Archive for the ‘Races’ Category

Too many long runs?

October 3, 2013

A few days reflection, a more detailed examination of my training logs, and an interesting discussion with Robert regarding nutrition in the comments on my recent post about the Robin Hood half marathon, have provided me with food for thought.  I think I have learned some useful lessons, but first of all, I should put that race into perspective.

Although I want to race well, and would like to once again run a creditable marathon, the underlying goal of my running is minimising the inexorable deterioration that accompanies aging.   Six years ago, I decided that I would train systematically for a half marathon.  I had been running regularly since the previous November, though averaging about only 8 Km (5 miles) per week.   At the beginning of March I started systematic training, initially building up volume on the elliptical cross trainer.  After 8 weeks my running pace at the second ventilatory threshold had increased from 6 min per Km to 5 min per Km.  I added increasing amounts of running and by mid-June, did a 5K time trial in 23:27.  I contemplated this ruefully in light of the times of my youth, but decided it was not too bad, and began to speculate whether a half marathon in 105 min might be possible.  I continued to do around 35 (equivalent) miles per week, including some elliptical sessions, and occasional longish runs of 15Km.  Then in August, the arthritis that had afflicted me in my 50’s made an unwelcome return.  At the time, we were on holiday in France, staying in a farm house and sleeping in the loft.  For a few days, I was forced to descend the steep steps from the loft each morning, shuffling on my bottom.   However, the storm abated as quickly as it had arrived, and about six weeks later, I ran the half marathon in 101:24.  That time remains my M60 PB.

This year, I have again been able to train regularly, disrupted only by an episode of arthritis early in the year. I have coped with a greater volume – about 46 (equivalent) miles per week over a period of 6 months.  However, by August, my pace at second ventilatory threshold was slower than 5 min/Km.  I did not attempt a 5Km time trial, but am certain that I would a have struggled to break 25 minutes.  A 105 min half marathon appeared to be an absurd goal.  However, based on previous experience I was hopeful that a few weeks of higher intensity, lower volume training would produce a major improvement.  On the day, this hope was partially justified by the fact that I was comfortably below the second ventilatory threshold while maintaining a pace 4:53 min/Km for the first two Km, on target for a time of 103 min.   But my legs were not coping well.   As described in my recent post, the pace ebbed away and I finished in 107:49, a little more than 6 minutes slower than my time six years ago.  Disappointing, but not really unexpected.  WAVA predicts a loss of a little over 1 minute per year for half marathon time at my age, so in fact I have deteriorated at almost the exact rate that WAVA predicts. Furthermore WAVA predictions are based on the performance of elderly runners who are not only naturally fast, but also are deteriorating less rapidly than average as they age. So this year’s evidence indicates that I have at least slowed my rate of deterioration over 6 years to match that of the WAVA standard setters.  However, the evidence provided by last years time of 101:50, which is my best WAVA graded performance of my 60’s, suggests that I could do better.

This year’s campaign has several other bright spots.  I appeared to cope reasonable well with a volume of  46 miles per week for 6 months.  This bodes well for my plan to train for a marathon next year.  Secondly, I was pleased to find that I can still muster a competitive edge even when nearly exhausted.   With one Km to go, the sight of the swishing ponytail of a young lady who had passed me about 16 Km earlier provided the focus.  I covered the final Km in 4:56, a little faster than I had managed for any Km between 5 and 20 Km.  Having overtaken the young lady with the ponytail with 300m still to run, I subsequently overtook at least four other runners, all younger men, in a spirited run to the line.

105 metres to run and the young lady with the ponytail is now well behind (2nd right). I am in the blue vest and now closing on four young men.

150 metres to run and the young lady with the ponytail is now well behind (2nd right). I am in the blue vest and closing on four young men.

Less than 100 m to go and I am not the only one with an ‘awesome race face’.  The competitive juices are flowing.

Less than 100 m to go and I am not the only one with an ‘awesome race face’. The competitive juices are flowing.

20 m from the line.  The 4 young men are now behind, but I can’t quite catch another young lady, just out of camera view.

20 m from the line. The 4 young men are now behind, but I can’t quite catch another young lady, just out of camera view.

It appears that I am still able to muster the type 2B (fast-twitch) anaerobic fibres when the chips are down.  Unfortunately, type 2B’s can only function at maximum capacity for about 10 seconds.   Nonetheless, at least for a brief period, my type 2B’s were twitching fast enough.  The foot pod recorded a peak stride rate of 216 steps per minute.  But my peak step length was only 118 cm.   Thus, the final sprint confirms that the capacity of my leg muscles to generate a strong eccentric contraction is poor.   This is clearly one of the major limitations imposed by age.   I suspect it is because accumulated fibrous tissue obstructs dynamic stretching of the muscles.  During static stretching I can achieve almost as great a range of motion as I could achieve 55 years ago.    How can I recover my former dynamic range?  As outlined in my previous post, I think hill sprints are probably the best option.

Long runs

But my training log provides further food for thought.  My performance was substantailly worse this year than last year despite a 10% increase in training volume in the final six months.  It is necessary to look at the type of running, not only the volume.   The really striking difference was in the number of long runs.  This year I did 32 runs longer than 15 Km in those six months, many of them in the range 18-21 Km, whereas last year I did 16 runs longer than 15 Km in the corresponding period.  The increase in long runs was the outcome of a deliberate plan to develop better endurance this year.  In fact, I did improve my endurance substantially.  Early in April, one month into my half marathon campaign, I maintained a pace of 6:15 /Km and a heart rate of 740 beats/Km during a typical 16 Km run.  Five months later, I did a 19 Km run at similar effort level and at a pace of 5:43 /Km, with a heart rate of 697 beats/Km.

But is it possible to do too many long runs, even at an easy pace?  Dudley’s well known study of rats training on a wheel for various durations and intensities, demonstrated that aerobic capacity increases with increasing duration of running, but only up to a certain limit, that depends on intensity.  The duration for optimal gain was greatest at low intensities, at paces where most of the work is done by slow twitch fibres.  But even at low intensity, there was no additional gain in aerobic capacity beyond about 90 minutes of training.    The physiology of muscle fibres in humans is quite similar to rats, though proportions of fibre types differ both within and between species.  Nonetheless, despite probable small differences, it is unlikely in either rats or man, that training beyond around 90 minutes will produce further improvement in aerobic capacity.  There might of course be other benefits, including conditioning of connective tissues and improving the balance between consumption of fat and glucose.  But could there be penalties?


For several years the debate between cross-fit enthusiasts and endurance runners has focussed on the potentially harmful effects of cortisol. In the short term, increase in cortisol mobilizes the body’s resources to deal with stress. In particular, it mobilizes glucose to fuel brain and muscle; and limits inflammation.  It should be noted that the brain is the higher priority; although blood glucose levels are increased, cortisol inhibits access to the glut4 transporter molecules in muscle cell membranes that transport glucose into the muscle, thereby ensuring preferential supply to the brain.   But perhaps more importantly for the rpesent discussion, sustained increase in cortisol has a range of harmful effects, including destruction of muscle and weakening of immune defences.  Cortisol rises steadily during long duration exercise.  Typically the level increases to around 220% of normal levels during a marathon.  The crucial issue is: how long is this increase sustained?  In a fit person, the level returns near to baseline within a few hours.  However, in the presence of other stresses, it can remain appreciably elevated for several days.  Until recently, the debate between cross-fitters and endurance runners has remained stalemated over the issue of whether or not typical endurance training programs produce a significant sustained increase in cortisol.

However in 2012, Skoluda and colleagues published the results of a thought-provoking study.  They measured cortisol levels in hair samples in athletes.  Levels of cortisol in hair, unlike levels in blood or saliva, provide a good index of sustained levels.  They found that in a sample of 304 endurance athletes, fairly representative of committed recreational runners, levels of cortisol, in hair were almost 50 % greater than in a reasonably well matched control group.   Furthermore the magnitude of the increase was greater in those with greater weekly training volume.  The increase was greater in marathon runners than in half marathoners, though both groups had values that were significantly increased compared with controls.  Typically a training volume of 70 Km/week (a little lower than my average of 74 Km/week) was associated with a 1.8 fold increase in sustained level of cortisol.  The health consequences of an increase of this magnitude are unclear though such an increase might plausibly result in greater risk of upper respiratory tract infections and even perhaps add to the risk of atherosclerosis and myocardial infarction.   There is evidence for increase in atherosclerosis among male multi-marathoners, as I have discussed previously.  Furthermore, the elevated cortisol levels might inhibit protein synthesis in muscles and limit any gain in strength.

It should be noted that increases in cortisol during exercise are usually less in well trained athletes, suggesting that problems due to cortisol might by ameliorated by a gradual increase in training volume. On the other hand, running in a glycogen depleted state would be expected to increase cortisol levels.  Therefore, I remain sceptical of the wisdom of training in a carbohydrate-depleted state.  In the discussion following my most recent post, Robert has raised some interesting points related to his positive experiences following changes in both the type and timing of his nutrition, including doing long runs without breakfast.  He is running very well at present, though it is perhaps noteworthy that his total training volume has been relatively low this year compared with previous years, and hence, sustained cortisol levels would not be expected.

Total volume or length of long runs?

Although Skoluda did not attempt to disentangle the effects of total weekly training volume from length or frequency of long runs, the evidence that cortisol rises steadily during a long run raises the possibility that it is the length and frequency of long runs that is the main contributor to sustained elevation of cortisol.  When taken together with the evidence that gains in aerobic capacity are likely to be small after 90 minutes of training, I think it is quite plausible that the large number of long runs in my program this year not only contributed to a relatively slow gain in aerobic fitness, but might also have produced a sustained increase in cortisol that impeded the development of strength.   Although I intend to prepare for a marathon next year, I will be more judicious in planning the frequency of long runs.

Robin Hood Half Marathon and plans for the future

September 30, 2013

I lined up for the Robin Hood half marathon yesterday hopeful, but uncertain.  I had a successful six months of training behind me.  By using of the sub-maximal tests described in my posts in June and July to monitor for signs of over-training, I had managed to achieve a 10 % greater training volume than I achieved in the corresponding six months last year.  My aging legs had coped well.  My aerobic capacity had improved slowly but steadily throughout the six months, and furthermore I had managed to do a large number of training runs longer than 15Km, many of them in the range 18-21Km, so it was reasonable to expect that my endurance would be adequate for a half marathon.

In several of these long runs I had increased pace progressively, aiming to reach something near race pace in the final few Km.    However, the disappointing observation was that I had struggled to achieve a pace any faster than 5 min/Km in these runs.  On the one occasion when I achieved even this modest pace, my breathing and heart rate indicated I was already beyond the anaerobic threshold.  Simple physiology indicated that a 100 minute target for the half marathon (4:44 /Km) was unreasonable, but I pinned some hopes on the fact that in last year’s Robin Hood half marathon, I had run far better in the race than prior training suggested was possible.  While my aerobic capacity wasn’t quite as good this year, I was confident that my endurance was better.  So I planned to start at around 4:50 min/Km and adjust pace according to how well I was coping.

The weather was ideal for distance running: broken light cloud with bursts of sunshine and a cooling breeze.  Within the first few hundred metres I was a little surprised to see my heart rate shoot up to an alarming level and wondered whether there might be an impending cardiac problem.  However it soon settled to a reasonable level.   Perhaps I was a little more nervous about this race than usual.   I covered the first two Km at 4:53 min /Km (103 min HM pace).   I felt much more comfortable than I had felt at a similar  pace in training, but it was clear by 3 Km that I would not be able to maintain that pace for much longer.  My breathing was still quite comfortable but my legs were not coping.  In an attempt to reduce the impact forces on my legs, I increased cadence to over 200 steps per min, but my stride gradually shortened further and pace gradually ebbed away.

Although it was clear in the later stages that I would be far short of my target, and indeed had no chance of even achieving 105 minutes, I pushed on as fast as my failing legs would carry me in the final few Km.  However the increased effort was to little avail. As each runner went by I tried to lift my pace, but despite my attempts, each one forged inexorably ahead. Then with a little over 1 Km to go I spotted a young lady with a pink top and swishing pony tail who had passed me about 16Km earlier. The gap was slowly closing, so I had a target for the final Km. I caught her as we climbed up to the flood defence embankment with a few hundred metres to run. She defended strongly for a few metres but I was able to find a little extra drive. So despite being passed by many in the final stages, I claimed one scalp at the end.   My finishing time was 107:49

Afterwards I felt pretty wobbly and a couple of first aiders were quite solicitous for my welfare.  I managed to stay upright though I did need to steady myself against a tent pole.  I wasn’t in danger of fainting; I was simply exhausted.   So what does the future hold? I trained about as well as I could have for this event, but I am not yet ready to abandon hope of pushing back the tide of advancing years.  Perhaps on another day I might have achieved a time better by a few minutes, but if I want to run substantially faster in future, I need to carefully evaluate my strategy.

Aerobic capacity

It is important to note that my aerobic fitness did improve steadily during the six month of training.  In the final sub-maximal test, done during the taper, I achieved 650 heart beats/Km, whereas 6 month previously, shortly after resuming training after a bout of arthritis, the rate was nearer 750 beats/Km.    But the improvement throughout the six months had been painfully slow.  In 2010, when the year had started with a bout of arthritis similar to this year, I had made greater improvement in aerobic capacity in less than 3 months, with a much lower volume of training at a higher intensity.  However that year, my half marathon campaign was stymied by a several illnesses in the summer.    Nonetheless the progress in spring of that year indicates that higher intensity training would be likely to produce a more rapid gain in aerobic capacity.

The phenomenal marathon performances of Ed Whitlock, who does a very large volume of low intensity training, spiced up with fairly regular races, demonstrates that a program based largely on low intensity training can work well.  However, despite the relatively satisfying demonstration that I could cope with a moderate volume of training this year, it appears that I am unable to cope with anything like the volume of training that Ed Whitlock does.  He doesn’t record distances, but runs for several hours each day at an easy pace.  If I increase my training volume to 50 miles in a week, even at an easy pace, I experience rapidly accumulating exhaustion.  So, if I am to produce substantial further improvement in aerobic capacity, greater intensity offers the best prospect.

As I have described on several occasions previously, there is good evidence that high intensity interval training can produce increases in aerobic capacity, including increases in aerobic enzymes and muscle capillary density.  At this stage, I am very tempted to try HIIT for at least a few weeks, as soon as I have recovered from yesterday’s race, to see how well I cope with it.

Muscle power

But there is little doubt that yesterday the principle limitation was my lack of leg muscle power.    I had reached a similar conclusion last year.   Loss of muscular strength is one of the most overt problems of the elderly, and therefore at that stage, the logical step was a program of weight training to increase strength.  Since squats provide a very good ‘whole body’ workout, with particular benefits for legs and trunk, I embarked on a program of squats augmented by dead lifts.  In the final months of the year, I made major gains in strength, increasing my 5 repetition maximum (5RM) for squats from a little over half my body weight to more than 160% of body weight in a period of three months.

I had intended to follow that lifting with a program of plyometrics to increase my capacity to handle the eccentric loads that the leg muscles bear at footfall when running.  Unfortunately, the episode of arthritis confounded that plan.  Since recovering from arthritis, I have continued a maintenance program of squats, and my 5RM has only deteriorated only a little.  However, apart from a small amount of trampolining, I have not dared to introduce plyometrics for fear of stressing my fragile joints.

Eccentric strength

The crucial test of eccentric strength is hopping.  Unfortunately, the distance I can cover in five hops has deteriorated by about 20 percent compared with three years ago.  It is interesting to note that subsequent to the program of weight lifting, my performances on the elliptical cross trainer have been better than at any time in the past three years.  Since the elliptical requires a leg action similar to running, apart from a minimal requirement for eccentric contraction, it is almost certain that the increased strength has helped me perform better on the elliptical, but has had little impact on my running because there has been little improvement in eccentric muscle strength.

So the major challenge is to find a way to increase eccentric muscle strength without placing too much stress on my knees.  I will continue with squats and dead lifts, and probably also add hang cleans as these are good for developing power in the upper leg muscles, but  this program is unlikely to provide the eccentric strength required for powerful running.  At this stage, hill sprints appear to offer the best option.

Next steps

I have not yet formulated a detailed plan for the winter, but it will include a trial of HIIT and also lots of hill sprinting.   Next year I want to focus on preparing for a marathon in the autumn, so I will begin working on endurance in the spring.   Although the half marathon will not be a key target, I will probably attempt a half marathon sometime in the spring.  I will not set a specific goal at this stage, but think it is reasonable to hope that a time somewhat better than yesterday’s performance will be possible.

Reflections on the Robin Hood Half Marathon

October 6, 2012

A week later, I have had time to look back over the Robin Hood Half Marathon, and reflect on the recording from my watch and heart rate monitor.  I had pressed the event marker button at 1, 4,7 and 10 miles so I had estimates of my pace and heart rate in each three mile segment after the initial mile.  As expected from the effort I put into the final few Km, my fastest segment was from 10 miles to  13.1.  However despite a substantial increase in effort, my pace of 4:46 min/Km in that final 3.1 miles was only marginally higher than the average of 4:51 for the entire event.  I expended a lot of effort for a modest gain in speed.   Despite the effort, my heart rate only rose moderately, to an average of 138 over the final 3.1 miles compared with 133 for the entire event.  Thus, the cardiac cost was 659 beats/Km in the final 5 Km compared to an average of 646 for the whole event.  This reflects a small loss of efficiency, but that is not too bad, as efficiency usually decreases when one is tired (and heart rate also rises as body temperature rises).  However the noteworthy point is that despite trying to recruit every available leg muscle fibre, my heart rate was still substantially lower than I would expect for the final stages of a race.  It appears that I just do not have the muscle power to maximise the use of my cardiac output at present.

Half way and its time to increase the pace

My struggle to recruit my leg muscles is also clear in the photos.  At halfway, my hams and calf muscles were quite tight but I was fairly confident that they would get me to the finish, so I decided it was time to increase the effort. By about 12 Km, the effort shows on my face but at that stage, my legs were unwilling to go any faster.   With 3 Km to run, effort was now approaching maximal but the increase in pace was modest.

Approaching 12 Km and my legs were unwilling to respond

Applying more pressure with 3 Km to run

In the final sprint, the tense neck yet floppy wrist suggest that I was not recruiting muscles very efficiently.   However, the facial expression might have been just right for Ewen’s fantasy Hollywood blockbuster in which an elderly professor with cronky legs pits his failing strength against the Vice Chancellor’s pretty PA in a sprint to the finish.  The outcome will determine whether a legacy to the University will be spent on a new limo for the VC or on refurbishing equipment desperately needed for life-saving medical research in the prof’s lab.  But in the more prosaic real world, I was in fact fairly pleased with the way I had run the race, and think I got about as much out of my legs as they were fit to give.

The final sprint

10 metres to go. Enough for one more scalp?

For two days after the event I had moderately severe generalised DOMS but fortunately only a scarcely perceptible localised discomfort in my left calf, so I had not done any significant local damage in my sprint finish.  Towards the end of the week,  I did a session of Peter Magill’s skipping drills and the only noticeable muscle issue was mild tightening of my hamstrings in the final few metres of the skip and kick drill.  This resolved when I slackened the vigour of the kick.

So overall, the HR data and other evidence confirmed what I already knew from my experience on the day.  I need to strengthen my legs, and will start on the free weight program in about two weeks, after I return from a conference in Switzerland, and a few days walking in the Bernese Oberland.  I will assess gains in strength using the hopping test but the more meaningful measure will probably be my time for a 5K, by the end of the year.

At the beginning of the current half-marathon campaign, I was unsure that I could even achieve a time of 25 min for a 5K and was pleased when I did a 5K parkrun in 24:45, with an average HR of 143.  So my time of 23:50 with a somewhat lower heart rate for the final 5Km in the half marathon at least demonstrates that my aerobic fitness and endurance did improve substantially during the campaign, even if the improvement in power was rather modest.   I doubt that I will ever run a 5K in less than 20 minutes again, but I would at least like to get down to around 22 min.    Then I should aim for another half marathon in the spring and perhaps a full marathon in the autumn.

Robin Hood Half Marathon, 2012

September 30, 2012

The taper for the Robin Hood half marathon had gone fairly well.  In contrast to the final few months of training during which my pace during tempo runs was very disappointing and I had be quite unable to achieve anything approaching a reasonable race pace when I pushed myself in the final few Km of long training runs, I had been pleased that by the end of the taper I could maintain a pace around 4:50 per Km comfortably for short distances.  It was still very uncertain for what distance I could maintain such a pace, so I had very little firm evidence on which to base a pacing strategy in the race itself.  A time anywhere in the range 102 to 108 minutes was plausible.  I decided therefore that I would run by feel rather than by the watch.   As both Robert and Ewen pointed out, this is a bit risky because the extra adrenalin can distort perceptions on race day.  I think I have a fairly good capacity to estimate effort, by conscious attention to the depth and rate of my breathing, and by an awareness of the overall sense of wellbeing or distress generated by the many non-conscious signals that pass from body to brain.  I accepted it would be a bit risky to rely on these sensations, especially as I have only raced once (a 5Km last November) since I ran the Keyworth Turkey Trot two years ago, but I was prepared to take the risk, rather than settle for a sensible target of around 105 minutes.

In the Turkey Trot my arthritis-ravaged legs had let me down.   Although I was pleased on that occasion that I was able to make a good race of it, largely due to an impromptu duel over the final few Km with a young woman named Emily, my time of 108:45 had been unimpressive.    Unfortunately, due to subsequent painful remnants of the episode of arthritis I had not managed to make much progress with the leg strengthening exercises that were clearly required, so once again, today I was starting a half marathon aware that my legs would be my vulnerable feature.

For a few days I had been watching the weather map monitoring the progress of a cyclonic system that had deepened to the east of Iceland mid-week.  As the high pressure that had provided us with some stable weather during the week moved further eastwards, we were in for some strong south-westerly gusts by Sunday,   Perhaps not ideal for long distance running, though I noted optimistically that as the Robin Hood course heads mainly south west in the first half before turning back the northeast, and the winds would probably strengthen throughout the day, we might get some net wind-assistance, .  It was also clear that the temperature would be cool.

Before pinning my race number on my vest last night I popped out to assess the likely temperature and make a final choice between T-shirt and singlet.  The sky was clear, the moon was full and stars sparkled though a crisp atmosphere. If it stayed as clear as this, it would be chilly tomorrow, but I was fairly sure that clouds driven by the approaching cyclonic system would sweep over us before morning, so I elected to pin the number on my singlet.

I set the alarm for a little before dawn, to allow a leisurely breakfast.  As the sun rose the underside of the accumulating clouds turned pink.  The cyclonic system had not quite reached us though the breeze was freshening.  It looked like the weather would be ideal and the rising wind would be more a help rather than a hindrance.

At the start I found a spot near the back of the red pen (for runners aiming for 90-105 minutes), along with a variegated mass of humanity – some wiry, with serious faces and club vests, jiggling around to keep warm; others dressed as Robin Hood, apparently more intent on enjoying the experience than worrying about the stop-watch.  As the wheelchair race was getting under way, the drums increased their tempo, and it was impossible to avoid a surge of excitement. However as we stood waiting I noted that my pulse was a steady 57 despite the rousing beating of the drums.  Rather than being concerned that adrenaline would mask my sensation of effort, I was now a little more concerned that the benefits of my light warm-up might have dissipated.   A few spots of rain fell, but I knew that I would warm up again fairly quickly once we were under-way.

The drums masked the sound of the start horn, but I became aware that the mass of humanity was moving and gathering speed as we approached the inflatable arch that defined the start.  I had little control over pace at this stage, but had reached a gentle trot as I passed under the arch.   In the next few minutes the human mass became more chaotic as individuals struggled to establish their own pace   However, frantic scrambling at this stage is pointless.  I was locked in the midst of a clump of burly men bearing logos proclaiming that they were participants in the Cooper Parry Relay.  When one of them announced after we had covered a few hundred metres that we were now doing 6 min/Km I decided it was time to at least extricate myself from this particular clump, so I tucked in behind a rather muscular young (male) fairy wearing a pretty blue tutu, and followed as he forged ahead.

As we approached the first mile marker, my breathing was relaxed and I recognised the rhythm as one breath every six steps – a rate that I knew I could maintain comfortably for at least the HM distance.  My overall sensation was ‘OK’ though I was aware that my legs were moving  a little less fluently than that they had been during the best of the short runs in the recent taper.  However, at this stage, there were no grounds for serious concern.  As a safety precaution I checked my watch at the mile marker.   The time was 7:46 (equivalent to 4:50 /Km) and heart rate was 130.   I only intended the watch-check as a back-up to avoid serious misjudgement.  Nonetheless I was pleased to see that my pace over the first mile had been at the faster end of my expected range, yet my HR was still well below the upper aerobic zone targeted by HM runners.   Although pleased, I was not surprised as I knew that it was unlikely that either heart or lungs would be the limiting factor today.

At the first drinks station I consumed about 150 ml of water.  I wondered whether the fluid was worth the few seconds I lost in weaving through the still tightly packed mass of runners, but that had been my prior plan so I stuck to it.  As we headed south westward along the wide open boulevard on the north bank of the Trent, I expected the head wind to be challenging.  However, I was still in such a tight mass of runners that I scarcely noticed the wind at all.

As we ran through the campus of the Boots Company, it was necessary to watch out when approaching the sharp bends to avoid collision with runners trying to save a metre or two by running the tangents.  However, by and large, the mass of runners was now fairly streamlined.  I was still breathing with a comfortable 1:6 rhythm, but my legs were definitely not coping well.  My left knee was a little painful and both gastrocnemius and hamstring muscles were tightening.

Shortly after entering the University campus we encountered the only appreciable hill on the entire course (apart for the ramps leading to bridges) and I was happy to let the majority of nearby runners surge ahead as I slowed a little to reduce stress on my legs.  At the top of the rise we passed through the imposing portico into the courtyard of the Trent Building – the administrative headquarters of the University.  Although it was awe-inspiring to run through such an imposing portico, I have some mixed feelings about the grandeur of Trent Building.  When the University administration top-slice my hard-won research grants to cover university overheads, I wonder, in an iconoclastic frame of mind, how much of the top-slice goes to maintain the splendid wood-panelled Senate Chamber and the Vice-Chancellor’s Office. However, today, it was an occasion to simply enjoy the grandeur.

On the descent from Trent Building to the lake I caught up with most of those who had surged past me on the ascent.  As we rounded the head of the lake a wonderful steel band was beating out a rousing rhythm.  Another quick glace at my watch showed that my HR was still 130 (though it had almost certainly been higher on the climb and was now probably a bit below average following the descent).  Although my legs were still uncomfortable, we were now at the half way point and I was fairly confident that the legs would hold out to the finish.  I decided it was time to apply a little more pressure.  As we left the University campus, I scanned the mass of humanity ahead for appropriate quarry to add a little spice to the chase.  At this stage, the majority of the pack were still running with dogged determination and no-one was offering themselves as easy prey.  Most had the demeanour of runners with serious intent.  I could see the green tunics of two Robin-Hoods not far ahead. They were running strongly but nonetheless I decided they would have to do.  However, despite a substantial increase in effort, my legs were reluctant to go much faster and it was not until after the nine mile marker that both Robin Hoods were behind me.

My breathing rate had now increased to one breath every four steps but was still comfortable.  I was sweating lightly but felt more water logged than thirsty, so I did not deviate from my path to pick up any water at the third water station.   As my legs were reluctant to go any faster, I settled in to maintain my place in the pack.  The continual slight shifts of position within the pack made it impossible to focus on a particular person, but I was surprised by just how many of the pack were runners who had forged slowly ahead of me in the earlier stages.  I was confident that I was running a slight negative split, so overall the pack was scarcely weakening.

I had almost forgotten about the wind until we did a dog-leg back to the southwest approaching the 10 mile mark, and the gusty south-westerly asserted itself.  After a few right angle turns in the next mile or so, we were back on the river embankment, passing near to the finishing point, but with a two mile loop along the river bank still to be run.  I could hear an excited voice announcing over the loud speaker that someone of apparent local importance, whose name I didn’t catch, had ascended the slope onto the flood protection embankment leading to the finish as the race-clock passed 1 hour and thirteen minutes.  I estimated that whoever he was, he had about two minutes to run at that point, while I now had about two miles to run.  My brain was still working well enough to estimate that provided my legs didn’t give up during those two miles, my time would be around 102 minutes.

The outward leg of the final loop exposed us once again to the gusty wind and my breathing was deeper now – I was definitely in the upper aerobic zone.  Then there was a short stretch shielded from the wind by trees and enthusiastic spectators; a short sharp pull up to the top of the flood protection embankment, and a final sprint to the finish.   By this stage my leg muscles were tightening quite alarmingly.  In the final 50 metres I tore a few fibres in my left calf.  As I crossed the line, the race clock indicated a little over 102 minutes.  As I had crossed the timing mat at the start a short time after the official start I expect my official chip time will turn out to be under 102 minutes.  According to my watch, my time was 101:50.  [Note added 1 Oct 2012: the published results confirmed 101:50]

I am delighted to have achieved a time at the leading edge of what I thought was possible.  As in the Turkey Trot two years ago, my legs were again the limiting factor, but my time was about seven minutes faster.  There is no doubt that a program of leg strengthening must now be my highest priority.  I also feel a bit sheepish about tearing fibres in my left calf, as I was aware that they were at their limit before I began the final sprint.  However, even though the sprint gained me only a few seconds and three or four places in the finish order, I find it difficult to resist the temptation to treat the final run to the line as a race with whoever else has managed to get to the home straight at the same time.  That surely makes us balanced and worthy opponents.


November 5, 2011

The core elements of distance running have changed little in my lifetime, but the ambience has changed dramatically. When I competed in school, and later in club athletics, in the 1950’s and 60’s, the ethos was dominate by amateurism. Now it is not unknown for UK athletes to live in Monaco to avoid paying UK tax on their earnings. Meanwhile an era that had been dominated by Europeans and a few antipodeans has given way to one almost total dominated by Africans. But if one looks below the elite international stage there have been other changes that run almost counter to these trends. Perhaps the most visible change has been the transformation of marathon running from the preserve of a few very hardy individuals to a spectacular gala that transforms major cities, London, New York or more than a dozen others worldwide, for one day of the year, as thousands of runners of all shapes, sizes and ages, test themselves over the 26.2 mile distance.

However, a little below the horizon scanned by the national newspapers, there has been what seems to me, an even more amazing transformation. In the 1950’s and 60’s the newspaper headlines focussed on the exploits of legendary figures who were household names. In Australia, where I grew up, our parochial heroes were John Landy, and then Herb Elliot and later Ron Clark. Across the Tasman Sea there was Peter Snell, while the names of the great European middle and long distance runners, Bannister, of course, but also Zatopek and a long list of others, were household names even in Australia. In contrast, club athletics earned only a few column inches in local newspapers. Nonetheless, even at this more modest level, athletes were mostly a dedicated band of fit young men and women. I ran for a D grade club. My memory of finishing times from 45 years ago is hazy, but as far as I remember, even at D grade level, the entire field in a 5000m typically crossed the line within the span from 16 to 18 minutes. I doubt that I would have recognized 20 minutes as a meaningful time for 5000m. Even at this level, running was not a sport for individuals without at least a modest talent for athletics. Despite the apparent decline in distance running in Europe and the Anglophone world, in my eyes, the really dramatic development over the past half century has been the transformation of distance running from the sport of a few dedicated fit young men and woman to something that might almost be called a mass participation sport, occurring far away from the hubbub of the big city marathons.

In England, and to a less extent, in many countries world-wide, this transformation is illustrated most clearly by the phenomenon of Parkrun. Parkrun grew out the Bushy Park time trials, initiated by Paul Sinton-Hewitt in 2004. At the beginning, a handful of runners from local clubs in southwest London met on Saturday mornings to run a timed 5Km along the paths of Bushy Park in Teddington. In large part due to the dedication and creativity of Paul, but also of course, due to the input from many volunteers, and eventually, funding from commercial sponsors, Parkruns occur every Saturday morning in hundreds of sites, in Britain and other countries, extending from Denmark to Australia.

Perhaps least typical is the Parkrun at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. I know little about that particular Parkrun, but suspect that the event often occurs in circumstances of duress. I doubt the atmosphere is quite like the Christmas truce on the Western front in 1914, when British and German troops put down their weapons and played football together in the snow. Camp Bastion perhaps demonstrates the far reach of Parkrun, but more typical Parkruns occur in relaxed and sociable circumstances in the congenial surroundings of leafy city parks. The runners span the range from world class athletes such as Mo Farah and Craig Mottram to individuals for whom merely completing 5 Km is a triumph.

A few months ago, a weekly Parkrun was established at Colwick Park, a delightful space of grassy banks and woodland surrounding two small lakes beside the River Trent on the outskirts of Nottingham. This morning, I decided that Colwick Parkrun offered me a good opportunity to make an attempt at my short term goal of running 5Km in 25 minutes. So I arrived shortly before 9am on a cool Autumn Saturday morning to find that the park was alive with runners warming up. There had been quite a lot of rain in the past few days, and there were a few extensive puddles on the paths. In other places, soggy wet autumn leaves covered the paths as they meandered through the trees, but on the whole, the surface was not bad, and it was an ideal day for running.

I have not actually raced a 5Km (or a 5000m) since the 1960’s so I was not sure how to fine tune my pace, but as my primary goal was to break 25 minutes, I set-off at a pace little faster than 5 min/Km. I covered the first Km in 4:50. However it was already clear that it would be a struggle to sustain that pace for another 4 Km, so I eased back a little, and 20 or 30 runners passed by. Despite the large field, in the second Km I was largely on my own. As I approached the one very minor ascent on the otherwise completely flat course, about 50 metres ahead of me was a youngster who had clearly misjudged the early pace and was now struggling. This gave me the opportunity to claw back one of the places I had lost while being overtaken by so many at the end of the first Km. However, I suspect that the 50 year age gap between us was much more a handicap to him than to me, so overtaking him could scarcely be regarded as an achievement. A further 100 metres ahead was a group of three men and a young woman, and as they climbed the minor ascent, the young woman had dropped back a few metres. I thought that here was a quarry worth pursuing. There is no cause for mock gallantry in these mixed age and mixed gender races: it seemed to me that in this instance, the thirty five year age gap separating us was certainly to her advantage rather than mine and more than compensated for any effects of gender difference, so the race was on. However, I could not summon the power to make any inroads into the gap. In fact, the gap widened as the second Km went by in 4:58. During the third Km the young woman was still in psychological contact with the group ahead of her, and I was falling yet further behind. In the 3rd Km my pace had slipped to 5:02 and in the 4th Km slipped even further to 5:05. By this stage it was clear that the group ahead were out of reach, and even my 25 minute target was in jeopardy. I was interested to note at the finish that the young woman had not only maintained contact with the group of three men, but had overtaken all of them.

Meanwhile, from midway through the fourth Km, I could hear feet behind me. I didn’t look around but estimated that there were probably three runners rapidly closing the gap. Now I was the quarry and the task was not only to make sure I didn’t drop any further behind my 5 min/Km target schedule, but to avoid being overtaken in the run to the finish. I held out until 150 metres from the end when one of the three men sprinted past. I did however hold off the other two, covering the final Km in 4:54, giving me a finishing time of 24:49. So I achieved my primary goal, but it had been a considerable effort. I was 56th in a field of 121, and thirteenth on age grading. I still have a long way to go to get back to my fitness of two years ago. But it is delight to have at last joined the Parkrun community.

Keyworth Turkey Trot

December 12, 2010

The weather gods smiled benevolently on today’s Keyworth Turkey Trot half marathon.  After a few week of icy weather, the thaw set in on Friday, and by yesterday almost all the ice was gone from the roads.  As we lined up, the starter warned us to be wary of ice on the road as we approached the 11 mile marker, but as the 800 or so runners streamed through the streets of Keyworth and then out into the delightful rolling countryside of the Wolds that straddle the Nottinghamshire-Leicestershire border, the sun shone pale but encouragingly, through a gap in the scattered fluffy cumulonimbus clouds   There were some patches of snow on the roadside verges, and the puddles of melt-water  that had re-frozen overnight were still frozen solid, but the road surface was fine.  I was wearing a long-sleeved cotton top and light-weight gloves – the first time in my life that I have raced in gloves, and I wondered whether or not I would regret that decision.

On account of the various problems that have beset me this year, my preparations had been brief, consisting of six week in which I had run an average of 37Km per week.  My six long runs had gone well, but my attempts at speed work had been rather dismal.  I was confident that I could achieve a time of 110 minutes, but had decided to aim for 105:30 (5 min/Km) despite that fact that my paces in training suggested I would have trouble maintaining 5 min/Km for the entire half-marathon, especially on a challenging hilly course.

The first 2 ½ miles were predominantly downhill and runners streamed past me.  By the two mile marker I was far back in a long ribbon of humanity that stretched across the Wolds, passing sheep grazing sedately in the fields.  I had covered the first two miles in 15:43 (4:54 min/Km) which I considered was near perfect pacing for my optimistic 105:30 target.  There would be many hills ahead, and I knew I needed to establish a small reserve of time on the downhill stretches.

About half a mile later, as we approached the beginning of the hilly section which the race organizers describe as the most challenging section of the course, runners were still passing me, but I claimed my first ‘scalp’: a young woman with a pony tail and a bright pink lightweight top.  However as we began the first serious ascent, the young woman with the pony tail loped past me with an easy gait.  On that ascent my pace slowed to around 6:40 /Km, but I was not far short of the anaerobic zone and my legs were reluctant to go any faster.  I decided it was best to husband my resources for later.  On the next major ascent my pace slowed even more seriously and at times I was barely achieving a pace of 7:40 /Km.  When the road levelled out I was able to increase to around 4:50 pace again.   By this stage the pink top with the ponytail was visible about 350 m ahead of me.  Because the bright pink was an easily discernible target, I decide that catching up would be a worthwhile goal and set about narrowing the gap.  The next two miles were mainly downhill and by the 5 mile marker, shortly after passing through the village of Wysall, I drew level with my quarry.  My time at 5 miles was 41:22.  I was about 80 seconds behind my target time, but the most challenging part of the course was now behind us.

The road again turned upwards and the young lady with the ponytail pulled ahead again.  My legs simply couldn’t match hers on the ascents. We were still heading predominantly south and I was aware of that there was absolutely no movement of air past my face.  I was starting to feel a little too hot.  I also noticed that the young woman had removed her bright pink top and draped it around her waist. However I was not really worried about over-heating as I knew that the absence of air movement as we ran south meant that as soon as we turned back to the north, just after the halfway mark, we would have a gentle but chilly breeze on our faces.  I reached halfway in 54:00, still 75 seconds behind my target schedule.  I was feeling reasonable strong but I was aware that I had little in reserve and I wondered whether or not I had the capacity to achieve a negative split.  It would depend on the hills ahead of me.

The young woman with the ponytail pulled further ahead as we continued to climb but when we began the long descent towards the village of Widmerpool, I once again started to narrow the gap.  I was again maintaining a pace of around 4:45 /Km and at 9 miles I overtook the young woman.  For a short distance, I was amused to note the shadow of her swirling ponytail on the ground just ahead of me, as we ran with the low-angled sun behind us.  But then I lost sight of the swirling shadow as I forged ahead.  At the third drink station, I took the proffered open cup, and as I attempted to consume the icy water in small sips to avoid the risk of stomach cramp, I managed to douse both my gloves.  With sodden gloves and a fresh stream of arctic air in my face, it was clear I no longer had any need to worry about overheating.

Beyond Widmerpool the road began a long slow ascent that was to continue for 2 miles.  Near the summit, I was aware of footsteps approaching from behind, and again the shadow of a swirling ponytail appeared on the ground just ahead of me.  Yet again the young lady came up beside me but this time she did not pass me.  It was clear that we were well matched and it appeared likely we would have a tightly fought duel to the finish.   She appeared to be running well, but I wasn’t going to give in without a good fight.  Over the next few minor downs and ups, I would take the lead on the down-slopes and she would close the gap again on the ups.

As we approached the outskirts of Keyworth, with a little over a mile to run, she was at my shoulder.  Then at the 12 mile marker a group of enthusiastic spectators who were clearly her friends called out: ‘Take him now, Emily’ and cheered as she surged past me to open up a 3 metre gap.  Over the next few hundred metres I whittled away that gap.  I was now on the edge of the anaerobic zone, and with about 1200 metres to go, on a slight down-slope, I decided to make my move.  I accelerated to a pace which my Polar monitor subsequently revealed was around 3:50 per Km.  I was now seriously anaerobic and wondering how long I could hold this pace.   I knew there were still two small hills ahead, and my adversary was definitely stronger on the hills.  Whatever the cost, now was the time to establish a clear lead.

The first of the final two ascents started at about 800m from the finish.   Just as I began to ascend, I felt a twinge of cramp in my left hamstring.  I decided that the only thing to do was to adopt a high cadence with short stride, using my hip flexors to lift my knee high in mid-swing, thereby applying a dynamic stretch to the cramping hamstring.  Dynamic stretching of a cramping muscle is a bit risky, but this was not the time to stop and stretch the complaining muscle carefully.  I managed to get my cadence above 200 steps per minute but my stride length was frustratingly short.  I almost felt as if I was running on the spot.  My pace slowed to 5:30 per Km, but mercifully, the cramp resolved.   Beyond the hill top I accelerated down the small dip before once again struggling on the short final ascent.  At this stage I was still passing many runners, though just as I reached the top of the rise a younger man went past me and I could not catch him in the final sprint to the finishing chute.  However I was pleased that I had overtaken a substantial number of runners in that final 1200m surge.  Emily reached the finish around 35 seconds behind me.

My finishing time was 108:45, so despite the finishing surge, I had dropped an additional 45 seconds behind scheduled pace in the second half – mostly on the long ascent after leaving Widmerpool.  However I am pleased with my performance.  I had known before I started that 105:30 would be a demanding target.   Neither my legs not my aerobic capacity were up to the demands of the hills.  But the really great thing is that neither my knee nor the protruding heads of my metatarsals, which have been a problem for much of this year, caused any problem at all today.  So now I can settle into the task of slowly building my fitness.   Then, next year, after I have retired from work, I hope to have the time to begin to train seriously.

Half-marathon reminiscences

September 16, 2009

The first question on Monday morning was whether or not the previous day’s half marathon had triggered a relapse of the fatigue of the previous few weeks.  I was delighted to find that Monday’s orthostatic test was a textbook illustration: a 9.8 bpm rise in heart rate from resting to standing , with a healthy shift from parasympathetic preponderance while resting towards a sympathetic preponderance while standing.  In the subsequent two days the orthostatic test has continued to yield similar results with orthostatic rises of around 8 bpm.  I still feel tired, but I think this is normal tiredness after pushing my legs a bit harder than my training had prepared them for.  I appear to have overcome the troublesome fatigue that had hamstrung me when I attempted to recommence training after my illness.

The second question was: how serious was the strain of my left hip adductors that had developed midway through the half-marathon?  On Monday morning there was a dull ache in my upper thigh, and I made no attempt to test the situation any further.  Tuesday evening I did a short easy session on the elliptical cross-trainer without exacerbating the problem, so this morning, I did some cautious hip swings.  I found I could swing the left leg to 90 degrees without trouble.  On the right, I could swing only to about 60 degrees without pain.  The task of preventing rotation of the pelvis when swinging the opposite leg places greater demands on the adductors of the stance leg, so this was not surprising.  I was sufficiently encouraged to try an easy run this evening.  However as soon as I started to jog, the pain returned so I stopped immediately.  The adductors need a few more days of rest, but I am hopeful I will be running again before too long. 

Although my primary goal on Sunday was to test my recovery from fatigue, it was not all about watching the heart monitor.  A few photos from the final stages give a glimpse of some of the other features of the run.


In the first picture, on the left, taken about 120 metres from the finish, I am managing to maintain reasonable form.  But with the limited swing of my right leg, a firmly anchored left foot and short stride, I certainly do not look as if I am racing.   The second photo, about 80 metres from the line, shows that despite my short stride and almost non-existent airborne phase, the gap separating me from a runner from Redhill Road Runners (7484) is closing.  The picture catches me relatively late in the swing of the left leg.  There is visible tension in my hip adductors.  At this stage of the gait cycle the main role of the hip adductors is to assist the extensors in arresting the swinging leg and bring the foot backwards relative to the torso.  On account of my feeble swing, that should not have required much muscle power.  I presume the overt tension reflects a mild spasm due to torn fibres.

However it was the next picture that brought back a bit of nostalgia for times past. In the few long races I have run since recommencing running in middle age, I have let the lingering remnants of the competitive spirit of my youth to have free rein in the final kilometer or so.  If two runners are shoulder to shoulder after 20Km, they are likely to be fairly evenly matched and it is usually the one with a bit more fire in his belly who crosses the line first.  But wisdom had dictated that Sunday’s run was not an occasion to let the competitive spirit go wild.  About 1Km from the end, a runner in the yellow vest of the Steel City Striders strode past me and I simply let him go without a challenge.  However here I was, within a few metres of the finish, and it was just too much to let this opportunity go by.   


If I half close my eyes looking at the picture I can almost imagine myself forty years ago – well maybe I would need to put on very dark glasses and well as half-closing my eyes to create that illusion – but at least it looks as if I am racing.  I did retain enough sense to avoid an all out sprint, and was content to cross the line a second or so ahead of my rival from Redhill.  I also overtook the young man to the right of the second photo (4184) and a young woman who is not in the field of view.  So although I had not intended to treat Sunday’s run as a race, it was good to have a brief reminder of times past.

Robin Hood half marathon

September 13, 2009

I awoke a few minutes before the alarm to a perfect blue sky framed by the skylight. After several days of Indian summer that have almost allowed us to forget how miserable the second half of summer has been, it looked as if it might actually be warm for the Robin Hood marathon and half marathon today. Yesterday had been glorious for any outdoor activity apart from marathon running.  Would today be the same?  

However the weather was not really my main concern.  I was more interested to know whether or not the ‘post-illness’ fatigue that had held me back in recent weeks had really resolved.  For the previous two days, the orthostatic increase in my heart rate on standing had been 14 bpm, a marked contrast to the values in the range -1 to 2 bpm during the fatigue and associated parasympathetic over-activity, which I have suffered in recent weeks.   This morning the orthostatic rise was down to 6 bpm – a little disconcerting but probably not a significant reason for concern. 

My illness in June, and the fatigue that followed, had greatly curtailed my training and it was clear that the goal of 99 min that I had set 5 months previously was no longer feasible.  Now the major goal was to confirm that the low volume, graded intensity sessions of the previous three weeks had overcome the fatigue.  It appeared that the best way to do this was to set the goal of maintaining a heart rate in the range 134-137 for the full 13.1 miles.  A few weeks ago, pushing my heart rate much above this level for even a few minutes was crushingly difficult.

While the primary challenge was proving that my cardiovascular system could cope, I was aware that the truncation of my training had prevented me from preparing my legs for the task of racing a half-marathon.  An additional issue was the fact that I had been woken by severe leg muscle cramps several times in the past week, and after yesterday’s hot weather, I was a little concerned about the risk of cramp while running today.  Thomas’ graphic report of his calf muscle cramp in the final stages of the Dingle marathon in yesterday’s heat raised my concern a few notches higher, so before going to bed last night I had mixed myself several litres of an isotonic drink containing 1 gm of salt per litre (roughly the concentration of salt in sweat) in addition to about 80 gm/litre of sugar and some lemon squash.  I had drunk almost a litre before bed and planned to finish the remaining 1 ½ litres this morning before the race. 

By the time I had finished breakfast, sporadic clouds had appeared.  The combination of accumulating cloud cover, glimpses of sunshine, and the light north easterly breeze promised perfect weather for running, but nonetheless I was happy with my precautions and consumed the remainder of my drink as I walked along the embankment beside the river Trent to the starting area.

Because my primary goal was demonstrating that I had overcome the limitations provided by excessive parasympathetic activity, I had decided on the strategy of setting my pace according to heart rate.  In normal circumstances, the main problem with this strategy is that the excitement of the race might increase sympathetic output and lead to misleadingly high heart rate.  As I stood in the start corral, surrounded by milling, anxious athletes, in the few minutes between the cheer that accompanied the start of the wheelchair race, and hooter that would set the  marathon & half-marathon runners on their way, I noted that my pulse was 58.  I suspect that not too many other runners in the corral had a pulse below 60 at that moment.  It was clear that I did not need to worry about spurious sympathetic drive; on the contrary it looked as if my parasympathetic system was still overactive.  Nonetheless, I decided to stick to my strategy of aiming for a heart rate around 134-137. 

The hooter sounded and a mass of 12000 runners began to accumulate speed gradually as they moved towards and then over the starting mats.  No doubt each individual was in his or her own world, intent of what lay ahead, and mainly concerned at this stage to avoid being tripped-up in the melee.  However, to a distant observer, it must have appeared more like a single creature; perhaps some ponderous dragon awakening.  I had positioned myself with the 100-120 minute half-marathon group; and at first I let the human tide carry me forwards.  I reached the 1 mile marker in 7:45 with a heart rate of 135 and feeling relaxed.  Perfect.  

I could see the 105 minutes pace group leader a short distance ahead.  At first I thought that he had misjudged his pace, but then realized that he had probably crossed the starting mat about 15 seconds ahead of me.   His banner was an attractive target to focus on, but I knew that I should ignore it if it distracted me from my target heart rate.   As we ascended the steep climb to Nottingham Castle I allowed my heart rate to rise to 140, but set that as a definite upper limit.  I lost sight of the 105 minute pace leader.  Runners streamed by, many panting with the exertion of the climb.  Rounding the sharp corner beneath the Castle gate, I was delighted by the rousing rhythms of a jazz band.    

The 105 minute pace leader was again in sight and I settled back to cruise at 135-136 bpm.  In the melee of the first water station shortly after 3 miles, I again lost the 105 minute group.  By this stage I was able to select my own path on the road some of the time, but at corners or any other narrowings, we were still hemmed in like African wildebeests in a mass migration.   A short while later, after beginning the gradual ascent towards the ridge that dominates the north east corner of the university campus, I passed Mick and Phil.   Those unfamiliar with the UK running world might not be aware of this inspiring duo.   Mick pushes his severely disabled son in a wheelchair – not one of the whizzy racers but a barely modified ‘domestic’ wheelchair.  Last week they had completed the Wolverhampton marathon in 4:39, and, it appeared that they were moving somewhat faster today, though seeing Mick pushing Phil uphill with more than 22 miles still to go, one couldn’t help feeling humbled by their prodigious effort.

Again I allowed my heart rate to rise to 140 on the ascent, and was pleased that there was no sign of the crushing fatigue that I had experienced around that effort level a few weeks ago.  Then there was the helter-skelter descent to the university lake.  I thought ruefully that it was unfair to have to toil steadily uphill for about a mile and then throw away the fruit of that effort in a few hundred yards of knee-jarring descent.  However I consoled myself with the thought that the two remaining substantial hills would each be followed by a gentle down-slope.

Along the shore of the lake I was still hemmed in, but really enjoying the run.  Then came the ascent back to the ridge top.  Again I limited my heart rate to 140, and a handful of runners moved past me, though by this stage, there were others prepared to let their pace drop on the ascents.   Although I was feeling comfortable as I approached the drink station at 6 miles and the weather had remained perfect with almost continuous cloud-cover, I decided to take the offered bottle of Lucozade.  Despite the somewhat sickly sweetness of isotonic drinks while running, I thought it was best to keep my salt level topped- up.  I sipped about half of the 300ml bottle over the next half mile before abandoning it.

By this stage I was descending past the halfway point and pondering whether or not to increase the pace a little.  The 105 minute pace leader was still in sight about 100 yds ahead.  It was now 51 minutes into the race and I was sure he was going a little too fast. I was also beginning to wonder if a time not much over 100 minutes might be within reach.  But then things went seriously wrong.  I had been aware of a tightening of the hip adductors in my left leg since the sharp turn though the gates out of the University campus, and as I increased stride length approaching the 7 mile marker, the pain became quite intense.   I was unsure whether or not to continue.  My legs were clearly not adequately conditioned for a hard half-marathon, and there was a risk of significant muscle damage.  In any case, unless I could do something to relieve the rapidly increasing tightening of my adductors, I would have no option but to slow to a painful limp.

As I turned the corner towards the entrance to Wollaton Park and began the long ascent to Wollaton Hall, I shortened my stride to about 60 cm and the pain in my adductors began to ease.  Despite a cadence of over 200 steps per minute, my pace was now about 8 min/Km (or 12 min per mile).   However, by the drink station at 8.5 miles, just beyond the summit, the pain was easing and I decided to carry on.  Instead of the hoped-for powerful surge down the gentle slope though the deer park in compensation for the slog up to the Hall, I was limited to a very tentative increase in speed. The 105 min pace leader was now out of sight.

Although the adductors continued to nag me, I gradually picked up speed and after leaving the Park, just beyond the nine mile marker, I saw the 105 minute pace leader ahead again.  I decided that fate had declared that he would be my lodestar today, and set out to close the gap.  I drew up to his shoulder at 10 ½ miles but had the feeling I could cope with a faster pace, so I passed him and began steadily working my way forward through the field.  Despite the continuing nagging of my adductors I was fairly comfortable maintaining a pace of around 7:55 per mile. 

Subsequent examination of my heart rate recording confirmed that I was minimally stressed.  Here is the trace of heart rate for a three minute segment at around 80 minutes and also the Poincare plot for the 10th and 11th miles.  The heart rate trace shows fluctuations at a rate of about 50 peaks per minute.  As I was breathing at a rate of one breath every four steps, and my cadence was still around 200, these fluctuations almost certainly matched my breathing rate and represent a healthy sinus arrhythmia – the parasympathetic driven fluctuations that ensure that cardiac filling is greatest when the level of oxygen in the lungs is at its highest.  


Heart rate trace and Poincare plot during the 10th and 11th miles of the half-marathon

Heart rate trace and Poincare plot during the 10th and 11th miles of the half-marathon

The wide spread of point across the 45 degree line in the Poincare plot confirms a strong parasympathetic drive.  The figure also shows the amount of power in the low frequency range (0.04-0.15 cycles per sec) and the high frequency range (0.15 to 0.4 cycles per sec) of the heart rate power spectrum.  The low frequency activity reflects sympathetic activity while the high frequency reflects parasympathetic activity (though it should be noted that the upper boundary of 0.4 cycles per sec agreed by an  international committee of cardiologists, is actually below the respiratory frequency when running at this pace, and therefore, the high frequency power does not include the respiratory fluctuations).  Nonetheless, there is still greater power even within the high frequency range truncated at 0.4 cycles per sec, providing strong evidence that the balance between sympathetic fight/flight and parasympathetic rest/recovery was tipped towards parasympathetic activity.  Normally one would expect an excess of sympathetic activity at this stage in a half marathon.  Overall, this data is evidence that my parasympathetic system is still being a bit over-protective, but unlike the situation a few weeks ago, I was able to maintain my heart rate near the intended level, without any feeling of fatigue. 

My main problem was my nagging adductor muscles.  As I had stepped-up the pace, the pain had increased again, so I eased back a little in the final mile or so to minimize damage, and crossed the finish line in 103:28 (chip time 103:17).  My average heart rate for the entire race was 137 bpm.  Ninety-two seconds later, the 105 minute pace leader crossed the line, on schedule to within a second.    

I sit here now with a painful thigh, unsure how much damage I have done, though I do not think it is very severe.  A time of 103:28 for a half marathon is not in itself a great achievement.  If my goal had been a fast time, it would have been foolish to have continued beyond the 7 mile point.   However, this summer various circumstances have conspired against me, and I had been forced to set aside the target time selected five months ago.  Although I had been undecided about starting the race until about two days ago, once it was clear that my fatigue was resolving, running the event with the target of maintaining a heart rate of 134-137 became as important a goal as running a half-marathon in 99 minutes had appeared to be in May.  It was potentially a stringent test of whether or not I have overcome the fatigue.   In the event, I achieved my target despite the adductor problem. 

It was especially pleasing to have been within 4 ½ minutes of my original target time despite seriously curtailed training.  It is tempting to think I might have even achieved the 99 minute target today if it had not been for the injured adductor, but this is very improbable.  The primary problem was that my legs had not been conditioned by an adequate number of tempo and long runs.  Although the overt limitation was provided by the adductors, in fact my legs could not have coped with a much faster pace.  Both legs felt like jelly afterwards, and I was wobbly on my feet for a few hours, quite apart from the limp.  My legs could not have carried me much faster, but it is encouraging to know that my heart appears to have coped well.

Throwing caution to the winds

January 24, 2009

After a frustrating few weeks in which my lingering breathing problems torpedoed any serious attempt at interval training, I was ambivalent about turning out the for Fetch west-midlands mile today. It was clear that a serious attempt at 6:00 was out of the question, though maybe 6:13 (my M60 PB) was within reach. Last night I was a bit wheezy but the wheezes settled after a puff of my inhaler and this morning there was no trace of a wheeze, so I decided I would run. The event is a sociable get-together of Fetchies as well as being a chance to race over a mile – a distance that still retains a certain magic aura.

The divisions were based on predicted time, so I lined up with the second division (predicted time range 6:00 – 7:30). My expectation for my own time was in the range 6:10 to 6:20 but in light of my lack of opportunity to develop a good sense of pace in that range, I decided I would run a purely tactical race with the goal of finishing within in the first three, and let time look after itself.

Biking Badger led off at a fair lick and I slipped into third place, feeling fairly comfortable but aware that the pace was faster than I could maintain. My time for the first lap (plus the extra 9 metres) was 89 seconds. Biking Badger kept going at his initial pace but almost everyone else slowed a bit. Coming into the home straight for the second time Ronners went past strongly into second place and I tried to follow him but realised that he too was headed for a time well under 6 minutes, so I would have to settle for a contest for third place. I covered the second lap in 93 seconds. As a result of my initial attempt to keep up with Ronners I had opened up a small gap separating me from rest of the field. As far as I could judge from the spectators’ calls of encouragement to the runners behind me, I was about 20 metres clear of the following pack as we entered the third lap. I was still feeling quite comfortable, and decided that my strategy should be to hold onto a moderate lead over the ‘pack’ for as long as possible without pushing myself too hard, so that I would be fresh enough to hold off any challenge in the final lap. My time for the third lap was a leisurely 99 sec. I continued down the back straight in the final lap maintaining a comfortable pace listening for the challenge from behind. But no challenge came, so I picked up speed in the final 200 metres and finished quite strongly, covering the final lap in 93 seconds, for a total time of 6:17.

In retrospect I think that perhaps I could have made a stronger effort for an M60 PB. If I hadn’t taken it easy in the third lap, I might well have achieved a time around 6:12, but in view of the uncertainties about my breathing, I think I made the right decision to run a tactical race. There is no doubt that I was right to let Biking Badger and Ronners go – their finishing times were 5:48 and 5:49 respectively, and there was no possibility that I could have matched those times. So I am quite happy with my third place, even though the next time I run a mile I will be aiming for a faster time.

The event is a sociable, light-hearted event and in addition to the mile, the program also includes some 100m races, which gives the non-sprinters a chance to remind themselves why they took up distance running. However, when Slickster crossed the line in the first division race in 11.20, I was glad that I opted for the third division. Although it had been a brilliantly sunny winter day, by the time I stripped off for the third division race the air temperature had dropped, and I was aware that my muscles had stiffened after the mile. I did a short warm-up that got the blood circulating a bit more briskly, but as we lined up I was still rather stiff. However as I have never actually run a 100m race before, it was too good an opportunity to miss. No-one in our division was a specialist sprinter so I hoped I could make a reasonable race of it, without pushing myself too hard.

I concentrated on running as relaxed and as fast as possible, and at 60 metres was pleased to find myself in the lead, but I was aware that a runner a few lanes to the left of me was closing the gap. The competitive instinct took over and I threw caution to the winds. In the next few strides I opened up the gap again, but at 75 metres I felt my right hamstring tear. My experience last November when I had completed a 1K repetition during an interval training session after a minor tear of my soleus and had subsequently been scarcely able to train for several weeks, should have reinforced the lesson that one should stop immediately when muscle fibres start to give way. However at this point I was only about 20 metres from the line, leading in what was my first, and perhaps life-time only, 100m race. So I simply focussed on relaxing as much as possible without losing too much pace, and crossed the line in first place in 15.8.

So now I have an M60 PB for the 100m. In fact it probably could be described as a life-time PB, but despite not having kept records of the races in my youth, I am fairly sure that in my heyday I often covered the final 200m of a 5K at around that pace or faster, so I would be reluctant to record it as a life-time PB.

Afterwards we assembled at the home of el-Bee and Velociraptor for a cake-fest. El-Bee had organized the races, and between them they provided a wonderfully hospitable day. It was great to meet other Fetchies. As Fetch is an internet community, it is especially good to have an opportunity to get together socially from time to time. So overall a very satisfying day: a satisfying tactical race for third place in the second division mile; a victory (albeit over other non-sprinters) in my only attempt at 100m and an M60 PB for that distance; and a great cake-fest. I hope the torn hamstring does not prove too much of a problem, but on balance, am prepared to accept that life is more fun if you are not too prudent all the time.

Thinking about racing again

January 11, 2009

I have re-instated my plan of doing back-to-back moderate intensity sessions once per week, though after yesterday’s 4x1Km interval session, I took a rather soft option for today’s session, which was 20Km focusing on running form. I didn’t take either a watch or heart rate monitor, so I am being rather lenient in regarding it as a moderate intensity session, but at least it could count as a long run.

The good news is that my peak expiratory flow today was 530 litre/min and yesterday was 510 litre/min. From the beginning of December, when I suffered a bad cold, maybe a flu virus, until last week, my peak flow readings have been in the range 250-310 litre/min. Last summer my peak recording was 615 litre/min, so the past two day’s recordings suggest that I am really on the way to recovery.

If I continue to improve I will run the West Midlands Fetch Mile Challenge race in two weeks time. What time should I set as my target? I am not a miler, though ironically I think I have probably won as many races of one mile as of any other distance over the years, so I will use my past fleeting moments of glory to set the target for two weeks time.

The first victory I remember was in the South Australian schoolboy mile championships in the early 1960’s. In those days there was no dedicated running track in Adelaide, apart from a delightful old cinder track belonging to Adelaide Harriers but that was only about 250 yards per lap, so the state championships were held on a grass track in the west parklands. On the day of the schoolboy championships that year, there had been heavy rain overnight and the track was flooded. In addition, a south-westerly gale was howling up the home straight. So conditions were far from ideal, but that suited me because I used to be fairly good at using mental robustness to compensate for lack of natural talent. Nonetheless, I didn’t think I had much chance of being among the medal winners, and I was amazed to find myself in the lead, battling down the water-logged home straight into the teeth of a gale to win in what must have been the all-time record slowest winning time in a schoolboy state championship. I think it was about 4:45.

The other mile victory I remember was a year ago, in the East Midlands Fetch Mile. The organisers put on a second division race for the slow-coaches, and again to my amazement, I won. On that occasion, my time was 6:13, and that being my only mile race since I recommenced running, stands as my M60 PB.

As the age grading tables suggest that a time of 4:45 is equivalent to 6:00 at my present age, I will set my gold standard target as 6:00 and my silver target as 6:12. The silver target would be an M60 PB and is the pace that I will aim for in the first two laps. That will mean 93 second laps, which sounds a bit ambitious in my present condition. In view of my recent ill-health I will also allow myself a softer bronze target of 6:24. But all of this planning depends on my lungs remaining is reasonable condition for the next two weeks.