Following on that great tradition that I have started in my own mind, I have managed to get this race report written well within my self-imposed cut off time of ‘do my legs still hurt?’. Two days on, and I still have aches in my quadriceps, while I’m also generally stiff all over. Indicative of a well-run effort or an over-exertion in the face of under-preparedness? Read on to find out…
I signed up for Aberdeen what feels like a lifetime ago (literally it is – I signed up before my son was born) at the advice of Anna (the artist formerly known as ‘The Lady’. About time I actually named her I think.) It was a bit of an excuse to head up to see her parents, as when I signed up we knew that we would be +1, and that it would be nice to spend some time with family not long after the baby arrived. I saw it as a backup opportunity at running a sub 1:30 half marathon to my main tilt at Hampton Court, which then became my main effort given the 1:37 I ran there earlier this year. It also served the purpose of being a waypoint on the way to my second marathon of 2017, which is the as-yet –to-be-run Frankfurt Marathon in October. So in my mind I couldn’t really work out if this was an ‘A’ race or a ‘B’ race; I think it was more of a matter of seeing how the season went and then retrospectively assigning importance to the races depending on performance. I’m fairly sure that is not how the system is supposed to work.
The leadup to the race probably saw some of the best training that I have done in a long time, albeit for a few weeks rather than a sustained period of any kind. I managed to get 6 weeks or so of training in, with a nice balance (for once) of bits of speedwork with some small elements of endurance in there. I did quite a few 13km-14km efforts, as that is the distance between work and home – something I will hopefully continue to do in the leadup to Frankfurt. I peaked with a 29km long run in the weekend before the race, but I still felt that my change in approach (greater focus on speed and less focus on endurance) might leave me short in the back end of the race. I had to try something different though, as doing the same thing again and again wasn’t seeing any performance improvement strangely.
I flew up to Aberdeen after a week without either of the kids, or Anna (I spent it drinking with friends and catching up on a couple of films I had missed. Not PhD like I bloody well should have); getting in on the Friday before the race on the Sunday. Alistair (newest family addition) was spectacularly happy over the couple of days prior to the race, and his newly found ability to sleep more than a couple of hours in a row in the night was greatly welcomed. I spent the day before the race relaxing at home with family – preparing for what I knew was going to be a painful 90 minutes or so the following day. The butterflies fluttered, the mind raced and the muscles tensed up. Usual pre-race build up, naturally.
The morning of the race I woke with some porridge and a coffee, which then led to a further couple more coffees and a brief reconsideration of the diuretic effect of coffee. We (Anna, Alistair and Anna’s parents) drove on down to a park-and-ride before getting a bus into the middle of Aberdeen – where we were greeted by a seagull which can only be described as absolutely massive. I learned at that point that eating outside in Aberdeen was not done, as the seagulls there have a habit of aggressively stealing food from people. You could have convinced me that they might have taken limbs as well, given the size of the bloody thing. We headed for a(nother) coffee from a coffee shop, and then two nervous wees and a hug later, I wandered down to the start line of the race. Naturally, I needed yet another wee (three in 30 minutes pre race) so used it as an excuse to get a warm up jog in the side streets done, trying to shake some of the lethargy from my legs. They were feeling a bit heavy, and I wasn’t sure whether that was a good or bad thing pre race.
I found myself in one of the front groupings for the race, which I think was colour coded by expected finish time. This was quite bemusing, as someone (I won’t say who) described mine as the ‘elite’ group. There is a first for everything, and me being described as an elite runner was certainly one of them. It was nice to be in the first group to get away though, and a horn and gun blast later and the race had started. I self seeded towards the back of the front grouping, hoping not to get in the way and to find some space to get the legs going.
Around 400 metres in to the race I saw my jolly band of supporters by the side of the road, and in typical naff fashion blew them some kisses in a fit of adrenaline fuelled stupidity. I wasn’t so concerned with conserving energy at this point, but rather just enjoying the atmosphere. I put my head down after passing them though, and tried to settle into a comfortable rhythm that might be sustainable for 21.1km. The opening kilometre felt very downhill, and at least one section of it (down towards the harbour and the industrial area aside it) was a downhill drag. Neither of those things necessarily explain running a 3:49 opening kilometre, a time for me that I usually run for a kilometre when making an attempt at a 5km personal best. This persisted in fact, as I ran 21:21 for the opening 5km – which is in my top 10, if not top 5, fastest 5km runs ever. The opening 5km took us out of the centre of the city, down on to the coast of the North Sea and along the beach – replete with ships at sea and what looked to be wooden mooring posts of sorts. It was lovely to look upon, and it was only made better by feeling that I was running within myself, even if I was holding what felt like a pretty suicidal pace. I wanted to run by feel though, sticking to the mantra of running at a pace I felt I could hold until the end. As it happens, and I didn’t know it at the time, I was bang on track to run a 1:30 half marathon.
Things were always going to turn though, and the next 5km were a battle to try to hold on to the pace that I had set. I wasn’t too far off it, as we turned inland, up Ellon Road towards Bridge Of Don (I don’t know what these places are, I’m just reading my Garmin map) and then skirting by the university (they’re always lovely to run through). At the 10km split I was wondering to myself how I was going to hold on for another 11.1km, and with good reason. I hit the 10km split in 43:59, with a second 5km of 21:57. For reference, Strava tells me that my best 10km run ever is 43:25 – so once again I was within touching distance of an open PB within a longer race. Things were looking good, even if I didn’t feel it or for that matter, look it. This was despite the presence of cobble stones on the course at this point, which ever since the Rome Marathon have been cause for me to curse audibly and hop over to the footpath at every opportunity. Fucking cobble stones.
The drop off continued for kilometres 10-15, as we headed back towards the North Sea coast and a horrid headwind for the couple of kilometres there. Garmin tells me that I was only out on the coast for around 7-8 minutes, but it felt like an eternity as my legs left me and my breathing became laboured. I was finally paying for those early exertions, and other runners were starting to edge past me. Those shirts that I had been religiously following for the previous kilometres (including an Ealing Eagles one, as well as a most excellent Irn-Bru one) started to disappear into the distance. This is when the voices in my head started to niggle away, and the prospect of stopping for even a little walk appeared. These are the toughest times in a race for me; too far from the finish to contemplate hanging on, but close enough that walking would feel like a real cop out. I went through the 15km mark in 1:05:55; on track for a 1:32 finish and a new PB – if I could just hold on for the last 6km.
Thankfully, I got a bit of a second wind after we headed away from the coast and down into the relative shelter of the Aberdeen Football Club stadium. I managed to pull some time back on what I had lost out at sea, but was in preservation mode more than anything else at this stage. My main focus mentally was on keeping one foot in front of the other, knowing that I needed to hold as steady a pace as possible in order to secure the fastest possible time I could. I was still hopeful that I could grab a new PB, the only problem being that I couldn’t remember what pace I needed to run for that. It was probably a good thing, as I simply focused on running as fast I could rather than worrying about what pace I needed to run. Heading back into the city centre was a great buzz, as the crowds were growing and the noise was fantastic. There weren’t the usual irritating number of DJs and bands lining the route which was nice, just people cheering us on. I needed it – at this stage my head lolling on my shoulders, eyes raised to the sky in quiet desperation for the relief that only the finish line would bring. I had a couple of (relatively) catastrophic kilometres in here – kilometre 18 being in 4:49 and kilometre 20 in 4:47. I was struggling; and the demands to stop and walk from the voices in my head had grown from a whisper to a scream. My feet were blistered, ankles and calves pained, and my vision blurry. Somewhere in there I had taken on a bottle of water from an aid station and missed the bin with my throw. For some reason I felt compelled to stop and go back to put it in the bin (it might have been the police officers standing next to the bin that I must have nearly hit with my water) which gave me a brief moment to take stock. I then saw Anna and the support group down the road, so I put on my best brave race (not convincing apparently), gave my son a sweaty kiss on the head (I’ve now kissed both of my kids during half marathons this year – achievement unlocked) and took off for the finish line. The adrenaline lasted for a while, or at least it must have as I managed a 4:13 kilometre split for the last kilometre. Once again I proved to myself that I had more energy than I had thought available, pulling out a strong finish to ensure that I had left nothing out there. I stopped my watch some 400 metres short of the finish line, as I continued to refuse to run full course distances but rather run the advertised distance on my Garmin and then slow to enjoy the finish. This inevitably costs me finishing positions as people fly past me in the last few hundred metres, but, well…meh.
I finished with a final 6.1km split of 28:02, which was actually only 2 seconds per kilometre slower than the pace I had set for the 5km between 10km and 15kms – so I did manage to finish relatively strongly. Sadly though, not strong enough to manage a new personal best, as I crossed the line in 1:33:57 – 35 seconds slower than my personal best, but my second best time ever. I finished exactly 200th out of 3373 runners, which by my (poor) calculations put me in around the top 6% of runners for the race. Perhaps it was right for me to be seeded in that front pen at the start of the race after all.
Because I had eased up for the last 400 metres, I felt quite comfortable over the finishing line – it was only the blisters that were causing me grief. Anna surprised me with quite possibly the best post-race thing ever – a can of Irn Bru! The sugar was fantastic (33% of your RDA of sugar, kids), as was the fact that it was probably peak Scotland for me. This was my third race in Scotland – I love racing up north, especially if it ends with incredibly sugary drinks and family hugs at the end of it. We then hopped a bus back to the car before driving home – another race in the bag and some introspection ahead of me.
So what did we learn from the Great Aberdeen Run? Well, I can now say that my ability to run half-marathons at this pace is no fluke; given that it is my fourth half marathon finish under 1:40 (1:33, 1:33, 1:35 and 1:37). That being said, I really thought that a bit more focus on speed would be a bit more beneficial than it was; and if anything the race shows how much my development has stalled. 2017 was supposed to be a year of running gains, and at this point I have just the one personal best to my name – 5km. I also did think to myself that I ran my first sub 1:40 half marathon two years ago now, and I really would have thought that by this stage I would have gone under 1:30. I can’t beat myself up too much though; I simply don’t focus training or nutrition enough to justify the kinds of gains I am looking for. I have always had an attitude towards life of doing the bare minimum while hoping to extract the desired result out of a situation. There are some circumstances under which this can be ok, but trying to maximise performance is not one of them, and in this case I reap what I sow. I have said before that I know I spread myself too thin across things I want to be successful at, and running just cannot be the priority that I need it to be if my real goal is to become a faster runner. For the next few months in the least, being a runner falls well below being a Dad, partner, employee and PhD student; and that is a conscious choice on my part that I need to be more ok with. I would really like to adjust my expectations a bit more (starting with running a sub 3:30 marathon in Frankfurt) and just enjoy my running rather than defining success or failure by arbitrary time goals that may be unachievable given the time constraints that I have anyway.
My immediate goals are to get organised to take a holiday with the family (another one!), get on top of the stuff that is going on at work, get re-started on my PhD and try to wrap my head around everything that is going on. Running will help with that – as it always does. I love to run and I love the way that it makes me feel. Whether I will continue to worry so much about the goals (sub 20 minute 5km, sub 1:30 half, sub 3:30 marathon) – that one is open to debate.
A week or so off, and then its time to mach dich bereit für den Marathon meine Freunde. I didn’t even mention the sudden implosion of my fantasy football team (ugh – Harry Kane. I’m looking at you.), the lack of energy gels at half marathons, the Game of Thrones season finale, drunkenly singing early 2000s Something For Kate songs to no one in London, nor the bottomless pit that is my despair at the Melbourne Football Club. For another time perhaps.
Listening To: ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ by ELO
Tomorrow I am running the Great Aberdeen Run – my second half marathon of the year and third race. I’ve been doing these races for nearly 10 years now, and so I have developed a keen sense of what will likely occur. Tomorrow will – unless something spectacular happens to shift me otherwise – go down like this:
Kilometre 1 – I’ve hared off at a ridiculously unsustainable pace in order to try and create some ‘space’ for myself in a race with thousands of people in it. I won’t recognise how stupid this is at the time, even if I do now.
Kilometre 3 – I will now regret my original pacing strategy, as my lungs begin to burn and runners start to pass me. I will still maintain my pace more or less. It will start to hurt.
Kilometre 4 to Kilometre 15 – Things will deteriorate as every step goes on. I will question why I sign up for these things. I may have a burst of energy at seeing family/friends/amusing signage; but this burst will be short lived. Panic will set in as I realise I might run a good time, but only if I run personal best 1km splits between now and the finish. I may give up at some stage here.
Kilometre 15 to Kilometre 20 – WHY DID I DO THIS?! EVERYTHING HURTS SO SO MUCH! PLEASE MAKE IT STOP!!!
Kilometre 21 – Obligatory finish straight sprint in which I undermine all of my previous mental messages telling me how much everything hurt and how I ‘can’t go on another step’. Then incomprehension as I have run a personal best and thoughts immediately turn to the next 5 minute faster milestone for the distance.
The pain from kilometre 3 onwards that I will experience is a race specific pain for me. By that I mean that, I suppose like everyone, I have different pains depending on the race I’m running. For example, a 5km run is lung busting. The voice in my head is screaming that I can’t keep it up, my legs are burning and my lungs – oh man – my lungs. It’s over so fast that it’s a real ‘survival mode’ sensation. I just need to keep planting one foot in front of the other, head thrust to the skies in a vain effort to extract every last ounce of energy from my body. It’s pain; limit stretching, white light producing, scream worthy exertion. I rarely go to this place.
Pain in a marathon is much more mental – though that’s not to say that the physical pain isn’t present. I have it focused in my quads usually, or occasionally in hamstrings so tight you could play the drum solo from Miserlou on them. The bottom of my feet feel like I’ve been walking on hot coals – that they are bruised in a deep fashion that require walking on the outsides like a mime or something. My lungs are fine; always. I’m not breathing hard – that’s saved for short bursts. My mind though is working overdrive. Calculating splits and distance remaining. Creating alternate realities in which I’ve both been a raging success and horrible failure. Making excuses for failure. Reciting mantras. I may run the marathon the once, but I live it a thousand times over in my head as I’m running it. The pain is emotional rather than physical. The anxiety of falling behind on my splits. The self-flagellation at not preparing ‘properly’ (whatever that means). The fear of failure. The desire to get back to family. I’m in this place relatively often.
Tomorrow I will be in the middle. I will run with fear, and with burning quads. Every step beyond around the 3km mark will be marked in some part in agony, and another part in a resolute desire not to stop but to persist. My ankles will hurt. My right foot will hurt. I will loathe myself for the last two weeks, not quite finishing with a bang. My hamstrings and quads and hips will hurt. I will rationalise my effort away by telling myself it’s a ‘B’ race. The pain is coming though – make no mistake of it. The only question for me is how long I can hold on and keep the demons at bay. If I can; I may run a PB. If not – then I won’t.
As the saying goes – the pain is inevitable. The suffering is optional.
So, where are we at? Well, this is what my training currently looks like:
At this point, we could break an audience in two. Those who know Training Peaks and those who don’t. Those who know Training Peaks are looking at this and saying ‘that is your TSS? But…its so…low?’. Those who don’t know Training Peaks have already switched on to another website.
The long and the short of it – for me at least – is the rise and the fall of the blue line, representing training load. Over the last year or so I have been, as you can see, up and down with my training. I do ok for a few weeks and then something comes up – PhD, boredom, injury, birth of child. But right now is probably my most sustained period of consistent and quality(ish) training for a long time. At least in over a year. And I can feel it. I can feel it in my legs, in my running, in my being.
It’s just under two weeks until the Great Aberdeen Run (GAR), my third race of the year and probably my least targeted one when I set the calendar out at the start of the year. GAR was intended as an excuse to go up to Scotland and see The Lady’s family, and perhaps knock out and ok time after I had (ahem) bested my personal best earlier in the year at Hampton Court. Because I didn’t focus prior to Hampton Court and follow through with my training, this now becomes my ‘A’ half of the year, and I’m starting to put some pressure on myself accordingly.
I will have greater training load in my legs than I did when I ran my PB last year, and I just generally feel a better runner right now than I ever have before. I’ve finally started throwing some speed sessions in to my training – 1km off/ons, hill reps, tempo runs and the like. Efforts that I used to find taxing I don’t anymore, so my overall ‘tempo’ pace feels better. My top end speed is getting quicker, and it all feels like it is coming together. I ran 74km last week, which betters my previous best which was the week before at 67km. I may even click over the 1000 miles for the year by the time I am done, as I’m currently at 1141km, and need another 459km to get over the line. So things are great.
I’m just putting myself in a hole mentally is all. I’m already starting to worry about how I will pace the race in Aberdeen (go out hard? try to run a steady pace?) and also inventing excuses in case things don’t go as well as I hope they will (its ok, my real ‘A’ race is Frankfurt). I will be disappointed if, after a year of focusing on running exclusively, I don’t get PBs in any of 5km, half marathon or marathon though. And I think that is fair enough. But I take this worry to an unproductive place, and it is something for me to work on for sure. I know I need to go out and run the best race I can and let the result fall the way it will, but the chattering voice in my mind won’t let me and instead runs through all of the potential permutations (since writing this blog I have considered that I haven’t investigated the elevation of the course, whether it will be crowded or not, whether the wind of the sea will affect my run and whether or not carrying music will be disadvantageous. Ugh.)
So that is where we are. My legs feel heavy today, so I’m taking a planned rest day – but I have some long sessions planned for the weekend where I will tail my training off before tapering next week before the race. This will enable me to continue to focus on my other obsessions in the world right now – Game Of Thrones and the start of Fantasy Football!
Listening To: ‘The Evil Has Landed’ by Queens Of The Stone Age
As of today, it is 25 days until the Great Aberdeen Run, and a whopping 88 days until the Frankfurt Marathon. I mention this because for the first time in a long time – I am doing some consistent training. Whether this translates into results in Aberdeen is doubtful (my PB was off the back of Ironman training – so I suspect I won’t be at that level of fitness in three weeks time), but it does bode well for another crack at a marathon PB in October, in Deutschland.
I have said this often and loud – one of the key limiters to my performance as an ‘athlete’ is my ability to maintain a training regime, be it formal or otherwise (another limiter is diet, which I only mention because I ate so much at lunch today that I feel sick #undoingthegoodwork). So that explains why I am so happy with the fact that since I committed to training more in July, I have had two weeks with six sessions in them, one week with a session every day of the week – and a fourth week where I dropped it down to five sessions for the week (which was unavoidable due to work commitments). These have been a bit of a mixture of sessions as well – another change for me. I’ve *finally* started incorporating speed work into my training; mixing in some tempo work, alongside intervals (we have a dirt track near my work which is an odd 390 metres around) and hill work. This is also significant, because I have historically been in the camp of ‘I’m not doing speed work, but I’m not getting faster – what is wrong with me?’.
All of this has added up (literally) to the highest running volumes per month that I’ve ever run, which is great – for no larger reason than I am increasingly loading my legs and haven’t injured myself (*knock on wood*). I’ve been managing easy days in with the harder speed days which obviously helps – but it’s just nice to finally start doing some of the common sense things. I’m hopeful that these will lead to improved results in the form of 5km times, as well as over the longer distances. Just to give some context on some of my better months, distance wise – here are the four highest volume months that I’ve had in the last five years:
March 2016 – 158.91km
Jan 2017 – 164.27km
May 2017 – 204.34km
July 2017 – 209.08km
So, worth noting that three of them have come this year – but more significantly I suppose, the two in the last three months have been 40km a month more than my previous highs. I can hear you asking though – but what about June? 204.34km, then nothing, then 209.08km? Well – that was when my little boy was born, so running clearly wasn’t the priority for that time period! Being the parent of an (incredibly) young child has added another dimension of challenge to the whole endeavour, though admittedly this has been both a positive and a negative. It has been a negative insofar as my sleep and rest time is limited, so the motivation to get the runners on and get on to the road can sometimes be through a haze of sleepy eyes. Running has also impacted on my ability to stay awake late in the evening to help The Lady with the Tin Boy, so it has been important to not let running get in the way of the things that are more important in life. The positive though is that it is, realistically, the only activity I have at the moment that is wholly and solely ‘me time’ has been the running. So it has been very therapeutic; a great opportunity to clear my head and relax. This in turn, makes me a less stressed and tense Dad, and better for assisting in nappy changes and midnight cuddles.
What has dropped off the face of the planet has been PhD work, however that was by design for the next few weeks at least – surprisingly it has been hard to find the time to read detailed academic tomes while cradling a weeks old baby boy who demands attention at the best of times. Frankly it has been a stretch of my attention and energy to make it through more than one episode of a television programme with any kind of plot requiring focus. That I fell asleep watching Thronecast this week tells me everything I need to know.
So the plan at the moment – DON’T STOP. I’ve got three weeks to go until Aber-dabba-deen; so its all about maintaining the rage; keeping the speed sessions going and tapering to ensure that I give myself my best shot at doing a good time. It won’t likely be a PB, but it would be nice to run somewhere around 1:3x at least – preferably under the 1:37 that I ran at Hampton Court earlier this year. Fingers crossed. After that, the focus turns to Frankfurt and longer runs to ensure that I have the distance in my legs for a marathon; my eighth.
I almost forgot! On top of all of this; I went out and got myself a new bike – a lovely, shiny (very) Cervelo S2. I even took it out for a ride this past Saturday; thinking that given that it had barely been ridden by its previous owner (so shiny) that it would be good to go if I added a set of pedals and adjusted the seat to my own arse-height specifications.
Sadly, when the left-hand side crank arm fell off on a lap of Richmond Park I realised the error in not getting it serviced beforehand – and was left with a Uber ride home (in the rain with no battery left on my phone) to contemplate my own stupidity. I’m equally dreading explaining to the bike shop that I take the bike to what had happened; as my embarrassment at this stage is rather overwhelming.
So that’s where we are. Running loads (for me at least), still swimming regularly, and trying to get back on the bike. Sheesh. Someone would almost think that I was trying to get back into triathlon.
Listening To: The Three ‘Exogenesis’ songs by Muse