2017 – a review

Last October, shortly after finishing the Autumn 100, my girlfriend and I got a dog. Here he is on the day we picked him up.

Partly because I was knackered and couldn’t imagine racing for a while, and partly because of the new family member, I decided not to run any ultras in 2017.

JANUARY

Having dabbled with the automated personalised training program TrainAsOne last year, I thought I’d give it another go this year. If nothing else it provides sessions I’m not expecting which is a nice break from doing your own plans – it’s pretty hard to surprise yourself.

Feeling reasonably good I entered one of many Richmond Park 10k races held throughout the year, and on a wet January morning clocked up a 42:48 on what is roughly twice the parkrun route. A minute outside my PB but a solid start to a year in which I was hoping to get faster over the shorter distances. Only later did I discover I’d actually won my age group but missed out on a bottle of wine because I left before prizegiving.

As an experiment, I’d also given up meat (but not fish) for the month, lost a bit of weight, and I think this helped with my running. Ate an awful lot of falafel, mind.

FEBRUARY

After the relative success of the 10k, I decided a half marathon was next and signed up to Hampton Court half. Training was looking good and then the week of the race a cold appeared. Not just a sniffle but a full-on head cold and while I could have run, I was at nothing like full fitness so canned it. Luckily, the inaugural Thorpe Park half still had places the following week so I got a place.

Feeling better but still not 100%, I gave it a decent go on an undulating course and did manage a PB of 1:38:18 but was a bit disappointed. It was one of those days when even from very early on everything felt tough so this was a victory of sorts.

MARCH

Despite having no spring marathon to train for, and having not run more than a half marathon since October, for reasons I can no longer fathom, decided it would be good to take part in the Thames Riverside 20. Part of the appeal is that it starts and finishes half a mile from my house but that was really the only good reason to run it. I certainly wasn’t fit for it, and huffed and puffed my way to a 2:44:36 finish, about five minutes outside target marathon pace.

A few weeks later, and a week before the actual Boat Race, Fulham Running Club held its first ever race, a low-key 10-miler on the Boat Race route. Well, on the towpaths from Putney to Chiswick Bridge and back. Having never run the distance before I had no real idea how to pace it so just set off and saw what happened.

In the end, I managed to finish in 1:11:52 although it’s been suggested by the organisers that it could be slightly short of 10 miles. Either way, it went well and again picked up first for my age group (gotta love these local race fields when there’s only one other person in your age group and all your fast friends stay away).

APRIL

On the mistaken assumption that 10 miles was now ‘my distance’, I entered the Thames Towpath 10-miler which starts at a field by Chiswick Bridge and heads southwest along, yep, you guessed it, the Thames towpath.

The start is worth a mention if you’re ever considering it, because it’s a very odd three or possibly four increasingly small laps of the field which is not ideal for getting to race pace much before the first mile ends. It’s a decent route apart from that though, and I certainly can’t blame it for not getting a PB (1:12:23). Oh, and most importantly, you get a pint glass as a race souvenir. Cheers!

MAY

Despite swearing off ultras for the year, I told myself it didn’t count if it wasn’t a race and duly booked off a Friday in May to run from Richmond to Windsor with a couple of friends. The weather was one of those late spring days when the sun is on top form and all the flowers are radiating life.

If anything, it was too hot to run 28.4 miles, even slowly and with several refreshment breaks. But it was such a relaxed, fun morning and afternoon that it was well worth all the sweat. Easily my most enjoyable run of the year. No medal, no PB, just friends, running and beautiful surroundings.

JUNE

In June, the dog didn’t have the operation that we’d planned, but we took the time off anyway and promptly got food poisoning in the hottest week of the year. Running took a backseat at this point. At the end of the month, I ventured out for a 20-miler to see how my fitness was and struggle to even finish. This was the first sign my autumn marathon PB attempt was potentially in trouble. I ignored it.

JULY

One of the good things about the TrainAsOne programme is that it adjusts for when you miss sessions. On the flip side, I found myself getting to the end of the week thinking I’d trained okay, when in fact, I hadn’t done the running required. It was my own fault I didn’t fully recognise it but life was getting in the way and I simply wasn’t doing the long runs.

AUGUST

Booking a half marathon a month ahead of the marathon seemed like a good test of fitness and maybe even a chance of a PB. And for the second time this year, I spent the week approaching the race with a cold. However, it wasn’t as bad as earlier in the year and decided to give it a go.

The out and back route of the Thames Meander half was flat, not too busy and familiar. Also familiar was the fade in fitness over the last couple of miles so the PB wasn’t to be. But I’d take a second fastest half time ever of 1:38:56 in the circumstances.

SEPTEMBER

I don’t like to race very often, rarely more than once a month. This is because typically I want to give it everything in a race and I can’t do that if I race too much. It’s also expensive, or can be. And, it makes the race experience more special. On the other hand, the lack of race practice can be a problem, as I found out (almost) to my cost at the Richmond Runfest marathon.

Having planned my journey, I was halfway there before remembering I’d forgotten my timing chip and hastily had to get a taxi home and then onto the venue to avoid missing the start. A schoolboy error, and while I wasn’t late, it was unnecessary stress added to my ‘A’ race for the year.

The plan for the race was to start just over 8-minute miles and then settle into 8-minute miles, hopefully for the duration of the race. This seemed to be working okay to begin with but even as early as 6 miles, it felt like slightly hard work. By the halfway mark, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to maintain the goal pace and people were starting to overtake me. I figured I’d tough it out and keep going as long as possible. This turned out to be about two miles, at which point the legs had turned to lead and my left shoulder, sore from a fall a few weeks earlier, began to ache.

With 11 miles to go, I had hit the wall for two reasons. Firstly, I had set off faster than I was fit for. Secondly, my experiment to take on gels gradually as part of my drink had failed. Doing ultras has shown me the importance of fuelling and for me, the importance of real food. When I think about all my best marathons, I’ve had at least a cereal bar as well as gels during the race. Having done no ultras this year, I wasn’t in the habit of eating while running and had forgotten how crucial it is.

I took a gel with 10 miles left but it had no noticeable effect and from then on it went from bad to worse, to the point where I had to stop, stretch and walk sections, even before the 20-mile mark. An indication of how far my head had gone was that I didn’t bother taking my last gel as I didn’t think it would make any difference. The result was a painful stagger to the finish in 3:55:22, my worst marathon time since my first. Mentally, this was a lot harder to take. Physically, I was in a lot worse shape at the finish and had to sit down for 15 minutes while I belatedly had the gel and got my shit together. Overall, it was a salutary lesson in pacing, judging my own fitness and fuelling. A valuable lesson, but not much fun.

OCTOBER

With my main goal for the year missed by a significant distance, I decided to set myself a new challenge for October. A friend had signed up to #runeveryday and while I’ve generally been averse to this on the grounds that rest is vital, I figured I could manage it if I was sensible about distances and recovery.

The official rules were to run at least 1 mile a day but this didn’t seem worthwhile so I set myself a 5k minimum. After 6 days, my legs decided it was okay and I started really looking forward to figuring out how I was going to fit in a run every single day instead of the usual four or five times a week.

The first real test came with the first cross-country event of the season with Fulham at Wimbledon Common. A huge club turnout of speedy runners meant I was never going to trouble the scorers but it was nevertheless great to don the black and white stripes. Even better, the course covered sections I’d never run on before and had some exhilarating downhills as well as some lung-busting ups, the highlight being a hill we managed to ascend three times in a two-lap course. I completed the 4.6 miles in 33:49 which I was happy with.

Less happy were my shins after bombing down the hills and so halfway through the month got a 30-minutes sports massage. An absolute lifesaver and highly recommended for anyone attempting a run streak.

For the remainder of the month, I mixed up pace and distance but didn’t exceed 12 miles in any one run and finished on 182 miles for the month. I don’t think it did me any harm but other than upping my average weekly mileage and being more consistent with my running, it’s hard to say how much it benefited me either. Maybe I’ll find out over time.

NOVEMBER

Finding time to do the long runs has been hard all year for various reasons but October showed me there’s always a way to fit some running in somehow, even if it’s a boring, hard, uphill treadmill session.

In November I managed to get up to 15 miles, with a 10-miler two days before which was almost like a long run. I also decided that if I couldn’t get the time on feet required, I should at least try to get faster over shorter distances. Having booked in the Run in the Dark 10k at Battersea Park in the middle of the month, my lunchtime sprintervals had some purpose. I felt in decent shape and thought I might be able to get close to my 2014 PB of 41:55 but didn’t have much of a race or pacing plan other than not to set off too fast.

As it turned out, a slightly faster first mile could have meant I was close to challenging that PB. In the end I finished in 42:11 with a negative split (I went through 5k in 21:39 which means a 20:42 second 5k) and to be honest I’m pretty happy with that.

DECEMBER

My only goals for December were to have a nice day out on the trails and get some time on my feet in preparation for my first race of 2018, Country to Capital in January.

Earlier in the year I’d learnt of the Fox Way, a circular route of around 39 miles which has Guildford at the centre. There was even an inaugural race in 2017 (sign up for the 2018 race here) and while I didn’t want to do the whole thing, I figured out a shortened route and convinced my ‘social ultra’ buddy Tim to join me. This despite him just recently having completed his first 50-miler, the unforgiving Wendover Woods 50.

We started at Worplesdon station in Surrey and made our way clockwise round the route using this guide Aside from a short snow flurry it was a beautiful winter’s day and we took our time, enjoying the scenery and getting slightly lost every now and then.

After seeing various familiar sights (the North Downs Way, a school friend’s house, a gin distillery), we called it a day at Wanborough with over six hours and nearly 30 thoroughly enjoyable miles under our belts.

For me, 2017 has been solid if unspectacular. I’ve run the most I have ever in a calendar year (over 1600 miles), not been injured and got a half marathon PB. My main focus for 2018 is the Centurion 50 Grand Slam and I’m looking forward to enjoying more trails and less road for a change!

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