Sunday, 16 June 2013

Endure 24

 There are two conflicting sets of images that come to mind when I think back to the past weekend: One is looking down from Wassing park over the wooded hills in the distance, basking in the sunlight; the beautiful path into the woods past the first bend after the start, with flowers hanging from the hedges and the bright flags flying at the camp HQ and start / finish line.

The other is from a few hours later, as Sunday dawned, just before my fourth lap: Tony in the team tent, shivering under his hoodie, a towel and a duvet, his face reminiscent of El Greco' elder nobleman; the tiredness on Chris' face as he crossed the finish line to hand me the baton; and forty minutes later Tony again, but in his running gear this time, recovered and there to relieve me and continue our team's running.

It was my second year in an endurance event (Endure 24 is a relay trail race held over 24 hours on a 5 mile woodland course, starting at noon on Saturday and not ending till noon on Sunday) and most of our team were the same as last year's Thunder Run: Tony organised it this time, Julie did most of the actual work (as she tends to), Trudi and Chris provided much of the camping equipment and Mick once again saved us from having to do more laps than we had planned. New members of the team comprised of Jen (the team's last minute signing) and Darren, who from now can consider himself an honorary Harrier (he even swore allegiance to the Harrier flag, and was thus allowed a vest!). Official team photographer was the lovely Aimee, who humoured us all by taking the same photo on 8 different phones and of course offered potentially life-saving advice before the night runs (“if you see anyone in the woods wearing a Scream mask, don’t approach them; and if you are chased by a zombie, trip them up with a stick and then run away”), much to Julie's relief, I'm sure.

This year I could only arrive at the campsite on Saturday morning (most of the team had set up on the Friday), but Tony’s Tigers are an organised and helpful bunch, so not half an hour later my tent was up, I was given my bib number & chip and was chilling out in the Endure t-shirt and a very fetching hat! We eventually congregated by the start line for the briefing and to see off Chris, who would be opening the running for our team; Chris had volunteered for the first stint, knowing that this would mean he would be first in line to do an additional lap, if we managed to exceed the 4 laps per runner we had set as our target. 

With Chris off, I went to get ready to run the second stint. After the first bend, the course followed a fairly straight path for a bit over a mile before twisting and turning in the woods. For the final mile, the runners emerged from the wood cover to the fields that hosted the campsite, running approximately a third of a mile along a straight line by the western limit of the campsite, then doubling back on themselves before criss-crossing towards the final corner and the start / finish line. This last section afforded ample opportunity for the teams to spot their runner coming out of the woods, cheer them as they run twice past them along the straight bit (in both directions) and then make their way to the changing area to welcome them in and cheer the next runner off (the course, as recorded on my Garmin, can be found here.)

In terms of handling runner changes, we tended to all gather along the final mile's double straight in time for our runner to come through, offering encouragement to anyone who passed, chatting amongst ourselves and trying to think of silly things to do to embarrass them when they passed; these included miming soundless cheers to Mick (who had his headphones on), or more vocal demonstrations of support, like in the following clip:

So the first day was spent relaxing, watching people run (couldn't help it really, at an event like this!), pointlessly waiting for a kettle to boil in the breeze, giving up and buying a drink at the catering tent, laying about in the sun and going out on the odd run - can't fault it really! :-)

Until after a couple of laps you realise that the reason the event is called "Endure 24" is because it is a 24 hour endurance event, and running the first two laps as if they were two 5 mile races wasn't the world's best idea... Fortunately there were massage tables there (they took donations for charity for 15' massages), which helped significantly, but there comes a point during the event (usually as the sun goes down) when it suddenly transforms from a nice, leisurely, running-themed camping weekend, to quite a hard, painful and gruelling experience... It is at that point that you suddenly realise that being 1 1/2 hours ahead of schedule at the half-way point isn't as brilliant as it seemed a few minutes ago, it just means that you have to make your legs (and feet and knees and hips and all the other bits of you that are hurting) last 3 more laps instead of 2... and the fact that everyone in the team is running faster than they expected means that the resting time in between laps is less than you had planned for...

A little bit of reason then sets in, and you try to reduce the pace a bit (my 3rd lap was my slowest by far, as it was the night one and I was trying to preserve myself for the rest of the event), but then you overtake someone and they don't just disappear, they keep on your shoulder... or you notice that that pool of light on the trail in the distance is getting slowly closer, so you try to keep your pace up to get past them... and then you'd be damned if you let anyone past you, not uphill after all the training on Croft Hill... or on this lovely fast downhill straight that you think you've nailed by now... and certainly not on the last mile round the camp with your tired teammates watching, come on, just keep those knees up, elbows back and remember you can afford to start the sprint just before the final bend... 

And that is how it happens that at about 9am on Sunday morning, as you begin to strike camp, you glance at the folder with the lap times and the prospect of starting a final lap at 11:45 doesn't seem as attractive or as heroic as it did three laps and one part-sleepless night ago...

Which brings me to my internal conflict when I think back to events like this... they are certainly very tiring: no matter how much you like camping you can never get a good night's sleep (apart from the little matter of having to fit two runs in your 8 hours, every time you hear voices outside the tent - which, with people moving around the campsite all the time is always - you wake up thinking it's your turn to run again). 

But in another bizarre way they don't last nearly as much as I'd like them to... Especially when you are amongst such a lovely mix of people, the weather holds, and you've settled into the run, shower, eat, sleep routine, you feel it's a shame that you have to pack up and leave just as you are beginning to feel at home... 

There are the experiences you are treated to that you wouldn't have enjoyed otherwise: the rugged line from the headtorches coming into the camp as seen through the woods on the first, long climb; running in the dark of night through unfamiliar woodland (an experience some of our team enjoyed more than others, I know!); and all the little memories we will each carry of people we ran next for a distance, of the silent solo runners resembling ghost ships in the night and the less fit runners obviously struggling but still carrying on, running, jogging, or walking, but still doing their part for their teams (they the heroes and heroines of the event as far as I was concerned: a few of our team think of ourselves as 'marathon runners', but we weren't much fresher than them by the end of the weekend!)

 But there is also the sense (illusion?) that you are part of a team pulling together to do something important and worthwhile: it doesn’t change the world, in itself it doesn’t even make us better runners, but at the moment you are doing it, nothing matters more than being on time to relieve your runner at 4am, or powering up that hill faster than the guy or girl who’s been on your shoulder for the past mile or so... and, as a team, carrying on all the way through the night to noon the next day. 

Friday, 22 March 2013

Veni e vidi.

And so we come to the end!.. The race is run, and for better or worse we are gathered at home once again... and even if our bags have still not been unpacked, our photos are still being assembled and I am again trying to come to terms with what Costa calls an espresso, I still thought I'd make putting some words together a priority...

I won't even try to describe any of the delights of Rome (I'll leave that to proper travel writers), but in all it was a great experience and a very well organised event: I suppose that if I was being really picky, I could find faults (e.g. the lack of any directions or signage from the Metro station to the Expo building - at least on the first day), but in all I have to congratulate the organisers and everyone involved on a job very well done, especially considering everything else that they had to contend with, both planned and not (e.g. the whole Papal conclave, enthronement and general hoo-ha, the Italy v Ireland rugby game, Roma's home game etc).

At the Expo
We made it to the Expo (mainly by spotting people with green rucksacks and heading where they were coming from) and we found it good if a bit small (many of the pre-announced companies and delegations from other marathons were absent); at least all the 'important' stuff (registration, race pack handouts etc) worked like clock-work and really got us in the mood for race day! Dimitra, Alexia and Niko registered for the 5k fun-run (which ended up being a 3.6k more-fun-and-less-run and nothing like the Athens 5k and 10k equivalent which are treated like proper races in themselves, with chip times and strong performances by most participants). We also met the representative of Saucony for the region of Lazio, had a nice chat with him while my sister was queuing for some body fat analysis or another and left with a bagful of goodies and a recommendation for a Sicilian eatery very close to our hotel.

At the finish of the fun run
We then spent the next couple of days walking the length and breadth of central Rome (perhaps not the best pre-marathon strategy, but when in a town like Rome, anything else would have been a waste!) and constantly checking for any update on the race situation: As I had mentioned in my previous post, the election of the new Pope brought about quite a bit of uncertainty as to what time the race would be or even if it would follow the planned route or not... In the end a 9:30 start time and the original route (less St Peter's square) was confirmed.

Last minute advice from the coach...
And so to the race! As you know, I had publicly set myself a target of finishing in 3h 30': As it happened, I failed most emphatically! But I did at least make it to the end, improving on my personal best in the process. So, what went wrong? Not sure yet, but there were a number of factors:

As my previous post shows, before the race I was concerned with energy intake (the gels I had relied on started disagreeing with me on my last training runs). I sorted that problem out for the race (thank you Gu!),  but in the process neglected to plan my hydration properly and relied on whatever the organisers gave out. A 500ml hydration belt was almost an afterthought.

I was struggling with a cold on the day as well, which, amongst other things, confused my sense of taste: this meant that as I was coming up to the hydration points, all felt like was water. To be fair, I should have realised that not taking any isotonic drinks in would get me in trouble, but I didn't have the clearest of heads at the time (which leads us back to the need for prior planning and point 1!).

Despite all that, for much of the race I still felt I was running strongly: I set a comfortable PB for the half marathon distance, was running faster than expected till about the 26th km and was on pace for a 3:30 finish all the way to the 30th. But by then my legs had started to seize up and when the 3:30 pacers overtook me (their sky blue balloons tapping me mockingly on the head as they ran past), I knew I was in trouble.

This and the growing stiffness in my legs didn't improve my morale either and I felt I lost connection with the spectators and other runners, I was in a little world of misery all of my own: No more clapping for the bands, the shouts of 'bravi' and 'siete tutti fortissimi' didn't sound as if they were meant for me and when a runner slowed to a walk just ahead of me, my hand went to his shoulder as much as to avoid running into him as for support. The only exception was a young girl in Piazza del Popolo (39th km), who, in words I understood then but have since forgotten, cheered me on, entreated me to not give up and assured me that it wasn't long to go now... I had slowed to a short walk at the time, but I couldn't help but pick up speed again, do my best to continue running on those horrible cobbles (Piazza del Popolo had some of the worst) and at least carry on for a bit more before slowing down again...

In fact, I was so stiff in the last 10k that I had to take short walking breaks a number of times and even stop and stretch once (apart from my legs, my back and abs were also starting to seize up): My average pace for the last 6k was 6:18 min/km (10:05 min/mile), against an target of 4:57 min/km on average! At the last four km or so the 3:45 pacers caught up with me, but fortunately instead of taking the remaining wind out of my sails they proved a great help, personally urging on everyone they came across: they were the penultimate shot of focus and willpower I needed to become something resembling a runner again! I wanted to list all their names here, but unfortunately I couldn't find them anywhere on the internet; you know who you are, and you'll probably never read this anyway: but thank you one and all!

I said 'penultimate' shot, because there was of course the sight of Colosseum with about a kilometer to go, the last lap round it, the guy who unfurled a huge Texas flag in front of me (which of course meant that I just had to overtake him, regardless of how I felt!) but above all the thought that at any moment I would be coming up to where my family and girlfriend were watching from: I couldn't give up now! And I'm glad I didn't: there is even a deceptive video clip my sister shot of me overtaking people on the finish line!

In the end I finished just behind the 3:45 pacers, with a clock time of 3:45:22 and a real time of 3:44:29. My previous PB was 3:51:18. A few yards after the finish line my legs finally gave up, I couldn't even walk other than to drag my carcass to the closest first aid station, trying to think for the Italian word for 'cramp' (I didn’t have to: they spoke fluent English).

After a short treatment, I eventually regained control of my legs, dug out an apple from the post-race goody bag and limped to the medal engraving tent and hence through the ruins of ancient Rome and to my hotel bed...

So you see the event left me with a bit of a bittersweet taste: Objectively it was a lovely race, I had trained for it as well as I've ever had, but lack of planning (or perhaps too strong a start?) meant that I missed a goal that I had felt was within my grasp...

But with the benefit of a few days to reflect, I can honestly say I am happy with the whole experience: There were so many beautiful moments (the band at the 8.5 k point playing 'A Banda', one of my all time favourite songs, running through narrow cobbled alleys and suddenly 'chancing' upon the Fontana di Trevi, the final kilometer, climbing the incline around the Colosseum and down towards the finish line...)

I was fortunate to exceed my expectations in my first marathon (Athens), so the pain of Rome's latter stages was a useful reminder that marathons are not supposed to be easy... Rome taught me a valuable lesson in planning (and humility) but still let me walk away with my head held high and a host of lovely memories. There will be more marathons to follow (God willing and knees holding) and I'll be better prepared to face them thanks to this.

And then there is the trip... If it wasn't for the marathon we wouldn't have made the journey.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

No running in the square please!

Well, here we are, only a few days to go, and I have to admit I've failed miserably at this regular blog posting thing... It could be worse I suppose, I've at least managed to follow my training programme... Sort of: a few workouts I had to miss; some long runs that I used to try energy drinks, nutrition etc went horribly wrong (to the extent that I had to cut them short). But on the positive side I've found a brand of energy gels that doesn't make my queasy (or better, hasn't yet!) and I think I've found a pace / heart rate combination that I may just about be able to maintain for 42.2km and which should (with a fair wind and no ugly hills) get me to the end in roughly my target time!

In the mean time of course, our host city seems rather distracted from its marathon-hosting duties by the small matter of the Papal election, the culmination of which has conspired to coincide with 'our' marathon weekend, causing no end of headaches to the organisers and the city authorities! And as no-one seems to know when the election will conclude, and therefore the day on which the new Pope will be enthroned, no-one knows exactly what time the Marathon will start on Sunday (morning? afternoon?) and even what route it will follow: According to the latest (12-3-13) statement from the organisers, the race may start at sometime before 9:30 and follow a slightly modified original course; or it may start sometime before 4 in the afternoon, head out on a completely different course through the southern suburbs of Rome, along a section of Via Appia Antica, turn west to (presumably) cross Tiber and then head back north and to the finishing line at the Colosseum. The time limit for completion of the race may be 7 hours or it may be 6 hours, depending on the start time... The only things of which we can be certain at this stage are:

  1. The Rome Marathon will take place in or around Rome on Sunday 17 March, and
  2. St Peter’s square will almost certainly not be included in the race!

I have to say that I fully understand, and empathise with, the Italian authorities’ predicament; I appreciate the very good communication and frequent updates from Rome Marathon (although I wish they had sent us at least one email to alert us to the issue and had not relied wholly on Facebook and Twitter), but the largest ‘selling point’ of the Rome marathon is its scenic route (described on running forums as probably the most picturesque city marathon), so I do have to say that I am rather disappointed that the route we will run this year will not be the one originally drawn to show the city at its best advantage and that it will exclude one of the race’s highlights, St Peter’s square itself!

But I would be lying if I pretended that this uncertainty had dampened my spirits: I’m looking forward to a holiday after a series of hard weeks at work, months of hard (if sporadic!) training are drawing to a close and only one last run remains to see what they were all for!

I also have slightly mixed feelings about the inclusion of the Appian Way in the route: From previous visits I remember it as a wonderfully picturesque route, but not exactly the smoothest of surfaces to run on...

Although I suppose there may well be more gentle (if not as picturesque) sections of it, closer to the heart of Rome, and my concerns (but also hopes for an afternoon run in the Italian counrtyside) be nothing more than comments of an ignorant foreigner!

Oh, but I can't wait to find out!!!