Saturday, 2 May 2015

The Beaming Face 'neath the Blue Sky

I was asleep one week ago, waking just before my 0700 alarm on 26th April 2015. Waking filled with great calm and purpose ahead of a race and a performance in the London Marathon that is secure for the ages.

The numbers - finish time of 2h 54m 56s, 2nd Hayes in the field, 28th Irish man, 49th in my age category (50-54). Splits of 1 26 25 and 1 28 31; I passed 141 runners in the last 7.2k and 22 passed me; picking up the final 2k to 4m 7s pace (6m 35s per mile) sealed the 4s I was inside the 2 55 target; needless to say, there was a sprint to the line.

Two images stand out above all others - Tania's beaming face popping out of the crowd on Tower Bridge as we planned, and her more than beaming beautiful self at the finish bringing me the official news of my time.

As I have digested and reflected and analysed this week, many aspects of the race have been fascinating and surprising - all in supremely positive ways. The "how" I executed in the race was filled with belief and calm and relentlessness and acceptance. Inextricably linked to this, the "who" has become more intriguing through the week and I will return to this in subsequent blogs.

I ran very steadily in the opening 2 miles - recording 6 48 and 6 42, laughing at my foolishness (as I deemed it) of 2014 when I scampered and jostled through the opening 2 miles in 6 24's. Purposeful and deliberate, yet calm and accepting, I was easing my way into the race. A quick next 3 miles took me through my first check point at 5 miles at an average of 6 30, gently ahead of my 6 36 average pace target to there. I was very comfortable, moving smoothly, and took huge confidence from hitting that first check point in such good condition. Game on.

Through to 10 miles still ahead of the 6 36 avg pace, I had filled up with faith and belief in myself. I maintained the smooth comfortable feeling for the most part - the only exception being an excitable 50m of high 5's with the crowd at Surrey Quays that got my heart rate racing a little. A funny and impromptu action in many ways - and a great insight into the positive mind set I had.

From there to Tower Bridge was very easy, as I looked forward to seeing Tania. Easing my way up the slope and down the far side, keeping to the left and Lo, The Fair and Beautiful face appears in shimmering glow. I smiled (probably an inane grin in reality), touched hands with Tania and bounded away with an overflow of energy and belief.

Moving through half way, happy with my effort to this point, I reflected quickly on how much better off I was vs 2014. I acknowledged to myself that it would be a long hard road to the finish, recognised that I had ran well to this point and was giving myself a chance. There was also a conscious switch of mind set as I approached the 2nd half. The faith and belief and calm of the first half were put on the back seat, and I focused on form as my priority in the passenger seat alongside me.

Ed and Gareth and a large Striders posse awaited on Narrow Street. Once I had my gels on board, seeing these guys and girls was a tremendous boost. Marathon running is hard work, and it is sapping mentally in particular. Support like that is powerful in so many ways.

I remember looking for the 15 mile marker to check my time, but don't recollect the exact time. I was still inside my 6 36 avg pace, which allowed me to "invest" in the tough miles ahead especially from 16 through to 20. Not yet digging in, my focus on running form (tall, pelvis forward) and Becca's advice about minimising swinging arms - imagine holding something between thumb and forefinger - were my mantra through to 20 miles.

Passing through 20 in  2 12 45 left 42 15 for 10k. I had delivered on the overall plan - get to 20 with a chance. A brief smile, inwardly, unnecessary expenditure of energy was out of the question. Now to take it home. With this came an adjustment to my mind set. I became very accepting of the reality that my performance would be the best it could possibly be. This had been building for several miles, now it came and sat up front beside me in the passenger seat alongside form. The effect was to liberate me to continue pushing, without fear of blowing or tiring or otherwise. I was utterly determined to take the sub 2 55 all the way to the finish.

Those final miles blurred past. Gels on board again, a little water, energy from the crowd, form and acceptance working glove in hand with me. Nods and finger raises were as good as it got in acknowledgement of cheers from the crown.

A loose and almost sub conscious monitoring of time at a few of the mile markers indicated I was hanging on to the chance. At 24, I had a huge injection of belief, and the finish plan emerged. I pushed as hard as I dared - maintaining pace in reality. Get to 25, then its Parliament Square and the finish. That's when I need to pick it up with whatever is left and go for home.

Past 25, time to execute the finish plan - I don't recollect any calculations at this stage, just utter belief. Up the gentle slope (it seemed mountainous), turn for Parliament Square, I take momentum from everything around me. Careering down hill as Big Ben strikes 1 brings a big smile - I visualised this weeks ago as an indicator of having a chance. The statues in the square, inspired by them all - especially Mandela - and I'm motoring. Exiting the square, I pass Tracey McCartney - an injection of Nene Valley rivalry was another little boost to push me along.

800m to go, push with form and belief and everything else I can find. 600m and the pushing is seriously tough. I can see 400m ahead, then 200m and the roundabout and I see the race clock ticking towards and past 2 55. Instinctively, knowing I'm app 24s behind the race clock, the sprint unfolds. Searing hurt and effort, reminder of how it had been like that for much of the race, run for your life and time and everything that is worthwhile, and an image of Tania somewhere in the crowd.

Across the line, holding my own hands, press the button - 2 54 54 on my watch. Elation was a struggle as I was more crushed in those few post race moments than ever before in my entire life. Reaching into my goodie bag, I fall upon deodorant - where's the water! I drink whatever I find, try eating a protein bar and my jaws lock. Even my ears hurt. I come across Eve, Terry's Comrades running contact who he told me to look out for. Mingle with runners equally elated and devastated. Tumult in mind and body, where's A for Alan - it seems an eternity away. Praise and a big smile to the ladies on the luggage trailers for a great job, chatter to strangers, weak and somewhat disoriented, make progress and find the A for Alan place. James and Jim await, beaming faces and shattered bodies to share. Stunning runs from both.

Everything crystallises when Tania glides into view, beaming and bursting and bearing the news of 2 54 56 according to the official time from the marathon website. Job done. Smiles and hugs and photos and repeating ourselves, tackling the protein bar with little success again. Water, smiles, beams, pride and puffed chests midst all the pain - it had been a loyal friend throughout the race, joining me around half way and never leaving my side.

Blue skies indeed. The image from Headspace during the week had floated into my mind several times during the race, bringing a double smile beneath the deep & serious focus. Time for the rest of the blue sky day.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Dreams, Beliefs and Talismen

Dreaming is easy, especially for me. It starts in a beguilingly simple way with a hard nosed ambition - to be the best that I can be.
It builds, of course, into a voyage of discovering what "the best" actually is. And then I dream - what if I could be "that good"?
Fast forward through Paris 2011 (lessons) and 2012 (joy and lessons) to London 2014 (more lessons) and a new vision of "the best" has formed with the certainty that I can do it - run a sub 2 55 marathon in London 2015.
And it's on.
Form, weight and resulting speed - that's the formula. Add liberal amounts of visioning, discipline, intelligent adaptation of training and utter belief - and there it is.
Proof points are Nene Valley 10 in December (where I ran with belief and came home with a Good for Age % over 3% higher than my previous best ever), and Newton's Fraction last Sunday (running with utter belief again to bring home a PB on a hilly course - a better performance ).
Both races have two significant common denominators
1. They were led out for me by the talisman - James Skinner and Gareth Williams.
2. I trained, slept, woke and raced with absolute belief - fuelled from within and on going great support from Tania (racing on some beer & wine is not textbook, but when it is part of a gorgeous evening then it's good in my books)
Now it gets scary, as it is there to be done - and what a wonderful double edged feeling that is. Fuel for belief, and fuel for the nervous anticipation.
It will be a tumultuous next 5 weeks. Such is the stuff of iconic performances.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

A time of Sadness and Tributes

Peter's name appeared on the phone screen - 12:18 on Sat 29th November. It was the closest I have ever come to "Stop all the clocks ..."
I knew as I read the name on the screen what the call would tell me, and I was right. Peter's friend of decades, and my influential mentor for 10+ years - Tony Lomax - passed to a better world that morning.
Our last conversation was over a year ago - one of the rare moments of lucidity in Tony's post seizure world before he embarked on aggressive treatment for his brain tumour. Thoughts of Tony were never far away - a man of Scouse/Irish wit and intellect and passion and fierce loyalty. What a tremendous man to have learned from.
I agoinised for months about how to wish him well - what is well for a man with a terminal tumour and who lost his wife just over a year previously to cancer also?
Tears and beers - a good way to remember Tony. More of those next Friday when I attend his funeral and then fly to Kerry for a weekend with my family.
Then my good friend and fellow runner, Richard, loses his brother Chris - "expected but tough" is such an understatement from Richard, and a superb testament to the character he exudes.

The Joy of Old Technology

One of the most joyous experiences in life for me is when deeply held belief and conviction get a tangible reminder they may be founded on more than just vain hope.
Having spent much of the summer sorting out niggles, and working hard and moving house - taking on an Autumn marathon ceased to be a good idea. Therefore, I resolved to focus on London '15 and train with that in mind.
This brought the Great Eastern into focus, as I had 6 weeks or so to get into shape for a PB run and a good finish to the racing season. It was not to be, 2 weeks of running a temperature resulted in 2 weeks of lost training. I ran GER, pacing Matt & Ed to significant PB's of 1 36 - a great way to run with puropse and not race too hard when not fit to do so.
The only race left in the frame for a benchmark run was the Nene Valley 10 - flat, fast enough, a good test. Ok - lets put it in the brain plan, enter on the day, just like James was planning to do. The Gods smile in less than obvious ways.
On the Friday before the race, I broke the strap on my Polar - and I posted it back to Polar UK to fix it on Sat. That evening, I could not find my Garmin 305 - oops, no ability to set and monitor pace I thought.
Then, a cunning plan emerges as I find my 15 year old Casio sports wrist watch with timer. I think Gareth is running, so I could track him from a safe distance, then monitor my pace at Mile markers with my sports watch - Old Technology!
My, how well it worked. I used Gareth as my hare, found my rhythm after a while, never worried about pace bar checking at mile markers, and just ran smoothly & consistently hard.
I finished in 1 03 27, just 53 seconds behing Gareth. I could see him until just after half way, and by then I had warmed up and was in my rhythm. What a pacer.
I walked away, and cooled down with James Skinner - happy with a good run I thought. Then I remembered a warm up with Simn Fell & Philippa, and realised I was in one of my favourite places on a cold Sunday morning - in the company of runners who are rather good! I enjoy that, and I feed from their quality.
Fast forward to Thursday night. As we leave the Committee meeting, Brian congratulates me on a good run - 78.6% Good for Age. Hmmm, thats not bad I think. Brian mentions it may be one of my best runs. Hmmm, I think.
Analysis on Fetcheveryone reveals the best % run ever by 3% - 78.75% vs a previous best of 75.66% at Paris '12. Then, I get brave and check what that translates to as a marathon performance - app 2 55 30. Hmmm.
Here I am, in the depth of winter, running faster than I ever have. Why?
Many factors, yet 3 stand out. Long term focus on what it requires to improve; James dragging me to the 5k on Wed and guiding meto a few quality sessions in recent weeks; I am at my lightest ever racing weight - same as Paris '12. Each of these has been hard fought, and they are delivering results.
What next I ask. Thats easy. A drink, then a good sleep and some running tomorrow. And a big thank you to old technology, Gareth and James. See you both on Friday evening.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Belief Renewed

When I stood on the London Marathon start line - I believed. I set off, convinced that I could run the Utopian run that I have dreamed of and trained for. There is no other way to race, in my view. Doubt and uncertainty are inevitable along the marathon distance, and the journey to the start line is filled with both - but they have no place on the start line.

The public record shows a creditable run. My record, filled with a week of reflection and analysis, now shows a run filled with invaluable lessons. I ran hard, chased the belief fueled dream, and came up short against the dream. In doing so, I have demonstrated to myself a new performance capacity. And that is the most exciting outcome. I left another sub 3 run out there, but an incremental PB was only really a compromise of Plan B. While not caution to the wind, I tried to run hard and really test myself - and that I did, hence why it has been exciting.

I paid the price for hard running, coming to a virtual standstill 10 times in the last 7 miles. My physical conditioning held up, but my aerobic conditioning was not good enough on the day for the stuff of dreams. But it can be, and it will be next time.

Disappointment is inevitable when our belief is shown to be fallible. Dealing with that disappointment is a separate exercise, and it requires the restoration of perspective - that took a day or 2. Once dealt with, then belief came flooding back. Start line belief is focused on that event solely, and needs to be dispensed with immediately after the event. Holistic belief needs to take its place, as it now has. I believe I can, and that I will, run that iconic Utopian race in due course.

There are some hard lessons that I need to take on board from finding myself racing at a higher HR than I expected, and being unable to find the safe slower pace/lower HR place to recover in. That's why the last 10 miles were effectively run/walk and I came to a standstill so many times:
- my pace control could have been much better (when going well, I was fluctuating within a 30s window around my target pace on a flat course)
- there is still plenty of hard and intelligent work that I need to get through so that I can really chase the dream run (5S's and P - Julian Goater)
- even a belief fueled miracle run requires a good plan, born of rigorous analysis and evidence from training and racing

I will be on a marathon start line this Autumn, full of belief and fueled by even better training. Utopia - are you ready? 

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Dispassionate Review of London (Hint - it was Great!)

Every Marathon is a race of truth. The usual formula is "Brains for 20 miles, guts for 6.2 miles"  - and that is how London 2014 turned out in broad terms. It was my first run in London, and I learned more in that race than I have in my previous 5 combined.

It has also steadily dawned on me that I enjoyed London more than any other marathon. There is depth and passion and emotion, and pity and harsh realities - runners everywhere who have lost someone and who have a real cause to participate, not just a vanity run because I can.fulfill

That is humbling, but it is also the connection between my performance motivation and the motivation of runners with a real cause. In both cases, mortality and facing up to the ravages of time are common themes. I run to be the best I can, so that one day I can remind myself (and anyone else that wants to hear) of what I was capable of and in doing so give some legitimacy to why I exist. The runner with a cause wants to do something similar, I think - most runners with a cause have someone near and dear to have that conversation with now.

We all want to contribute to the goodness of life. We want to honour our loved ones, add to their legacies, fulfill our own dreams and create our own memories. Participating in London has helped me to see beyond the commercialised jamboree it can be perceived as and get an insight to the world of the cause driven runners who in their thousands fill the streets. It has helped me to realise how much common ground we share, and what a joy it was to be part of London for the first time.

I didnt run for a charity. I asked my supporters to pledge actions to reduce their carbon footprint. They did, as I did 2 years ago for someone else - and so the cycle continues.

I will continue to run for my performance targets, creating bubbles of expectation that may or may not be delivered on. But that is my motivation, and my contribution. Others come on the journey with me, and that sharing makes the journey richer for us all.

We stand and fall together, as a band of runners - whether chasing causes or performances. Long may we be able to do so, and its certainly London again in '15.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Calmness and Serenity

Sat here this morning, its 9 days 5 hours and 8 minues (and counting) to the start of London Marathon 2014. All of my hard work is done, most of my intelligent work is done - but there are still some crucial elements to finalise for race day, namely the precise detail of my race plan.
I am pleasantly chuffed at how well I am managing to remain much calmer and apprehension free in comparison with previous big races (especially Paris 2012).

As I reflect on this, I find there have been so many surprising things for me in the past 6 weeks of marathon preparation. All of those have their roots much further back in my long term preparation and planning, but I didnt expect them to materialise as they have.

The biggest surprise for me has been the easy speed that I have found when I switched into my final training block which focused on speed. The practical implications of this are twofold:
- I can now cruise at 15s/mile faster than my previous marathon PB at no higher heart rate
- I have another set of gears to go through when taking it home from 20 miles

This has its origins in significant improvements to my running form and my conditioning. Its an efficiency play, with better form enabling me to run more quickly without any additional effort. That said, 18 months of injury free running, plus the patient and progressive approach I have taken, have also contributed significantly. Expert advice and input (especially Adela for getting me on track with my form and conditioning) have been invaluable.

The next surprise for me was the ease with which I faced down my fears about delivering my stated goal of sub 2 55 in London. I have realised that having a sub 3 from Paris is a superb back stop (thank you Philippa for pointing that out to me), therefore I should feel no pressure in comparison to that which I piled on myself in 2012. Putting any fears of failure to one sides has been liberating. It has opened up other possibilities than just chasing that time. I can choose a new target, or I can turn up and race on the day (against myself), or I can simply go and run to be the best I can be.

The other most significant surprise is in weight and physical appearance. I'm no lighter than Paris 2012, but feel lighter. Belts are in a notch, but I have struggled to get inside 84kg and maintain it.

My calmness and serenity will be sorely tested in the next 9 days. Advice from Julian Goater's book (The Art of Running Faster - thanks Richard) where he writes about peaking as opposed to tapering has been very helpful, and will continue to be. Julian also writes that success lies in the 5 S's (skill, speed, stamina, suppleness, strength) and P (psychology). All need practice and development, then fine tuning in the build up to race day - especially P.

Race Day - you will soon be here. In some ways, waiting for you and enjoying the delicious balance between anticipation & apprehension is very enjoyable. However, it all amounts to little unless I deliver on being my best when we meet.
There is one guaranteed outcome - a wonderful sharing of race day experience and post race entertainment with Tania: my rock and my source of so much inspiration.