Family fortunes

Despite there being good couple of months still left, it’s usually around now when I begin to reflect on how the past year has gone and look forward to the challenges that may await in the future. For the third year running, the Standalone 10k marked the end of my “season”, and I’m chuffed to bits to report that it all went rather well on the country lanes of Hertfordshire. I’ve had a love / hate relationship with the place over the years, as I either seem to run it relatively slow (2008, 2012) or surprisingly fast (last year). It’s a great little race though, and always a proper family affair to boot with my dad, sister, uncle, cousin and my other sister’s boyfriend all taking part in recent history, not to mention several other members of the clan stood at various points around the course cheering us on. This year there would be three of us running, with my uncle on the tannoy again of course.

Unlike last year, I came into this one entirely relaxed about what I wanted to achieve. After four and a half years of trying, Standalone 2013 marked the day I finally got back under 40 minutes for a 10k, followed by an unexpected second success eight months later over on Merseyside. Regular readers will be aware that since then running has fallen off the radar a bit, which is kinda unforgivable for what is supposed to be a running blog, but nevertheless that’s what happened. The training mileage for this one was barely 25 miles from just five runs; hopefully enough to ensure I wasn’t a crippled mess after finishing, but not enough to raise expectations of a fast time. No intervals, no long slow Sundays, no fucking hill repetitions. Just a few evening jogs to loosen up a bit and make sure my legs remembered what they were supposed to be doing and that was that.

Unfortunately, without the pressure of BIG TARGET comes a lack of focus and bad preparation. The journey down South the day before involved six hours spent on one of the hottest coaches I’ve ever been on, meaning it was absolutely inevitable I would end up having a refreshing 6% IPA in one of my favourite pubs in London before catching the train back out of the capital. A quick “splash and dash” pit stop for a couple more beers with some old friends before actually making it home also wasn’t ideal, and although my mum laid on a lovely carby lasagne for us all, thanks to my hop-induced delay I ended up eating it at 10pm, less that 12 hours before the race was due to kick off.

Pre-race

We arrived at the farm nice and early on Sunday morning to pick up our race numbers and so had plenty of time to chew the fat ahead of the 9:30am start. My mum asked us all what what we were all aiming for so she’d know when to look out for us at the finish, and I mumbled something about “probably a good two or three minutes off my best”. My sister and cousin weren’t terrifically confident either, with neither having done a great deal of training and my sister suffering from what would later be diagnosed as vertigo. With all of us having raced here at least once before though, we knew what we were getting ourselves into and generally felt pretty relaxed about running 6.2 miles on this most glorious of autumnal mornings.

As kick off approached, we bid each other farewell as I went to line up with the 40 minute runners through force of habit, although I vowed to take it easy at the start and see what happened from there. It’s a funny old race though, Standalone. After really nasty little uphill section within a few hundred yards of the start, it’s pretty much all downhill until half distance, then a bit up and down (but mostly up) in the second half, before a tremendous last half a mile, hearing my uncle on the tannoy from afar as we all plunge back down onto the farm with all the cheering crowds at the finish. It makes it all a bit hard to pace it properly though as you always start fast and feel brilliant until around half distance, then all too late realise you’ve overcooked it and it’s a right old struggle from there.

First_400mTrue to form the opening couple of miles were well ahead of what I should have been running with so little preparation in the legs. I couldn’t help myself though as I felt probably the best I’ve ever felt at this stage of a 10k. We couldn’t have had better conditions for racing in; bright, crisp and sunny with a nice little chill in the air preventing us from overheating, unlike last year’s unexpected sweatfest. The little pockets of supporters dotted around the outskirts of Letchworth helped spur us all on, with large families with their kids ringing cowbells or trying to low-five us as we ran past. Groups of lads outside the pubs (at 9:30am!) and various people on bikes. Even the odd Sunday jogger running in the opposite direction shouted encouragement to us all. The field had yet to spread out properly and everyone around me seemed to be running a similar pace, perhaps wary of the magic 6:26 per mile required to hit a sub 40. I found myself sucked into it all against my better judgement, but I felt so damn good it was hard not to.

First_400m_563px

I was only half paying attention to the time though and it wasn’t until a few kilometres in when I began to take notice of what was actually happening. Going through the halfway stage I was actually faster than at the same stage a year before, clocking myself at 19:27 with a frankly ridiculous 6:05 third mile thrown in along the way. Hang on a cotton picking minute. Was the sub 40 actually on again? I started to play over all the possibilities in my mind. In the Mersey Tunnel 10k in June I was already over the 20 minute mark at half distance and I’d managed to do it from there. Yea okay, so there were a few hills ahead of me, but surely I couldn’t lose half a minute on them? Common sense flew out the window and I kept on pushing. Mile four slipped by another ten seconds under the target and all of a sudden I wasn’t just staring at a sub 40, I was on for an all time PB, beating a record that has stood since May 2009.

In the end, sadly, it wasn’t quite to be, although I ran it pretty damn close. The lack of training predictably kicked in big time, exposing the stupidity of the fast start (and that ridiculous third mile) as I struggled horrendously along the undulations on Stotfold Road. I went into a bit of a daze a couple of times and couldn’t be sure how much time I’d dropped as we headed downhill into the big finish so IArms was so absolutely chuffed to see the big clock still on 39-something as I staggered over the last few yards, arms aloft as I got the big shout out over the tannoy from my uncle. A totally unexpected result, I’d clocked it at 39:30: a mere second outside my 2009 PB.

Unfortunately, while glancing at the clock at the finish line, I’d missed seeing my parents in amongst the crowds, but I knew they were there. Twelve months ago I’d stood on that very spot and cheered my dad home in a race he didn’t even know if he’d be able to start, let alone finish; this year he was there doing the same for me, along with my mum, whose lasagne I’d like to think gave me those extra few seconds. I grabbed my finishing t-shirt and walked round and join them in time to see my cousin and sister cross the line as they came in a minute apart just inside the hour mark. Considering my sister couldn’t even move her head without feeling like she was going to be sick everywhere, this was a remarkable achievement. Although she probably shouldn’t have actually run when you think about it, but we can gloss over that now.

Post_race

We all met up and congratulated each other on a job well done, and then it was a nervous wait throughout the morning for my official time to come through to see if I’d set a new PB or not. I felt like a bit of a fraud if I’m being completely honest, as I thought about the lack of training and all the drinking and stuff the day before. Hundreds of people taking part would have probably done weeks, maybe months of training, and here I was running as fast as I’ve ever gone without going for a proper run in months. How could I even be sat here contemplating a PB? Last year I put in over 170 miles training for this and had gone slower. I looked back to races like the 2012 We Love Manchester 10k where I’d trained even harder and taken over a minute longer to get round. It didn’t make sense. In the end, my official time of 39:31 confirmed I was a couple of seconds outside my old record, but it was still a bizarrely rewarding feeling getting so close.

So as with this time last year, now all the dust has settled, what’s next on the list? Well first of all, after a sixth successive knockback from London, 2015 ain’t gonna be a marathon year. I might throw in a cheeky spring half though just to blow the Christmas excesses away, perhaps one I’ve done before, maybe something new. Liverpool, Silverstone, Oulton Park, Wilmslow. Who knows? By then, I should’ve found out if I’ve got a place through the ballot in August’s RideLondon-Surrey 100 as I look for some new adventures on two wheels. Or more likely, they’ll probably turn me down for the third year running and take my total number of rejections from London events – including the this year’s Royal Parks Half – into double figures. Either / or.

Whatever happens, I can look back and say that 2014 was a pretty special year, running wise, as I added a trio of new medals and a few more t-shirts to the ever-growing collection. But that only tells half the story. The weeks of slog and sacrifice at the start of the year for April’s marathon almost paid off, and although I missed my target to get into London 2015, I’m still immensely proud of what I achieved as I took 14 minutes off my PB. The pair of sub 40 10ks were completely unexpected, and it would have been three if the course at Southport been measured correctly (and maybe even four if I’d got out of bed for Salford). It’s been a year of two halves, running nearly 750 miles in the first six months and then only 67.5 since. And now, with it all behind me, I begin to plan the next set of challenges so that I can continue to bore you all for another twelve months. Watch this space, I guess.

That was the run that wasn’t

Well then. How to approach this one? The fact that it’s nearly a month late tells its own story, I guess. The race report for the City of Salford 10k, an event that I’d had in the diary for nearly four months, booked in before I’d even run the last race I entered. An event where I’d had (some) preparation, a bit of training and reasonably decent build up and an early bedtime. And, sadly, an event where come the 10:15am start time, I wasn’t even there. I’d bottled it.

There are mitigating circumstances here, least of all the fact that I hardly slept from not long after midnight onwards. Watching it gradually get light knowing every minute spent wide awake would hinder my ability to get round the course without collapsing and smashing my massive face on the quayside, the closer it got to KO the more worried I became. I’ve done a few silly things going into a 10k before, like not training, going out on the piss the night before or eating an imitation pound shop Fray Bentos as a way of carb loading. But I’d never gone in on the back of a couple of hours sleep, and as I attempted to eat my breakfast and chug down a couple of strong coffees I knew I could be making a terrible mistake. The lackadaisical preparation didn’t bother me too much; neither did the couple of drinks I’d had at a barbeque the day before. Been there done that, after all, and at least I’d done some training this time around and stopped drinking long before my 10pm bedtime. But this was different. I felt sluggish, nervous and a little bit sick in the pit of my stomach, probably the first time this has ever happened in eleven 10k races. So, regrettably, as the time slipped by for when I needed to leave to make it to the start in time, I made the decision for the first time in the history of my little blog to pull out on the morning of a race.

The initial relief was tempered by more than a little sadness when I remembered this was supposed to be The Day We Ran Together. Since April, a few of us had been swinging by our local parkrun for a quick 5k amongst the pigeons and the dog shit. A rag-bag assortment, with as many as five or six of us on some weeks (if the weather was nice and we’d avoided a hangover), and then suddenly at the end of May we made a decision to have a bash at double the distance with a few months to get ourselves ready for it. Each person went into 7th September with their own challenges and targets for the day, and since I’m such a lily-livered let down and essentially went back to bed rather than going for a run, I decided this time around to talk about someone else for a change and focus on the stories of the four intrepid sisters and brothers in arms who took on the challenge on that warm morning on the streets of Salford.

So let’s meet the team. First up, Rosi: the most experienced of the group, and using Salford as a stepping stone towards a sponsored half marathon in October (and if you’d like to sponsor her for that, I’m sure she’d be absolutely thrilled). A relative veteran of distance running, with the Great North Run already under her belt, and a keen fundraiser for charities that always mean a great deal to her, she said beforehand it felt strange to be building up to a race of less than half her usual distance, but there is bigger to come for her just around the corner and so this promised to be a very useful warm up.

Next in line was Adam. You may have heard one of his podcasts before (and if you haven’t, you really should). He was entering on the back of making his racing début in the Great Manchester 10k back in AdsMay, aiming here to trim his 10k PB down to under an hour after 25ºC heat last time around was sadly enough to ensure he just missed out. One of my favourite things about following him on RunKeeper is the picture he posts of his little face after each and every training run, looking like a broken man. Judging by his training pace I thought he had a decent chance of hitting his goal here so this was an important day for the big man.

Finally, two brave souls who only took up running in May and were both entering their first ever 10k. Before the race, Nicola had literally never run further than 5k in one go and just 48 hours before the race was unsure if she’d been able to run at all. With a wedding (to Adam) looming less than three weeks down the line, she was reluctant to risk an ankle injury that had prevented her from training and ending up having to hobble down the aisle. Finally on Friday she decided to go for it and pencilled in a tentative 1:20 target. As a sub-30 parkrunner, in theory this should have been doable but it’s never as simple as that, especially with it being twice as far as she’d ever run before, being injured and not running at all for a month before the race. Chatting with her about it on the eve of the run it’s safe to say she was a tad nervous ahead of the big day, but I assured her she could do it with a nice slow start and perhaps the odd stroll through water stations and the like.

The other, a fellow Joe, was like Rosi aiming for bigger things further down the line. “I wasn’t very fit leaving school” he says, “and since then I’ve done various sports and exercises (bouldering, metafit sessions, spinning) but nothing that would give me a definitive fitness level. So I had an idea in the back of my mind that I wanted to complete a half marathon before I’m 30 (April 2016). But before I decided for sure I wanted to get some small runs completed to see if I could stay alive after 15 minutes of jogging”. As a keen F1 fan there is a reasonable chance this half marathon will be around Silverstone pretending to be a car. We’ve all been there.

To say he’s come a long way though in a short space of time is an understatement, from a first ever 5k effort at around 36 minutes, quickly down to a 28:40 on his first parkrun, he signed up for Salford “in a cocktail of pride and stupidity” after seeing Adam’s efforts in the Great Manchester 10k. Inspired to take on the challenge himself, he set about a summer of training to hit under an hour, however with a couple of injuries leading to a three week gap right when he needed it most, the target was hastily revised to 1:05.

Onto the race itself, and on the day it sounded like it was pretty good for racing. “We’d woken up to pretty perfect running weather” said Rosi “fairly cool with a bit of mist in the air, but dry and no threat of rain; a great combo. But by kickoff, the sun was out and making its presence known.” Thankfully not to the extent of the sub-Saharan sweatfest that was served up for the Great Manchester 10k (a relief for Adam in particular), but still enough to add an extra layer of challenge on a course with little shade. A fast, flat route, with good PB potential, I will be back one year perhaps aiming to finally beat my 2009 record.

So how did they all do?

Extremely bloody well, all in all, each and every single one of them achieving something pretty damn significant. First of all, a heroic effort from the two débutants, coming in a couple of minutes apart either side of the hour mark. Considering Nicola didn’t even know if she could run that far and was aiming just to finish, that’s a remarkable achievement whichever way you look at it. Pushed on by the crowd and a soundtrack of early 00’s pop rock from a compilation ‘Teenage Dirtbag’, she absolutey rinsed her 1:20 target by nearly 19 minutes which left Adam “so proud”.

Joe’s similarly heroic run also ensure he was just inside his original target, and then some, actually breaking the magic 60 minute barrier. “I began the last kilometre feeling okay, I’d averaged around 5:58 for the last nine so I figured even if I was dropping off I could still do a 6:18 for the last one and make it within an hour. I came past a section of crowd that Rosi and Ads were stood in having already finished, and saw them waving. This spurred me on to pick up the pace and after about 200 metres I realised I was completely knackered and had about 500 metres to go, and the hour pacer was creeping away from me.

“I began pushing a bit harder, keeping the pace up until I was about 100 metres away from the finish when I pushed into a sprint, Christ knows how. I managed to overtake him about a metre from the line and just about managed not to throw up afterwards.” We’re all glad about that.

His final time was 59:01. “The longer you have known me, the more absurd all this is.” he said afterwards. “When I left school I was 17 stone and couldn’t run 200 metres, so I’m massively chuffed that I have this achievement now“.

Second place on the day went to Ads, and his performance was just as remarkable as the two rookies, smashing a frankly ludicrous nine minutes off his PB set only weeks previously on the sweaty streets of Manchester. An absolutely brilliant result, and such a leap bodes well for his hopes at the Rio Olympics in 2016, where we I am sure we can all wish him well in the 5,000m, 10,000m, steeplechase, marathon, 110m hurdles, shot put, rhythmic gymnastics, go-karting and ice cream challenge.

Last but by no means least (and first over the line amongst the group) was Rosi, who also set a PB with a mighty 47:19. She was similarly glowing afterwards: “It was a great day. Not only did I smash my PB, but most importantly I got to share it with friends, and cheer them on as they all followed quickly behind; something I’ve never really done before. It makes a massive difference to the enjoyment of the event. There’s even talk of a group jaunt to the GNR next year – fantastic!” with Adam adding “we are already looking for the next challenge”.

Team

All four did amazingly well and deserved their pints afterwards. Writing this now, I’m still a bit sad I missed out. Even doing a Saturday parkrun together is a nice little affair as you occasionally see each other over the course, shout encouragement at the finish, before all having a bit of a debrief through the sweat and exhaustion and possibly share an isotonic beverage or two together (lager).

Being a runner is such a lonely existence sometimes; endless hours spent up and down and round around, often at weird and unsociable hours, especially if you occasionally turn into a marathon wanker like me and have to give up three hours on a Sunday morning, or run a half marathon straight from work. SORRYThankfully that won’t be happening for a bit, as today marked the day when I received yet another fucking SORRY! magazine in the post from London HQ, but the point still stands. Running together is ace, and if the idea of a team half marathon next year comes off then I’m sure we’ll all have a jolly good time.

As for me and my running, I’m back out in action this Sunday for what will probably be the last time in 2014. It’s Standalone 10k time again for the third year in succession. A nice genteel jog around some country lanes in Hertfordshire with no particular target in mind. I’ve had a couple of midweek runs over the past fortnight to keep limbered up, I’m running with my sister and cousin in this most family of affairs, and to be honest I’m rather looking forward to it all. I just need to make it through the night before first.

1JoeAdsRosi_rsz

Softly does it

With the benefit of hindsight, I kinda I wish I’d thought out the title of last week’s blog a bit more. I should have chosen something a bit more appropriate to the subject matter I feel, and even more so now as I sit here writing this wanting to use that same title again, albeit on a very different subject. Yes, I am still cautiously optimistic with regards to Tottenham’s chances of a decent season after the opening quartet of matches, but now there is also a need for treading cautiously on the old running front too now as I begin to build up to a race again, for the first time in months, and with a distinct lack of running mileage in the old legs. Suddenly, I have just over a week until we do it all again. Sunday 7th September and the City of Salford 10k. Shit.

Much like this time last year, it’s been a very light summer with regards to the action by foot as I’ve fallen in love with the open road and my lovely racing machine. Yet again, I’ve flogged myself silly for a big running event during the first few months of the year, and then when it’s all over totally lost the motivation for running and moved onto two wheels instead. Summer evenings rattling around the country lanes of Cheshire at 20mph+, or struggling up a couple of meaty(ish) climbs at barely half that. Humming along on a 30-year-old steel framed racer heading for a beer garden. It’s all just so much more exciting and enjoyable than trudging up and down the same old stretches of pavement by foot, sweating and panting while getting abused by the friendly locals of South Manchester.

And the stats don’t lie. From January to the beginning of April, I ran 78 times, covering 670 miles. Which is absolutely bloody ridiculous, looking back. Since then, over a five month period, just 21 runs and a mere 70 miles. I was running nearly that on a weekly basis back in March (which again is, quite frankly, ridiculous). Less runs, and much, much shorter ones too, with the average mileage per run dropping from 8.6 down to just 3.3. And then since finishing the Mersey Tunnel 10k in June, it’s fallen completely by the wayside, with just four half-hearted 5ks after work in nearly three months, and that’s it. As such, I look towards next Sunday’s race with a sense of mild trepidation.

It’s not so much the run itself I’m worried about, but more the aftermath. After all, I’ve been here before and it hurt. The “10k without training” experiment last May was an utter folly; proving to myself at a stroke that while the speed doesn’t tail off quite as significantly as I might have expected, the stamina and basic conditioning definitely does. Those 42-odd minutes running around Port Sunlight battered my legs more than any other race I’d ever done before, and that includes the pair of marathons and trio of halves. I was still hobbling around heading into the following weekend, and all because I thought I was the big man and could run without practising.

So yeah, I probably need to do some sort of training this time. But it’s tiny baby steps I need to take so as to not totally bust myself up before raceday. Last time I had a gap like this, I tentatively went out for a run for the first time in over eleven weeks. And by tentatively I mean, I went out at flat out 10k pace, felt amazing for 200 yards, felt shocking before the first mile was out and in the end managed less than 5k, sweating, wheezing and (literally) nearly vomiting. The legs were trashed for a couple of days and then as soon as they were healed, I leapt straight into a hardcore 10k training programme for Standalone aiming for a sub-40. And lo and behold, within a couple of weeks my knee decided it would like to fall off (which it didn’t, thankfully). A rather “two-footed” return to action though I feel.

That was twelve months ago, although it was all very different back then. After a thieving scumbag had pinched my bike from me, that very first run felt entirely necessary. Running was suddenly my only exercise outlet. All I had left were my feet. And then I turned my attention towards Standalone. And then (me being me) I took it all A Bit Too Seriously, and it cost me, albeit with an ultimately glorious result. This time around, it’s a race where I’m just entering for the hell of it, a race that I’ve never done before. Somewhere new, somewhere exciting. OK, somewhere new anyway, and with the added bonus that six of my chums have decided to have a crack as well, even though I fear we all tread with some caution towards this one after looking at some of the reviews of last year’s event.

So without the pressure of a big result, a fast time or just the fact that if I don’t go and do a shitload of running then all that beer and cake will begin to catch up with me, it’s a much more cautious return to action. Trying to ensure I’m (a bit) prepared for the race (and most importantly, the aftermath) but without breaking myself before I’ve even got there. I’m looking forward to lining up with people I know for once, and then when it’s all done and dusted having a well-earned beer together and hopefully not being crippled for a week afterwards. After all, I need to be able to get back out on the bike.

Treading cautiously

Ah, pre-season. Always the absolute bestest time to be a Spurs fan. Ignoring the league table, which for some obviously biased decision always has us hovering around the relegation places at this time of year, this is usually about as good as it gets for us. Last season has been and gone. We have new players, a new manager, a new identity. Everything will be alright this year, it’s our year. We’ve learned from our mistakes this time. What could possibly go wrong?

Hopefully, and I mean this from the very bottom of my weary heart, nothing. For the first time in a few years I have a feeling of “quiet” rather than “rampant” optimism. I mean, rewind twelve months and we were all getting rather giddy. Franco Baldini had gone all Football Manager with the Gareth Bale money and we had about £100m worth of exotic foreign players in, a couple of which I’d never even heard of. “Sold Elvis but bought the Beatles” was the overriding sentiment, and it certainly felt that way at the time. It looked like we’d built a team rather than relying single-handedly on the Inter-slaying simian to dig us out of a hole with a 90+4 minute screamer after another anaemic performance. The workload would be shared around, we had strength in depth. Top four was fully expected and it was not an uncommon view that we might actually finish top of the whole pile. And then, well, the season kicked off and it all began to unravel rather terribly. Same old Spurs, eh.

It feels weird looking back on last season as one of the worst in my memory, considering we finished with 69 points and sixth place. I look back to the mid 90s and early 2000s when we could barely dream of that, but let’s be absolutely honest here, the whole thing was an utter shambles. A slow, unspectacular start on the pitch but with a few solid results as a platform, unfortunately AVB managed to piss off half the club and most of the journalists reporting on us meaning he was on borrowed time early on. A lack of confidence spread through the club leading to a series of batterings against the big boys and then a P45, right on the day when the poor chap apparently turned up at the club with Christmas presents for everyone. A sad end to what I honestly thought twelve months previously would be one of the best managerial appointments that I’d known, but anyway I wish him well and will always love him for the 2-3 at Old Trafford if nothing else.

In many peoples’ eyes, AVB had to go due to his rigid, stodgy tactics. I personally would have at least given him until the end of the season, especially as the alternative was Tim fucking Sherwood, an Arsenal fan who as our player a decade ago allegedly caused issues behind the scenes and then as our manager proceeded to lose a fight with a gilet on live TV during the North London Derby. Tactically naive and constantly spouting contradictory nonsense to all and sundry to suit whatever Machiavellian plan he thought he had in his oddly-weathered head, yet strangely held up by much of the press as an honest geezer who wears his heart on his (shirt) sleeve, the man was an absolute embarrassment to the club from start to finish. Yes he got Adebayor playing well for a bit (and didn’t we hear the bloody end of it), but let’s be honest Chirpy the Cockerel could have motivated the big man to roll a few in after the way he’d been frozen out by AVB so it’s hardly achievement of the year. From the Harry Redknapp school of “yea, I bladdy did that” when things were going well or the “they’re all useless this lot” when they weren’t, I have never in my life been more glad of a season finishing as I did last year and he was told to pack his gilet up and depart for, well, God knows where. I was beyond caring.

People talk about it being a sacking, but in my eyes it came across more like they just didn’t take up the remaining twelve months on his short term contract. If he’d delivered a top-four finish and not acted like a complete clown as soon as he got in the hot seat, if he’d maybe had some semblance of a long term tactical plan other than “putting an arm around Emmanuel Adebayor” or telling the players to “fight” a bit more, then perhaps he might have got more time but Levy was 100% right to get the man out of the club when he did – even if he was 100% wrong to appoint him in the first place. The players didn’t seem to be playing for him, we’d tumbled out of the domestic cups in pathetic fashion, and the whole thing just left a horrible, nasty taste in the mouth. We were back to being a laughing stock again after years of steady progress.

So now, on the eve of the new season, I sit here and I feel optimistic again. Yes it’s that same old “new season” feeling, except it’s not exactly the same this time. The Poch is in place, and he has a plan. Part of me is chuffed to bits with Levy for sticking him in there, exactly the sort of appointment I wanted once Tactics Tim had left the building. Part of me is worried about how it will go if a couple of results go awry along the way while he is trying to stamp his imprint on our unruly bunch. Will the fans and the press turn on him? Will we hear the grumbles of discontent when we’re 0-0 at half time in the first match at The Lane? Will Harry’s mates in the media start slinging barbs in about unsettled players struggling to adapt under the new foreign coach? And will Levy stick by his man if they do?

It’s a feeling of slight dread that I have after the way things have gone in that respect over the past few years, but I suppose that’s the sort of negative thinking I am railing against here, so I’ll nail my lilywhite colours to the mast and state that I’m fully behind the new man. He wants us to play fast, pressing football and has a great record with youth players at both Southampton and Espanyol, something we have been poor with as a club in recent years. He’s working with a largely settled squad, with the only additions so far making complete sense targetting positions where we needed it. Certainly I am looking forward to having a proper left back in place for the first time in a while. The squad looks pretty good generally, with strength in depth across midfield especially where we have almost too much choice, and it will be interesting to see how Pochettino sets us up there. Unless Dier is to hit the ground running I would like another central defender alongside Vertonghen as I am worried about Dawson’s pace with a high line (much as I love the man) and Kaboul seems to have reverted back to the 2007 version. And we look a bit light up top if Adebayor goes on holiday again so it would be nice to have another option there I guess.

There’s a lot to look forward to though and so long as the players, the fans and the chairman buy into what Pochettino is trying to implement then I think we’ll do just fine. No one is expecting us to win the league this year. Most of us aren’t even expecting top four as almost everyone around us has strengthened significantly (even if there is a slight whiff that Liverpool may have “done a Tottenham” with the Luis Suarez money). I would be happy with top six and a trophy, or at the very least a solid cup run or two, so long as there is actually a blueprint for where we are headed and a sense of the players actually having some semblance of idea what they are supposed to be doing on the pitch. Those who flattered to deceive last year have a second chance, and hopefully having an Argentinian manager can bring the best out of Lamela in particular, and we may yet see one or two more faces before the window slams shut. Having the spotlight off us this season suits us well, and so long as everyone gets behind the new man and gives him a chance then for once hopefully the pre-season optimism won’t be obliterated by mid-October again. Let the games begin.

Tunnel vision

As an adopted Mancunian, I probably shouldn’t say this but I bloody love Liverpool. It’s a genuinely great city and holds a fair few memories. For starters, I met my fiancée there all the way back in 2005, and we are due to marry there next year sometime. In running terms, it was of course the scene of my very first marathon back in 2011, as well as my fastest ever half last March. Both races finished in front of the mighty Liver Buildings with loads of people cheering us on and congratulating us after the finish, some of the best crowds I have ever experienced on a run. The organisers behind pretty much all the big runs over there, btrLiverpool, always put on decent events: well organised and often diverse and with quality medals to add to the ever-growing collection. I usually try to do at least one of their races a year, to the point now where I’ve done pretty much all of them at least once and I’m running out of new ones to try. So, I’ve started going round again and almost exactly three years after I entered my very first run over on Merseyside I decided it was time to have another bash at that very same event: The Mersey Tunnel 10k.

It all seems so long ago now. Back then, I was still finding my feet as a runner. Or, more pertinently, I was rediscovering them. After all, I’d not run in a race for nearly two years since the Great North Run in 2009, after instead joining a local football team for a weekly kickabout thrashing in the mud. For some reason, I’d gone straight back in the deep end and signed up for a bloody marathon and, somewhat intimidated by the tunnel section at half distance, lobbed an entry into this one to get a bit of race practice in and see what it was all about. And despite the crappy weather that morning, it all went rather well. A real race with real people, finishing only a few seconds outside the magic 40-minute mark and a solid 90th place. I was back in the game.

Fast forward three years and it’s all gone a bit more, shall we say, obsessive. I’m now a double marathoner. I have a new half marathon PB. I’ve even managed to get under 40 minutes for a 10k and I thought that would never happen again. I’ve run a further five 10k races since then, and goodness knows how many more in training, to the point now where I no longer have a lot of fear of the distance and have basically done three of the last four as an excuse to go and visit somewhere and sweat all over it. And to think people say us runners are an odd bunch, eh

Needless to say, the “training” for the last couple of races has been somewhat light, to put it mildly. I’ve not actually had any sort of training plan in place since the marathon at the beginning of April, instead just mixing the odd Saturday parkrun in with the daily commute on the bike. The Sandgrounder 10k a couple of weeks before this one had proved to me that I could still do a 10k pretty well so I just chucked in a couple of bonus runs mid-week to make sure I didn’t end up a crippled mess in the aftermath and then that was that. An 11pm pint, pork pie and storm-delayed England match finishing well past my intended bedtime the night before and I was ready. Game on.

The morning itself was slightly more panicky than I would have liked as the coach driver cheerfully announced as we left Manchester that the M62 was closed and we’d be diverted round the houses on our route over to Liverpool. There was suddenly a very real chance that I’d miss the baggage buses and have to lug my rucksack round the course with me, or face the nightmare prospect of missing the start entirely (something I have form for in btrLiverpool races, admittedly). Usually, this would have been enough to send the nerves completely overboard but as I wasn’t taking this one entirely seriously I kept a lid on it pretty well, and in the end we still made it there in plenty of time, primed and ready for action in the early morning sunshine.

Startline

The new startline this year meant that the Liverpool side of the run was cut down to barely half a mile, and it’s safe to say that the scenery as we lined up wasn’t the greatest I’d ever seen. With some of the previous runs I’d done over there showing off some of the best of what Liverpool has to offer it was a bit of a shame, but necessary I guess to limit the road closures in that part of town and stuff. I lined up fairly near the front of the estimated 3,100 field and we were off, scurrying down the escape ramp onto the A59. Within less than half a kilometre the great cavernous tunnel entrance was looming in front of us as we slid under the River Mersey and for the third time in my life I was making the crossing by foot. On this uncomfortably warm morning, I was already glad to be in the shade.

It has its ups and downs, tunnel running. Quite literally, obviously, with the gradual (amazing) descent being all-too-quickly followed by the long ascent up the other side, which still goes on for a good third of a mile after bursting back out of the tunnel exit. Generally, it’s pretty great down there; no wind, rain or baking sun. You’re completely protected from all of the elements and it’s such an odd, eerie feeling as you trot along with only the pitter-patter of thousands of pairs of feet breaking up the gentle hum of the ventilation fans. The trouble is though, it’s bloody difficult to pace yourself properly. If you’re someone like me who relies pretty heavily on a device with GPS to tell you how fast you’re going, you’re buggered. Back in 2011 I went like an absolute lunatic on that downslope and paid for it shortly after, but it’s hard to do anything else really when you feel that good that early in the race and you’ve not got anyone telling you any differently.

With my Garmin giving me all sorts of nonsense thanks to the mile and a half spent underground, it wasn’t until we were back out in the open air and going over half distance before I could get an idea of how I was actually doing. I went past the 5k board a few seconds outside the magic 20 minute mark and of course THE TARGET began to flash across my mind. I felt pretty rinsed already due to the heat and that bloody slope, but I knew that if I could manage to put in a strong second half there was an outside chance it could happen. We threaded onto the promenade and all the uphill stuff was behind us. I gritted my teeth and decided to go for it.

On probably the warmest day I have ever raced on, the temptation was pretty strong to just stop at the water station and admire the view back across the river at one of my favourite skylines in the world. The contrast to the wind and rain of 2011 could not be more marked, and as with the last race in Southport, the lack of training was kicking in big time the longer we went on. I’d managed to claw back a few seconds over the fourth mile but then the fifth was just outside what I needed again and I knew that if my Garmin was telling me the truth then this one was going to go right down to the wire. The sixth mile was just inside and then as we ran out to Fort Perch Rock and in sight of the new finish line I glanced down and saw I had around thirty seconds left to cover the last hundred or so yards.

Unlike last time out, I had the big finish left. I remembered 2011 where I missed out by nine seconds and I knew I couldn’t let that happen again. It was within my grasp. I heard my name over the tannoy and the strong crowd along the finishing straight seemed to appreciate the extra effort, the cheers getting louder as I punched the air crossing the line. It was all over and when I checked my time I was chuffed to bits to see it read 39:51.

How, I’ll never know. Training was pretty much non-existent. I didn’t have a great deal of sleep. I was smashing the premium-strength IPA less than 10 hours before the race. And did I mention the heat? It was probably the hottest run I’ve ever done, but despite the extensive suffering over the last couple of miles I couldn’t believe it every time I glanced at my pace and saw it sitting below 6:27. My final training run (i.e. the second of two) was a practice 10k and was nearly a minute and a half over what I needed, so going into raceday I was pretty convinced it wasn’t going to happen. And yet somehow, it did. It just goes to show how much the adrenaline of actually racing with real people can give you that extra little boost.

So a decent morning all in all. According to the official results, 2,761 people completed the distance and somehow I had finished just outside the top 50, another extremely proud morning and a great way to sign off my spring racing season. Since the turn of the year, there’s always been something in the diary playing on my mind and although nothing came remotely close to taking over my entire life as the marathon did for the first three months of 2014, it’s still been the most competitive start to a new year in my living memory with nearly 750 miles covered by foot (almost as much as the whole of 2013) and three new medals to add to the collection.

Blue_steel2Writing this now just over a month later, I have not run at all since that day on Merseyside and as with this time a year ago, I’ve rather enjoyed that. I’m fully back on two wheels again, loving the feeling of speed hammering along a country lane on a rebuilt 30-year old steel racer, sweating up hills and stopping off at country pubs en route. Glastonbury came and went, and I have no runs in the diary now until September with a pair of 10ks and the results of the London Marathon ballot. The calm before the storm you might say, and bloody brilliant it is too.

Featured image (top of page) of btrLiverpool Mersey Tunnel 10k
© James Stratford Photography

I do like to sweat beside the seaside

What better way to spend a bank holiday Monday, hey? The first sunny day of a miserable weekend, a lovely park by the sea and, with me being me, a 6.2 mile race during the hottest part of the day. A late entry thrown in for the Sandgrounder 10k all the way over in Southport and then just like that, my second race of the year was all done and dusted.

It was all a bit last minute this one. I only found out it even existed on Friday, but as a lover of a good old fashioned day at the seaside I rather foolishly decided that the best way to enjoy one would be to run ten kilometres first in the baking sun. Perfectly normal behaviour.

Due to all the lateness, the training was pretty much non-existent. Not quite to the level of a full on month of running abstinence leading up to last May’s Port Sunlight 10k, but certainly nothing you could seriously consider as decent race preparation. Since staggering over the marathon finish line nearly two months ago, there’s only been three parkruns, nine gentle jogs home from work and a few miles on the bike. That’s it. Needless to say, expectations of a decent result were pretty low.

With the race kicking off pretty late at 11:15am, we had plenty of time to head over and get signed up, but it’s safe to say that I didn’t take the pre-race preparation entirely seriously. A final meal the day before of an old Fray Bentos pie I’d found at the back of my cupboard followed by a couple of glasses of wine and a late bedtime is certainly not how Mo “Quorn” Farah would do it, but as I was planning on running this one just for the sheer hell of it I thought it wouldn’t do too much harm.

However, when I realised on the way over that this was my tenth race at this distance, I began to think perhaps I should have chosen a bigger run to mark the occasion, aiming for something a bit more special. A high placing, a fast time, a big charity total. Perhaps another tilt at last week’s Great Manchester Run with 40,000 others would have been cool, coming almost exactly six years after my very first 10k in the same event. In the end, my décima 10k did end up being pretty special, but not in the way I would ever have imagined it.

Arriving at Victoria Park for registration, there was a nice little buzz around the place as a couple of races had already taken place that morning and plenty of people were milling round the tiny race village ahead of the main event. It looked like a pretty serious field, with a lot of affiliated runners in vests adorned by their club colours, and I kind of felt a bit out of my depth stood there in my old school PE shorts and my unruly mop of hair flapping about in the gentle sea breeze. We lined up on the startline and with barely a second’s pause, we were off heading round the park for the first of many laps.

Start
The opening mile brought back some unpleasant memories as I’d inexplicably found myself right at the very front of the field. Without the usual congestion at the start of a race, it was easy to hit a fast pace early on. Too easy, in fact as I noticed I’d started at well under six minutes per mile on the flat, wide pathways around the park. I remembered the City of Manchester 10k all the way back in 2008 where I found myself sucked into the pace of those around me, far, far beyond my capabilities and then suddenly completely melted not long after. I tried to hold back and let a few go past but it was easier said than done. I felt amazing on the first few hundred yards and it was mentally difficult to keep the exuberance down and concentrate on the race as a whole.

I’d let a few go on ahead as we headed out of the park and onto the perimeter road for the first time, but I couldn’t be sure quite how many. After a slightly ludicrous opening 6:04 mile, my mind predictably began to drift towards the sub-40 minute target that always sits on my mind on these races, despite finally hitting it last October. I still felt remarkably fresh and although it was a warm morning, the conditions were pretty damn good for running. The course was nearly pancake-flat and it doubled back on itself so frequently I lost count of how many times I saw my support crew cheering me on to give me that extra little push. I started to reel one or two of the faster starters in again as we went over half distance, and then with the first four miles all falling under that magic 6:27 pace, I suddenly had over half a minute in the bank and began to feel, quite seriously, that this might actually be on.

The thing with a 10k though is that it’s always just that little bit longer than you remember from the last time. Because the time spent PROPER SUFFERING is – relatively speaking – quite short, then when looking back on a race it’s often forgotten the bits where you felt like you were about to collapse in a sweaty, broken heap. Unlike the latter parts of a marathon, where the pain builds and builds over literally hours, it’s usually just the case that you have a bad mile or so and then suddenly you’re on the home straight and it’s all over. Heading out onto the park perimeter for the second time, I had that bad mile. The combination of heat and poor preparation began to take its toll and the ever-so-slight incline up to the furthest point absolutely ruined me. I’d had one chap on my horizon for almost the entire race and with all of my recent races ending with a huge sprint finish I’d felt like I could take him and nab another place back, but after that fifth mile I knew there was no chance. It didn’t matter a great deal though; the bad mile was just ten seconds outside my target pace and I still had a chance of the sub-40. I just had to finish the job.

The last mile was pretty horrible as well in all fairness. We looped back into the park and round towards the finish, but I was pretty much spent by then. The adrenaline of seeing my supporting crew again and then the finish line spurred me on a bit, but not enough for the big finalé. I noticed the clock on the line was already showing over 40 minutes but didn’t pay much attention to it. My splits had been good enough, so I just figured the gun time must have started a little early or something. I staggered away from the finish line and checked my watch and was gutted to see it read 40:19. Nowhere near.

I couldn’t get my head around what had gone wrong at first, but the disappointment was tempered somewhat when I was told I’d finished in a very respectable ninth place. I could scarcely believe it. A field with the number of entrants in three figures, chock full of members of actual running clubs and whatnot, and I’d beat all apart from eight of them. My best ever result.

Results

The time thing was still nagging at me though and I eventually realised it was because I’d clocked the distance at 6.31 miles, around a tenth of a mile longer than it should have been. Whether my Garmin had let me down on the way round or the course was slightly too long I’ll probably never know, but whatever it was, those extra 200-odd yards made all the difference. According to Runkeeper, my average pace was 6:23 per mile: well within what I needed to hit that magic barrier, and in fact on target for a 39:35 which would have been my second fastest ever. If (and this is a massive if, considering how completely rinsed I was at the end) I’d managed a big finish like Standalone, steaming over the line at 5:10 pace, it could even have even been a brand new PB. Not bad considering the almost complete lack of preparation.

In the end though, my décima will just go down on my results page as an above average time coupled with a surprisingly good result. Ninth overall and sixth in my category is something I’ve never come remotely close to achieving before. It was a real effort at times as the lack of training kicked in over the last couple of miles, and I only wonder what could have been achieved had I gone all in for this one. A decent event on a flat course, really well Finishorganised with a friendly atmosphere and a cool little medal, maybe I’ll come back again one year and try again with a bit more training in the legs and see what happens. Maybe not. But this was a proud morning regardless, and all that was left was a well deserved cider in what was left of the sunshine and a fish supper dodging the seagulls. Job done.

Throwing my hat back in

It’s a familiar feeling, the beginning of May. For the sixth year in a row, I have my ballot entry into London and now I sit here with baited breath, clutching my virtual lottery ticket tightly against my chest ahead of the six month wait until the dreaded SORRY! magazine flops through my letterbox and crushes my dreams for another year. I watched it on TV again this year, with the memory of my own exertions the previous week still fresh in my mind, and thought to myself how bloody amazing it would be to be there one day. Finishing on The Mall. Crossing Tower Bridge. Chipping round the Cutty Sark. Big Ben. The Houses of Parliament. All while roared on by hundreds of thousands of fans lining the course. The very course I saw my uncle and cousin on TV all those years ago, inspiring me to (eventually) become a marathon runner myself. Thanks, I guess.

As with entries in the years previous, it’s ballot or nothing. The two grand minimum to raise for most charity places rules that avenue out, and with the Good For Age time predictably staying at 3:05 this year, my 3:07 from four weeks ago just isn’t quite enough to get in that way either. It’s a bit of a shame that; the Good For Age crew get their own startline and everything, away from the 30,000-odd at the mass start and the huge queues at the portaloos, but I suppose at least starting with the majority will make it feel like the massive event it really is, rather than just having a pretty lonely opening three miles with only a few other Proper Runners for company ahead of the race all coming together.

The other familiar feeling at this time of year is the slightly odd one of “I don’t know what the fuck to do with myself now”. It’s the same old routine at the start of every year; plan event, train for event, run event. Then: nothing. Absolutely nothing. Like waking up from a long, deep sleep, I suddenly emerge back into society, bleary eyed and confused. Re-integrating myself with my friends, my family, my social life. I can go to the pub on a Saturday, I can lie in on a Sunday.  It’s bloody great, if not a tad disconcerting. It takes a bit of adjustment in any case.

Looking ahead to the rest of the year, it’s all a bit up in the air. As a family favourite, I’ll probably do Standalone again, and might even chuck in another 10k or two before then. The masochist in me could have a go at the Chester Marathon in October for a second attempt at a 3:05, but on a hillier course I don’t fancy my chances of making up that two and a half minute gap. Not to mention the fact that training would have to start in a month’s time and would probably kill me in the summer heat. That’s if the other half didn’t get there first. And anyway, what sort of wrong’un does two marathons in six months anyway? Or three in a year if I actually managed to hit the target? Nah. Not for me thanks.

So for now, it’s quiet time. The calm after the storm. A nice, tranquil period with nothing to train for, enjoying the spring warmth in the park or a beer garden. I’m jogging home from work every so often, and I’ve started doing the Saturday parkruns again with a few chums. I’ve got a new (old) bike which I’ve spent the past two months gettingBike roadworthy, and hopefully she’s not that far away from spreading her wings on the open road in search of new and exotic places. Or country pubs I’ve never been to before, if you want to put it that way. But ultimately, that’s all there is. A long, drawn out summer, waiting to see if I’ll be on the startline in Greenwich Park in a year’s time and that’s about it. Safe to say, I’m pretty bloody used to it.

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