Thursday, 20 February 2014

Another one bites the dust (mud)

Race review of Benfleet 15 - Mud, Mud oh and some mud!

As this year’s race season starts to unfold, here’s a short review of yet another of my adventures...

Next up was a race I’m quite familiar with, the Benfleet 15. This is held every year in Essex near Canvey Island. I’d run this event a number of times and it’s safe to say it's a firm favourites with locals but recently its reputation has started to spread with an ever increasing number turning up at the start line on a freezing winters morning. The race used to start on the island itself then head along the sea wall before looping back onto main land, Hadleigh, Leigh then back to the island but for the last few years the course has transformed and what was a reasonably difficult test is now even harder as the race starts and finishes at the highest point of Hadleigh Downs.

No this wasn't me! (but it felt like it... wheres my shoe!)

I’d come off the back of two marathons in the week before so I really wanted to back off a little for this event especially as I knew this was going to be difficult enough so Mr Andy Hind was kind enough again to step up to the plate and pace me around "casual style". He’ll probably reply to this with some “cock and bull” story about other way around…. BUT trust me Andy, I was using you like a $10 errr anyway, you get the idea!

Well the first thing we noted about the day when we rolled into the car park was the weather. This race has two traditional settings “cold” and “even colder” which results in either "mudfest or ice mud" but today, the skies were clear and there was even a touch of warmth in the air. Strange but I assumed this wouldn’t last so dressed for a blizzard (you can see where this is going).

Anyway, we slowly walked to the start line where I got that feeling that every runner dreads. We had about 15 mins till the start so I jogged over to the “facilities” but the queue was longer than a Primark sale in Bas Vegas! I assessed the situation and returned to Andy telling him that it was in fact last minute nerves and nothing to worry about, was this mistake “number two” (see what I did there).

Whilst waiting for the start it was nice to say hi to some familiar faces including ultra legend Sir Bob Gear and we laughed to ourselves when we realised we were standing in the wrong direction on the start line. We didn't feel too bad as the whole field managed to stand the wrong way around but we were then off. The revised start is quite different to the old one on the island where the hardest part was climbing over “the hump” to the actual start itself without falling over. Here hundreds of people were sprinting flat out downhill on what I was told was part of the Olympic mountain bike course. Well I say flat out until a minute later when the course switched back up the hill and people were now desperately try to keep the running pace as we headed up vertically. I decided walking was the way ahead.

We were soon flying downhill again and I was struggling to keep up with Andy who was embracing the Kevin Wright downhill mantra of “brakes off, balls out! (eye balls!). I did my best to stay on two feet as we continued to literally at times “fly” down the mud covered slope. When we eventually reached the bottom of the downs and turned left towards Leigh Station though I was starting to slowly recover from the shock of the start especially as I think I’d lost a stone so far in sweat loss.

So far the only correct decision I’d made today was to wear my Walsh’s fell shoes as I had decent grip even though the going was terrible at times. As we jogged along recharging the batteries I finally drew level with Andy who looked in about the same place as me now. We were actually towards the back of the pack still at this point mostly due to our decision to start pretty much last but thanks to Andy’s turbo speed we’d somehow managed to pass a few people so weren’t doing too bad. We switched direction again and headed uphill and yet again I decided to employ some ultra running tactics and walk it. I could see at the top where the course switched sharp right that people were again struggling to stay on their feet and I chuckled to myself safe in the fact I was wear my “special shoes”.

We were both still together as we reached the mudfest at the top of the hill. Andy took the lead as he followed the masses along the same line but I decided I would use the special shoes to take the faster racing line. At first it was looking good, I had made up some ground on the runners ahead but this ended suddenly when one of my “super shoes” hadn’t brought into the deal as I ran along leaving it behind in the mud. At this point if I was near the finish, I think I would have left it there but with 13 miles still left to run I had to go back and retrieve it. After finally locating the shoe and digging it out I then tried like a wally to run while trying to pull the shoe back on! Why do people do that? Eventually I pulled the stupid thing on as Andy was starting to disappear in the distance.

I hit the gas on and managed to catch up my partner in crime. Andy hadn’t noticed me "throwing a shoe" and he laughed sympathetically when I told him what happen as we again started to climb into Leigh. This is usually one of the worst parts for mud but strangely it wasn’t that bad this time as they had placed some form of mesh matting for the Olympics and this made the usual mockery of running at this point actually achievable.

As we switched from mud to road, I had pulled away slightly from Andy but I pushed on for now as I decided to stop at the aid station for a breather. I have to say all the volunteers were amazing as usual and I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so many jelly babies in my life. Andy soon came in and we walked together out of the checkpoint on the sea wall heading to Canvey. It was a pleasant surprise that we weren’t greeted by the high winds that can be a feature of this section and again it was actually very nice. Andy was reminding me that we were starting to go too fast and I was grateful as I was feeling pretty good but recovery was the order of the day so we backed off.

It was too long before we turned off the seawall back onto road and got to the next aid station. We again restocked (more jelly babies) and pushed on over the road and along the opposite seawall towards the school on the island and the old start which was actually now the turnaround point. We were passing the race leaders running the other way and as always it was nice to shout greetings to each other. We eventually got to the turnaround point with yet another aid station where I ate.... even more jelly babies! We passed another marshal just after this aid station who was jumping up and down in excitement cheering on the everyone and giving out chocolate, it doesn't get much better.

I was feeling really good as we waved to some of the other runners who were still on the top section of seawall and shortly we were leaving the island, running past Benfleet train station and walking him the hill to the final checkpoint. You guessed it more jelly babies and a juice chaser and I was ready to go. I think Andy was starting to feel the effects of missing out on some recent training (he was still doing pretty good in my books), and I started to pull away a little but only so I could push the hills a little.

I knew now the end was near but I’d also run this modified route once before so I knew the finish had a huge sting in its tail. Well I thought I knew! This year the route switched to more sections of the mountain bike course but this time it was uphill winding up the steep incline like an alpine pass (well it seemed like it at the time). I got to what I thought must be the top only to discover that is was a short plateau and there was another “mountain” to climb. I couldn't walk up the last hill so I jogged up and over the finish line. Andy finished shortly after and I think both of us were more than pleased with the days efforts. I must of come away with some kind of jelly baby PB.

Lessons learnt? My "gut feeling" at the start was correct as the only brown stuff I was covered in was mud (I hope!) and running in the sun with 3 layers head to toe isn't the best idea....

A great day out with friends.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Tale of two marathons

The story so far...

It’s been a little while since I wrote about my general running exploits, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to catch up!

It’s a Monday morning in Feb and the morning after the LDWA Punchbowl 30. So far this year my main races have been Cold Christmas to Good Easter Off-Road Marathon, The Enigma Buff Marathon, Benfleet 15 and Punchbowl yesterday. This entry will be specifically about the first two marathon events and I’ll write something about the other events later.

Well I’d had probably one of the best Christmas / New Year breaks ever as I took a few days off just before Christmas to visited the Alps. It was the first time the family had been there and I have to admit it was amazing to see their faces when they first saw the mountains complete with snow at the peaks! A proper Winter Wonderland!

On top of the world with "the boss"

The above had been amazing but had also meant I’d had a break from exercising (probably not a bad thing) and when I got back we were straight into the “holiday feeding” mode… i.e. feet up in front of TV, beers and chocolate. This resulted in a great holiday but also some extra inches on the waistline.

I decided that I need to try and lose this extra bulk and also generally modify my diet habits. Don’t get me wrong I don’t eat bad at all it’s just I think I needed to operate a little "portion control" and also cut out some of those little treats as I found I was “treating myself” too often (does that sound wrong?)

A friend at work recommended an app called My Fitness Pal and I started to use this but only as a rough guide to what I was taking on fuel wise. It’s a simple tool where you enter what you eat and how much you train and it tells you if your good or bad. Well I’ve used it for nearly a month now and I’ve lost 11 pounds! That’s the Xmas weight now gone and I’m looking to lose a little more before levelling out. So far so good!

Anyway, back to running…

Cold Christmas to Good Easter Marathon

Me looking far too happy at the start of the CC to GE marathon

My first race back in the new year was The Cold Christmas to Good Easter off-road marathon. This is a pretty tough narrative trail race from Hertfordshire back into Essex. I’d run this once before previously and it’s always a great event with lot's of local runners and hats off to Pete Tremain the event organiser for putting on a seamless race. I was still working with my running coach but hadn’t had much time to train recently due to being away / ill so I didn’t expect too much. I’d had a chest infection before xmas which wasn't ideal but on frosty the start line I actually didn't feel that bad.

Darran Hull and John Daly at the start

We were soon off and I settled into running with a small group of fellow club runners. I’d already agreed pre-race to run around with a couple of people and we all jogged along together taking advantage of the frost which had turned the water-logged fields into semi-decent ground. For the first few miles I stayed in the middle of this group and felt ok but did have to work a little in places to stay with the boys as the pace sometimes increased. There were 3 aid stations and I’d already decided that I wouldn’t look at the watch and try and just run comfortably. Before I knew it though we ran into the first stop. We all checked in and I filled my bottle, ate some biscuits and took a couple for later then were soon off.

A couple of the group had left just before us so the rest of us pushed hard for a couple of minutes to catch them. We were soon skipping through the mud again as the ice was now starting to thaw. It was about now that I first realised I was feeling actually felt pretty good! We were about halfway through the race and running along the River Stort so it was nice and flat so I started to push the pace with fellow club mate Andy Stroud who I was chatting to. We continued this for a while and all seemed good before deciding we’d better actually slow down a tad as there was little chance of keeping this pace going for long.

As we turned off the river and started a climb towards the M11 motorway, I started to drop a little and I was now fighting to keep the pace going. I didn’t say anything and the banter in the group probably kept me going at this point. I often experience lows around 15-18 miles so I took a gel, had something to eat and kept pushing knowing that it should pass.

I was starting to get some comments from the guys in the group that I was running well (control yourself Mr Brazier). I’d put in quite a bit of training before the new year thanks to my coach Paul Anderson and also thanks to my family (who let me do it) and I think it was finally starting to show. Well this motivated me to keep pushing as we approach the 2nd aid station manned by fellow club members Sarah and Malcolm and it felt great to see them. I’d dropped a isotonic drink down to them the day before and I downed the whole thing standing there and again ate some custard creams.

We all left together and I started to push again with Andy. After a few minutes we noticed that we’d pulled away from the rest of the group. We slowed slightly to re-group but Andy said I should try and push on. I felt guilty as I’d said I’d stick with my mate Paul but I was also having probably my best race ever so after Andy assured me that the rest of the group would be fine I pushed on again. After a few miles I headed into the village of Hatfield Broad Oak where they stage a well-known 10k race every year. It felt a little odd running part of that course but was good to recognise where we were for once and not just another farmers field. I passed a couple of other runners and we exchanged greetings and I soon approached the final aid station.

Inside the hall was an enormous spread of food and I tucked into some cake and had a brief chat with a couple of friends who were taking a break. One of the guys in particular looked as like he wasn't having a great race. I kind of guessed this as they would probably have been finished by now in normal circumstances. I left the hall but decided to wait for the guys I’d left earlier just to make sure one last time that they were all good. I didn’t have to wait too long as Andy came in and again he said everyone was ok so I was off. 

Paul Bridges at CC to GE marathon

Well there was only a couple of miles left and I was still feeling ok. As I headed towards Good Easter and the finish, the incline increased slightly but it started to feel like a mountain as the legs started to get heavy but I knew we were nearly done so I pushed some more. Somehow I managed to overtake a couple more people before finishing. Approx. 20 minutes faster than last time out. As I said, probably the best all-round race I’d ever had!

I changed my race kit and soon the rest of the gang finished. Everyone seemed happy with their times and I think everyone had a great race.

Enigma Buff Marathon

Only 3 days after running the Cold Xmas Marathon I was running this multi-lap marathon in Milton Keynes with good friend Paul Bridges. This was obviously something I normally wouldn’t do but I thought why not as I had some holiday to use so thought I’d go for a day trip to the Midlands.

For those that don’t know, Enigma is a small close-knit group of people headed by “Foxy Dave” and they specialise in multi-lap marathons (and I hope I’m not offending them) in my opinion geared towards people pushing for membership to the exclusive 100 Marathon Club That said, they are always set in pleasant surroundings and I know they are run like clockwork.

The Enigma Marathon - Only 70 laps to go :)

We set off early to avoid any rush hour traffic and without any issues we were soon turning off the motorway and negotiating some of MK’s notorious roundabouts. We pulled up at a rather nice lake which looked to have a path system all the way around it. We parked up outside a near-by pub which doubled as HQ for the day and went in to look for the guys. 

We registered and I said hi to Foxy and I also notice a couple of familiar faces that included Rachel and Traviss, famous 100 marathon clubbers. As we waited for the start, Paul spoke to a few people he knew and they all sounded like seasoned marathoners including a guy that had done over 900 marathons and was scheduled to hit 1000 this year, amazing!

Well after the small group had been briefed it was a short walk to the start and we were soon off. Our plan was to run together at 9 min/miles for half the distance then slow down and hit 4:30ish, not too shabby considering we’d both run hard marathons only days before. I actually felt ok running around the lake in my Luna sandals and it was cool to see local boy and fellow Luna runner Russ in the crowd. I’d decided recently to try and wear the sandals as much as possible again as I’d “slipped” back into minimal shoes over the new year as the weather had got poor.

It was wet but the rain seemed to hold off thank god and Paul and me were chatting lap after lap grabbing the occasional drink or bite to eat as we passed the line. I again had decided not to focus on time apart from the occasional check to see what pace we were hitting. Before I knew it though Paul was telling me we’d completed 10 miles and despite looping around and around the same lake, time seemed to be flying. 

Socks with sandals - A classic look

Once again in no time we’d crossed the halfway point in the race and unfortunately Paul was starting to feel the effects of our recent races, I was still ok but I think my ultra distance training was standing me in good stead. We were starting to slow a little and Paul told me to go on. I was determined this time not to leave my “wing man” but Paul insisted I should run as well as I could. I sat back for a couple more laps before deciding that Paul was right especially as we could see the entire route at all times from across the lake so I said I was going to give it a little blast but I’d probably see him soon.

I opened the pace a little and settled again as Paul decided wisely to back off. I was starting to overtake people on this short course and this again served as a decent morale boast passing them. I got back to lapping in 9 min / miles and with a few miles to go I just wanted to see how long I could keep that going. I’d previously been lapped by the leaders and soon they were pulling up at the finish line to receive their medals. This again was positive for me as I knew the end was near. This was the first time I looked at my watch to see total time taken and with a couple of laps to go I was minutes away from the 4 hour mark.

Paul coming over the line to finish the Enigma Marathon

I wasn't fussed about the time but I thought I’d give it a go anyway for a surprise sub-4. I pushed as fast as I could but as I approached the finish I knew I'd just missed it. I’d finished 9th in 4 hours 53 seconds. I was asked if I was gutted not to break the hour mark, but to be honest I wasn’t really. Don’t get me wrong, if this was the first time I’d got near to the time I might have been more upset but it was still the second fastest marathon time I’d ever run and not bad considering I’d not started to race that time and days after another marathon. It was a great event well done Foxy and Paul finished shortly after me getting his sub-4:30 just as planned.

Me and Mr Bridges

Next time…. Benfleet 15 and the Punchbowl 30.