Saturday 22 November 2014

The parkrun Cowell club

I've hardly been subtle about my parkrun obsession, I'm not sure there's been a post on this blog that hasn't mentioned it somewhere. All parkruns are fun, I honestly don't think there's one I've not enjoyed in some way, but every now and then there's a really good one - and today was one.

Like most close-knit groups parkrun has grown a language of its own. First there were the clubs for running 50, 100, or 250 events (with a special one for kids when they get to 10). These clubs feature a t-shirt at each level. Junior parkrunners (a parallel series of 2km events) get wristbands when their cumulative total distance run is a half marathon, marathon, or ultra-marathon - this is a great idea, very motivating for the kids.

Then there was the most events table, a ranking across all of parkrun-world of those who have run the most events, the most different courses, the most inaugurals. The entry criteria are having completed 20 different events or 5 inaugural events. It's a hotly contested table!

The top of the table has some very dedicated people on it - 207 different events, humbling

The parkrun Show podcast soon supercharged parkrun lexicon and introduced all sorts of terms - "passionistas" for those who have run hundreds of times at just one place, "über-tourists" (like me) who enjoy travelling around to different events and keeping an eye on the tables, "panic jogs" for when you get to an event but are really worried about missing the start and need to deploy a little panicked run/jog, and so on, and so on. The list isn't endless, but it is fairly long these days.

All this time and enthusiasm spent on what is in essence still exactly the same as it was when it started a little over ten years ago - a free, timed, weekly, 5km run anywhere we want one.

My parkrun obsession waxes and wanes, I had six months off in 2013 when I injured my knee. I had a couple of months earlier this year when I didn't run much either - but there's always been a target in the back of my mind - that of 100 different events, an exclusive and fairly rarified group called the Cowell club (so named after Chris Cowell who, I assume, was the first to get there though has long since been overtaken on the most events table).

My 118 parkruns, from 23rd April 2011 to today with 5-run rolling average time

Today, on my 118th run, I got there! Mrs and I headed out at about 7am to pick up Louise and head up to Tring parkrun for their 4th event. I really hoped that some of my favourite parkrunners would be able to join me on this occasion so I picked somewhere none of us had done (with thanks to Louise's spreadsheet skills for identifying suitable locations).

We got there a bit early, about 8:15am. Kat and Jools had already arrived and were hiding in their car. It was chilly, and a bit damp, but not the downpour that had been forecast when I checked last night. Kat popped over to give me some cheese biscuits (made with 100% cheese, nothing else) - they lasted about 10 seconds between me and Mrs, lovely, thanks Kat!

These crisps are 100% cheese and they're wonderful!

Other tourists arrived, Mike, Vanessa, and Andy, and we headed over to the start. The car park is the other side of the A41 to the route, so we filed over a narrow footbridge. In the run briefing it turned out another person, who I later found out was Neil Chapman, was also running his 100th event. I was going to say hello afterwards, but he vanished as soon as he'd finished.

Welcome to Tring Park (Caution runners!)

The run briefing advised us to be careful of cows. The approximate location of the herd is shown on the route map - apparently at 8am they were all milling about on the start line!

This is the best route map ever (cow not to scale)

The course was lovely. A grassy runway to start followed by a steep climb up through some woods. Levelled off for a kilometre, past a view spot (I'm sure it's a great view when it isn't supremely foggy!) and then a lovely long series of downhills.

Wide grassy start - no pinch-points here (until the muddy gate)

The final 2km are on grass and are fairly undulating. It's not an easy course, but it's interesting and fun.

Looks almost flat from above - I assure you it isn't!

I ran all the way round with Mrs, we chatted on and off and managed to avoid running through cow pats. My overall time was 29:29, not very quick, but then it's not a very quick course and I wasn't going for speed, I wanted to enjoy it.

Kilometre splits tell ta tale of "up, level, down, bumpy, bumpy"

L to R: Mike, Kat, Jools, me, Mrs, Andy, Vanessa, Louise

We all went back to the local coffee shop afterwards for a cuppa and some celebratory cake. I don't often indulge in the post-run coffee hang out so this made a nice change. Special thanks to Louise who made me a Cowell club card with an actual (picture of a) cow in it (thanks!) and Mike who bought my cake (thanks!). You guys rock!

Card-cow (looks like a Cow Clicker cow, remember that?)

Cake! Looked like coffee - tasted like banana!

I have to mention just quietly here that Louise, despite being a mighty 7th on the most events table, managed to walk off with her position token. It can happen to anyone, kids, always remember to give your token in!

Speaking of which, I had to resort to my emergency barcode that lives in my wallet which has *never* been used before as I could find any of my little plastic ones! Need to buy a wristband immediately and never take it off. DFYB. (More parkrun speak, Don't Forget Your Barcode)...

My emergency bar code came out today - first time

Whilst we're being open about cock-ups, I also ran the car down to zero miles tank range on the way home and had to do a panic-refuel. It's a 60 litre tank, it accepted a 59.6 litre top-up...

So with 500 parkrun kilometres completed, I wonder what's next? Another parkrun term is "LonDone" to mean all the parkruns in London (defined as "within the M25" for ease). I have 9 more events to reach this, so that'll take a few months (given I like to go to inaugural events too, and there may be new London ones to tick off).

The next official club tee is the "250 club", which I'm not even half way to. That'll take another 2.5 years (if I never miss a Saturday). I'm in parkrun no-man's land, parkrun limbo! Help!

I'm pretty sure I'll get over it in time for next Saturday - not sure where I'm going yet - and that's just another of the many things I love about being a parkrun über-tourist.

My new position on the most events table, joint 22nd

Monday 17 November 2014

Race report: Endurance Life CTS Race 2 - Gower

Every movement this morning is accompanied by old-man sounds, you know the ones, the subconscious utterances that come with old bones and aching muscles complaining about being made to stand up, sit down, or tackle the stairs.

Why am I making old-man sounds? Because yesterday I took my second attempt at an off road trail race. I ran the second race in the 10-race Coastal Trail Series from Endurance Life. I've been signed up to the third race in Dorset for a while, Mrs ran it last year - she had entered the ultra distance but had to stop after the "marathon" (28 miles) due to missing the cut-off to go out again for the last 10km. She said it was "hilarious" - turn a corner, see a mountain of a hill you have to "run" up, and just laugh at it.

Following my experience at Ripon, a DNF after 30km, I thought I needed a bit of a warm up before tackling Dorset!

Swansea bus station is deserted at 8am!

Race two was on the Gower peninsula, Swansea bay. Mrs and I got the train down after work on Friday, stayed in Swansea Saturday night, and got the local bus number 118 (got your number) to Rhossili, hopping off at Middleton village hall, site of race HQ.

Another busy village hall, I'm getting used to these

Four race distances were on offer and they set off in order. The 34-mile ultra set off at 08:30, followed by the marathon at 09:30, half marathon at 10:30, and a 10km version at 11:30. I registered, got my number and milled about for a while awaiting race briefing.

James from Endurance Life delivers the race briefing

To avoid the crunch at the start we were advised to go on gun (wheezy hooter) time only if we were really racing and were hoping for a top-3 finish. Instead we could check out one by one with our dibbers. The dibbers are small ID tags that you insert into a reader to register your position and the time you were there, it's how you prove you've gone through the checkpoints (no naughty cheating thank you). I queued up and went off my own dibber time.

A plateau atop the first climb

The start was fairly gentle, a bit muddy due to recent rain but nothing too challenging. I'm glad I tightened my shoelaces before heading off, one poor chap had a shoe sucked off going through a muddy bit in the first 100m or so! We hit a nice big hill or two early on (heart rate through the roof!) before dropping down a steep decline that was in effect trying to run down a river. Following dipping my dibber at checkpoint one, it was down for a few km on the beach. I was feeling fairly good. The first few km I'd felt a bit drained of energy - I've had this before, last time I went focussed on low-carb, it seems to be a side effect of adaptation. It's brief, and passes relatively easily.

One of many climbs ahead with a little row of human ants climbing ever upward!

The beach was lovely, runners spread out in front and behind. Sand-dunes came next (running in deep sand is always fun). Wet feet and muddy legs - good fun! A few of us were jostling for position (it's hard fought in the mid-pack :). A long period on narrow muddy trails next, always either up or down, together with the odd very steep up for "fun".

Looking down onto the beach, the descent to get there was hilarious!

The beach section, energy-sapping but sunny and bright

At about 15km I felt a familiar nagging pain in my knee, but the terrain and pace were so varied I didn't cause much of a problem. I particularly enjoyed a long grassy downhill which gave us an opportunity to stretch out our strides and enjoy the view. And there were some great views on offer, the day was mainly bright and clear - I had been worried about rain, the long-term forecast was hinting at a deluge on Friday and Saturday but in the end it contained itself to Friday.

My new best friend

The last few km were across a bog, this was quite hard going on my knee and I was ready to stop - but before long the 1 mile to go sign popped up from nowhere, and I got a final burst of effort. Apparently this was "much drier than last year", which is fine in my book, it was still ankle-deep in places. Finally cresting the last hill (after a call of "Cheer up, you're having fun!" from a random supporter) it was downhill back into Middleton to the finish. I opened my stride once again and made a few places, and took a few more still on the final run in to the line.


Overall time was 02:39:47. I wasn't sure what to expect and was aiming for anything under 3 hours, so I'm happy with that. Course length was spot on, my Garmin read 21.1km precisely. The knee flare-up is annoying but maybe predictable given my lack of experience on the terrain. I'm writing this the following day and apart from the odd twinge the knee is fine. Got a good few muscular aches though! Glutes, calves, quads, hamstrings - all took a beating.

The route

Elevation: pointy; Pace: fairly even; HR: drops off (could try harder?); Cadence: spot the walking!

This was a good learning experience, I'm very pleased I took this on and didn't go straight into Dorset not having completed a trail race. However, some concern that this is a "3/5 Strenuous" on the Endurance Life scale, and Dorset is "5/5 Extreme" - 3 weeks to go to Dorset (and why am I already looking to see which other races in the series I can make?!)...