Slinking around suspiciously in the bushes of Hampstead Heath, breathing heavily from my first encounter with decent hills for a while, it occurred to me that I probably ought to have my story straight in case I ran into the police.
See, certain parts of the Heath have a reputation that doesn’t necessarily sit well with orderly conduct on a Saturday afternoon, and the various notices forbidding barbecues stood testament to a likely crackdown on non-conforming behaviours.
It was three weeks until the Southend Half-marathon, and to date my longest run post-injury had been a distinctly uncomfortable-feeling 9 miler. While I’ve been picking up speed over the past few weeks, I’ve been resolutely hanging around the 8.5 mile mark. To avoid a painful encounter with the limitations of my current fitness, I decided that a casual run that was something over 90 minutes would be the best way to get back up to distance. I’ve got a tendency to push things, though, so I needed a distraction.
Foraging requires a decent level of attention in order to spot likely hauls of edible plants, and since I’d developed something of an obsession with finding wild garlic, it took a remarkably short amount of time to form a plan. Some internet research equipped me with the necessary knowledge:
- It grows in cool, damp conditions
- If you find bluebells, the conditions are probably good for wild garlic
- There’s wild garlic on Hampstead Heath, and possibly in Highgate Wood
- It looks a bit like lily of the valley, which is a whole lot less edible
Once I’d made my way over to the Heath, I set a course for the less-trod areas in the woods. I saw a few other walkers, a few couples off to admire the views, and one man who eyed me furtively as he emerged from a dirt track through a thick shield of trees and bushes. This, I decided, looked like an excellent spot and – having passed a solitary clump of sorry-looking bluebells – I shortly stumbled over a weedy-looking clump of wild garlic.
I loaded my jacket pockets with leaves (having double-checked that it wasn’t lily of the valley), continued my run expecting to see more – I didn’t – and finally turned back.
Now, my running jacket was a freebie, so lacking in the technical wicking and breathability properties you might ideally want. So, running back through Woodland Walk, as I boiled in the bag, so the wild garlic in my pocket steamed, releasing a fragrant aroma.
‘Mmm, let’s have roast chicken,’ a family mused in a Bisto-sponsored cliche as I ran past them.
‘I fancy a nice bruschetta,’ a hipster commented to her partner, both wheeling fixies because their jeans were too tight to actually ride the bikes.
‘Does someone smell European to you?’ Asked a man carrying a UKIP plaque.
Back home, I’d worked up an appetite so settled down to a nice bowl of garlicky aubergine pasta. A tasty and fitting reward for what turned out to be 13.4 miles run over 1 hour 45 minutes.
The Runner’s World events listing website is my new swag. (Saying ‘swag’ is also totes my new swag, yah.)
What started off as a very race-free nine months or so is rapidly filling up with comeback events. The roll-call of races so far is:
And there will be more to add to the roster over the coming weeks. I’m keeping an eye out for 10k races and half-marathons mostly, and would kind of like to squeeze in another race in July. Perhaps a return to the Oxford Half could be on the cards for October as a target race…
Planning races is exciting and with a half-marathon just three weeks away, I’m really looking forward to taking some longer runs. (I’ve even planned a couple of routes to see if I can find some clumps of wild garlic.) If only people would stop having celebrations the day before races…
A couple of weeks ago I decided that I’d made enough progress in my recovery to enter a few events. Start with a few unusual distances, get used to a controlled effort under race conditions. And so, my first race back came round – the West London Action for Children 8-mile Fun Run.
8 miles might not be the most sensible distance for a comeback, but I figured it was long enough to avoid any excesses of speed, and the informality of a fun run would take any race-day pressures away. And it was a fiver, so would be rude not to run.
I woke early, brought my girlfriend tea in bed and tried to wedge the Wiggles’ ‘Mashed Potato’ in her head as I left. (Yes, I’m annoying like that.)
The fun run was just the other side of Hammersmith Bridge, so my morning started off with a 10-mile cycle. A proper warm up! All the while, humming ‘Mashed potato mashed potato! Cold spaghetti cold spaghetti!’ Which had irritatingly wedged in my head.
Cycling round Regent’s Park, I temporarily got caught up with a pack of cyclists doing some kind of cycle event. Heading down Baker Street, I parted from the pack, only to catch up with them later when I cut down a few back streets to get to Hyde Park.
After a remarkably event-free cycle (very little getting lost, no bike faults) I arrived at the race HQ, located down a particularly leafy road. Inside, a modest handful of runners and walkers were milling around checking maps of the route. We were shortly ushered outside for a light warm-up in the gardens in the sunshine. I made sure to stretch my calves and ankles carefully, took a few sips of water, and I was as ready as I was going to be.
My plan was to aim for 55 minutes. Not a stellar pace, but respectable enough for a post-cycle run, and crucially unlikely to put my ankle under more stress than a normal training run. But, although I had my Garmin with me, I was running on feel – I had every intention of ignoring my watch for the duration of the run.
Most of my plans went out the window as we set off. A pack of three other runners set out at the front – including the front runner, who knew the course, as was taking the usual role of the lead bike. We set off back towards Hammersmith bridge, turned off and headed right down the dirt track alongside the Thames. Having checked the map earlier, I’d been sure it was a left-turn, so I decided I needed to stick with other people to avoid getting lost.
One of the pack pulled out in front – a guy in a Mornington Chasers vest – and the pace felt comfortable, so I went with him. Dodging around walkers, joggers and several pelotons, we quickly put some distance between us and the run leader.
We were approaching a bridge (Putney, I think). ‘Do we cross here?’ I asked. ‘Thought it was the next one,’ he replied. Unnervingly, there were no marshals on the bridge, so we waited for the lead runner to catch up. He helpfully shouted out a set of comprehensive directions for the rest of the course and left us to get on with the run.
The Thames Towpath is generally well-signed, but it’s very much signed with walkers in mind. While most of the path is directly next to the river, but there are occasional dead ends where it sporadically juts inland around riverside buildings.
We took turns taking the headwind (there’s always a headwind on the Thames – it doesn’t matter which direction you’re running), while both keeping eyes peeled for route signs. We passed our first set of marshals under Hammersmith Bridge, marking something close to the half-way point.
And then came an interminable stretch of river, covering a languorous bend in the river, while we kept eyes peeled for the bridge that would take us back to the south bank and back towards race HQ. Eventually a bridge came into sight, looking distinctly like a railway crossing. Surely this couldn’t be it?
Eventually, we reached it and saw that there was a series of steps for a pedestrian crossing alongside the rails. The guy in the Chasers vest started to gain some distance, but this was the turnaround point.
The route turned from pavement back to trail, but Hammersmith Bridge was still what felt like an age away. But then I came across a cluster of marshals, who called out that there was a right then a left ahead. This was unexpected, but brought me out on to a leafy-looking road that seemed awfully familiar.
Feeling spent, but with no pain, I turned into the driveway of race HQ and stopped my watch. 51:07, and second place overall. Unexpected, to say the least.
While we waited for other runners to return, I had a chat with Thomas (the Chaser who’d finished first) – a 2:44 marathoner coming back from injury. Later, while talking marathon goals, comeback plans, key training sessions, I’d reclaimed my bag. My cycle helmet was dangling from the back, and I was stretching out my quads. In an act of supreme clumsiness, I caught my foot in my helmet and tumbled ungracefully backwards. Smooth.
A restorative cheese sandwich at the impressive-looking barbeque later, I set off back towards Seven Sisters through Hammersmith – smith – smith – smith – no income tax, no VAT, no money back, no guarantee. Unfortunately I didn’t know all the lyrics, and I’m not even sure these are correct, but they were wedged firmly in my head for the best part of the hour-long cycle home in the sunshine.
Today the ballot for the Virgin Money London Marathon opened and filled in a record-breaking 11.5 hours. 1 in 7 will get a ballot place, but a number of runners will have planned to earn a guaranteed entry by running a Good For Age time.
So there was controversy when – without notice – the marathon organisers changed the goalposts and tightened up some of the categories. Cue storm of outrage on Twitter, opinion polls and even online petitions. We’ll see if the London Marathon backs down, or sticks to its guns.
Amidst this anguish – with cries of ‘If I’d known I’d have run faster’ (and really? Because if you were going for a time, why would you have held back?) – something struck me as a little odd.
Now, before I go into this, I’d love to be wrong. I don’t want to be some kind of an idiot about this, so please chip in if there’s a logic I’m missing.
So, most of the outraged cries were from men in the younger age bracket who now need a 3:05 rather than a 3:10. 3:00 is a significant time barrier, so this feels fair (even if it’s an hour after the race has been won). It’s also on par with the qualifying time for this group for Boston.
The women’s qualifying time for the youngest age group has also dropped by 5 minutes to 3:45. The Boston equivalent is 3:35.
So, here’s the thing – and I’m sorry if this is a bit of a dickish thing to say – but isn’t the women’s Good For Age a bit soft?
I know that this will have been considered by the organisers, with a careful eye on participation levels. There is a role for the UK’s most prominent race to play in encouraging grass-roots participation, and with significantly more men running marathons than women, it needs to be accessible and inclusive.
But, while at the top end of the sport the male genetic advantage generally plays out in a difference of about 15 minutes at the finish line, there’s a difference of 40 minutes in the Good For Age pen.
Yes 15 minutes plays out proportionally as you get further up the field, so I’m not arguing that the women’s Good For Age time should be moved to 3:20. But, a woman finishing 1:25 after the lead women have finished is still Good For Age.
And why does this matter? What’s the problem with encouraging wider participation and broadening the appeal of the marathon?
Aspiration – or at least that’s what I think. Because women at the top of the field are running incredible times – Paula’s competitive running career may be over, but her world record is arguably one of the most significant sporting achievement by a British athlete. We have great distance-running pedigree and history in this country, and there’s a new generation of Team GB women taking the step up to the marathon to fill her boots.
Yes, making the marathon more accessible for women plays a role in this legacy. But the gap between the Good For Age runners and the elites makes the front runners feel untouchable. If you’re ambitious, how do you even go about working up to taking more than an hour off your time?
Maybe this is all a symptom of the male bias in running – for whatever reason, it appeals less to women as a competitive sport. Maybe it’s only stated so explicitly in such a massively over-subscribed race. And maybe the Good For Age hurdles are broadening the appeal of distance running far more than would be the case if they were tightened up. But it feels like something that contributes to undermining the profile of the women’s race – another thing that implies women’s achievements in distance running are inferior to men’s.
I feel a bit awkward writing this, and perhaps it’s a taboo topic for a male runner who is, after all, crossing the finish line while the winners have headed in the direction of the press conference. The Virgin London Marathon is the most prestigious race in the UK and has a remit to raise the profile of our sport and inspire a new generation of distance talent. And while they’ve made a bad decision in how the changes in qualifying time were handled, it feels like a sideshow for what is a more pressing issue in running – that for whatever reason, it’s a bit of a boys’ club.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – especially if I’m wrong! What do you think about the difference between the male and female Good For Age times?
It feels like I’ve been taking it easy for ages in shaking off this Achilles injury. My Garmin Connect account rather depressingly highlights that my last logged run was on Wednesday 9 January 2013 – a rather unremarkable commuter trek home.
Cutting right back on my running has meant rediscovering an extra five or six hours a week. So while the Narnian winter ensued, I learnt to bake bread – as you do. Sure, it’s not the most obvious running-replacement activity, but it turns out you can stretch your poorly tendon by adopting a slightly lunging stance while kneading dough. And since a good knead takes about 10 minutes, that’s a good long stretch.
Over the months I’ve worked my way through fairly standard loaves…
… to beer bread (made with the mighty fine Hobgoblin brewed by Wychwood)…
… to nurturing a sourdough starter for a particularly remarkable loaf.
Over the past month or so, I’ve been gently reintroducing myself to running. Low-impact, untimed, unmeasured runs based entirely on feel, building from one run a week to three. My return hasn’t always felt great – at first I was paranoid about doing something to my ankle, and then as I became more confident in its strength I found the going tougher than I’d hoped.
No matter what cross training you do, you’re going to lose fitness when you have a sustained period away from running. One of the most annoying adaptations my body made to the run-free period was the hard and worn pads of thick skin on the soles of my feet softened. I’d come out of a shortish run feeling like I might be on the verge of getting blisters! Fortunately that tenderness seems to have passed.
This week, after a particularly satisfying route around the Serpentine on Tuesday, I decided it was time to find out what distance I was actually running. I suspected I had been running about 5.5 miles on my weekday route, which I had generally been completing in about 50 minutes. Slow for me, yes, but that involved crossing a busy few roads around Marble Arch and Trafalgar Square – both pretty dreadful crossings. I used MapMyRun to work out the distance, which turned out to be around 6.5 miles, which was a pleasant surprise.
After a bit of thought, I decided that this weekend I would recharge my Garmin and actually find out how far and fast I was running. The key thing when coming back from an injury is not to come back too fast and do too much, so I needed to make sure having the Garmin didn’t push me to run harder than I would normally. I turned off all noises and sternly told myself not to look at the watch.
Heading off into the spring sunshine, I fought against my urge to check my time at the point that I knew marked the first mile. Fortunately, once past that spot I was able to more or less forget the watch and just focus on running comfortably. The Lee Valley was quieter than normal – presumably runners were either saving themselves for the marathon, or saving their normal run for Sunday. This meant I had relatively few runners to try to chase down, which is usually my vice…
The out-and-back run took just over 35 minutes. I’d been pondering the distance and suspected it may be about 4.5 miles, but Garmin gave the distance as pretty much spot on 5 miles. Not only that, but my pace had increased progressively over the 3 miles along the towpaths, and each of those miles was at around marathon pace – 6:53, 6:50, 6:40.
There’s still a long way to go in the recovery, but perhaps there’s not so far to go as I’d feared. I’m feeling more optimistic about rebuilding my fitness, and I’m looking forward to soaking up the atmosphere of the marathon tomorrow from the sidelines. I don’t yet know whether I’m going to go and watch in person, or catch the front-running on TV (there’s talk that the pacemakers have been asked to go at world-record pace), but I know that afterwards I’m going to want to run and start planning comeback races.
If you’re running – good luck! Looks like good conditions, and I’m sure the atmosphere will be powerful after the tragic events at Boston less than a week ago.
The countdown to the 2013 Virgin London Marathon is on, with just 2 days until the race and what look like promising weather conditions.
Of course I’m disappointed not to be running this year, but I wouldn’t have been able to do the race justice and – most importantly – I’m making a slow and steady recovery. But this isn’t about me, because this is about a guy called Rob and the PDSA.
I had an email from PDSA, a UK animal charity, who are trying to raise awareness of one of their vet’s fundraising through running the London Marathon on Sunday. They’ve produced a fun infographic showing the marathon times for different animals and… well… humans are kind of slow.
If you’re racing on Sunday, may you run like a bat (would you be disqualified for flying?) or a shark (ditto swimming?).
PS. If you’re a geek, you might be wondering why a shark’s marathon time is slower than that of a dolphin or badger since they all move at 25mph. It’s because the shark set off too fast at the start. There’s a lesson here…
It was mid-January when I realised I was probably best off taking a break from running to allow my Achilles tendon to heal, which meant coming to terms with my likely inability to run the 2013 Virgin London Marathon. Yet, little more than two weeks before the race, it’s only now that I’ve finally bitten the bullet and actually deferred my place.
After work this week, I was limbering up for a run in the (fleeting) sunshine. I stopped for a chat with one of the other runners, who’d heard a bit about my injury, and was pleased to see me back hitting the road again.
‘I need to get round to deferring my place,’ I said, manfully stretching my heel by pushing against a signpost outside the office.
‘You could probably still run it,’ he said, stretching his hamstring by balancing his foot on the wheel of a locked-up bike.
And so the seed was sewn. Could I still run the marathon? It was only a matter of weeks away, and the furthest I’d run in recent months was about six miles. I still had twinges of pain and my ankle was stiff in the mornings, but it’s not like you do any real running for three weeks after a marathon anyway…
The first working day of British Summer Time was sunny and bright – although cold and with a bitter wind – so I vowed to run a lap of Hyde Park. Just taking it easy, of course. Which was easier than expected at first as I trotted down the congested pavements of Shaftesbury Avenue and Piccadilly.
But then I was into the park, and headed up towards Speakers’ Corner. This was a route I knew well from running with the Serpentine group and from my first year’s marathon training in London. Heading towards Kensington Palace I felt good – I’d overtaken other runners, my footfall was neat and I was enjoying being out in the evening light. I mused over the idea of maybe just, you know, running the marathon for the experience.
Hyde Park has a few hills (not really hills – more lumps, really) and it was as I was running down one of these, neatly overtaking another runner, that I started to feel some niggles in my ankle. I kept going, but taking a bit more care with my push off to avoid over-straining, and carried on – I was just over half-way through, so my only option was to finish the run. There were no sharp pains, just the dull sensation that my ankle wasn’t quite right – or particularly pleased.
Although my pace back along Piccadilly and Shaftesbury Avenue was again moderated by swelling crowds of slow (and erratic) pedestrians (who would just stop, randomly side-step, decide to take a photo in the middle of the road – you know the type), the constant reminder that I should probably stop running soon coming from my ankle was wearying.
After an hour’s running, and with no real idea how much distance I’d covered (probably something like 7.5 miles), I was back at the office. A trip up and down the eight flights of stairs to collect my stuff and a 6-mile cycle home into a billowing headwind later and my ankle seemed to have calmed down. Some precautionary stretching in the evening followed, although I doubted I’d escape the scarecrow walk the following morning.
Surprisingly, though, the following morning my ankle was no worse than it normally is at the moment. That is to say, it’s quite flexible, but I can feel the tension in the tendon. However, if nothing else, it proved that running the marathon probably wouldn’t help my recovery.
Which brings me back to why I hadn’t deferred my place earlier. I know from Twitter that other runners who have been battling injuries over the winter are facing up to similar decisions as the spring marathon season starts.
Runners are optimists. After all, if you were a pessimist would you set out to run the distance required to kill a man? If you weren’t an optimist, why would you spend long hours at the weekend and in the dark winter evenings running in the miserable winter weather? Show me someone who continues to run after mile 18, when they know there’s another 8 miles to go, and I’ll show you an optimist.
So, while I’m sidelined this year, I’m on my way back. I’m up to three runs a week, with stretching every evening, and while I’m not running fast or far I know that I will be soon. In the meantime, I’m going to vicariously read about other people’s marathons and enjoy going through early April without even the slightest fretting about whether I’m coming down with a cold or not.