Thursday 22 April 2010

Two marathons, three days - SLC/Boston

Start of the SLC marathon

View from the Prudential building in Boston at sunset

The 5k race using the Boston marathon finish

Looking strong a whole mile into Boston

The leaders at Boston - Hall and Meb lead the US charge

Still looking ok in Boston with my Fukuoka gloves on show

This last weekend could have gone badly. I'd run ultras or multidays for five consecutive weekends (including a very cool 60k of trails last weekend as I swept the course for the local Peterson Ridge Rumble course in Sisters, OR). I had the Salt Lake City marathon on Saturday then the Boston marathon on Monday. I booked it a long time ago before the preceding ultras with the intention of using it as a fitness test for Comrades. If I could run both under 2h45m then I'd feel that I could run Comrades at 2h50m marathon pace (i.e. sub six hours). It also has the benefit of being 'speed' work compared to the ultras.

However, being injured for almost two months meant I'd lost some speed even though the endurance seemed fine after the last few weeks. I really had no idea how it would go and wasn't even sure I could knock out one marathon at 2h45m (6m18s/mile), especially since SLC is at slight altitude (between 4,200ft and 4,800ft) and hilly.
I arrived in SLC on the Friday, went to the small expo and got an early night. I still felt sore from sweeping the previous week. Even though it was very slow being at the back of the race, bending down to pick up all the course markings had left me aching in new places.

The race had a an early start at 7am so the sun had only just risen over the university start-line when I warmed up. The athletes didn't seem too keen to push to the front so I knew there wouldn't be too many speedsters there. It also had a half marathon at the same time so most runners had bibs for that race, with around 1,000 in the full marathon. I started comfortably and decided to use my heart rate monitor to stop myself trying too hard, given the need to conserve some energy for Boston. However, after the first couple of downhill miles I felt like it would be a hard day.

The course isn't particularly pretty if you keep your head down, but when you look up you get great views of the surrounding mountains, which are very close. The first half had some nasty climbs, not that they were too steep, but some lasted a couple of miles and the combination of tired legs and altitude meant my heart rate was soon higher than it should be for a marathon. For me that means into the mid 160s. It was going to be a tough race.

The marathon added a loop around a park at five miles so the extra mile meant I started running through slower half marathoners when we joined them again. Then after under seven miles they headed off on a short-cut to the finish while the marathon went south to get in the extra miles. It got a lot lonelier from this point and a spectator shouted that I was in 10th.

I chatted to a couple of marathoners on the flatter sections but then pushed on to half way uphill knowing that there would be a gentle downhill soon after 13 miles. I was demoralised to hit halfway in 1h22m55s, just outside 2h45m pace. This was the first 13 miles of two marathons, so I basically accepted that I wouldn't be getting the times I wanted in the two races. How could I, when I'd run reasonably hard and still couldn't stay on pace?

My mindset quickly changed as I knocked out several faster miles over the downhill then flat and I was back on the average pace I needed. The second half was easier than the first, being much flatter. I constantly did calculations in my head, thinking that sub 2h50m was guaranteed and that if I could just keep close to the required 6m18s/miles then a fast last mile might get me there under my time.
I spent the rest of the race catching people and worked out I was in 4th, but that relied on the guy earlier correctly telling me my position and I find most people get it wrong, counting the wrong people (say, half runners) or just miscounting. I was on for 2h46m at worst with only a couple of miles to go, but was now weaving through the half runners/walkers who had joined the marathon course again, just 13 miles behind. Although I'd checked out the course profile, I hadn't noticed the 200ft hill in the 25th mile. This put me off pace again, but was a relief when I got to the top. It had heated up to almost 70 degrees F so I wanted to get off the course before the temperature sapped more energy.

I was tired and looking forward to the end, but at least there were great crowds now to pep me up. As the majority of people they were seeing were half marathon walkers, each marathoner got a loud cheer for running. At about a half mile to go I heard the thump of runner's steps behind me. I looked back to see a guy in a tri-suit flying up to me and my head snapped into (totally unnecessary) race mode and I flew off at a sprint, dropping down to under 5m/mile pace. He stuck behind me but as I went up the final straight I couldn't see him behind so knew I'd kept my position. In hindsight, this was completely pointless and potentially could ruin my Boston run. But I just don't like being overtaken and it's only happened in marathons where I've blown up and walked (luckily only about three times when I was learning how to do marathons).

Somehow I'd almost got back to my goal pace, but it was painful to run up to the finish and see the clock tick from 2h44m to 2h45m. The final time was 2h45m04s and I was indeed in 4th, so had positives and negatives to take away from the race. On the plus side, I'd basically hit the time I wanted, seen great mountain views, was uninjured, ran my fastest marathon with a backpack and had run a negative split. However, it had felt hard and I'd tired myself out way too much. I reassessed my chances of running a good Boston to being very low.

No time to rest, since I had a couple of hours until my indirect flights to Boston, so I squeezed in a quick shower then went to the airport where I spent a while stretching and with my legs up against a wall for recovery. The flights were on time and didn't feel too bad on the legs.

In Boston I got in late at night, just wanting a good rest. Sunday is fun due to the expo and short distance races each year, but it was also cold and raining constantly. A real contrast with the sunny weather in SLC. I watched Josh Cox win the 5k and the commentators mentioned he's training for Comrades. That means both the US 50k/100k champion, Michael Wardian, and the US 50k record holder, Josh Cox, would be running in South Africa. Always good to have more people to meet over there and they're both very accomplished pro/semi-pro athletes.

I'd hoped to meet up with a bunch of Serpies from London but the previous few days had involved numerous emails and ended with the conclusion that the Icelandic volcano had stopped all flights from London. None of my friends would make it. This was a shame, but at least Boston is such a fun race and all the runners and city get really into it. I'd picked the hostel near the finish on purpose because I knew I'd meet many, many runners there.

There were a few Americans who had lived in London and been a member of Serpentine RC, but I didn't know them already. I agreed to see the Red Sox baseball game on Sunday afternoon with them, so picked up my ticket by meeting them at the expo. The expo is great and I spent a long time there getting enough free food and drink to constitute a meal. I also bought a pair of Zoot compression tights as I needed a pair anyway, but particularly needed some help to be recovered for the next day. I've never used them before, but many people swear by the powers of compression tights, so I wanted to see if it would work.

The Red Sox game was a wet affair and not very entertaining with the locals losing badly, especially since the US Serpies told me when I got there that they'd decided to sell their tickets due to the weather. I've not been to a baseball game before and can't see me going again. It's just not that interesting. Now, I like cricket and people say the same thing, but I'll happily watch a five-day test match and it's just different, ok?.
Anyway, that evening the pasta party was excellent, as always. Plenty to eat and I went with some new-found friends from the hostel. That's one of my favourite things about the race - the openness of everybody there to meet new people. It really got the mood going for the race and I started to feel excited while chatting to people about how many times they'd run Boston before, where they qualified and all the interesting stories they had to tell. People who started late in life and spent years trying to get a place in Boston or those who come every year for the party atmosphere. Suddenly my confidence was back and I was thinking of going for 2h45m again.

Race morning started very early and I hadn't really adjusted from west coast time. But my legs felt almost normal, so I'm now a huge fan of the recovery tights. As with last year, I chatted to people while waiting for the buses at around 6:15am. Once again I met west coast ultra runner on the bus (Abi Stephens, who'd run the Rumble the previous weekend) and chatted for much of the time prior to the race start at 10am. Things seemed to be smoother than the previous year, not that I'd had any complaints. The bus wait was less, the toilet lines were shorter at the start and the weather was looking much better than expected with not a cloud in sight.

I just missed seeing the elite women's start at 9:32am but was raring to go at 10am when the first wave started. This time I made sure I didn't go off too quickly, as I'd done last year on the early downhills. I wanted to see if I could run just ahead of 2h45m pace given that the second half is harder with the famous Newton Hills. I just hoped to hang on as long as possible.

The crowds were great from the start and within a mile I'd been offered a beer. Next year I think I'll take them up on their offers and do it as more of a fun run. But this year I still had a target and it was increasingly easy to stay around a six min/mile pace, which kept surprising me every time I looked at my splits. Running past the Wellesley College girls at halfway was the usual soundblast and made everyone grin. I didn't see anyone stopping as they were all too focused on their running, but some did high fives. Still the best support I've ever seen, as ever, and something you hear well before you see.

Halfway was a decent 1h19m06s so I could afford to slow down a lot on the hills. Since they don't start until after 16 miles I decided to keep going as before until that far and bag a bit more time. The crowds were full of students, many with a few beers in them, so the cheering got rowdier every mile.
I remember that last year I'd been slowing down from five miles in and really struggled over the rest of the course, feeling bad for most of it but scraping through for 2h47m. I also remembered that the hills seemed small even as they slowed me right down. This year was different and I was trying to run in a group to avoid the light headwinds which kept popping up, but I found that each group kept slowing so I just kept pushing on and wondering when the tiredness would catch up with me.

By now I was enjoying myself thoroughly. I'd been waiting the whole time for my legs to fade but they were being very kind to me and even let me run up the hills at about the same pace as on the flat. The college kids certainly liked seeing someone running through the field on the hills so I had plenty of cries out for 'Serpentine', most even pronouncing it correctly.

Heartbreak Hill was more like a victory lap, although at 21 miles it wasn't a foregone conclusion, although 2h40m looked possible now. Somehow the best was still ahead for me. The last five miles are mainly down and flat but some people have tired their thighs so much that it's difficult to run them fast. However, I went into some new-found zone from this point which I've never reached before. I haven't done more than a couple of speed sessions in 2010 so even a six minute mile feels quick, but I started running quicker than that. As the supporters got thicker on the sidelines I was having the most enjoyable race in a long time (and I've had a lot of good ones recently).

As I looked at my watch I was amazed to see 5:40s for the miles and my aims shifted from 2h40m to see if I could break six minute miling (2h37m) for only the third time, something I didn't think I could have done if I'd tapered for this race and gone all out. I was going faster than marathon pace and finding it easy, even with a headwind for most of the last part. This is how running should always feel - hard but very sustainable. I wished the course was a 50k as I could comfortably have kept up the pace and smashed my best for that distance.

All good things come to an end and I got to the finish well before I'd planned, in 2h36m51s, good enough for 151st. The most important thing was that I'd hugely enjoyed it and also felt strong at the end, so this was a perfect milestone for Comrades. All my worries in advance had evaporated, about a lack of speed, sore legs and not being in shape for a good Comrades.

Thank you Boston for hosting a great race and creating such an incredible atmosphere the whole way through. I confirmed to myself that Boston far surpasses the other 70-ish road marathons I've done around the world. There's something about having hills in a race that means you have to use tactics much more and so when you nail it, it's more satisfying.

I'll be back next year to have fun on the streets of Boston again and it'd be nice to get a streak going until I can no longer run...maybe around 2099. I don't think I was the only one to have that much fun either, as even those who didn't hit their target time still loved everything else about the race. The elites put on a great show too, with a new men's course record in 2h05m52s (on Boston's course!) for Robert K Cheruiyot...but not the one who won Boston four times...a 21-year old with the same name, except the middle name, who has just made himself into a legend. The women's race went down to the wire too and was great to watch on TV, with Ethiopian Yeyba Erkesso of Ethiopia making a name for herself by just edging young Russian Tatyana Pushkareva - watch out for both of them in future too.

SLC could have been a disaster but ended up just about working out. But Boston went better. Why? Well, I think it's just one of those things where the science says one thing but reality turned out differently and can't quite be explained. Mind you, it probably helped to not wear the backpack and use my racing flats (Asics Hyperspeed 3s). I think it just shows that the human body can always do more than you expect, a useful thing to bear in mind during every ultra.

Wednesday 7 April 2010

Two Oceans (Ultra) Marathon Easter Weekend

View from Chapman's Peak around 32km (I think)

Noordhoek beach, just before running up Chapman's Peak

The 18km trail run

Finishing the 18km trail run with Dave Pearse

Great views on Table Mt with Helen, Gwen and Dave in the trail run

More trail run shots

Trail running again

The finish line of the trail and ultra runs

La Med bar with sunset reddening Table Mt

Often windy in Cape Town

Expo fun with too many free hair products

There are many, many races on my ‘must-do’ list, but one which I’d been particularly looking forward to since I first heard about it is the Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town, South Africa. As is clear from previous postings about Comrades, I’m a big fan of the venerable and huge Saffer races and Two Oceans has a great history of 40 years (this year was number 41 and one guy was racking up his 40th finish). It isn’t quite as big as Comrades but still had over 8,000 ultra runners, plus around 10,000 running the relatively new half marathon course instead.

As with Comrades, the race has different medals for different times, giving a huge incentive for runners to speed up if they’re close to a medal cut-off. These cut-offs are at each hour from four hours to the final cut at seven hours – four hours is a silver medal, five is a Sainsbury medal (named after a previous winner), six is bronze and seven is blue. The top 10 men and women get gold medals, just as with Comrades. But since the race is a fair bit shorter, at 56km (35 miles) instead of 89km (55.5 miles), it’s not nearly so taxing on the body.

Another big similarity is the named, famous hills in the race. In this case it’s just two major hills, peaking at 34km (Chapman’s Peak) and 46km (Constantia Nek), but they are enough to slow you down considerably and to throw off your pacing for a particular medal. The generally acknowledged wisdom is that you need to be ahead of your desired pace at half way to allow for fatigue and the final hill.

There are only a few things I knew about the race in advance, but these were enough to excite me. Firstly, the Comrades-esque style of the race with medals, hills etc and that the silver medal is a lot harder to achieve than at Comrades. Secondly, that it’s a stunningly beautiful course. And thirdly, that it runs along the coastline of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, which give it the name. However, it seems the actual meeting point on the coast is really Cape Agulhas, which is further east, so the eastern side is technically still the Atlantic. But that’s like fussing over the magnetic or true poles and doesn’t alter how special the race is.

When I arrived in Cape Town I have to admit I didn’t know much about the city either, except that Table Mountain is in the middle of the city. I didn’t realise just how beautiful the entire city is, especially when viewed from the Mountain or from Lion’s Head peak to the north-west. I was staying with my friend, Dave Pearse, again after having enjoyed his hospitality in Durban for the previous two Comrades. It was helpful to have a local to show me around and to appreciate the great lifestyle that the locals live, thanks to their incredible location.

As well as enjoying the area’s restaurants, bars and general scenery, I’d agreed to do the 18km trail race on Good Friday, which uses Table Mountain to great effect. The month of March had been one of high mileage and a lot of tough races for me so I came to Two Oceans with the aim of just enjoying myself and not facing much racing pressure (although I wanted a silver medal still for sub four hours). The trail race the day before the main event fitted in with this philosophy and led to some jaw-dropping views in the early morning sun.

I took it easy with Durbanites Helen Lucre and Dave as well as one of their Capetonian friends, Gwen van Lingen. We took almost three hours to get round the course, partly due to starting far back and being in single file through the narrow trails, but this easier pace certainly suited me. It wasn’t quite as relaxing for Gwen (and maybe Helen too) given she’s a former Olympian and captain of the South African women’s Olympic team (Helen is a mere triple winner of Comrades...). Both ladies have also won Two Oceans, in impressive times of 3h41m (Gwen) and 3h49m (Helen...note that time for later on). One thing you certainly notice quickly is that Saffers don’t take any crap and always say what they think. I’m sure lots of people are offended but it’s fun to get away from the overly-PC western world sometimes. Mind you, the way I’ve just worded that was very inoffensive, while I could have put it more rudely. It was certainly a pleasure to run with the three of them and it’s always inspiring to talk to athletes who’ve got to a top level.

The trail run was a massive photo shoot for me and I couldn’t stop taking photos given the views. It really got me in the mood for the main race, although the 6:25am start wasn’t quite as appealing. At least it’s almost an hour later than Comrades starts and is also 25 minutes after the gun goes for the half marathoners.

The start feels very much like Comrades as it’s pre-dawn and there are so many people around, with seeding pens too. A sub three-hour marathon gets into the first pen, ‘A’, and it felt relaxed as there was more space in it than I’m used to. Even though only gun times exist in order to make the cut-offs for medals exact, Championchips are used to give accurate and efficient timing. So in the few minutes before the race started, the ‘B’ pen athletes are allowed to move forward and quickly push right up. The start was delayed five minutes to allow the half marathoners to clear the part of the ultra course they use. Mining songs and the national anthem are played, but it doesn’t feel quite as magical as Comrades. Very close, but the best way to describe it all is like a ‘Mini-Me’ version of Comrades – less people, shorter and less intimidating. That’s partly due to the race being used as training for Comrades for many runners and also that it’s newer and has fewer runners. But don’t get me wrong, it’s still got a great atmosphere and blows away any normal city marathon except Boston. It also has better scenery than Comrades, although the first 16km is fairly average as you run to the first coastline.

When the gun finally went off, it had started drizzling but this soon stopped and it was refreshing in the surprising morning warmth. The start was even more like a stampede than Comrades. Runners with ‘B’ and ‘C’ seedings zoomed off into the distance as if it was a 10k race. I managed to resist the temptation to go too fast and stuck around my target pace of just over four-minute kms. The huge crowd of runners made the first kms fly by and this was the first time I used my heart rate monitor to stop me from exerting myself too hard. I wanted to stay well under my normal marathon heart rate so that it would all feel comfortable, even at the end. One day I’d like to race it all out, but 2010 was not the year I wanted to try it as other races are taking precedence.

The sun was up by the 10k marker and the course turned left after about 14ks and into a headwind. Cape Town hadn’t shown me much of its famous windiness up to this point and race day was really quite still, but the days afterwards showed just how blustery it can be and that could really upset your race strategy.

We soon hit the coast and had a pleasant run with great Ocean views. I’d run past a couple of groups of runners around the further back female gold medallists (called ‘buses’ in South Africa) and kept wanting to just sit on a bus but felt fine going faster so didn’t hang around with any of them long. For the first half marathon it’s almost completely flat and many people go much too fast as a result, trying to ‘bag’ a few minutes for the hills. I went through in 1h25m which seemed reasonable as it was only slightly above silver medal pace of 1h30m.

Things start to get more interesting from halfway at 28km as the first proper hill starts there. It climbs for about 2ks to Little Chappies, and then dips before ascending more steeply to 34km along the Chapman’s Peak scenic drive route. And it certainly is beautiful. Too many runners stuck to the inside to get a racing line but I made sure I was on the outside of the road so I could get a better view over the short wall by the cliff edge. Music dotted the route, either live or through speakers, and this helped boost the runners well. Many had started slowing much earlier and some were even walking this hill. The fact I was going strong gave me some confidence and also allowed me to fully take in the surroundings, which is something I often can’t fully appreciate when racing hard.

From 34km to the marathon mark was mainly downhill and fast. I’d been warned that going too hard is dangerous here as it tires the legs too much for later, but I just cruised down and was still able to gain a few minutes. There are more supporters around the 42.2km timing mat and the road is surrounded by trees and Cape Town’s specific brand of mountains. It would be a shame for anyone to not take these in, but by this point a lot of people were flagging. Supposedly there are a lot of marathon PBs as splits in the Two Oceans race, which sounds ridiculous, but the hill isn’t too high and having a downhill for the last 8ks of a marathon helps to negate the fatigue which can slow people down at that point.

The marathon mark also signals the start of the hardest part of the race, the steepest and biggest hill up Constantia Nek. It rises from sea level to around 220m (700ft) mainly over the 2.5ks to 46.5km. Most people were walking or jogging very slowly here, as would be expected. But because I had kept my effort level (and heart rate) down I had a good run up and got a lot of crowd support as a result. The hill never seems to end, but by this point in the race there are water tables every km, which means you barely go past one before you see the next. Most have water, Powerade and Coke, but a few have food. I’d done my homework and knew there was chocolate at the 46km table so looked forward to a reward for climbing the hill. I’d used up the two gels I’d decided to bring at 30km and 40km so the chocolate was my plan to get me in to the finish, which I expected to be 10ks of almost all downhill.

However, just a few minutes after peaking, the course heads up yet again in a hill I didn’t expect. That takes the runners to 50km before a few kms of steeper downhill, with a nasty camber. I went through the 50k split in 3h25m, which was a PB, but I’ve only ever done one 50k and it was a training run to pace for three-hour marathon pace, so if I didn’t beat it I’d have little chance of getting that silver.

Up to this point I’d felt much better than usual for a road race and it was good to feel like I could easily keep the pace up for longer than the required 56km. I’m almost tempted to do this more often, but I do already – most of my marathons are off pace, they just aren’t as pretty as around Cape Town. I’d highly recommend taking this course a little easy, since you need more energy for the later hills and it just makes the experience much more enjoyable. Once in a while, anyway.

I didn’t like the camber between 50km and about 53km, so tried running in the gutter so that my knees wouldn’t be strained. Then I saw the fourth placed woman ahead so sped up to catch her. Next was the third place lady, who was going a little faster. I checked my watch and saw that if I could go faster for the last 3km then I’d probably sneak in under Helen’s PB of 3h49m and that was more than enough incentive. As banter goes, saying that I sped up to beat her time was the ideal thing to do for the pub later (it’s a South African thing). I went for a big kick to the end and flew past the third lady and her bike camera crew (the whole race is on national television and she was the next gold medallist due to finish).

I’d sped up to around marathon pace and was overtaking a lot of people, even though they were very spaced out. It felt amazing to have so much energy left at the end, but the slight undulations did make it hard to sustain. The last 400m is on bumpy grass and that also made it energy-sapping to keep up, but when you can see the finish and the crowd’s cheering, the adrenaline comes to the fore. I finished in 3h48m14s with a negative split for the race. I’d expected to lose some time on the uphills, but the downhills had more than made up for it.

As I crossed the line I realised how much the silver medal meant to me. I’d been blasé about it in advance, but if I’d missed out I would have been dismayed and would have questioned my fitness. I didn’t need the sprint finish and it went against my plan to be conservative so that the previous month’s work wouldn’t be spoiled by a stupid muscle pull or overuse injury, but luckily I got away with it and the training benefit should help with Comrades.

I went to the tent by the finish for international runners and watched my local friends finish over the rest of the morning, as well as two other Londoners I knew, Angus Searcy and Cleo Oliver. All had a lot of fun and we foreigners enjoyed our first Two Oceans marathon. I’ll be back for this one, but it’s so far from the US that it may not be very often. A trip to Cape Town is an excellent holiday and I can’t think of a better race to add in while there (although they do have a few good ones in and around the city). There was only one thing left to do post-race, and that was to enjoy a few beers in the sun.