Eight Minute Mile?

The eight minute mile. Half as fast, twice as slow, as the legendary four minute mile. You know – Roger Bannister and all that – the realm of class athletes but for most a mythical place. But the eight minute mile? Millions of runners aspire to run a mile, or many miles, at a pace which they think they should be capable of achieving with a certain level of training. For me, eight minute mile pace seems a suitably challenging target. I’d like to be able to run a number of eight minute miles one after the other and enjoy it. And that’s the key word – enjoy. I’ve struggled around the local streets too many times over the years as an an occasional jogger.  This blog covers the trials and tribulations of a very amateur ‘athlete’ on a journey of self-satsifaction, and maybe self-discovery and self-harm!

105 and a half laps

Round and round and round and round and round and round. And round. And round. And round some more and more and more. Seemingly ad infinitum (but not quite).

The above opening lines could describe the cyclyical nature of my attempts to become a better runner – indeed my attempts to become a runner capable of knocking out mile-after-mile of 8 minute miles. I get a bit better then take two steps back, then plan a new training regime and start the cycle again.

But the opening lines represent a brief summary of my first attempt at running a marathon.

Looking back (many months now – where has the time gone?) to my previous post, written in the French Alps where I’d run many enjoyable and fitness boosting miles while on holiday (and training for a 50K run), it’s almost annoying how quickly everything changed. Within a few hours of writing the post I was struck down with gastro enteritis – great for weight loss, not so great for running (especially when it lasts for nearly 3 weeks), and definitely not the best thing to have when faced with an 800+ mile return drive home.

Of course, I still believed that I could manage to run 50K another few weeks down the line, but despite a reasonably comfortable 22 mile run and several encouraging outings of slightly less distance, the pressures of a new job and the need to catch up with work finished off my ultra-marathon ambitions (at least for now). Allowing work to continue to decimate my training, what I lost in fitness and pace I gained in apathy.

Then I became touched and inspired by the fight of two little girls aged just 2 and 13 fighting cancer. Sure, my job was showing no imminent signs of getting easier, and I’d need to get training more but without really thinking too much about it I announced that I’d run a marathon round and round our local running track, to raise money to support families of children with cancer. A noble enough gesture but  ‘noble’ alone will not complete the necessary 105 and a half laps required for 26.2 miles.

Unfortunately I allowed work to still take precedent but did manage a few important long runs, most notably a pleasing 20 miles around the hills on the edge of the Peak District in less than 3 hours 30 minutes. Even with very little running for three weeks that followed I felt confident that on a flat track I’d be able to manage the marathon in under 4 and a half hours.

When the designated day arrived just before Christmas, the early morning weather map showed ‘amber’ warnings directly above my chosen venue, a local cinder 400m track in the middle of wide open playing fields. As I arrived in the dark and climbed the fence the rain and wind were already more than just a minor irritation. Having not visited the track for at least 20 years, the uneven and already saturated surface not only frightened the hell out of me but also nearly caused me to abort the whole idea. Instead, I threw down my plastic bin liner containing several drinks bottles, jelly babies and some dry clothes, and got on with it. Twice during the next few hours I had need to chase dogs away from that bag and offer a few choice words to their owners!

The first three laps were tentative as I picked a reasonable route around the large puddles, the ankle twisting holes and the softest of the very soft patches which made it like running on a beach (as most of the track would become after three hours). The fourth lap required me to remove one trainer to empty several large pieces of gravel. In the wind, rain and dark I managed to lose my balance and my trainer-less foot splashed into a large muddy puddle. So this was it. This was how it would be then. I was not happy and this caused me to run several laps at a pace I knew I would not be able to maintain. Then it rained harder. I laughed. Then it rained harder. I was now completely soaked. I laughed more and found I was actually enjoying it. Then it rained even harder. Perhaps it wasn’t quite so much fun after all. Then it really hammered it down. “Come on you b*****ds. Is that the best you’ve got,” I shouted at the sky in what would surely have been a legendary cinematic moment had anyone else been around to film it and take it to Hollywood.

A little later a colleague ran six miles with me, my wife then helped me round for a further three, and a couple of friends added their support with shouts of encouragement (quite an achievement from them as an overweight bloke jogging round a windswept track is hardly the most riveting of spectator sports) . By 18 miles though, my left knee began to hurt. By 20 it was clear that the final six miles would require lots of walking. A few metres of hobbling  was followed by a few more metres of  walking which eventually became just slower hobbling. And so it would be for the final hour and a half it took me to complete the last six miles.

In his book Road to Endorphia, Joe Donnachie suggests that if you want to run,  “Run for the hit. Run for the buzz. Run for the rush. Run for the surge. Run for the free drugs. Run for the biochemical bliss. Don’t run for charity. Run for clarity.” I like that piece of advice – for me running at a basic level has to be a very internal, almost private thing. I certainly use running for personal clarity. I need to run for fitness but I also need to run for sanity and pleasure – the hit, buzz, rush, surge and biochemical bliss. However, as I struggled around that track with just a few miles remaining the clarity that hit me was that finishing the run didn’t matter to me as a runner – I knew I wasn’t through with marathons and that I’d be having another go at one although probably not round a track in the worst weather in December. It didn’t matter to me as a runner but it did matter to me as a person doing the run  in the name of two terribly poorly little girls. The pain in my knee (undoubtedly caused by going round and round), the wet, the cold, the miserable boredom I was know beginning to feel and the irritating fact that it was going to take me 45 minutes longer than anticipated, all paled into insignificance compared to the plight of children and families suffering infinitely more than I was.

Alone again on the track, my wife having being dispatched to go and run a hot bath for me, the clarity I took from the vast difference between my slightly uncomfortable current predicament and the truly awful situations being faced by friends and their children, spurred me on. I even managed a ‘sprint’ to finish in just under 5 hours and 15 minutes. I’d got a buzz and a refreshed enthusiasm for running, completed my first marathon, learned a little more about how lucky I am in life, and raised over £800.

Run for whatever you want. Clarity. Charity. The buzz. If you can run you’re already far better off than some.

Lord of the flies

Seven weeks ago, my last blog entry basically bemoaned my lack of common sense, loss of ‘mojo’ and bit of laziness, as major factors disrupting my ultra marathon training. For five of the last seven weeks the training has continued to suffer, largely as a result of continued partying and the accompanying alcohol consumption, some busy weeks at work, and a terrible bout of the debilitating disease known as CBA*.

Fortunately, the last two weeks have seen me freshly inspired by healthier eating, holiday time, some panic about how the hell I can possibly complete a  50km run in two months time and, most of all, by the fantastic scenery of the French Alps where I’ve spent the last week running. I’ve even taken my camera on a few runs just to capture some of it.

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All of the above photos are taken close to Meribel-Mottaret, and are 6,000 feet and more above sea level. Suffice to say, the running has been slow as a result of the altitude, the temperature, and mostly my lack of fitness (stopping to take a photo every now and then provides a welcome break). While I’ve imagined myself to be floating along like a Kenyan Olympic athlete in the mountains of east Africa, emulating the grace of a mountain goat and the tenacity of something very, very tenacious, the reality hit home when I passed by a herd of Alpine cattle. As the valley echoed with the various tones of cow bells and the lowing of each animal as it trudged along the mountain track to pastures new, so my ears buzzed with the sound of swarms of flies, teasing me with the fact that I was an easier, slower and probably sweatier and smellier target than a slow moving bovine mass.

But who cares, I’ve been newly invigorated and still have a few more days left of it. 42 miles, including a half-marathon, have so far been covered up and down the hills in the photographs, and surely running at altitude now will make a big difference when I’m running back at home. While I doubt I’ll be worrying the Mo Farah’s of this world any time soon, I might not be far from being able to out-run an annoying insect and his equally nuisance like friends. Stick to cows you flies… I’m back in the game! (At least for now.)

*CBA – Can’t Be Arsed. Particularly prevalent in terms of running when: the weather is wet and windy, there’s something good on TV, at times of hunger, on days when any number of mundane chores seem more attractive than going for a jog round the streets, and at times of hangover (the distinction between CBA and hangover becomes difficult to determine after about three days).

 

How not to train for an ultra marathon

If I were to ever write about my first attempt to train for and run a 50k ultra marathon, this post would probably represent Chapter 2, and would be titled, rather grandly, ‘Losing my mojo’ (when it should in fact be titled either ‘Lazy, lazy, lazy’ or, more accurately, ‘Lack of common sense’).

Chapter 1 would refer to a good start to my ultra training – two weeks of good mileage, sensible eating, a bit of weight loss, and plenty of determination. That took me to the beginning of May, leaving me five months to develop my running from an ability to cover 15 miles comfortably in 2 hours 30 minutes, to more than double the distance and time on my feet.

In my last post, when I was still in semi-shock after entering the ultra, I stated that I needed to:

1) step up the miles and get in plenty of long slow runs,

2) eat more healthily and consume less alcohol,

3) lose several pounds.

I also indicated that I’d need a large slice of luck.

Well five or six weeks of thoroughly enjoyable working hard and playing harder has left my original plan in tatters. Three big social events have reduced my mileage and fitness. Unfortunately drinking too much is very easy with my own lack of self-control and the wonderful company I keep and, when coupled with my age, a good party leaves me with a certain amount of apathy (and inability) to run for a few days. I know I should and could turn out for two or three miles but then I stupidly/lazily consider it a waste of time if I’m not going to be able to do at least five or six miles.

Fortunately, I seem to have at least got the large slice of luck that I needed. Despite weight gain, mileage loss and a very poor diet, I’ve today been able to run (with a few strategically placed walking breaks) 20 slow miles. So there’s a big positive – I’ve still got enough fitness to be able to punish myself for six weeks of inadequate effort.

But now it’s getting desperate. Weeks have been lost and I really don’t think I can afford to lose any more. The slice of luck has kept me just about on track to at least believe I can achieve my target of completing 50K in October, although I’d like to be able to complete it in more style than I did the gruelling 20 mile punishment of today. The bit of common sense I have remaining is telling me that I have no luck credits remaining. Only hard work will pay now. Maybe chapter 3 of the story could tell the tale of a miracle of biblical proportions. I can see the headlines now – ‘Fat 40+ bloke becomes proper athlete in 2 months’. It’s not quite up there with turning water into wine or making a bit of bread and fish into a filling meal for a large crowd, but as alcohol and vast quantities of food need to be avoided for now, it’s perhaps best that I turn my hand to these latter two tricks some other time.

What have I gone and done?

For some time now, even before reading of the exploits and amazing feats of the likes of the late Caballo Blanco, Dean Kanazares, and Mike Stroud and Ranulph Fiennes, I’ve often thought of myself as a marathon runner, or even an ultra marathon runner. Much of this has of course been a direct result of The Law of Delusion but lurking away somewhere inside there’s always been a bit of a dream.

A few short hours ago, having returned home from a couple of weeks in the sun of Tenerife I finally did something about this ‘dream’. Maybe it was the effects of too much sun, the weary mind after travelling for several hours with two young children, or the mix of  vast quantities of take-away spicy curry and cool beer after returning to cupboards and fridge devoid of food*.

Whatever it was though, I switched on my computer and entered a 50K ultra in and around Nottingham** in October. (I also entered the Cheshire Half Marathon*** in November although this, in some respects, seems to pale into some insignificance right now.)

And that is why I’m sitting typing this post at just after 4 in the morning. I’ve barely slept with a mixture of fear, excitement and, at least in equal measure to the first two reasons, terrible indigestion after sampling the gorgeous delights of our local Indian, Rice ‘n’ Spice.

Now, as I await the rest of the family rising from their slumber, I can rationalise my thoughts about the madness I’ve got myself into. My main fears are:

1) the distance – should I have gone for a 20 miler or a marathon first?

2) the terrain – not sure what it will be like so will need to investigate more in the cold light of day.

3) the wall – should I be scared of it, how much will it hurt, can I sneakily jump over it without anyone noticing and thus avoid running straight into it?

Perhaps I should be worried about finishing last or throwing up as I cross the finish line in a busy city centre, or even having to crawl through the streets but getting that far would, I suppose, represent an achievement in itself. Or maybe I should be worried about something I’ve not even thought of yet, so perhaps thinking about the whole thing too much will be counter-productive. Ignorance is bliss!

The best means of overcoming my fears are, of course:

1) training – stepping up the miles and getting in plenty of long slow runs

2) diet – eating more healthily, consuming less alcohol

3) weight – lose several pounds, if only to enable me to add the weight back on again at the start of the event by carrying several litres of water.

I’m guessing that with some determination and a large slice of luck (unfortunately luck is probably the only thing I’ll be able to accept in large slices for a while), my training and diet will take care of  my weight, and will also prevent (or at least reduce) further episodes of imbibing and curry eating thus avoiding future moments of madness with online race entry forms.

Maybe I can take some inspiration from something I recently read in the second of Dean Kanazares’ books (I’m not usually one for taking much from quotes or soundbites but this one is quite apt, especially when I’m easily seduced by a tasty meal or alcoholic beverage, and easily deluded into believing a lack of focus in my training won’t matter too much):

‘…push on with eyes blinded to the deluding mirage, your ears deaf to the call of the seducer, and your mind un-diverted from the goal.’****

I do have a sneaky suspicion I might be able to achieve something which at the moment seems almost impossible, but it’s going to take more than sneaky suspicion and a quote I won’t be able to remember to get me there. Maybe one last full English breakfast and I’ll set foot on that road.

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*Fortunately the fridge was not so devoid of beer, although I guess this might have to change from now on!  

** I’ve not researched it very much but I know it’s a point-to-point finishing in Nottingham city centre. Had I spent time thinking about it I’d probably not have entered!

*** It will assume massive significance I guess in the weeks leading up to the event as I am determined that I’ll do the whole Cheshire HM at 8 minute mile pace.

****The quote is from Dean Kanazares’ second book (good, but nowhere near as good as his excellent first - a bit too egotistical for my liking but I guess if I was as good as him I might blow my own trumpet a bit too). Anyway, Kanazares attributes this to a lady called Mildred Cable, speaking about the Gobi desert and perhaps unsurprsingly not about an overweight 40 something worrying about a bit of a run in the East Midlands. Sort of works though.

Fun in the sun

Well the lack of nerves ahead of the Wilmslow Half Marathon deserted me in the last 24 hours before the race.

I assume nerves came into play alongside a severe bout of hypochondria on Saturday. I sneezed myself awake and even coughed before breakfast which was a clear sign that during my sleep I had contracted an until now, unknown strain of influenza virus. Despite the flu then deciding to lie dormant for the rest of the day, I then ‘suffered’ terrible injuries to my right heel (a dull ache) and my left thigh (another dull ache), plus an ‘uncomfortable’ stomach (which had nothing to do with the large amount of cheese and spicy crisps I was eating – honest).

Move forward to Sunday morning (race day) and although the flu was still hiding, waiting to pounce when least expected, I didn’t feel much like running a half marathon. Of course, I neglected to consider that I always feel this way the moment I awake, and instead considered it a sign of impending failure.

Anyway, a bit of breakfast, far too much water, a search for safety pins for my race number and off to Wilmslow in the car. “Just another run” I kept telling myself all the way there but as I arrived the place was teeming with supreme looking athletes, every single one clearly many minutes faster than me. Walking to the start didn’t ease my concerns that I was going to be last and would burn myself out after a couple of miles just trying to keep up to see where to go.

As it turned out, my fears were unfounded. I decided on a race strategy when my colleague who I wanted to try to run with decided to set-off from between the 1 hour 40 to 1 hour 50 starts (and too close to the 1 hour 40 marker for my liking). But what the hell, my strategy took shape in an instance – I would set out at under eight minute mile pace, hang on as long as possible and suffer later.

As race strategies go, I guess it was probably not the best, but it did what it said on the tin. I started to slow around 7.5 miles but had already broke my PB for 6 miles and 10k. I managed to hang on to get through 10 miles in a couple of seconds over 1 hr 20 mins (another PB)  before struggling through the last 3.1 to make it home in 1:49:11 (four and half minutes faster than my previous best over the distance). After a time damaging pee stop at 12 miles, I even just about managed to punch the air in delight as I staggered over the line in a time I barely dared dream of over the past few weeks.

It was maybe a strange way to run but had I not been struggling so much over the last couple of miles I would have laughed out loud. Over the first few miles I seemed to pass, or at least run with, runners who  looked the part. They flowed along majestically, effortlessly and I was among them. As the finish approached, every weird and wonderful running gait waddled, limped, powered and puffed past me and my by now totally ineffective style!

As for the race itself, my first since I was a kid, I thought it was incredibly well-organised, plenty of marshals, and fantastic support around the course – something that really kept me going towards the end. There was ample water available too, much needed as the temperature got into the high teens/high 60s on a beautiful sunny day.

Fun and definitely in my diary for next year. I might even think about planning my race a bit more careully next time.

Nervously un-nervous

With just over a couple of days before I run my first half-marathon since I was 11 (which doesn’t really count as it was 30 years ago), I’ve become a bit ‘sort-of-nervous’.

In many ways this is totally illogical. I know I can run the distance – several training runs of between 12 and 16 miles over recent months have convinced me that it’s probable that I’ll be able to get round the course. I’m not nervous about running the whole race at 8 minute mile pace – I know I can’t do that quite at the moment and will be happy enough to get round in under two hours, delighted if I beat my best of 1 hour 53 mins 30 seconds (set in a painful training run), and ecstatic if I somehow manage to break 1 hour 50.

Maybe I should be a bit nervous about being too warm or cold but I’ve brought a little belt thing that my very lightweight running jacket will squash into. The fact that there are likely to be plenty of colleagues and pupils from work around the course (foolishly I’ve selected a HM starting and finishing just a few metres away) should maybe add some ‘pressure’ but to be quite honest I’m just happy to go and get on with it and not really bother about what anyone else thinks (or the abuse they might shout!).

I’ve heard that once you have completed a race for which you have been training there is a natural deflated feeling, a gap in your life, but no nerves here for me as I’ve already got plans to up my distance and have a crack at a marathon and maybe beyond.

What I think I’m really nervous about is the fact that I don’t actually know how I should feel. Should I be nervous at all? Or excited? Or terrified? Should I be tossing and turning for the pre-race nights, mulling over all the things that could go wrong, or even right? Should I be worried about every item of food I eat between now and race day in case the ingredients somehow affect my performance? (Actually, referring back to my previous post, yes I should worry about my diet affecting my run, although I won’t as it’s all my own doing.)

Maybe I should fear running in a big crowd, or even that they will be all so fast that this won’t be a problem for me. And perhaps I should worry about getting my race strategy all wrong, but then again I don’t really have one other than trying to keep up with a faster colleague and/or the virtual partner on my Garmin.

I suppose it could be the term ‘race’ that should get me nervous, although as I suspect I have little chance of an incredible sequence of events seeing me jog home in first place 40 plus minutes behind the course record, then I’m not letting that worry me either.

Damn it – I’m nervous because I’m not nervous!

I guess race day will reveal all – I have nothing to be nervous about now other than something unknown that I will realise I should have been worried about all along.

Or maybe I might just enjoy it.

Complacently amateur

Laziness + disregard for diet + “It’s so easy this running thing” = complacent amateur not as healthy and fit as I should be (and almost feel ashamed by it)

It’s not quite up there with some of the more defining equations in the history of the universe, although you will also note my laziness in not searching Google to find a couple of these for examples to illustrate my point*. However, this equation has plagued me as an on/off runner for 25 years or so. Unfortunately it has recently raised its ugly head again, now that I’m a more ‘serious’ ‘athlete’.

In my last post I hinted that I sometimes feel almost professional as I’m cruising along, but than turn very amateur as my legs give-up and I have to hobble home. For most of the last couple of years I’ve moved in the right direction with my running, taking it seriously and doing it regularly. I’ve even sometimes looked at my tag line (the little bit of italics at the top right of this website which says Trials and tribulations of a very amateur runner…) and have occasionally considered changing it to something refelecting how I’ve become more proficient at this mostly enjoyable, probably a little eccentric, sport.

Who am I trying to kid? A little over two and half weeks ago, I set out to try and run 13.1 miles at 8 minute 40 second miling pace. It was a beautiful morning, crisp, sunny, blue skies and sub-zero temperatures. As I left the warmth of the central heating I doubted whether my target was realistic but I perservered and after a slightly apprehensive start, and a slower mile around the half-way mark, I managed to hit my target exactly. Naturally I was pleased and for a few days after I followed my training plan with a bit of faster work and then… well it didn’t matter if I missed a couple of days, skipped a session or two, because I was doing so well. Then a night out, and it surely didn’t matter if I had a few beers, I could miss running the next day (because I was doing so well) and carry on the day after that. Then it snowed. A lot. Then the snow started to clear a bit leaving lots of ice which I deemed too dangerous to venture out onto (despite seeing plenty of other runners coping with the conditions). Then it was the weekend again and another night out.

I’ve always liked beer but have never enjoyed mixing it with running. At 40+ I am now totally unable to combine beer with running or very much else other than junk food and the odd groan of regret-tainted misery from the sofa. And this goes on for a couple of days.

Having recently completed reading the excellent Born to Run, imagining myself as a prolific ultra-marathoner, I was amazed by the way in which the Tarahumara apparantly manage to drink vast amounts of beer and then run so far (it does appear that their beer is not as strong and far more nutritous than the average brew in the average British pub). So a very poor excuse for drinking to excess on a couple of occasions is that something in my subconscious was trying to turn me into a Tarahumara. But t didn’t work. After nine days without a run I felt awful as I battled through a terribly slow six miler, and nearly as bad the next day on a three miler. 

Unhealthy eating and drinking certainly fuels the laziness aspect, especially after a few days without a run. It’s easier to put-off the inveitable ‘pain’ by sitting in front of the TV with another bag of crisps and a glass of wine. I’m not a couch potato by any stretch of the imagination, and I love running, but sometimes the easy option is to not bother. Especially when I am under the illusion that I’m so good.

Maybe this complacent amateur needs to set himself more challenging targets. I’m entered for the Wilmslow HM in a little over five weeks time, and I’ll aim for sub 1 hour 50 minutes. And I’ll follow the calorie controlled inspiration of the excellent Born to Plod blog’s Food, Glorious Food post. I have had a go at the ‘salad for breakfast’ thing – three consecutive days now- and it doesn’t seem to have done me any harm. It’s also helped over this short period to stop me craving biscuits and cake mid-morning which always seems to happen a few hours after a bowl of sweet breakfast cereal. So I’ve made a start. Now I need to stop kidding myself that the more I run the more healthy my lifestyle (less lazy, less junk, less drink) will become. In other words I’ve got to make a bit more effort and have a bit less daydreaming. After all, I’m closer to needing to get my amateurish ways under control than running through the canyons of Mexico. 

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*Or indeed finding out how to put the little 2 after E=MC which makes the MC bit squared…