Thames Trot 2020

2020 has been a weird year. At the start I had a lot of races lined up, looking for a spring marathon PB and then moving to trails and moving onto ultra distance. Then all the races were cancelled and I was just left running for runnings sake. I loved it and made good progress, so when some races started going ahead in autumn I was ready. Except my local marathon, now my target race for the year, was three weeks before my first ultra…. Do I train for the marathon PB I’m desperate for or concentrate on distance?

I’ll write about the marathon another day, the ultra was only 47 miles (75km), not that much further than a marathon. Right?

The ultra was the Thames Trot, a bimble along the Thames Path from Iffley to Henley. I managed two back to back 30km training runs two weeks before race day, which went pretty well so I felt I was ready enough to give it a go.

When I’d booked this race the plan was that we would leave the kids with relatives/friends and my wife and I would go up to Oxford the day before to relax and then she could crew for me on race day. Come October leaving kids overnight with other people wasn’t really an option and our hotel cancelled our booking. We managed to find a room that would fit all five of us in but it was far from a relaxing night.

I woke on race day feeling nauseous and with a bit of vertigo, luckily I managed to walk around until the world stopped spinning but the nausea meant I couldn’t stomach much breakfast and would start the race under fuelled.

The start was at a hotel (where we had hoped to stay the night before) and was quite relaxed. I picked up my tag and waited for the get go, we just idled around in the car park until someone said go and we ambled off.

I obviously started out way too fast cruising along at just over 5min/km, but it felt comfortable and sustainable enough. The first kilometre was quite skinny, at one point we all had to go single file across a lock, but it wasn’t long before we started to spread out. It wasn’t long before we went through our first field and shortly after that the path became very muddy. I’m not good on mud, I tried to maintain a highish cadence and flat foot land for maximum grip. Luckily my shoes (Inov8 Terra Ultra 260) are quite grippy so I managed to avoid falling over, but I did end up with a little queue behind me. I was expecting them all to overtake me at the first opportunity but actually once we left the mud I got a nice rhythm going and they followed me for a little while, until I eased off slightly to have a chat with someone.

This is one of my main revelations about ultra running; the connections with people are important. Normally in a race I’ll be polite, give words of encouragement and maybe minimal small talk if I can’t avoid it. That’s fine when you’re maybe running for 4 hours max, but 75km is along way to run with only yourself for company.

We ran together until the first checkpoint where I carried on without stopping, leaving him behind to eat a banana (he was a much more experienced ultra runner than me, I should have paid more attention to his fuelling strategy!). My pace dropped to more like my target pace from here (16km in) of just under 6min/km and I held it without much to report until around 40km. My splits didn’t really demonstrate the struggle I had in the mid 30s; breaking the run down into not far until halfway (38km), nearly 40km, next is a marathon. My pace dropped sharply after 40km though as I started to struggle, I still hit 42.2km in 4 hours and 2 secs and held on for an average pace on target at 50km in just under 5 hours.

I kept slipping from here though, before long I couldn’t run a full kilometre without walking for a little bit. I was desperate to see the family who popped up in a couple of places around here, once with some coke which was very well received. By now it was becoming clear that I was under fuelling but I was struggling to force feed myself anything and my stomach was a bit uneasy.

Shortly after my coke stop I started running along with another runner who I had to ask for some directions as we crossed the river for the umpteenth time. We started running together and chatting as we went and I found that suddenly running was a bit more tolerable. I still wasn’t running fast but I was moving and more importantly I wasn’t struggling as much.

In the end Tom and I ran together for around three hours and over 20km. Right to the finish line, where his kids joined him for the last few metres and mine refused point blank to come near me (it was a long day for them following me around, I don’t blame them). We talked about all sorts of things, some quite deep and personal, some more superficial to pass the time. For what was probably quite a long stretch he chatted away about his previous endurance experiences whilst I plodded along just grateful not to be stuck in my own head and apologetic for not having the energy to be too chatty myself.

For those last couple of hours I didn’t care about my pace, I wasn’t paying attention to my running form, I wasn’t even really paying that much attention to my surroundings. All that mattered was that I was moving forward. It was a completely different running experience and I learnt so much.

I crossed the finish line 8 hours and 5 minutes after I started. Before the race I was thinking 6min/km was doable but after the race I was pretty chuffed to have hit 6:25min/km.

For a lot of people running ultras is about pushing yourself to your limits and learning about yourself in the process. This was a relatively short ultra marathon, I didn’t hit rock bottom at any point but I did really struggle at times. This time it wasn’t some inner strength that kept me going, it was the connections I made with other people along the way. For some people this probably isn’t much of a shock, but I’m a Lonely Goat, I do all of my runs alone without music and whilst you’ll get a cheerful hello from me on race day normally that’s as far as it goes. Afterwards I felt encouraged to find some other runners to do training runs with, we’ll see if it sticks.

I’ve been trying to learn and develop my running form this year, it really helped on marathon day but even then I couldn’t keep up my speed and form through the whole race. No chance in the ultra then, but I didn’t realise how little it would matter to me towards the end. I need to keep working on it so that good form becomes my default. I think it’s the key to pushing my marathon time lower and being more efficient for longer in an ultra can only be a good thing. I need to do some back to back long runs and practice running tired.

If you’re interested in Strava then see my run here.

Isle of Wight Marathon 2020

This one happened a while ago (4th October), meaning I’m on my second blog post and I’ve already ballsed up my timeline.

At the start of 2020 I set myself some running targets; complete 12 races in 12 months (starting from May 2019) and then move on to ultra training. The plan was for those races to include my first sub 40min 10km and getting my marathon PB below 3:30:00. I ran a local 10miler in February and was all set for a 10km race in late March…

… Quite rightly the 10km didn’t go ahead and the following day the UK went into national lockdown. Who knew when we’d be racing again? I kept my running going, enjoying a long, solid training block through to August. I lost my way a bit when my 50km race in August was cancelled, but then came the news that my local marathon was planning to go ahead. I ran it last year, four weeks after my first marathon, in 3:51. 12 minutes slower than my first marathon, but this one is a hilly bugger; the last 10km is all up and down and the last hill is brutal. I let myself get completely psyched out by that last hill and didn’t enjoy a lot of the race because of it. Essentially I had a score to settle.

Race day arrived and it was cold, wet and windy. The event starts at 11:30am to give overners time to travel to the island (lazy buggers, we just get up early to get to your 9am starts) so there was a lot of waiting around. Fuelling for a race that runs over lunch is also a massive ball ache, especially for someone like me who always under fuels. To make matters worse my current fuelling technique was liquid carbs in the form of Tailwind, but we couldn’t leave our own drinks at aid stations due to COVID. So second breakfast of porridge and a pint of Tailwind and a banana before, then packed my flip belt full of gels and malt loaf for the race and hoped for the best.

A rolling, socially distanced start and we were off. I was super comfortable from the get go, taking it easy on the up hills and zipping down hill. My form felt great, everything felt easy and smooth, and my splits were far too quick. I kept this up for about 13km, but as the course got flatter and the field spread out things started to feel a bit harder. Still I was making good time until I hit the causeway footpath out of Yarmouth, which was stony, riddled with puddles, and in places open to a very strong, cold wind blowing river water into our faces. I kept motivated by reminding myself it was halfway at the end of this section, but all attempts at easy, bouncy running form were sucked out of me by that wind. I hit the half way mark in just over 1:36 so well above target but that was the easy half.

For the next 10km I barely glimpsed any other runners, the good form of earlier was gone but I was plodding along at target pace without too much issue. This was the part of the race where you just had to put your head down and let the miles pass you by. I was lucky enough to have family cheering me on at various points which really helped keep my motivation up. The last 10km got a bit busier, unfortunately because there are a few big hills and I’m not quick going up hill, so a few people cruised by me. I didn’t mind, my splits had swung the wrong side of my target pace but overall I was still way ahead of that coveted 3:30 finish time. My tired legs didn’t quite fly down the hills as speedily now but I made sure I pushed to make up time where I could. Whilst the hills were slow, they weren’t cripplingly slow. I still felt pretty good and I made my way up the last hill, my nemesis, without incident.

The final kilometre is a slight downhill followed by a flat finish so I got my head up and pushed on. It felt good, but seeing a photo of myself in that last stretch my form was ruined and looking back at the splits it wasn’t as quick as it felt. Who care though, I rounded the final corner with a beaming smile on my face and crossed the line in 3:21:12 smashing my target and taking 30 minutes off my previous time for this race. Weirdly as soon as I crossed the finish line the muscle soreness kicked in. I hobbled up the road to meet my family and by the time I got there I was a shivery, achey mess. The next day my legs barely worked and it took 2-3 days for them to recover. No rest for the wicked though, the following weekend I ran two 30km training runs back to back in a last bit of prep for my first ultra.

I’ve made this one a bit matter of fact and in so doing completely missed the most important thing about this race for me, but I’m not a very creative writer so it’s easier to make the point separately at the end for impact. I enjoyed every single second of this race (OK except for the causeway segment). I ran it all with a smile on my face, well smiling on the inside at least, and whilst getting my time was amazing, it was better just to be racing again. I run for a lot of different reasons, first and foremost because I enjoy it, and races often intensify all of those reasons. It can be an emotional day in a lot of different ways, this one for me was just insanely good fun!

If you’re interested in Strava you can see my run here.