily they sent one or two faster runners too! It was an awesome race but it didn't quite start like that...

The mens race kicked off at 2:50pm. I warmed up and picked up a pair of XC spikes from a friend. We had all been warned that anything other than 15mm spikes would see you going backwards not forwards on the climbs in the mud. These weren't just any pair of spikes either, but were kindly lent by my colleague Glenn Watts who runs for Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers and was gunning for a top 10 finish!!! Note that there were 885 finishers in this race which tells you the pedigree of this runner. I was therefore hoping that his old spikes would work their magic :-)

So all warmed up and spikes on I headed down to the start with 10 minutes to go. The start line is well over 50 metres in length with different number pens all the way down and hundreds of runners stetched out. We were in pen 31. However I had to get there first. And inbetween me and the start was a mass of runners all being made to filter through a tiny white tent where 3 people were checking that you had your number fastened, club vest on, and timing chip around ankle. There was well over half the field still trying to get in and through the tent as the start time approached. But they weren't of course going to start the race whilst half the field was still being hurded through. Surely not! And as I joked with a guy next to me that it was now 2:50 the air horn sounded and the race started!! Unbelievable! There was mild panic and shock all round at what had just happened, but now was not the time to ask why. I and hundreds of others vaulted the fence and joined into the back of the pack that had made the start line in time. Hilarious.

The first 500m goes straight up on a wide open field. It needed to be this wide to cope with the 900 or so starters. Despite the calamity of the start line I just laughed this minor inconvenience off and went about getting up the hill without overdoing it in an attempt to make up lost time. 

I settled into my stride and tested the spikes for the first time. They are no where near as comfortable as my trail shoes (innov8s) but I wasn't wearing them for comfort but to get me through the thick mud and up the steep ascents. And that they did. Although with a very low heel cup I had to clench my foot a little to keep them from being sucked off by the mud. This course was relentless! 3 x 5km laps with nothing but undulating mud and grassy slopes. It was actually (so I'm told) in the best condition it had been in for years. 

On the first lap I wasn't feeling amazing (you never do in XC - nor should you) but went about my business and tried to pace it so that I held enough back. This is the longest XC race in the calendar by far. I caught LBAC club captain Tom May on the 1st lap as he and I chop and changed our position with each other a few times. At the end of the lap there was a nice long descent which I released the brakes on and let gravity do the work. I passed Tom and several others on this section, rounded the corner and geared up for lap 2 heading back up the hill.

Checking my Garmin for my lap 1 pace I had a blank screen staring back at me. The battery had died on me. So stupid not to make sure I had charged it before hand. Oh well no splits for this one. To be honest though this didn't bother me during the race. I very rarely check the garmin during the actual XC race itself, as I much prefer to run to what my body is telling me I'm capable of. The data afterwards is useful to look back on though.

On lap 2 I felt much the same as in lap 1. I was putting in the effort and feeling every step for what it was. Tough going. I was slowing a little but was not being passed by many, and think I made up more places than I lost. However the head was down so it's always difficult to recollect exactly what was going on around you.

The lap was routed in a way that allowed you to see those out in front as it doubled back around half way with tape separating us mid packers from the front runners, and then on our out and back return to the back of the packers. This allowed me to catch a glimpse of Glenn (my colleague) who was in the front pack of around 10 runners. Way to go! The speed they were running was unbelieveable. Even on flat road it would be impressive, but on this course to be hitting 5:30 mpm pace is unreal! Anyway I had to stop dreaming and get back to my race.

During lap 2 and knowing how I was feeling I wondered if I had gone out too fast and not left enough in the tank for lap 3. Only time would tell. I do like the multi lap format as you start to love the course and learn what is coming next. This definitely helped me to visualise the next section and decide whether to hold back, or push on. 

By lap 3 I was starting to really enjoy myself for the first time. And by this I mean the type of enjoyment that comes from knowing you are having a good race. In lap 1 you can not know as it's too early too tell, and in lap 2 you are just hurting so nothing feels right or like it's going your way even if it is. There is something about hitting Lap 3 though that brings it all into perspective. You can see for the first time how your race is really going. Where as I thought I would be on my last legs by now and really struggling, it was actually quite the opposite and I swear (although i don't have the data to prove it) that I was running my fastest miles during my last lap. Everything clicked and I felt more relaxed, and was able to flow much better with the course undulations rather than against them. By now I was pulling in many runners ahead of me. I have to be careful as the mind can do strange things. Perhaps it was just everyone else slowing and me just sustaining the same pace that enabled me to pass, but I defintely felt like I was running faster. In reality I think it was a bit of both.

There were not too many senior male LBAC runners at this race so I had far fewer known faces that I could spot on course and compare my performance with. I had only seen Tom up to now. But there in the distance was Pete Mackral. Pete is definitely no slouch (2:54 marathon time) so to be even near him let alone catching him was a real boost. He was about 100m metres ahead, and we were one or two km into the lap. I used this external factor as a signal to the brain to press the engage button and go for it. It's weird how at times you already think you are giving it everything but then some thing happens and suddenly you find a bit more.
This is exactly what happened and I was feeling the best I had all race. I could even ignore the discomfort that the spikes were now causing as I didn't care. I was flying (comparatively speaking of course as I was still mid pack). I passed runner after runner and closed in on Pete. This had happened at another XC Race in Stowe when I passed Pete in the final stretch of the final lap, thought I had passed only for him to respond and blast past me. I half expected the same to happen again. There was 1 or 2 km remaining. I didn't look back and continued pushing. Though more mud of course. Up and down more hills and around to the final down hill section where I left everything I had out there on the course. Turn the left hander and sprint the final 200m to the big red inflatable arch. Job done. 

The only stat I have is my official chip time - 62:24. I finished in 321 place out of 885 finishers. I'm happy with that but what makes me happiest of all is not my time, or placing or even that I passed Pete :-) but of my all round race and how strong I felt in that final lap. It was that same feeling that I felt in the final 6 miles of London marathon last year - the feeling that nothing can stop you at that moment as your race strategy plays out exactly as you had planned. Perfect.

Now back to Glenn's race. This guy is on another planet, and I honestly can not comprehend his ability to run this course in the way that he did. Glenn finished in 6th place (49:24). Truly word class!! Way to go buddy! And thanks for the spikes - they did indeed work their magic :-D

Official results here -


Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Sunday is GO GO GO

On Sunday I swapped the usual long run for an even longer ride with my buddy Idai on our ElliptiGOs. First off was a brand new shiny replacement ElliptiGO that Idai had sorted out for me. I can't say enough good things about this company in terms of their customer-centred approach. It's so refreshing in this day and age of big business who tend to say all the right things but all they are really after is your £££.

So off we went on a 30 miler around the outer villages South West  of Leighton Buzzard before doing a large loop heading back East and North ( Idai was riding my old ElliptiGO to test the hub and shifting issues that I had been experiencing. My new GO was riding smoother from the start with noticable less drag from the hub and bike generally.

30 miles would be my longest ride to date and I had also thrown in a good few hills to test the GOs climbing ability. But before we reached the hills we had a fair few miles to put down first.

There are two very distinct ways that you can approach riding the GO. Both revolve around the cadence (the speed that you pedal - or in the case of the GO the time it takes to complete one stride). With eight gears on the GO there is the tendency to find a higher gear quickly like you would on a conventional bike, thus the resistence is greater and you go faster but pedal (stride) rate is slower. And in my first few weeks of riding the GO this is exactly what I have been doing, seldom riding in anything less than in 7th or 8th gear. This is a classic beginner approach to riding the GO apparently.

However instead one should select a lower gear (less resistence) so that your stride is far quicker and increases your cadence. It then feels far MORE like you are running and LESS like you are riding a bike. There are also far greater training benefits from this quicker turn over including a far better cardio workout and the firing of those fast twitch fibre muscles. This should hopefully all help when I actually do find time to run!

I could see first hand on Sunday that Idai tended to be in 1 or 2 gears lower than me on the flats, whilst going at the same speed hence he was putting in far greater effort to cover the same distance. It really requires a new mind set to want to make things harder for yourself rather than easier. But the GO is designed as a cross-trainer after all and I've bought it specifically to train smarter and improve my running endurance and speed. Therefore I should be looking to get maximum reward for my efforts and get out of the mind set of looking for the easy gear, and increase the work rate instead. Hence get greater bang for buck!

So back to the ride. It was a great morning and the route I mapped out found us enjoying some nice long smooth roads (some recently resurfaced too!) Bumpy, rutted roads are definitely the GOs worst enemy as the smaller wheels and standing position mean that you feel every one! The scenery through many of the areas we rode also fitted perfectly with my vision of how a Sunday morning ride in the country should be.

Idai - Top of Bison Hill
 There were many others enjoying the scenery too with a lot of touring cyclists out and about. Idai and I got a fair few looks from passing cyclists where you couldn't help but wonder what they were thinking as we passed. I still do feel very self-concious on the GO (at least for now anyway). I think general puzzlement is the common reaction.

As I said eariler I made sure that I incorporated some nice hills into the ride, the main one of which was Bison Hill which is about a mile long and a 10% gradient. When we reached the hill it seemed many tourers had had the same idea as we rode in convoy up the steep incline. Being the competitive soul that I am and wanting to test the GOs climbing ability I gave it what I could and reeled in those infront of me passing two cyclists on the way up to the summit. 1-0 to the ElliptiGO :-) haha.

Top of Bison Hill
It climbs well especially considering it has only 8 gears to select from which is an area I'm especially interested in because I've been recently looking at a number of 100m cycle event to really aim at. And one of these is the Devil's Ride in the Breacon Beacons which boasts a 25% incline on one climb. Sounds like fun and very tempting.

Monday saw me and two colleagues take on some hill reps at lunchtime. I thought this would be ideal training for this Saturdays Parliament Hill fields XC race, whilst also seeing what effect the previous days 30m ride had on my legs. The answer is 'worn'! I could certainly feel those 30 miles as I tried in earness to attack each hill rep with the same intensity that I had the last and keep each I consistent time wise. My splits slipped after 4 reps. The first 3 were all around 65 secs. My 6th was the slowest at 85 secs, but I finished with a flurry and managed to break 60 secs with my last (8th) rep. A  great session and bloody hard work. I should really do more of these (note to self).

The rest of the week will see me rest today (Tuesday), ride to and from work tomorrow on the GO (probably in the rain! UPDATE: now not riding in due to work commitments and time :-( Then it's two days recovery before Sarurdays XC race. This is a Southern Counties championship race and promises to be a lot of fun (he says). Over a 1,000 runners will start the race with climbs throughout and the mud, bogs and water notoriously deep with zero grip - I can't wait :-) just need to find a pair of spikes from somewhere first though.

Race report to follow...

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Training smarter

If last week and this week is anything to go by then my running mileage in 2011 is going to be far lower than 2010, but I'm hoping that by training smarter this won't matter and in fact could even improve my race results.

Now I have my new toy (see pics and youtube video courtesy of Nick Ham - Brit Nick) I'm going to be doing many of my training miles on the ElliptiGO. Both on my commute to work and weekend long rides.

On Tuesday I did my first out and back commute to work on the GO. A 45 mile round trip, which I plan to make a regular weekly occurrence perhaps cycling twice weekly once the days get longer. For the most part it is a reasonable route with smooth fast roads, if a little hairy due to the volume of traffic using the same stretch of road and short days making it a little daunting in the dark. Potholes are not easy to spot either until you ride straight into one! There are also some sections of road which are in a dreadful condition and where I feel every crack, bump and hole. Argh. I've cursed on more than one occasion over one particular stretch where my rear light flew off the GO and only narrowly avoided being crushed under the wheels of the cars behind! Nevertheless a super way to get to work that keeps me on a high for the rest of the day.

The GO itself is a great bit of kit from a fitness perspective and I like the fact that it's a little quirky and looks a bit different. My colleague who saw me on the way to work as I passed her stationary car said I looked like a stick insect on wheels. Very flattering indeed!

If you are looking for speed it's not for you though. I've ridden to work on my normal mountain bike in 1h10m, and a performance road bike could do it in an hour. On the GO it took me 1h37 on the first ride in last week, which I managed to shave 6 minutes off on Tuesday. I reckon once I get fitter, faster and the days get longer that I could perhaps get it down to 1h20m.

When I ran the same route to work last year it took me 4h30m so the benefits of the GO for me is that I can 'run' to work in a sense and get all the training benefits without invested much more time than if I drove! And its no impact. It's also fun as long as you don't mind being pointed at and heckled by children on their way to school. I'm getting use to it!

The GO isn't without its issues though. I'm in regular contact at the moment with the main ElliptiGO chap in the UK - Idai, on some teething issues I'm experiencing. The hub gear still isn't shifting quite right and I need to sort this. There's a few other niggles too. The reason I am slightly accepting of these issues is that the GO is a first of it's kind - a prototype of sorts so it perhaps isn't going to be perfect. Idai at ElliptiGO who only lives 10 miles away from me is great and has arranged to come over this Sunday morning to check it out and go for a long ride together.

So keep watching this space if you are interested in the GO and outcomes to the above. And if anybody is curious and wants to come over to test ride the GO you are more than welcome! That's a genuine offer.

So a weeks smarter training in 2011 may look something like this:

Sat or Sun - Long Run (15m+) or Long ElliptiGO ride (25m+). Rest other day
Mon - Steady Run (5m)
Tues - Commute to work (45m)
Wed - 1hr Aerobics lunchtime / Club Run evening (Steady 7-10m)
Thurs - Recovery run
Fri - Rest Day

You may have noticed the inclusion of aerobics on Wednesday. I have started doing this since the new year and despite how it sounds (I know what you are thinking!!) it's not just for girls and it's hardcore! Seriously, I work harder in that 1hr than I do on a 4hr long run! It's a great workout focusing on all aspects of the body, especially the core. My core was killing me on Wedesday! And a strong core means better running form for longer = more miles :-)

So moving forward it's going to be an interesting year to see how I perform in future events. My next ultra is in March - the Lightning 12hr, where I will be looking to improve on last years 67 mile total which I ran in around 12:45.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Luton XC race

You probably can't get more different than a 30m ultra on the Sunday then a 5m XC race the following saturday, but that's what was in store for me yesterday. I hadn't run all week since the Winter Tanners. However did commute to work on the ElliptiGO on the Wednesday and rode back on the Thursday. You wouldn't pick the route I had to ride if it were a Sunday afternoon jaunt inthe countryside. A long part of the 22m route to work is down an unlit main A road. But I enjoyed it nevertheless and got my training miles in

Back to yesterday and it was a good race. A new course which served up a 3km first lap around a mass of football pitches, and a second 5km lap that started the same but then took a diversion through some extremely muddy fields before dipping steeply down a large downhill section then wound around a large field before ascending a very steep climb back up to the main playing fields and around to the finish.

It was a tough course made tougher still by the incessant head wind which it didn't seem to matter what direction you were facing - it still hit you head on! Why is that I wonder!?... Anyway I loved (almost) every minute of this race. I decided to pace my own race from the start rather than worry about what others may or may not of been doing. And I think it worked. I closed down in the later stages and took many especially on the final steep climb which left many a runner crawling up. It was my best XC position in a Chiltern League race too. 77 out of 188 division 1 runners. Leighton Buzzard came 6th on the day too (out of 14 clubs) which is out best race positin for years (so I'm told). So we sit in a solid 10th position in the league now and almost look certain to remain in the top flight for another year. For a small club (in comparison with those around us) this is a great achievement!

Roll on Parliment Fields in 2 weeks time which will be my first attempt at this famous southern XC race. It promises almost continuous climbs! Hooray.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Winter Tanners 30

My first long run/race report of 2011 and it's always nice to start the year off as you mean to go on. This was the Winter Tanners which is a LDWA event and the first one I have taken part in (but definitely not the last). My friend Nick (Ham) travelled down from Stockport for this one too, with his brother Julian also joining us and my dad. A real rarity for me to actually run in an ultra and not travel down and run on my own. Nick and I had entered the 30 miler whilst Julian and my dad opted for the 20.

A good hearty bowl of porridge and maple syrup set me up for the day with my homemade energy bar packed in my backpak to fuel me through the race. It was a cold frosty start with the four of us wearing a variety of layers to keep the cold at bay. Nick obviously knew what was to come out there as he donned a pair of water proof sealskin socks (not real seal skin I should add!).
Myself, Nick, Julian and dad
The first 8.9 miles were the same for both distances but it was soon apparent and expected that Nick and I would be going at a slightly faster pace than the others. Being an LDWA event the other unusual aspect of the start is that you are free to decide when you start between 7:30 and 9:30. We aimed to start at 8:30 (having got up at 5:30), and at 8:28 we were on the line ready for the off. Such planning! We exited from Leatherhead car park in the town centre and headed South out of town and along a busy main road (a diversion of the route due to the height of the River Mole which meant we couldn't run along the river bank). We were soon off onto the trails though with route description and map in hand to guide us on our way. The route description was very thorough and described every aspect of every turn (sometimes in perhaps too much detail which left you wondering if the 'right then immediately left' described was actually just straight on).

It wasn't very long until we hit the first major climb in Mickleham Woods. It was a walker, as were many other ascents on this route. It's no surprise as the route goes around and through Box Hill country park which is the venue for the only fell race in the South of England! We didn't actually tackle the steepest part of Box Hill though.

The weather was very kind to us with the sun shining and not a cloud in the sky. Nick and I continued on our way at around a 9-10 minute average pace on the flats and considerably slower on the ascents. Despite the sun being out it was far from dry under foot. Some fields were extremely sodden with thick shoe sucking mud in places with it impossible to keep dry feet (except for Nick who was loving his sealskin socks!).

There were 3 checkpoints on the 30 mile route with CP1 at 9 miles. We were greeted with a table full of biscuits including fig rolls which I went straight for. Three of them in fact!! Time to fill up the water bottle too, however I was surprised to see that I had hardly touched a drop in 9 miles of running. Not too clever but the cold doesn't really prompt you to drink too much. I made a note to self however to conciously drink far more on the second section.

I felt we were making good and steady progress, but without racing. I was running within myself, but this was how I wanted to approach this race anyway. It wasn't a race and the LDWA instructions actually stated as much. This definitely took any pressure off that one could feel the need to perform to their limits. It was the first event of the year and I was there to enjoy it and take in the scenery. Easier said than done though when you are concentrating on both your footing and the route description. Because of the level of detail you had to keep your place on the notes to avoid losing your place. I took to reading them out loud which helped to take them in and visualise the next turn or landmark.

Nick tackling Leigh Hill
 Time was flying by and we were having a blast (I'm sure I can speak for both of us - although you may want to check Nick's race report too to see if he agrees!). The next major landmark and section of route that I can recall is the climb up to Leigh Hill Tower. Another walker for sure!

This was the busiest part of the whole route with many folk out enjoying the wonderful sunshine, blue skies, and scenery. Although I'm not sure the many mountain bikers we saw out were there for the views. Some of the trails would of been a blast to ride.

Leigh Hill Tower
We stopped briefly for some tourist photos in front of said tower then decended down to arrive at CP2. This would be the main stop to refuel as CP3 was just 5 miles from the finish. Time for the homemade energy bar full with energy packed seeds (including the almost magical Mexican Chia seed!!), banana, dried fruit, and oats. I filled by bottle which this time was almost empty with my SIS energy powder mixed with water. And we were off. 17 miles down, just 13 to go.

It was the next section that Nick and I both lost our concentration and position on the route notes. Less than a mile after the checkpoint, having being following the group ahead of us I couldn't pick up where we were on the notes or the map. Those in front didn't know either. Looking at the map now (as I write this) I'm unsure why we couldn't work it out. It was a straight track that we needed to stay on for 1km or so, however the notes confused matters somewhat by making it sound far more complex than need be. There was a road to our right which I could see on the map so not knowing our exact position we decided to follow the road ahead and hope we hadn't already missed our turn. At the next junction our new friends (2 chaps and their Husky dog) whom we had crossed paths with many times onroute were looking as confused as we had been. With the map out however I confirmed our location and we decided to take the right turn along the ajoining road which would then intersect the trail that we needed to get back on to. It worked and we were on our way. By this point many behind us had chosen to follow our lead along the road so there was quite a bunch of us by now running together.

There was a quick descent down Whiteberry Hill on uneven ground followed by a long winding climb back up and even higher around Coldharbour and Duke's Warren. I still had plenty of energy and was keen to press on a little. Nick was grateful for the walk up however which in turn gave me a chance to ease back and remind me that we weren't racing today.

I really don't remember too much about the next section. There were no doubt more ascents and descents, more sodden fields, more mud, but plenty more sunshine, good banter and smiles too, as we went about our business of completing this opener to the year.

Soon after the next major village/town of Westcott we steered a course North and could see to the top of the North Downs Way. That's where we were heading and it was straight UP! At first a few fields gradually ascended but once over the railway which was one of those traditional STOP, LOOK AND LISTEN ones (I love those - reminds me on being a kid again) it was a massive steep climb to the top where CP3 awaited us.

I pressed on figuring that the sooner I was at the top the sooner I would have the much promised hot cup of tea in hand that the organisers had laid on. The climb was well worth it both for the views as well as the tea and chocolate digestives. Nick opted for Coke to quench his thirst and give him the energy for the last 5 miles back to Leatherhead.

I received a text from my dad at CP3. Him and Julian had finished the 20 miler in under 5 hours. Way to go dad! This of course meant that we had one hour exactly to complete the remaining 5 miles to go under 6 hours. I thought it was doable although Nick had his doubts. We were refreshed and ready to give it our all. The next descent through Ranmore Common was a real blast and probably the best of the whole day. Long and fast with the breaks off! hehe. At the bottom was the much spoken of 'Tanners Hatch' - a youth hostel in a very old cottage that provides the name of this LDWA event. Not quite sure of its significance beyond that but I should look it up.

From here onwards it was a case of just keep going across more fields and mud. I felt we were still on for sub 6 but it would be very close.

The closer and closer we got the tighter and tighter the maths looked. The critical moment was when we came to cross the A246 which is a busy road with plenty of traffic. We had 1.5 miles to go and we had under 12 minutes to do it in. Nick knew he couldn't run that pace and said as much. I saw an opening in the traffic (30 seconds of waiting had felt like 5 minutes with the clock ticking) I crossed safety but Nick hesitated. I had an instant decision to make as I slowly starting running along the trail ahead. As I looked back I still couldn't see Nick and with a sub 6 all but fading I decided to press on ahead a go for it. I hope Nick doesn't think worst of me for leaving him. Someone should of reminded me this wasn't a race ;-)

I was running too fast to read the route notes and had no idea of the way so I relied on catching and passing those runners and walkers ahead of me to guide the way. Luckily it paid off and as I rounded a corner and recognised the road ahead I continued along, crossed the road and into the car park and finished in 5h:57m. My last mile was a 6:30. This wasn't a race and I didn't race it throughout but my competitive edge definitely kicked in at the end, and there is always something satisifying about ducking under the hour. Nick followed shortly afterwards, with dad and Julian waiting for us both at the finish.

Nick and I at the finish. A job well done!

We cleaned off and headed to the pub for beer and burgers! What a way to start the new year.