Tuesday, 22 December 2015

What's that in miles?

Kilometres. Ask me what the main cultural challenge has been since I’ve been running in Australia and it’s kilometres. Endless calculations that start with ‘well a 5k is 3.1 miles and a 4 minute k gives you a 20 minute parkrun which is about 6:30 a mile, and I’ve run 8k in the last 40 minutes so that must be, er, 5, no, yes, about 5 miles which is about 8 minutes per k, that can’t be right. 8 minutes per mile. Ace. Wait.’ By this point I’ve run another k and have to start again.

But the cultural challenges of the metric system are nothing, nothing compared to the climactic challenges of running Down Under.

When it’s cold you can always put on another layer. If it’s raining you can just get wet, or put on another layer. But when it’s already 30 degrees at 8am and the sun wants to aggressively cook your insides for some reason and there’s not a lick of shade and you’re a pasty white Englishman who’s spent the last decade living in Scotland, you suddenly realise that there aren’t enough layers to take off before you’re calculating km splits in the back of a police van because running in the nude is apparently not allowed in city centre parklands.

Yes, I’ve moved to Australia and it’s bloody brilliant. Melbourne, where the Crew Chief and I have settled is a runner’s playground and once you’ve navigated the massive road system and waited a million years for your traffic light to change there are endless trails, footpaths, parks, beaches, rivers and roads to explore.

I’ve become a morning person out of necessity – it’s too hot to run at lunchtime and my long-held favourite after-work training slot is often the hottest part of the day – so I’m out at 6.30am two or three times a week and am practically a regular at my local parkrun (I've been five times), which starts at 8am. I’ve also revived something of my University schedule and been running after 9pm some nights to try to beat the heat, with massive bats overhead, possums scurrying into bushes underfoot and the city skyline lit up in the middle distance.

28 degrees at the start line, 30 at the finish line. An arduous 23 minutes in between.
The problem will be when I need to run longer distances, because there just aren’t that many cool hours in the day at the moment. And that time is coming.

Yup I’ve registered for another marathon. After graciously bowing out of Yorkshire this year on the grounds that I, well, left the hemisphere in which it was being held, I’ve been scouting around for another. Actually Ben did the scouting for me and now here we are – planning for the 2016 Great Ocean Road Marathon. Yikes.

Except inexplicably the Great Ocean Road Marathon is 45km, not 42.2km like you could quite reasonably imagine. Strung out on a piece of extraordinary southern coastline – next stop Antarctica – I guess the GOR organisers have limited options for logical start and finish points so 45km it is. There’s a timing mat at 42.2 so you do get a proper marathon time, but the rules are clear; if you cross the 42.2km line but not the 45km line, you get a DNF for the whole race and no times at all. Those last couple of kms are basically non-negotiable and you’ve technically got to finish an ultra to qualify as having finished the marathon. Brutal.

I’m telling you. Kilometres. Not to be trusted.

Happy running


Miles: apparently 765, Kilometres: 1,231, races: 3, parkruns: 11

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Race Report - Dumyat Hill Race 2015

For the last two years I’ve been laid out with a heavy cold in the first week of May. 

I know this because during the two and a half years I’ve worked in Stirling, I’ve been out of action during the annual Dumyat Hill Race, a long-established out-and-back peak-bagging adventure of mud and rocks which I’ve felt like a fool for missing.

It’s taken an embarrassingly long while for me to get to the start line of a race whose route I can actually see from my office window, but I’m so glad I did...

Dumyat [pronounced dumb eye at] has been run annually since a £1 bet in 1972 claimed that it was impossible to run from the University of Stirling’s Gannochy Sports Centre to the summit of Dumyat, a 418m/1,371ft peak at the edge of the Ochil Hills, and back, within an hour (a distance of five miles and total ascent of 390m). The hour is the watershed, therefore, between metaphorically winning the pound or slinking off home to think again. With men’s and women’s records in the region of 35 minutes, it’s achievable, but not without a fight…

Added pressure for me came in the form of many colleagues who have raced previous years, or entered this year, or who just know more about the event than I did. I’d also recruited a pal, Kathryn, whom you may remember as Deerstalker-in-Chief and whose mountain credentials are infinitely more impressive than mine. All this conspired to an impressive amount of pre-race excuse-making on my part. I mean look at the weather. My back hurts. I’ve been sat at a desk all day. Etc.

Dumyat has always been a low-key affair but I think this year it’s edging towards more infrastructure. The race is ‘gun-to-chip’ timed, entries are managed online, marshals are everywhere and almost 300 people finished the 2015 event. We are a long way from 1972.

But once we were away from the start line we’re into a magnificently scrappy, scruffy, off-road test that feels much more like I imagine oldschool hillrunning to be. It’s crowded in the middle of the field, and we’re ducking and weaving between trees and gaps in stone walls and stiles and streams, occasionally slowing to allow the crowd to thin out ahead, tripping over rocks and sinking into watery mud. I’m grinning madly with delight.

The first half is very up. But it’s also a bit down – we’re fighting to gain elevation but then keep maddeningly losing a little on our progress to the top. After the first mile or so we’re literally out of the woods and onto a broad moor-type landscape, which allows much more room for overtaking and the field spreads out width-ways as runners choose different lines up the hill. I’m surrounded by people of clearly varying ability, but the wild spectrum of terrain and profile mean that this race demands you to be a sturdy climber, fearless descender, navigator of rocks and mud, good at choosing lines and also pretty competent on the flat. I’m confident that everyone in the race will have felt great at some points and found wanting in others.

Out of the woods and chasing down the summit.
Photo borrowed from www.scottishhillracing.co.uk
After a couple of miles the leaders fly past me in the opposite direction. Dumyat is the prototypical out-and-back, so we’re sharing a boggy, hilly, rocky, narrow route trudging uphill with extremely talented hill runners who are flying back down. It’s perilous and thrilling and hilarious. Club and university vests dominate the leading figures and I do my best to stay out of the way whilst also trying to maintain some worthwhile progress of my own.

An odd phenomenon is the peer pressure to both walk and run certain sections. Kathryn and both found that whenever the person in front of us slowed to a walk on the steepest sections, we did the same, even if we were feeling fresh enough to run. When they ran, we felt compelled to run too. This may have something to do with the narrowness of the route in places – and for me my total lack of course knowledge – but next year I’ll resolve to ignore everyone else and run my own race.

I finally reached the summit and was blown away by the view. The concept suddenly made sense. Weather earlier in the day may have been abysmal, but at 7.30ish in the evening the view was so clear I could pick out the Forth Bridges and Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, 40 miles distant. Sadly, with no time to appreciate the full majesty of the entire Central Belt, I started a reckless, wild descent back to the Gannochy.

There’s really nothing better for the ego than being on the ‘back’ leg of an out and back race. The banter’s hilarious and you feel like a minor celebrity. I did my best to be brave and let my legs fly down the hill, moving so fast I could feel my insides shaking about with every impactful step. At points I was basically falling down a cliff and trying to keep my legs moving fast enough to keep up with my progress. Hill running – for me at least – is mostly about trying to think fast enough to work out where each foot can safely land next, and the added chaos of people running towards you makes for a major mental and physical test.

I passed Kathryn, on her way up, as we splashed through a waterlogged flat(ish) section. She howled in mock pain as we high-fived at high speed. The descent passed in a blur – although a small incline with half a mile to go almost finished me off – and before long I was back to the sports centre and accepting the incredulous congratulations of some colleagues who had come along to support. I clocked 51:19 and won my metaphorical pound.

Papped at the finish. #KeepUpLad
Kathryn beamed across the finish line a little while later and we debriefed, incredulous as to how much fun it was. We immediately resolved to be back for 2016 – and what’s more I know exactly where I can shave a minute or two off my time. A few practice runs wouldn’t go amiss either...

Happy running


2015 to date: miles run - 405.62, parkruns - 3, races - 3

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Race Report - (Half) Kilomathon Scotland 2015

Blast. Race reports are more or less the one thing I can normally pull together with relative competence and now this one’s three weeks late. Cutting edge blogging going on here. What a time to be alive.

Anyway, Kilomathon Scotland. If the word ‘Kilomathon’ is flying over your head like a furious buzzard, then allow me to try to unpick what’s going on here. In 2010 GSi Events invented a new race distance – which they swiftly dubbed ‘the perfect race distance’ – of 26.2km, ie the same number of kilometres as a marathon is in miles. The idea is a step-up from a half marathon towards a marathon, I guess. I ran the first two of them, one between Nottingham and Derby (in 2:03) and the other a circular route over the Forth Road Bridge and back from Ingliston (2:05 and my god those hills). It was a pretty good distance. Not sure if it was perfect, but I enjoyed it all the same.

Since then I’ve been dimly aware that the 26.2km distance had been binned, and that a Kilomathon was now considered 13.1km, which I might have better called a half kilomathon. Interestingly, this distance is ALSO branded as ‘the perfect race distance’. Whatever.

A pal who once beat me in a terrible game of tennis asked if I was up for this event – his first ‘proper’ race – and with nothing else planned I signed myself up. What I hadn’t twigged was the 8.30am start time. In Leith. On the day the clocks go forward. Cripes.

Yes, Leith. It’s really quite nice these days, and the kilomathon route intelligently leaves from Ocean Terminal shopping centre (handy pre-race infrastructure – ie proper loos) and winds its way through a network of high-quality footpaths laid out on a former railway line. It snakes its way south west on a 99% traffic-free course  and finishes on the pitch at Murrayfield Stadium, home of endless disappointment in international rugby (I should know, I have a season ticket) but a magnificent stadium nonetheless.

James and I exchanged chilly pre-race banter on a desolate stretch of access road and before long we were away, looping behind the shopping centre past the Royal Yacht Britannia. James was looking for 75 minutes and I was hoping for 65. It didn’t go to plan for either of us. At all.

Right away I got a wiggle on. I was working hard to run the tangents wherever possible and the cold damp air on my flimsy running vest meant I was in no mood for hanging about. I shot off way too fast, but much like the time we didn’t even BQ when there were four of us, I somehow found a way to hang on to that pace and ran more or less perfect splits all morning.

I had examined the course map ahead of time, but hadn’t fully appreciated just how windy some of the loops were, at times clumsily added to make up the distance rather than to enhance the experience. I was absolutely flying by 3km but frustrated to be directed around Victoria Park on a series of tight turns which really limited my rhythm. I could tell others were annoyed too. Luckily before too long it was back on the footpath proper and steaming towards Murrayfield, and there was really only one random bit of loopy route to contend with from there...

As the kilomathon starts at sea level, the route is a gentle climb pretty much all the way and it’s easy to be caught out in those places where it’s more noticeable. I was working hard to keep my pace on track and the rise in profile did make this challenging. The Crew Chief popped up at a convenient cheering point (one of perhaps 40 spectators on the entire course – a slightly out of the way footpath at 8.45am on a Sunday is not prime cheering territory) and I cheerfully told her that I was dying but would see her at the finish. Luckily I was only half right.

I’m not good at pacing kilometres and I was even more confused as my watch was showing pace and distance in miles and the route markers were interspersed with those for the 6.55km quarter-kilomathon. I’m not joking. In fact there was even a 2.62km event for kids. I passed the start for the quarter kilomathoners around 6 or 7km, who were penned up waiting for, perhaps, a gap in the kilomathon traffic and wondered if I could keep them at bay or if the speedier ones might catch me. So anyway – there were way too many numbered signs, my own confusing watch readout and a sleepy, GMT/BST confused brain, which taken together meant that by 9km I decided to forget about digits and just put the hammer down.

We peeled off the footpath near Murrayfield and barrelled – finally - downhill towards the stadium, skirting Roseburn park. I rounded what I thought was the final corner to see a tunnel leading straight onto the pitch and prepared a last-gasp straight-line sprint. Sadly the kilomathon route instead peeled away to the left as we did a pointless and annoying fingerloop of the stadium’s car park before finally taking a few tight turns to get into that same tunnel.

Just as I stepped onto the hallowed turf – imagining just how bad next year’s 6 Nations run would have to be in order for me to get a call up –  two men flew past me at a full-on sprint. Remember that I’m running at about 7:15/mile here and that these guys blew me away from absolutely nowhere, all elbows and knees. As I crossed the finish line I got mixed up with a load of marshalls trying to hand things to these speedsters – in fact they were the first three finishers of the quarter-kilomathon, and their crazy pace was due to the fact that they got to do the arrow-straight finish into the stadium. I was a tiny bit miffed at having been jostled about by these mere quarter kilomathoners, as if that’s even a thing, but I suppose fair play to them.

Check out this dodgy GoPro video I shot at the finish:

Just as in 2010 the organisers distributed medals that just said ‘Kilomathon’ and showed the event logo – no date, no distance, no location. Clearly they’re reused at multiple events, but whatever. The finish line setup was slick and well organised, felt like a fun stadium finish and best of all was done and dusted well before 10 am.

At the finish, with a Wallace cheeser
I clocked 58:03 (half 24:25 – negative split!), seven minutes faster than I had guessed when I registered and good enough for 94th overall out of 1,398 finishers. My splits are pretty tasty, too.

James finished almost exactly ten minutes behind me in 68:26. He had also beaten his estimated time by seven minutes. He went for the classic medal-biting pose:

For £20, this is a solid event. But next year I think I’ll stay in bed.

Happy running


2015 to date: miles run - 320.89, parkruns - 3, races - 2

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Whose NHS is it anyway?

The morning after the Deerstalker I debriefed the Crew Chief. With her professional interest in medical provision at sports events I knew she’d be intrigued to hear how the organisers had managed to get first aiders and mountain rescue staff to accessible places on an entirely inaccessible course. We have pretty romantic conversations, the Crew Chief and I…

Anyway we got on to talking about the more extreme end of obstacle races, and the relatively high incidence of serious medical emergencies. This is almost inevitable as gung-ho but technically inept runners throw themselves off increasingly wild obstacles dreamt up by event organisers trying to innovate the next big thing in challenge runs. She mentioned with horror the sheer costs involved of getting ambulances and helicopters to these (often remote) events, calling out highly skilled medical professionals to airlift showboating mud runners to A&E because they’ve somehow got half a femur sticking out of their backsides. Her valid point is that this voluntary, reckless activity is a drain on resources, is unnecessarily dangerous and – crucially - is entirely preventable.

I nodded sagely in agreement because I am good at marriage.

Ambulance crew at Tough Guy 2009
Then I mulled it over for a while. Who else is using the health service’s resources? Where might that ambulance be if not responding to the self-inflicted ailments of runners so desperate to prove themselves that they’ll happily leap through flames or take an electric shock to the face? And most crucially, how many users of our beloved NHS rely on it to treat preventable ailments?

Smokers are an obvious place to start. The latest research suggests that smoking is likely to be costing the NHS between £2.5 and £6 billion every year. Preventable. It’s a similar figure for alcohol-related treatment. Preventable. Obese and overweight patients are more or less a bargain at just £4 billion every year. In many cases, that’s preventable too.

And here’s the fundamental difference; whilst puffing away on a fag, drinking 100 pints of Carling a week or stuffing your face with McDonald’s has literally no discernible health benefit to weigh against the massive cost of related healthcare, those reckless fools launching their fragile bodies off some monkey bars and into a freezing pond are at least being active. To me that really is the crux of the issue; whilst the occasional accident might make obstacle racing seem like a pointless endeavour, it’s reaching a demographic who might otherwise not engage in physical activity. And surely anything that gets people off the sofa and momentarily away from packing their arteries with Greggs sausage rolls has to be a good thing? Take this thought a step further and surely the only conclusion is that any physical activity that raises your heartrate, strengthens your muscles and improves your mental wellbeing has to be a good thing.

And let’s not for a moment discount the health charities and Air Ambulance services who profit considerably from the fundraising efforts of thousands of runners every year. I’m pretty sure that no smoker has ever used their habit as a means of raising money for a cancer charity. It would be a pretty audacious pitch on justgiving, that’s for sure…

I concede that these events are dangerous, and whilst there have been deaths in Tough Mudder races in the USA, it's worth remembering that people also die running marathons, and skiing slightly off-piste, and crossing the street, and in industrial accidents, and from diseases contracted on exotic holidays. Nothing is entirely without risk. I concede also, of course, that rescuing a daft bloke in fancy dress who’s broken an ankle by leaping off a cargo net is a less worthy use of an air ambulance’s limited resources than, say, hastening to the aid of a road traffic accident or to uplift someone suffering a heart attack.

But if ever a Health Minister decides to definitively rank the order of precedence for using our National Health Service, I would petition for the stricken runners to get a decent spot in the queue, to my mind well ahead of people who are eating or smoking or drinking themselves to death. If it’s a race for spots, we’ll probably do alright anyway.

Happy running (be safe out there)


2015 to date: miles run 234.2, parkruns 3, races 1

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Race Report - Charleston Half Marathon 2015

Guest blogging and race reports! I used to do loads of these and I'd forgotten how brilliant they are until Elizabeth 'Pumpkin Square Wifey' Fitzpatrick hit the mean streets of Charleston to race her first half marathon. Given that I know for a fact that E has had an awesome running outfit waiting for an outing since at least 2007, this is both immensely welcome and long overdue. So over to our American Correspondent...

I would never in a million years have considered myself to be a runner; in high school, we used to have to run a half mile prior to the start of gym class and it was possibly the worst thing on the planet (let's be honest, I was 16 and had to wear a horrible gym costume). But when I think back on that now, I realize how ridiculous I was considering that a 5 mile run seems like a breeze and I just ran my first half marathon (12.6 miles longer than back in high school).

So why, if i despise(d) running, would I tackle 13.1 miles? It was a challenge. Back in June, a close friend moved to Kentucky and we both were lacking serious motivation. We decided that in order to get our booties back in shape we would sign up for a half and use it as an excuse to go somewhere fun. Gung-ho Sally's that we are, our credit cards were charged, motivation was high and the Charleston Half Marathon was our challenge.

What can I say, along the way life, minor injuries, school, lack of motivation, so there were a lot of starts and stops in the training process. Unfortunately my friend ended up having to pull out due to an intensive school semester. My mom kindly stepped in and decided to join the challenge, she would walk and I would run and it was a great excuse for a mother/daughter trip.

Off we went on January 16 to fantastic Charleston. We landed at the airport late in the afternoon, dropped our bags at our hotel and power walked off to the high school where packet pick-up/and the start of the race was. Numbers, timing chips, and token race shirts collected we headed off for an early dinner. Hundreds of calories consumed, what can we say, we like good food and when in Charleston you must partake.

The big day dawned a little chillier than expected but sunny and it was definitely a lot warmer than back at home in Baltimore, so who were we to complain? The masses started to congregate at the start line, music was playing, enthusiasm was high and we actually met two girls who were also from Maryland whilst killing time. There were about 4,900 participants from 49 states and 7 countries, not too shabby.

Looking not at all nervous
I am not going to lie, I was a little nervous as it got closer to 8am. I had two goals: finish in under 2 hours and 30 minutes and not to walk, and of course doubt settled in. Could I make it? Had I done enough training? But soon enough the gun went off and we were away, with a big smile on my face, what I had been planning on and working towards for almost 6 months was finally about to happen.

The race is a bit of a blur, I mean 13.1 miles tend to start to run together. But what I do know for certain, the first few miles when we were running through Charleston proper was amazing. The scenery was incredible, the route took you through these incredible neighborhoods past these gorgeous houses, by the water, and then it was back up through the city along King Street.

And the crowd, there were fans along the entire route which was amazing and they were all so enthusiastic, it definitely helped around mile 11 when it started to get a little tough. Also, the money raised by the running festival went to benefit the arts programs in the local Charleston schools. So at periodic intervals along the route, there were bands/dance troupes etc. from all the schools performing, it was such a wonderful element and nice to see what we were funding.

Nice work ladies!
So what can I say from this experience... would I do it again, definitely, in fact I told my mom the Charleston half should maybe become an annual event. Will I do a full marathon, doubtful. I will definitely be more consistent in training for my next one, have a plan and stick to it.

Would I consider myself a runner after this experience, no, but maybe I will get there. For now, it's been a few weeks off, no running, but I think it's time to get back out there. I am loathe to put this in writing (Dave knows, cause I used to give him a lot of grief and call him crazy with all his running) but I may miss hitting the pavement just a little bit.

But did you achieve your sub-2:30 goal?

I most certainly did.

Thanks E! Super proud of you. It is definitely time to get back out there...

2015 to date: miles 117.9, parkruns 2

Friday, 23 January 2015

A very ordinary superpower

Let's be honest, it's not a strong look.
I was out for a run the other night in the absolute Baltic cold of January in Scotland. Leggings aren’t a strong look for me but who cares how you look when it’s dark and you’re out running, right? 

But imagine my horror when I thought I spotted a member of my employer’s senior management team up ahead when out for a run dressed in stretchy fluorescent garb. I imagined their cheerful greeting followed by an incredulous "What are you out running for in this weather?" as their eyes scanned down to my spindly ankles, wrapped in lycra and gently steaming.

The first answer that popped into my head was “Oh I like to keep fit so I’ll be ready when the revolution comes.”

Luckily the senior colleague I spotted turned out to be a low-quality lookalike and not the real thing (it was dark and snowing) and this conversation didn’t actually happen, because if it did I feel certain that there would be some detailed notes appended to my HR file quicker than you can say “We think your talents would be better deployed literally anywhere but here.”

But this hypothetical conversation made me think about running as an actual practical skill. If I’m honest there really are few scenarios in which running would be the quickest, or the easiest, or the only form of transport left in a crisis.

We’re going to need a War of the Worlds-eque apocalyptic event in which every car on the planet suffers a simultaneous electrical fault (for example), in which every bicycle is also stolen by a marauding alien overlord (could happen), all the horses have been put into Iceland burgers (underway) and there are also leaves on the line and/or overrunning engineering works at Darlington (all but guaranteed). Seems a tall order.

Even then, the heroic task that will save the day needs to be no more than about 20 miles away if I’m to be any use when I get there to do it and ideally this cataclysmic event shouldn’t happen too close to lunch because I am really not up to much - let alone saving the world - with a side stitch.

I once read that Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond became stranded in a winter flood 16 miles from home at 3am, and rather than miss his daughter’s birthday the following day he abandoned his car, changed into some running kit he happened to have with him, and ran the rest of the way. That makes running seem like a skill worth having.

I suppose the closest I’ve ever come to genuinely using my one and only very mediocre superpower is that I’ve caught a few trains and buses that others would have missed, because I don’t mind running a mile or two flat out if needs must. I once caught a series of connections that meant a sprint to a tube station, a run across the concourse into a train station and later an amazingly long jog to an airport bus. I sweated in the queue for security then sprinted through the terminal and was the last one on the plane, which took me from London to Edinburgh. The following day I had a job interview, a day after that I had a job offer, and a month later I moved back to Scotland and into a flat with the Crew Chief.

That was five years ago, and I’m so glad I ran for it.

Happy running


2015 to date: miles run 71.59