Archive for December, 2011

Today we launched the Christmas Mile. 


It could well go on to become the serious, bespectacled, older cousin of the Beermile. We’ll see.


The number of athletes toeing the starting line was impressive. One (me). For a variety of legitimate and less-than-legitimate excuses no-one else could make it. Niceguy was there but had hurt his calf two days earlier and couldn’t do any running on it. Timmons never lets frivolity get in the way of serious training, and chose to do the latter on the day. Ben was keen but not in town, likewise Robbo was interested but had family commitments. Rich had a sore foot, Gracie lives somewhere else.


So it was that, on a cold (but not icy) day in December, on the Birmingham Uni track, for the inaugural Christmas Mile event, I was running solo. Let’s factor in the usual “I ate too much turkey / chocolate / crisps / mince pies / side board and bookshelf ensemble”. You get the drill. Racing-weight I was not. I also had a chest cold. Basically, I’d have been lucky to get around the track at all. Some people are born tough.


Anyway, Banks was holding the stopwatch and calling the splits. He was shouting encouragement and general advice. So I did some strides, put on my track spikes (first time out of the cupboard in shit knows how long)  and sauntered up to the line. One thing was certain, first place was mine.


The gun was sounded (Niceguy said GO) and I was off. I had no idea how to pace it (this will become evident very soon) and thought I better run fast as “it’s only one mile after all”. Surely I could get through the first lap in 75 seconds. “Sixty seven point eight” shouted Ed as I rolled through lap one. Jesus. Ok, calm down. 100m into the second lap I was in lactic’s waiting area, soon to be called through to the main room, lactic hell. Basically I got progressively slower from then on out. But as I had thought, I did indeed manage to (just) hold onto first place.


I gasped my way across the line, arms aching (yes, your arms ache in a middle distance race), legs completely numb, lungs on fire and blood in my throat. When I had recovered sufficiently to speak, I asked Ed for the number.


So there it is. A line in the sand. My official unofficial one mile PB, and I should add, the Christmas Mile Record.


Awaiting official splits from MrEd, but from my pain-fuzzled brain I think he shouted out 68, 76, 78, 78.

Anybody want a pace-maker?

Read Full Post »

The 1993 Great Train Relay 
Way back in 1993 I was a first year Engineering student at Wits University, Johannesburg.

I had recently joined the Athletics Club which was to change my life in so many ways. We had a proper coach, who gave us proper programs to follow. The improvements had been nothing short of incredible for those of us who had never stuck to a program before. But that’s by the by. I was hooked on running and was sponging up advice and experiences wherever I could.

Sometime in the second half of the year, a trip to Port Elizabeth (a city on the South African East Coast) to race a train was in order. It was called the Great Train Race and the train was called the Apple Express. 

From the now defunct race website “The Great Train race is an annual 10-man relay event over 73 km. It is hotly contested and has become the de facto South African club relay championship. The race is not only between the teams of runners, but also between the TRAIN and the runners – the aim is to beat the steam train!”.  The link also mentions that at the height of its popularity, in 1996, there were 624 teams taking part. That’s 6240 runners. A big event.

I have no idea who organised the trip, although it was probably the likes of Keith Sherman or Geoff Lee (the club chairman and soon-to-be ultrarunning hero). Anyway we were bundled into a team bus and sent down to the seaside.

The runners I can remember being on that trip are: Hendrick Ramaala, Alex Burrows, Paulo Contente, Philip Knibbs, Piers Cruickshanks, Mark Wadley, Geoff Lee, and me. There were ten in a relay team so there must be another two who have completely slipped my mind.

We had no realistic aspirations of greatness in the race. Club running in South Africa is (or was at least; having been away from the scene for over a decade I don’t know whether this is still the case) dominated by a number of top level clubs sponsored by large mining companies or other big hitting industrial companies. They filled their teams with national and world class professional runners, and the competition was fierce at the top. The likes of President Brandt Mines had Xolile Yawa (60min half marathon runner, multiple SA national champion at 10000m, Olympian), Meck Methuli etc. President Steyn Mines was another top club, Iscor Steel etc. Anyway, the point is we would be nowhere near these elite teams and had considered a top 50 as a good target.

But we had an ace up our sleeve. Unbeknownst to any of us, and possibly not yet to himself, Hendrick was fast.

Hendrick was on the verge of breaking through to good provincial level and soon after that national level, and a few years after that, truly world class (two silver medals at World Half Marathon Champs, sub-60 half marathons ten years before it became commonplace among Kenyans). He was on his way to somewhere good. But we didn’t know it yet. What we did know is that he was the fastest on our team, so he got first leg. The advice was “Be cool Hendrick, you will be among professional runners so don’t try and go with the pace. Top 15 to 20 is your target”. Naturally Hendrick ignored this nonsense and went out like the steam train. He was leading the whole damn race halfway through his leg.  He ended in second place, Xolile having caught him somewhere towards the end (probably thinking who is this guy??).

Our second leg runner was Alex Burrows. He didn’t train with us so we didn’t know him too well, but what we did know is that he had run a 3:54 1500m in Joburg (2000m above sea level), so yeah he had some moves. He lost a place or two but we were still about 5th overall. The rest of us ran as hard as we could, each losing a few places. All I remember about my leg was going out way too hard. Welcome to relay running mince. When the adrenalin wore off I realised I was screwed, but hung on as best I could. And so it went. Until our last leg runner, Paulo Contente, got going. Amazingly we were still high up in the placings, 21st overall.

As each of us finished our leg, the team bus had picked us up and drove to the next leg. So we were all in the van and driving the final leg of the race. Paulo was running well. He was a 9:30 steepler, so he was pretty hot shit in our books. He was also Portuguese and I mention this because, outside of the running, the trip had been punctuated by Paulo’s tales of any and all things Portuguese. He also told the most disgusting jokes my young mind had ever heard. He was great.

So back to the final leg. We’re lying 21st and the finish is about half a mile away. The route goes left and left again, around a large field. So you can see the finish banner from a long way off. We had driven ahead of the runners now, to get to the finish, so now were waiting about half a mile from the end, to see if Paulo had held onto 21st . He comes into view down the road, sprinting like a man possessed, in TWENTIETH place! We’re driving alongside him and he gasps something about the guy in twentieth making a wrong turn. Sure enough a few seconds later we see the runner who had been ahead of him previously, CLIMBING THROUGH A HOLE IN THE FENCE to get back onto the road from the field he had somehow ended up in.

Turns out he had gotten lost and asked Paulo which way to go. Paulo, being a competitive guy (understatement) had seen his opportunity and taken it. He offered a route that he knew was wrong. Off the runner went, and on realising his mistake had cut through the field to try  and make up lost time. Paulo was long gone by now, sprinting as though it was a 400m race. The runner behind him came through strongly, but Paulo held on by a few seconds and we secured twentieth!

Before you get all “that’s not cricket”, remember that runners and teams were supposed to know their leg routes beforehand. This guy hadn’t done his homework.

It was an awesome first away trip with the club, and there were many more to come. But this one always stays with me, because it was the first.

Hendrick’s opener and Paulo’s closer made it all the more memorable. How did the train do? No idea.

Footnote: In researching the Train Relay to look for photos etc., I sadly discovered that from the height of its powers in the late 90’s it has not been run since 2004. There is talk of it restarting soon, so here’s hoping.

Read Full Post »

I knocked over another long standing PB this past weekend.

A 35:00 at the Telford 10k on Sunday displaced the 35:04 I set at the Rainbow Chickens 10k in Johannesburg in 1995 (No hyperlink? Damn right no hyperlink. Weblinks for race results in the 90’s are rarer than a sighting of Enrique in shoes).

I took a lot of satisfaction in my 36-year old self dishing out a hiding to my 19-year old self.

The race was recognised as being a fast course, with two laps, pretty darn flat. Although not pancake flat I must add. I went out fast, too fast really, but then you have to don’t you? First mile in 5:17 (hello!) and then settled in more or less at 5:30-5:40 pace.

Halfway, 5k, in 17:06. The sub-35 was still on.

On the second lap my fast start caught up with me and I couldn’t keep my legs turning over quick enough. I knew I was slowing down but I just hung in there trying to lose as little time as possible. I knew it was going to be a mighty close thing breaking 35, but I thought I had a few seconds in the bag. I didn’t. I got to the 200m to go sign, looked at my watch and saw 34:26. Shit. This meant I needed to run the final 200 in under 34 seconds to break 35 minutes. I dug in and went for it.

In the end, obviously, I ran exactly 34 seconds to run exactly 35 minutes.

Mile splits went: 1mi 5:17 (5:17), 2mi 10:58 (5:41), 3mi 16:39 (5:41), 4mi 22:13 (5:34), 5mi 28:13 (6:00), 6mi 33:55 (5:42)

So it’s a 4 second improvement, and like I said earlier, taking down a PB that has stood for 16 years is a heap of satisfaction-pudding.

Youth, pffft.

I have a pretty bad facial expression in this photo, but I like it because you’re supposed to look like crap at the end of the hardest 10k race you’ve ever run. I also like it because it has my name, position and time on it, which is a nice touch for a free race photo (they are rare these days too). So thanks to the race organisor and the race photographer.


Read Full Post »

We’re talking Olympics 2012. Of course we are.

The early selection conundrum. Where do you go with it? UKA have made it clear what the A-standards are that need to be achieved, but they have not made it clear as to how they will assess those performances for selecting the team, and particularly for the early selecting that will take place and that has recently taken place.

Looking at the women for the moment.

The first wave of selections have just taken place. The winners are obviously Paula and Mara who got selected. But it closes the door just that little bit on all remaining candidates. There is now only one spot available. Jo Pavey, Liz Yelling, Claire Hallisey, Louise Damen and possibly some others I’ve forgotten about are all fighting for that one spot.

Spare a thought especially for Jo, who has run 2:28 twice this year, including on the acknowledged tougher course of the New York Marathon. The difference between her and Mara must have been marginal. Mara has the better pedigree (2:23 and a 6th place in the previous Olympic Marathon) but she has struggled for the past year or two. I don’t think she would dispute that. By contrast Jo has had a great year since her return from having a baby.

Clearly the selectors couldn’t have pre-selected all three athletes in the early window as that literally would have shut out any potential candidates who had lined up an early 2012 marathon to qualify.

Paula’s selection is beyond debate. With her pedigree and critically with her current form, a 2:23 in Berlin, she should have been inked into the team sheet at the first opportunity. Mara has the pedigree but not the form. Or rather, not the form that is significantly better than Jo’s. indeed Jo’s 2:28 in New York could be argued to be the better mark. But then it does start to get subjective. Which is sort of the point. It’s a close call, so why make it now?

But they did and Jo gets the short straw and now needs to decide what to do. Surely a third marathon in a 12-month period would be a tall order, especially considering that if it went well it would lead to a FOURTH and the most important of all, the Olympic Marathon, a few months after that. Yet that is effectively what she is being told she has to do. I have nothing against Mara, I’m a big fan, as we all should be. She is a great runner and a great advert for British running, as a person and as an athlete. But the fact remains that of Jo is being asked for a third indicator of form, perhaps she should have been asked for a second. Doing that would also give the remaining 5 or 6 athletes mentioned earlier, slightly more encouragement as two of the spots would theoretically still be up for grabs.

London Marathon announced their elite women’s field for 2012 a few days ago, and notably, Jo’s name was absent. This could mean a number of things of course. She could be thinking about a different marathon, she could simply have not yet confirmed to London, indeed she could have packed it all in. But in a world of conspiracy theories and armchair experts (guilty) surely the noticeable absence of her name from the entry list could be read as a reaction to the snub of not being selected early, or of selecting Mara early. If the selectors want to keep her guessing as to her fate, then this could be her way of keeping them guessing as to her intentions.

Unfortunately in these situations, there is only one losing side and it is always the same side.

Read Full Post »

A taster for some possible future musings.

It’s a great topic.

People talk about the general lack of depth in UK running when they often mean the lack of numbers at the sharp end of elite.

Mo is obviously way out in front, but he is an anomaly. Even on a global scale, the guy is soundly thrashing world class Kenyans, Ethiopians, Eritreans you name it. But behind him there is a significant gulf. I took my girls to watch the UK Trials for World Champs over the summer (the wife had to work on her thesis and I want the girls to experience live athletics wherever possible. Once they start loving it, they will want to see more it, and oh well, if I have to tag along while they go to the events, then that’s a chore I can bear :-)). Anyway, watching Mo win the men’s 5k was like watching a grown up racing against Under 15’s. It was a telling indication that, whilst we may have one or two guys who can run sub 13:30, there aren’t many, and even those couple are a long way behind Mo.

Onto a more marathon-specific point. I like 2:08 as line in the sand. 2:08 is a tough call. I don’t think any amount of training or performance centres will get results down past that level. Sub 2:08 requires something else. Take Japan. Did you know Japan is one of the most successful marathon running countries? (behind Kenya obviously). The depth in Japan is absolutely incredible. And they can’t break 2:08 (often) either. So let’s park that and look at 2:10 or 2:12. Or heck even 2:14. At those paces we should be rolling out dozens of guys in the UK, but we’re not. Things are improving though, after a low point somewhere in the past 10 years. We all know why the number of 2:20 club runners has dropped away of the past 20 or 30 years, I could cover it here, but it’s a post on its own really.

The thing with running a really top level marathon, is that it requires years and years and years (and years and years) of hard focussed training. It requires a special kind of discipline because, whilst you could argue that a top 10k requires all of those things too – and it does, or even a top miler, it does again, but with one difference. With a mile or a 10k, athletes get a number of chances each season to have a go. Marathons are less forgiving. You can really pour your energy and focus into probably 2 marathons in a year. Often something will have prevented perfect preparation for one of those, so that usually leaves one crack at a marathon per year. If it goes badly, and it often does (at least in terms of what an elite might be targeting pre-race) you have to go away, regroup and refocus for another 12 months. A bad 10k, means, look in the race diary, find another one in 6-10 weeks’ time and go again (I’m oversimplifying). Same with miling during track season. In the pre-season, athletes and their coaches will pick probably about half a dozen track races over the year, possibly more if you include over and under distance races, i.e. milers running 800’s and 3k’s, and 5k guys (like Mo) running 1500’s, etc. With the marathon you look at the calendar, line up two, and hope like hell things click on one of those two days.

 When it doesn’t: drawing board. But when it does, oh the sweet nectar of marathon satisfaction. Nothing compares.

But the very nature of the “train and hope” required by the marathon (elites have attested to this too) means that for a perceived “depth” to become apparent over the marathon distance, we really do need a lot of top level runners filtering through and targetting 2:12 or better. Then, even with the paring that went on earlier, sufficient numbers will still come through as “successful attempts” and the top level depth will finally start to grow. It takes time, and dedication. Check back in 5 years.


Read Full Post »

I’m a simple man and I like simple things. I believe that, in many cases, there is a simple solution and that solution is often the best.


Take running technique.


There is a well-known distance running coach in the USA who has become known for tinkering with his athlete’s running styles and techniques on a micro-scale. Going down to the level of detail where he is advising a particular athlete on how to position his thumb on each hand while running. These aren’t straight off-the-couch running types either. We are talking about seasoned, experienced fulltime professional athletes. Now whilst all this running doesn’t guarantee them the knowledge to handle any and all running issues themselves, it does guarantee that, over the weeks and weeks and months and months and years and years of regular, consistent, every day running, of 100-mile plus weeks, their bodies will almost certainly have found the optimum technique for them to run in.


It may not be the most efficient and, when analysed there may be areas that look ungainly or unusual when compared to other runners or runners who are recognised for having a “good running technique”. But the point is that, this runner’s body will have developed, call it evolving if you want to get philosophical about it, a pretty successful running technique. Otherwise they would not have been able to maintain the consistency, the quantity or the intensity of the running over all those years.


Now scale this back from the elite or sub-elite level. It can be applied to runners of any ability, any level and any amount of running experience. Think back to when you were a baby. Ok you don’t remember that, and neither do I, but here’s the deal. You had to learn to walk. That’s the important bit. You had to learn. Nobody taught you to walk. I didn’t teach my two daughters to walk. The closest I could come was maybe to hold their hand while they toddled about. Your body figures it out. Pretty clever really. And I believe it is the same with running.


Everybody can run. That’s a fact. Even if it is only for 10 seconds to the other end of the train platform. Our bodies inherently know how to do this. Running 5 minutes, then 10 minutes, then half an hour, on a regular basis, and your body will sort itself out – to the best of its physical ability. That bit is important as it pertains to the “style” or perceived “good technique” mentioned earlier. Just because it looks less than perfect doesn’t mean it isn’t perfect for your body. We all know a certain British marathoner, possibly the greatest marathoner the world has known, who has a famously uncomfortable running technique, bobbing head included. Has it held her back? Records suggest not.


So get out there, get running and worry about getting fit. Don’t worry about “how to run”. Let your body take care of that.


The ability to walk and the ability to run is in-built in all of us. Let it out.

Read Full Post »