Sunday, 26 March 2017

The "February Five" challenge

You may remember that in Ridiculous February I was planning to spend a lot more time in the pool - culminating in a 5km swim for the February Five challenge of doing something "five" related during the month of February and raising a bit of money for a good cause - Mind, the mental health charity.

Running every day, the main objective of Ridiculous February, soon put that plan over the hills and far away, but I was annoyed I hadn't done it. Annoyed was joined by guilty when onto the front door mat landed my February Five completion medal. Well I had to do it now.

Not allowed to look at it until you've earned it

In amongst running, meetings, and various other commitments it looked like this morning was the only day that would work. So I arrived at my local pool at 7:15am (though it felt very much like 6:15am thanks to the clocks "spring forward"ing overnight).

My pool is 30m long, which is not a convenient factor of 5,000. I wasn't going to be attempting 5,000m non-stop, so had toyed with a few ways of chopping it up. I needed to swim 166.7 lengths, so I settled on 10x 16 lengths plus 1x 8 lengths to finish, with a minute break in between each set. A minute would feel like a long time at first, but I was fairly sure I'd need it at the end.

The pool was virtually empty when I started. The first few sets went by quickly and consistently. A few others arrived, but never more than one other in my lane. After the fourth set I could tell I'd slowed a little, but I wasn't too concerned - there's no time target here, just completion.

Pace drops off a little, and stroke efficiency (need more strokes per length), but no explosions!

During the seventh set I was told off by the lifeguard for circulating clockwise in an anti-clockwise lane. That's a first.

During the eighth set I saw the lifeguard and assistants making moves to re-partition the pool. I have never known a pool that continually moves lane boundaries around and sections off bits for various reasons with the frequency of this place. Sometimes you lose the whole shallow end and your lane suddenly gets 5 (or 6? or 4?) metres shorter - breaking any plan, and taking away an end to push off from.

This time they left one full length lane and partitioned various bits of the rest of it - I'd have had a minor breakdown if my 30m length suddenly changed when I was so near to the end. Though they did manage to soak my towel in the process.

With the final sets of 16 and 8 done, I was finished. During the last 16 my watch somehow gave me an extra length of credit, so my distance is logged as 5,070m rather than the 5,040m that I actually swam.

Done it!

February Five done, and with it a new personal best - I've never swum 5km in one go before! I left it a bit late in the month, finally completing it on February 54th, but I got there in the end. I can now remove the medal out of its little wrapper and take a proper look, it didn't feel appropriate to do so before.

Thanks to the organisers and sponsor, Lee Merrett Wealth Management, for a different kind of motivation to get going in February (sort of) and for a good cause. Looking forward to next year already!

Monday, 20 March 2017

Today I ran the solar system

Announced earlier in the year, The British Science Association have held a virtual 10km running race this week called Run The Solar System. Sign up, download their companion app, and run 10km any time you like during British Science Week - from Monday 13th March through to yesterday, Sunday 19th. Entry is free, but for a £15 donation you can receive a special medal and membership of the British Science Association for a year - and I'm a sucker for a medal.

Run The Solar System

Using the app you're taken on a virtual guided tour of the solar system, starting from the Sun and working your way out to Neptune (poor Pluto), roughly scaled to the 10km run. The journey is narrated at regular intervals by Dallas Campbell who bursts in every kilometre or so with interesting facts about the planets as you pass them.

I learned a few things - I had no idea that Uranus spins on its axis almost at right angles to it's plain of rotation around the sun. This gives it "extreme seasons", with one pole being blasted by the sun for a few decades and the the other in permanent night, and then vice versa, for each of its 84 year long trips around the Sun.

I also learned that one of Neptune's moons has a retrograde orbit - it orbits in the other direction to the other moons and opposite to the planet's direction of rotation. It was probably an interstellar wandering asteroid that was minding its own business got a bit close and became captured.

My not so inspiring route

Given that last week's Moyleman turned me into Limpy McLimpFace for a few days afterwards, I left it as long as possible through the week to run, finally getting out on Sunday afternoon. After a 2km warm up I hit the Start button and set off. After a week of limited running, apart from parkrun the day before, my legs felt good.

As part of my year of PBs I wanted to break my fastest 10km time - I'm not sure if it counts given it's not a proper race, but it's worth a shot and I haven't run a hard 10km for a while. Setting off at about 4:50/km pace I managed to hold that for most of the way, despite a brutal headwind at times, and a couple of small hills. I two laps of a variant of my regular local 5km loop. I know the roads well and there aren't too many side roads and junctions to watch out for.

That'll do

Final time on my watch was 48:48, a minute and eleven seconds faster than my race PB. Now I just need to do it again at the Chatham Maritime 10k in a fortnight.

Somewhat restrained bling by today's standards, but bling nonetheless!

The only slight annoyance was that the app didn't automatically stop timing when I reached 10km, despite Dallas telling me congratulations, and I've finished and can stop running now. It took me ten minutes to look at my phone and realise I was still being timed, so my official time is 58:20!

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Race report: The Moyleman Marathon

I ran the second half of this last year as a relay with Louise and loved it so was determined to come back this year and run the whole lot. It's also about the right time to take on a longer and more hilly race - and the South Downs is perfect as it'll make for some great terrain-specific training for the first of the year's Centurion 50-mile events, the South Downs Way 50, which is coming up in a month.

The route of the Moyleman marathon

It's easy to get to Lewes where the race starts and finishes, only an hour and a bit in the car, so no need to stay over the night before or after. The civilised 10am start helps.

Super friendly cat in the car park was a nice race-day bonus

I toyed with not taking a bag at all, there are five aid equally-spaced water stations on the route, but instead opted to pack light. My trusty Salomon 5 litre pack was pulled into service, and packed with some essentials:

  • Because I'll be in fairly remote areas: Foil blanket, whistle, little head torch
  • Because I might have to bail: Phone, bank card, some cash
  • Because I may need sustenance: 500ml floppy water bottle, an energy bar
  • Because weather: Waterproof jacket, hat, gloves

It was scheduled to be around 10C with a good chance of potentially heavy rain, so I opted for a thin merino long sleeved base layer with my bright Adidas mid layer on top. Shorts as always (unless it's sub-zero or there's lots of undergrowth), and my new most favourite shoes - La Sportiva Helios SR.

032 and 033, ready for action

Mrs was running too, she had also run last year but pulled out at half way with stomach discomfort. We were both hoping for a good day in the hills. She was going for a long training run whereas I was out to treat it more like a race so we decided to start separately and meet at the end.

Race briefing in the school hall

Ready for the 10am start for full marathon entrants, relays start 15 minutes later

I started well, running comfortably. I'm not really one for chatting while I run, so I was pleased that the field strung out quite quickly. I don't mind the odd "hello" or "good going" but I'm not up for a deep and meaningful or anything that requires too much thinking.

The start was a gentle series of runnable climbs, then some lovely fast shallow downhills to open up into. The segment to the first aid station flew past. The sun was trying to peek through, the ground was damp enough to provide some light cushioning but with very little mud or slippery grass. Perfect.

Working our way up one of the early inclines

The first longer climb comes after aid station one, and is a fairly long slog. I ran the shallow part, but used my head and dropped to a hike rather than tire myself out for little benefit. On a clear day there would have been some good views from the top, but today was a bit misty so the horizon was a flat grey colour.

My legs were feeling good, and I was running at an even pace, averaging about 9km/h which is a bit faster than my normal hilly trail pace of 7.5-8km/h. Annoyingly, I had started was sweating profusely from my head. I wasn't that hot although there was very little breeze, and I wasn't suffering from overheating in my body, but my head just wouldn't stop sweating - it was ridiculous. I realised the one thing I'd forgotten to bring was a buff to use for mopping!

I reached half way in around two and a quarter hours - happy with that time. I ran the second half in 2:12 last year. I knew it would take longer this year having already run a hilly 13.1 miles, but I should be on for a finish under five hours.

This was the last time I saw the two ladies in purple I'd been leapfrogging ever since the start

After the midpoint is the longest continual climb of the course, from sea level right up to some prominent transmitters on the very top of the Downs. I remembered this well from last year and was mentally prepared. Although I hiked at a good pace I found it hard to get my legs going once I'd got up there. I felt a bit light headed and took a big drink from my flask and ate my emergency nine-bar. In time, I got a second wind and picked up the pace again.

The route drops back down in to  the valley after about 30km, following a steep twisty road - the altitude it took 5km to gain lost in just 500m. I always try and make best use of downhills as I can, running them with effort (free speed!) rather than decelerating with every step - but this one was really punishing on the quads.

A more level segment followed, and I told myself to keep running - I had slowed a little now but was determined not to walk apart from up hills.

Bravely combatting the challenging penultimate climb

The course has a lovely sting in the tail in the form of a steep path up a field and hill side, then a punishing descent, followed by another more shallow climb, then a steep road descent again back into Lewes. The last few kilometres really could be a painful experience if you've overdone it previously.

I picked up the pace through the town, and reached the finish two second shy of 4 hours and 52 minutes. Comfortably under my five hour target, and happy to have ticked an early season marathon off - it's a good confidence builder. I've had some hard ones in the past and finished in quite poor condition (Seville last year springs to mind!) - so I was happy to finish still running and still in one piece.

Pace in blue, cadence in pink, and route profile in grey

Seriously, how could my head even generate this much water?!

Most races give you a bag of adverts and free samples of stuff you don't want at the finish - this race sets the bar a little higher with a free pint of beer and a free pizza! Outstanding, and exactly what I was looking for after almost five hours on the trail.

Thanks to Circa's mobile pizza van and Harvey's and Sons for the pint - best finishing gift ever

In general the organisation was good - there were dozens of marshals out on the course, and no end of big purple arrows. The aid stations were water only and were a bit low on stock when I got there - I understand from later finishers that they ran out later on. That's inexcusable - it's the later finishers who are out for the longest time and will be most in need from the water stations.

A mental note for next time, it is just water at the stops - don't expect food!

Nothing like seeing the winning time to put things into perspective!

I'm not sure where I came overall as the results aren't out yet. To be honest, I don't really care - I had a good day out, I finished well, and I got my free beer - what more do you need?

I showed a much more consistent pace and cadence than I have done in the past. Now I just have to do it twice for South Downs 50!

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Centurion Running - 50-mile Grand Slam, 2017

So I just got a waitlist place in the North Downs Way 50... The 50-mile grand slam attempt is on, I repeat the 50-mile grand slam attempt is on!


Ridiculous February: The results show

I challenged myself to a big and somewhat ridiculous February - getting some miles in the tank as a good base upon which to build for the races coming later in the year (suddenly, not quite so later either...).

A reminder of the objectives:

  • Swim: 28km, one for each day, including a ramp up to a 5km challenge swim for the February Five charity challenge. The swim will be hard, until last week I hadn't got in the pool since February 2015 - almost two years! I had no idea it had been that long.
  • Bike: Seeing as there's so much swim and run, I thought I'd add some bike to the mix - I'll go for a sit on the turbo every other day and take in an episode of The Wire (no, I've never seen The Wire, yes I know it's reputedly the best TV series in the world ever).
  • Run: The original idea for February was to see how far through the month I could get if I run 1km on the 1st, 2km on the 2nd, 3km on the 3rd, and so on throughout the month. Why? Because it's a bit different, it ramps the load up over 4 weeks and is good for consistency, it's going to be hard, and last but by no means least - it's fun!
  • Race: There are a couple of races in here including the Valentines 10k which will give me a chance to see what 10km shape I'm in (an early season attempt at a new PB?), and Dash for the Splash which is going to be wet, muddy, and a whole lot of fun.

So, how did it go? In short: boy, did I ever underestimate the impact of running slightly further every day for a month...

It started off OK (unsurprisingly, running 1km in one day is fairly straightforward), and during the first week it was trivial to hit the pool and sit on the turbo from time to time.

Week 1 - having started off getting *precisely* the right distances, the tone was set...

I had three small wobbles over the month that resulted in missing two (and a half) days of running - but the turbo and swimming dropped off quickly.

Week 2 - scene of the first wobble

The first wobble came on the 9th when my good friend Matt came round to fit some connectors he'd soldered for me - I'd been struggling for literally two years to get it done, so we went to the pub to celebrate. After 4 pints, my 9km run detonated half way through. Apparently magic-beer-energy only lasts 4km, then it's all gone. I limped back home with my tail between my legs and claimed an "amber" in Training Peaks (session not completed, but at least you gave it a shot).

Week 3 - and with no turbo and just one swim, I realised running was enough on its own

The second wobble was the 13th when, after a few days of it building, I was finally beaten by painful toothache and had to get an emergency dental appointment. No running today. Session red.

The third wobble was on the 21st, when (after being out the previous evening) I was in no condition to run! Session red.

Week 4 - emergency trip to the dentist put pay to Tuesday, but apart from that carrying on well

As I started getting into the teens, it got harder to do anything else - the fatigue was building up and it was all I could do to complete the distance the next day, without cycling or swimming too. On the plus side, I didn't miss any more days, and finished strongly on the 28th.

Week 5 - the last couple of days, getting out the door on the 28th was a challenge

As for races - no chance - I simply didn't feel like it. I didn't want to go out, tired, only to tire myself even more for the next day.

Swimming and biking started well, but as noted dropped off fairly quickly. Needless to say, I failed to take on the February Five challenge I'd set myself of swimming 5km (where do I get the idea I can do all this stuff at once?). This puts me in a bit of a quandary as the organiser had already sent me the medal. I'm going to give it a shot tomorrow morning, and hope nobody notices I didn't do it in February! If I don't make it, I'll have to leave the medal in its sealed bag until next year.

If I'd known I was going to get such a pretty graph I'd have tried harder...

In summary, I'll give myself a grade B for the running challenge as despite missing a couple of sessions I am still particularly pleased to have completed all the longer days; and a grade D for everything else - a good start, but bitten off more than I could chew.

I've been wanting to try the ramping-up month for a while, I'm looking forward to a future second attempt.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Ridiculous February

I just invented Ridiculous February.

It's a challenging and motivating month of activity with a few key characteristics:

  • Swim: 28km, one for each day, including a ramp up to a 5km challenge swim for the February Five charity challenge. The swim will be hard, until last week I hadn't got in the pool since February 2015 - almost two years! I had no idea it had been that long.
  • Bike: Seeing as there's so much swim and run, I thought I'd add some bike to the mix - I'll go for a sit on the turbo every other day and take in an episode of The Wire (no, I've never seen The Wire, yes I know it's reputedly the best TV series in the world ever).
  • Run: The original idea for February was to see how far through the month I could get if I run 1km on the 1st, 2km on the 2nd, 3km on the 3rd, and so on throughout the month. Why? Because it's a bit different, it ramps the load up over 4 weeks and is good for consistency, it's going to be hard, and last but by no means least - it's fun!
  • Race: There are a couple of races in here including the Valentines 10k which will give me a chance to see what 10km shape I'm in (an early season attempt at a new PB?), and Dash for the Splash which is going to be wet, muddy, and a whole lot of fun.

 The plan for February, courtesy of Training Peaks

Better be careful, at this rate I'll end up entering a triathlon!

Saturday, 21 January 2017

The LOOP (London Outer Orbital Path) - Part 1 of 2


Over eight or nine days I'm running round the LOOP - the London Outer Orbital Path. A 152 mile circuit around London split into 24 sections and designed for walkers, with the start and finish of each section being convenient for public transport.

The route starts at Erith, on the southern bank of the Thames estuary, and runs right round London in a route that takes in many green spaces and less urban areas, to finish on the North bank of the estuary at Purfleet.

The purpose of this post is partially to record the journey, but mainly to share some of the photos I took on the way round. So far I've done half of it, I'll publish another post for the second half when I've done it.

Day 1, Monday 12th December 2016
Sections 1 and 2 - Erith to Petts Wood, 26.5km, 03:16:53

I'm starting where the LOOP officially starts. It's a short run out East, then South West - skirting round Dartford and heading straight toward Bromley.

Not too many navigational challenges today

General upward trend, as you'd expect heading away from the river and towards Kent

On a cold December morning I hopped on an early train to get the LOOP underway. With Christmas coming up, and Country to Capital soon afterwards, I know I'm not going to get the whole lot done within the same fortnight, but let's get started anyway.

First LOOP sign

Although I had the route well planned in advance using my mapping app of choice, OS MapFinder, and I'd spent some time thinking about the route, I was still surprised at quite how industrial and remote it felt at the start of this first day.

Looks a bit unloved out here

The LOOP follows the Thames Path Extension, the extra bit that runs from the Thames Barrier out to Crayford (if the previous 184 miles weren't enough Thames Path for you).

The commemorative marker signalling the start of National Cycle Path 1

It also shares its first few miles with National Cycle Path 1, though to be honest I wouldn't bother unless you're on a mountain bike. The first mile or two are well surfaced, but it gets a bit muddy after that.

This is where your recycling goes, along with old cars, white goods, and all sorts of other stuff

It's a fairly smelly and deserted industrial zone out here. There's plenty of machine activity in the recycle and waste processing plants, but I couldn't see many people. I saw no other walkers or cyclists on this stretch.

The Queen Elizabeth II bridge

I have looked down from the top of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge many times, at the widening Thames and grey brown industrial areas - I like the bridge, and it was a pleasure to see it from this side for the first time. I've never been on foot in this part of London before.

Looking behind me, back towards the Thames

The path curves to the right and heads up the River Darent, a tributary of the Thames flowing in from South East London.

<Insert usual rant about accessibility>

You know you're on a National Cycle Way when you reach a horrific anti-cycling machine and this one was no different. I never cease to be amazed by the bizarre scaffolding contraptions designed to keep everyone off the path apart from able-bodied humans with no luggage.


Shortly after the annoying scaffolding, I came across some muddy but friendly miniature horses. A couple of them trotted along side me for a little while - it would have been a spiritual experience had it not been for the big chainlink fence in between us.

2D bar codes get everywhere

The route took me over the A2 and through Bexley Village which was beautiful, I must go back and explore properly. A final climb up and over Scadbury Park Nature Reserve and then down toward Petts Wood station. The day was drawing in, I just about made it without being caught in the dark!

Day 2, Tuesday 13th December 2016
Sections 3 and 4 - Petts Wood to Croydon, 20.8km, 03:02:42

I like routes like today - where although it takes about ninety minutes to get to the start, and I have to go via Central London mainline stations, the finish is pleasingly easy to get home from - in this case just a tram from Croydon to virtually the end of my road.

The LOOP heads West now, across South London and towards Croydon

As every South Londoner knows, this is where they keep the hills

I set off bright (dark) and early (very) and almost over delivered as I arrived back at Petts Wood in the first rays of the day.

Bit dark in the woods, plenty of fairy tales start out like this!

Thankfully the first mile or two was on nice spongy leafy trails and not a root-laden trip-fest. It soon brightened up to a slightly lighter shade of grey and the pace picked up.

There was an eerie feel to the morning, still dim and misty

Running in the morning through parks is lovely, so quiet and peaceful. I saw remarkably few people, only the occasional dog walker.

Going for some kind of adventuring/manic/Blair With Project look here

Pausing briefly to remind myself why I don't take selfies very often, the day was now well under way. The route was a bit fiddly, but worth it - staying nicely in parks and away from major built up areas as much as possible.

Great change comes from innocuous chats in the forest

One of the best views in London, apparently... Addington Hill viewpoint

Coming up to 2/3 of the planned 30km distance I was starting to lose the love for the day - whilst deciding if I should cut short or not, I rounded a corner straight into a tram stop. There's a tram stop just a few hundred metres from my house - I couldn't resist such an easy journey home, so I called it a day at 20km.

Day 3, Friday 16th December 2016
Sections 5 to 7 - Hamsey Green to Ewell, 31.2km, 04:10:06

Continuing the tour across South London, from East to West

Bit bumpier today

Today was supposed to be 25km or so, but I had the end of Day 2 to complete first (which turned out to be almost 7km). Good job I got cracking early on - it's a bit distracting for evening commuters when a sweaty runner arrives in their midst.

I love the way these headphones make my ears stick out

A brief pause for another selfie (my last, I promise) and then I found myself on more familiar territory. The LOOP follows a small section of the Vanguard Way, which I've run most of, and this section in particular as it's also part of the Croydon Ultra route - the first Ultra I finished).

Full marks to who did this - a choice of three paths, and I've got the wrong one more than once

I was delighted to find some guerrilla signage on one of the trickier junctions, I know I've gone wrong here before and I always have to stop and double check. I made good progress here on familiar territory - spirits are high!

Roundshaw Downs  parkrun venue, and one of only four events I've done more than once

It was to be a day of familiar places as before long I came across Roundshaw Downs parkrun venue. I have fond memories of this place, it being the parkrun I made by the skin of my teeth on the famous New Year's Day triple in 2012.

Nonsuch park, home of the first inaugural parkrun I attended

Round a few more corners and another parkrun was before me - this time Nonsuch Park and another one of the New Year's Day triple events.

Day 4.1, Sunday 18th December 2016
Sections 8 to 10 (part 1) - Ewell to Kingston-upon-Thames, 12.6km, 01:38:18

Somewhat truncated today, but nice and local from Croydon through to Kingston

Mainly downhill for this section, with a lump at half way

Today's run just never got going. The first few km went well, but quickly I felt fatigued and uncommitted - a rare run experience, but it happens from time to time.

Launch tube 13

As I wasn't running particularly quickly, I had trouble warming up. It was a cold Sunday morning and it wasn't showing any signs of warming up.

Another cold and misty morning in a London park

I decided to stop at the next convenient point and get a coffee. Shortly I arrived at Kingston-upon-Thames where there are a multitude of coffee options. Stumbling coldly into the local Bill's Restaurant I found myself ordering a breakfast as well as coffee. Only 10km in, but that's enough for today - time to warm up, and feed up.

Yup, this was the right decision today

Day 4.2, Thursday 22nd December 2016
Sections 8 to 10 (part 2) - Kingston-upon-Thames to Hayes & Harlington, 23.9km, 02:39:40

Heading up the Western side of the LOOP, some very familiar areas today

Gradually rising, but only 25 metres in almost as many kilometres

Back to Kingston-upon-Thames, a convenient 15 minute train ride away, and on a much brighter and clearer day it was time to pick up my Day 4 route in a more positive frame of mind.

Don't stray from the path

The famous Bushy park parkrun starting straight - imagine a thousand parkrunners thundering bye!

Before long I had arrived at another parkrun - this time at the spiritual home of parkrun and where it all began over a decade ago - Bushy Park. With around a thousand runners every week Bushy Park needs a wide and straight first kilometre, and some military precision when it comes to managing the finishers who arrive at a rate of 100 per minute at the peak.

It's no wonder many parkrunners have a run at Bushy Park on their bucket list. There's something special about this course, and it's well worth the parkrun pilgrimage.

Guerilla Christmas decorating in Bushy Park

A little further on I came across some decorated bushes. There didn't seem to be anything special about the bushes, they were just the lucky recipients of some festive colour.

Hard to run in London without being saddened by all the rubbish

One thing it's hard not to notice is the amount of rubbish on the route. Most of the parks and forests are clean, but as the LOOP grazes more urban areas the rubbish gets really obvious. The volumes rarely get as bad as in my photo, but I felt sad and wanted to capture the mess.

Maybe on these long runs I should take a big bin liner and fill it up each day? Maybe if we all did that we could make a difference? Of course, it would be far better if everyone cared about their environment in the first place...

Board walk across the marshes

The closing few miles of today's route go right past Heathrow. You don't really understand what a plane every 45 seconds is like until you run under the approach path (or live there, of course). I live under one of the final approach routes, but I don't get every single plane. Living here must be very draining.

Almost literally running past the end of the runway at Heathrow

Full disclosure: Yes there's a little digital zoom in the pic above, but not much!

Launch tube 7

That's the end of Day 4 - and the first half of the LOOP. Some familiar areas, and some very new and different. I am enjoying these runs - London can be a lot greener and pleasant than you may imagine. Get out there and run, walk, or cycle and see for yourself.

Bring on 2017 and the second half!