Monday 29 June 2015

parkrun tourism and why I want to win one

***   I'd like to start this blog post by preempting the pedants amongst the readers.  I am aware that parkrun is a run and not a race.  If I accidentally call it a race, I do so meaning a race against oneself or a race against friends.  It is, after all, these friendships and the rivalries forged from them that drive many of us to self improvement.  That is the spirt of #RoadToSub20   ***

The apartment and ferry were booked, we were to drive down towards Bordeaux to a small town called Saint-Quentin-de-Baron where we would have our first holiday as a family, the wife, the child and I.  Naturally I'd packed my trainers and some suitably luminous T-shirts with the plan to slip out early on the occasional morning to log some scenic miles.  "Will you do parkrun in France?" she asked.  The thought hadn't even occurred to me to check if France was a participating country.  As it turns out, it is.

Les Dougnes is the first parkrun in France and as luck would have it only an hours drive from where we were staying.  It was settled, I would get my weekly parkrun fix.  With a little further investigation, as one does, it became apparent that Les Dougnes parkrun had been started just two weeks prior to our family break, another happy coincidence, at this rate people will start to think that I planned our holiday around this 5k run (For the record, and if anyone will believe me, I didn't).

A quick glance at the previous results showed that there were 12 participants on the inaugural run and just a single runner on the second outing.  Initially it was the thought of being part of a fledgling event in a country that had not had the pleasure of the parkrun spirit that got me excited.  But when I saw the times I got a pang of intrigue.  The first place finisher on the first week did so in a time of 20'42", that same athlete was then the sole runner on the second week with a time of 35'57".  My progress recently has seen me post times edging towards 20 minutes and so my mind turned to going for the win.  There were several factors to consider, what would the terrain be like?  Was this mystery athlete on form on his first outing or just coasting?  Would he even be there?  Upon reflection these were all out of my control so I decided to prep well and see what happened on the day.

This desire to win got me thinking, I've always been fairly competitive but why did I want to get the first place finishers token so much?  It wasn't the thrill of going toe to toe with another runner, we all love a good burn up on the finishing straight but there were too many unknown factors for that to be the answer.  I boiled it down to this - I'm into the stats of my running (I'm sure readers of this blog know this already), and coming first would be an absolute.  I often check my performances on Power of 10 and Run Britain to see where I came, top 50% of the field, top 20% top 10%, and have revelled in improving over the unnamed masses over the last year.  But regardless of the competition, to come first would be a tick in a box of achievements.  Please don't think of me as naive, I'm aware that there will always be faster runners out there, lots of them, but for my own game of collecting stats, winning was something I wanted to do.

A quartet of runners.

There was yet another happy coincidence, fellow Hilly Field parkrunner and Kent ACer David Devlin and his wife were in France and due to Les Dournes too.  How about that for a stroke of luck.

Les Dougnes is easy to find, it's right next to the massive electrical sub-station just as it says on their web page.  What I'd failed to read on the webpage was that park runs across the channel start at 8:30am!  I thought I'd left plenty of time so rocked up at a leisurely 8:30ish only to see Dave gesticulating for me to hurry up.  "Come on, they were gonna start but I saw you pull up in the car park so I got them to wait for you'.  Realising the error in my ways I got myself ready and dashed over to the starting point where I meet Anita who was run directing and her partner Alex (The mystery athlete).  A quick introduction, a well rehearsed run briefing and we were off.

On our way - The group is made up of 75% Hilly Fields parkrunners
The course is a 3 lapper, with mildly undulating terrain consisting of 90% sun drenched gravel track and 10% woodland trail.  Even ay 8:30 it was HOT! Anita and Alex were excellent hosts, they'd even brought tea and coffee with them so that after the run we could head to the shaded woodland area there there were picnic benches.  Anita told us that she's not promoted this run in any way yet wanting to iron out any kinks before too many people get wind of it.  Also seems like a good idea to me to start it out in the sticks where it can grow organically rather than Bordeaux where it would very much be under the spotlight.  I have every confidence that this run will grow as Anita intends it too and if the welcome we received is anything to go by then I'm sure is will easily become one of the friendliest parkruns out there.

And to the results... I did indeed win my first parkrun.  Don't believe me?  Here's a pic of the first place finishers token.

Still don't believe me? Check out the Results page.

Alex may not have been aware of the race he was in that day but he really helped me enjoy the experience by pushing me all the way.  I'm also pleased to report that Alex's course record remains intact, did I mention it was very hot?  Maybe next time eh?

Fantastic day, great people, milestone achieved.  All in all a memorable holiday experience.


Please don't forget you can sponsor me to run the Berlin Marathon in September at my Just Giving Page.

Tuesday 21 April 2015

2nd attempt at Sub 20

While Adrian was trying (and failing) at a sub 20 attempt, I found myself running in the extremely difficult, but picturesque Ashton Court parkrun. 2.5km uphill, turn around, 2.5km downhill. One of the good points of a simplistic course like that, is that it makes for interesting split times: a glance of the stopwatch at halfway revealed I’d taken 13.20 to get to the top of the hill. My finishing time? 23.16. 

So with that knowledge, it should be immediately clear to the reader that I had abandoned much hope of winning this bet long ago. Bar some long term injury, or horrific mid-race attack involving a dangerous escapee from London Zoo, both my competitors were too far ahead for me to ever mount a competitive challenge. I could point to my prolonged absence from exercise as an excuse, and there is some truth in that (in the parkrun directly before my operation I was only 20 seconds behind Adrian), but that only tells a small part of the story. In truth, Adrian’s dedication had been his biggest asset; probably putting in more effort than Tommy and I put together. He deserved to win the pot for that alone. 

In addition, he’d conducted himself with good grace (with the exception of his shenanigans at Peckham). I’ll admit to being disappointed when I saw he had missed the mark by just 10 seconds. 

So it was with some excitement that I joined him on the start line of Fulham Palace parkun. Adrian was planning another assault on the sub 20 barrier, and had extended this invite to Tommy and I. 

Both of us had accepted, but Tommy admitted to “being nervous that Adrian was going to win the pot all week.” So sure was he that he’d brought along a mini bottle of Prosecco as a surprise to celebrate Adrian’s achievement. 

There was a reason he chose that particular venue. That corner of west London is particularly flat, and rumour had it that the course is fast.  

The rumours are true.

I kept on Adrian's heels for as long as I could (roughly 1km) but eventually I had to surrender ground and run my own race.

So the second attempt at a sub 20 time was well underway, and Adrian had settled into his pace.  Infact that is incorrect: Adrian had settled into a pace he couldn't maintain.  I crossed the line to see him lying breathless in the morning sun.  "I detonated" he exclaimed, pointing to his time of 20.10.  

So that was that...Except it wasn't.

Next to Adrian was an even more breathless Tommy.  It turns out that the threat of Adrian winning was enough to spur him on to an outstanding performance, surprising everyone with a stellar time of 19.40.

Tommy hadn't so much broken the 20 minute barrier, but had flamboyantly smashed it into pieces, and rebuilt it in his own form.

Tommy celebrating in front of some bags...obviously

So after exactly 40 weeks the pot is won, in a most surprising fashion.  Or maybe it's not surprising...Tommy was the fastest when we started the bet.  Perhaps, after all this we've learnt nothing?

'Champagne' celebration

I'm being flippant of course.  I can only speak personally, but the past 40 weeks have changed the way I think about my health, from how much exercise I do, to what I eat.  I thought I was in reasonable shape before; it turns out I was wrong

Now, the question moves on to 'What next?'  All three of us have decided it's easier (and more inspiring), to think of a new challenge rather than cancel the direct debit.

This Friday, we take to the pub to discuss how we can structure our new challenge.  All ideas welcome.

The sun doesn't set on #RoadtoSub20, like all amateur athletes, we just move on to the next target.

The #RoadtoSub20 athletes, with a couple of partners.  All except Adrian ran a PB

Friday 17 April 2015

1st attempt at Sub 20

When this bet was made back in July 2014 a part of me thought that one, if not all of us would probably knock this milestone off within a few months.  How hard could it be to shave 2-3 minutes off our 5k time?  It seems my optimism was misplaced as we find ourselves in April with still no real assault on our goal.  This was all about to change.

On the eve of parkrun day I declared to Twitter that I would be making my first attempt to run a 19 minute something seconds 5k.  The plan was to run at Burgess parkrun on Saturday 4th April, a course recommended to me by Neil, one of my Kent AC running buddies (Who incidentally writes a great blog on running history here).  Burgess parkrun is flat, very flat indeed, so it really lends itself to quick times.

To avoid public humiliation I had to go quick given that it was out there on social media.  I was sure that a shoot and a miss would be forgiven but if I detonated and missed by a long way, any ridicule would be deserved.  So what do you do when you're PB hunting? You follow the routine.  This consists of the following steps:

  • Avoid all alcohol
  • Keep hydrated
  • Sleep well (If the child will allow it)
  • Get up at 7:00am
  • Eat cereal & drink tea
  • Stretch well
  • Don't be late
I stuck to the routine and toed the start line raring to go.  I was conscious not to get stuck at any pinch points so set off fast.  I carried this speed through the first mile and was surprised to see that I'd covered it 6'01".  The pace I was aiming for was 6'26" minute miles so I knew I'd done too much, too soon.  This became very apparent on the next mile where I barely managed to keep it under 7 minutes.  As I came to the finish straight, about 400m on this particular course, I tried to up the pace again but I had nothing left.  It was all I could do to stumble across the line, no sprint finish in sight.

The time stared back at me.  I'd missed my mark by 10 seconds.  I'd assumed I'd feel disappointed should I fail my first attempt at Sub 20, but I didn't.  Instead I felt pleased that I'd been so close and that there were still improvements to make.

Next on the hit list is Fulham Palace parkrun, another fast flat course.  The three of us are heading there tomorrow for a showdown. The routine will be implemented.  Will the bet be over or will we have to wait?

Sunday 15 March 2015

The Berlin Marathon

I wasn’t going to enter a marathon this year.  I didn’t, and still don’t, know if my legs have got it in them to run 26.2 miles.  However, I found myself signing up to the 2015 Berlin Marathon in September.  I’ve always thought I would someday run a marathon, even before I became a runner.  It’s always been one of those things on my ‘must do’ list, but the more I got into running the more unachievable the distance seemed.  I mean, to sustain a decent pace for such a long duration would take a monumental amount of training.  So why sign up now?  And why on earth Berlin?

Readers of this blog (we must be nearing double figures now) may be wondering what all this talk of marathoning has to do with the #RoadToSub20, in short it has everything to do with it.  On that fateful night when the parameters of the bet were set, Mark, Tommy and I were keen parkrunners.  I can only speak for myself but I rarely considered any races that could be classed as long distance.  The bet has inspired all three of us to try to explore increasingly radical strategies to improve our running. We’ve implemented interval training and upped the length of our long runs in a bid to reduce our times.  So without parkrun and without our friendly wager, I’d most likely not have made my foray into long distance running at all.

Training has been going well, I feel the strongest I’ve ever felt. Combine that with my desire to one day run a marathon and I found myself hitting the submit entry button.  I always thought it would be the London Marathon but Berlin was there with the right timing for me.  Who wants to train through the winter anyway?  The good lady wife ‘er indoors asked ‘Did you sign up to Berlin because Dennis Kimetto just got the world record there and you think that you’ll get a better time on a fast course?’ Well no, not really, maybe a tiny bit yes, but mostly because the timing is right and Berlin is a fantastic city and I quite fancy an adventure.

I’ll be running for the British Heart Foundation. This was an easy choice for me because I had open-heart surgery as a baby so I feel a huge affinity towards the charity and would like to in a very small way show my appreciation.  The reality is that without the surgery I wouldn’t have been able to walk down the street without being out of breath let alone run parkruns each week or enter a marathon.  If you would like to sponsor me please visit my Just Giving donation page.  I would be so grateful if anyone who reads this chooses to donate on my behalf.

So there it is; by reading this blog you’ll be updated on the road to sub 20 bet and my marathon training. An enticing prospect I’m sure!

Thursday 12 March 2015

Another lesson learnt

Bar six years living on the west coast of Scotland, all of my growing up was done in West Sussex. Despite speaking with an accent that can only be described as 'hybrid' I would class myself as south coast through and through.  And I'm proud of it.  I love the county of my birth (it is truly beautiful and I would recommend it to anyone), however these days I feel that after 15+ years of living there I've seen most of what it has to offer.  There are plenty of other areas within the UK that command my attention now.

In fact there are only two real reasons that I continue to visit Sussex:
  1. The fact that a number of friends and family live there
  2. Harvey's Best Bitter
At about twenty past nine last Saturday morning I was cursing the latter, as I lumbered round Bognor Regis parkrun.  

The night before whilst making a trip back home, I had been delighted to see it on tap in the local, planning to have just two or three with a mind to getting an early night and giving my all at the run. But like a hoppy, yeasty Siren it lured me onto the proverbial rocks.

To continue the Homeric references, in this case (as with so many other times in my life), poor preparation was my Achilles heel.  Was it just my imagination or were people giving my a wide berth as they overtook me?

By Road to Sub 20 standards my time was little more than pedestrian, and certainly not likely to worry my competitors.  But perhaps I should consider it as a lesson learnt and move on.

Adrian also slowed down, not through alcohol, but instead because of his most recent investment: a running buggy enabling his daughter to join him while he runs.

Tommy didn't run, mainly I suspect, as I was not around to give him a lift to the parkrun.  It strikes me that I may be shooting myself in the foot with my generosity here.

All in all, a slow week for the Road to Sub 20 gang, or perhaps putting a positive spin on it: a week of consolidation, before mounting a big push?

Monday 23 February 2015

Sticky wickets and swinging conditions

On Saturday 14th February, Adrian crossed the line at Hilly Fields parkrun some distance ahead of Tommy and I.  What's more, he had achieved a significant milestone, and one that was worth celebrating.

Adrian celebrating, in the only appropriate way

All will become clear, but first, let me take you back a couple of steps.

Anyone who has spent any extended period of time in my company will know that I am a fan of cricket.  However, like most other sports that I try my hand at, I can, at best, be described as an enthusiastic amateur.  In spite of this, I've kept at it for more than 20 years with highs (a handful of game changing bowling spells) and lows (being beaten by a kitten in the captaincy election for my club).  In fact, my life through my twenties could be described as the quest for three sporting achievements:
  1. Completing a round of golf in less than 100 shots (achieved - last year after an imperious 94)
  2. Running a 5k in less than 20 minutes (not achieved - as this blog will testify)
  3. Scoring 50 runs in a cricket match (not achieved - despite a few close efforts)
As far as I am concerned, I cannot depart this Earth until all three of these have been ticked off.

In a sense, Adrian mixed a couple of these achievements into one on Valentine's day, by completing his 50th parkrun.  He had been holding off on running parkruns, until he could do it his spiritual running home (the aforementioned Hilly Fields - which, incidentally, is both hilly and muddy).

To use cricketing terminology, he made his half century, raised his bat, acknowledged applause from the crowd, re-marked his guard, and set about patiently building a big score.

Fittingly, he beat Tommy and I, with all three of us struggling with the underfoot conditions.  But even he could only manage 23.08.  

A long way to go until the sub 20 promised land, but Adrian's domination continues.

Friday 13 February 2015

Road to Sub 25

For the past couple of weeks I have been the only one of the Road to Sub 20 trio that has been participating in parkruns.  Adrian has declined to take part, for reasons too complex to go into here, and Tommy has been laid up after sustaining a knee injury from his fall at Peckham.

To be honest, there's nothing particularly exciting about this...I've run a couple of decent PBs and it's allowed me to get closer to the competition.  But that is about all to report.

So last Saturday, attention moved to a less well publicised challenge.  Regular readers of this blog may have read between the lines and deciphered that Tommy, Adrian and I all have partners.  These are patient souls who put up with the three of us discussing tactics, statistics and any other nerdy items that take our fancy.

The WAGs (or, in truth FWAGs, ever since one of them became a fiance), also take part in parkruns to a greater or lesser extent, and over the New Year holiday discussed a little side challenge, dubbed with the working title of Road to Sub 25.  It won't surprise the reader to learn that the task is to run a parkrun in less than 25 minutes.

Despite the boys trying to encourage an element of competition to it, Road to Sub 25 is strictly a friendly affair...or so it seems to the the casual observer.  You see, I live with one of these ladies, and I have first hand experience of how competitive she is.  I also have my suspicions about the other two being just as keen to win.

And so, there was some excitement as I lined up alongside the FWAGs, at my local park run in Brockwell Park with Tommy and Adrian on the sidelines cheering us on.

As we usually see, competition drives strong performance, and in this instance it brought the best out of the ladies, with a combined total of 4 minutes and 29 seconds taken of their PBs.

The FWAGs post race
I'm pleased to say that my partner was the first of the three to cross the cross the line, in a time of 25.55, so at least one of us is performing well in our competition.

The questions is, will the Sub 25 challenge be achieved before the Road to Sub 20?  The answer: probably.

Monday 26 January 2015

Pounding the pavement

When folk from outside London think of Peckham, images of Nelson Mandela House spring to mind.  In fact, like most of the capital's suburbs, the area has been somewhat gentrified and is home to Peckham Rye Parkrun, a flat, winding run through an Arboretum and over the River Peck.

It was at this location on a cold Saturday in January that we three competitors met up for the first time since our New Year's antics.  All three of us were doing well, with Adrian and I setting PBs regularly, and Tommy having equalled his best time of 21 minutes dead just the week before.

So tension was high; it was unlikely that the pot would be won today, but someone could set down a strong marker.  We lined up at the start with 114 other runners, like greyhounds waiting for the traps to open.

The starter released us and we stormed off.  The pace was quick, and we would not be able to sustain it, but the adrenaline was pumping.  40 metres after the start, and Adrian was two paces ahead of Tommy, who was two paces ahead of me.  We were in the leading pack with 5 or 6 other runners all jostling for position.  This was shaping up to be an exciting race.

And then: disaster.

In front of me, I saw a tangle of legs.  Tommy had got caught up with another runner, he stumbled...and then recovered...and then stumbled again.  Seconds felt like minutes, as Tommy desperately tried to keep his footing, but to no avail.  His knee was the first thing to hit the ground.  His knuckles followed, as his hand went down to prevent his face hitting the tarmac.  A quick roll, and he was on his back, facing the oncoming runners.

I stopped to help him up (along with other runners).  Notable by his absence was Adrian.  He had sped off, taking full advantage of the chaos.  He was later quoted as saying: "I knew something was going on behind me, but I thought: 'There are plenty of other people who can deal with it', so I kept on running."

Tommy's war wound no. 1
Unsurprisingly, Adrian went on to record the fastest time of the three of us. In fact it was the fastest time that any of us have ever recorded, the first time any of the three of us have run under 21 minutes.  It was a hollow victory though, as he will forever be remembered for abandoning his friend.  Strictly speaking, he didn't break any of the rules of the competition (you can check the rules here), but what price integrity, honour and companionship?

Tommy's war wound no. 2
Tommy recovered to run 21.46, and I finished a minute behind (blaming it on a mix of my good samaritan work with Tommy, and the five pints of beer the night before).

The Road to Sub 20 competitors; with my future wife (who also ran a PB)
So, in conclusion, pantomime villain Adrian is in pole position, but who knows what Tommy would have recorded had he remained on his feet.  As for me: must try harder.

Saturday 24 January 2015

New Year: Prosecco and Parkrun

So after Christmas, came New Year's (as is traditional) and I suppose we should let you know how things progressed...and only three weeks late!

As it happens, Adrian, Tommy and I all spent the week surrounding NYE together.  You may have images of some intensive training camp at high altitude; in actual fact the opposite was true: a week in the Cotswolds consuming wine and cheese.  Of course, we were not there alone.  The group totalled a dozen people, and it didn't take long for the three of us to bore everyone who would listen about the latest time we'd posted and (in my case at least), the series of unfortunate circumstances that meant I wasn't as fast as I should be.

The gang out for a wintery run in the 'Wolds
And of course, the competitive element continued with two opportunities for Parkruns while we were there.

The first of these was on New Year's Day itself.  Despite the epic board game sessions late night revelry of the evening before, Adrian and I headed out into the rain to try out Chippenham Parkrun, a nice, but extremely muddy run alongside the bank of the river Avon.  Spurred on by his heroics over Christmas, Adrian stormed home in 22.25.  Despite registering my second sub 23 minute time a few days before (at the beautiful Whitley Bay Parkrun), I could only finish 80 seconds behind.  Given the conditions though, we were both pleased with our performance.  In case you were wondering, Tommy spent the morning in bed.

The following Saturday, all three of us made it to Cheltenham Parkrun, where the New Year's resolutions were clearly underway as an enormous crowd turned up to pound the pavement.  In truth, the course was not designed for quite a turnout, and the narrow pathways got clogged.  Adrian took full advantage, and got ahead of the crowd early, to cross the finish line in 21.49.  Tommy and I finished well behind, and left bemoaning our poor tactics in not getting to the front early.

So the winner of New Year and Christmas: Adrian Dracup.