Life’s been good to me so far – Snowdonia Marathon

Life’s been good to me so far

Those of you accustomed to my coaching methods will know that I am not a fan of using mp3 players during running training in almost all situations. Distraction techniques during exercise do exactly what they say on the tin; they distract from developing the necessary skill level required to perform the process consistently well. Simply put, distraction is more likely to lead to poor running form.

That said, anydistraction would have been welcome from the mind numbing seven hours I spent in traffic whilst driving from Herts Uni to Llanberis last Friday evening. The only distraction I could find, however, was the mildly irritating and majorly sclerotic voice of Joe Walsh which kept popping up in my head as I queued up at roundabout after roundabout on the A5. After an hour I was only four miles short of the turn off to my home in Woburn and after two hours I was little more than four miles beyond it. Averaging a respectable marathon pace of just over 8 miles per hour, there should have been ample time to reflect on why I was making this journey to the Snowdonia Marathon after a 17 year break, but every time I tried to find an answer, back came Joe…

Deedle de deddle de, dum dum, dang dang
Deddle de deddle de, dum dum, dang dang
Deddle de deddle de, dum dum, dub dub
My Maserati does one-eighty-five…

I last ran a standalone marathon in 2010, posting a sub 3 hours for the first time as a vet. The previous two years had seen 3.01:38 and 3.01:40 and therefore a 2.59:00 was good enough for me. The amount of time spent training for three consecutive winters, even as a small percentage of a very hectic life, had been excessive and unsustainable and yet it was still insufficient to really do my alleged ability justice. I therefore retired from standalone marathons and vowed to try my hand at a variety of differing challenges instead. These athletic challenges have come thick and fast in recent years and, if any of them have anything in common with the whole of my athletic career, it’s that they have all been completed with the minimum of training possible. During Costa-to-Costa this was a massive drawback because I held up a group of talented cyclists during appalling weather and, although we made our main objective of riding from Whitehaven to Sunderland in a day, we missed our initial 8 hour target by a country mile. I therefore focused on individual activities and, again despite only completing a minimal amount of training, I successfully broke two world endurance records thus reinforcing my self-styled myth that minimal training is best for me. That said, my weekly average of just 27km running per week this year is less than a third I would expect to have been doing at the peak of my running years and substantially less than is sufficient for the challenge that awaited me.

Deedle de deddle de, dum dum, dang dang
Deddle de deddle de, dum dum, dang dang
Deddle de deddle de, dum dum, dub dub
They say I’m lazy but it takes all my time…

When I was 32, I challenged my office friends to do the The Great South run – by today’s standards a relatively small scale10 mile race in Portsmouth – despite no-one being particularly keen on running. One chap, Rob, finished somewhere near the back of the pack a few minutes behind Coco the Clown. Office banter being what it was, every opportunity was taken to remind him of this. Unbeknownst to us however, every morning thereafter he went out training until the following year he announced that we were going to do the Snowdonia Marathon. Always up for a challenge, of course I agreed even though I had done no training. For those unaware of the rather unique race at Snowdon, the course either has you running up hill, or down and whenever you are doing one thing you tend to wish that you were doing the other. Add in off-road trails, generally on the descents, and the usual mix of Snowdonia weather and you have a fine challenge by anyone’s standards.

On that occasion, after the initial climbs, I flew down the descent into Beddgelert and reached half way in around 1 hour and 20 minutes. What happened next is a lesson in pace management. The climb from mile 13 is steady and just enough to take the wind out of your sails. The following descent however, again not steep, simply ties your hip flexors in knots and you begin to wish you were climbing again. When that climb comes, however, it packs a punch and at 22 miles the outlook is pretty grim. Somewhere along here, Rob flew past and I was barely able to acknowledge him whilst buried in a world of pain. There would be no need for any post race banter, I had been well and truly put back into my place.

I had known for years that much of my perceived endurance was made up of a psychological strength that far outweighed my physical ability. And there it was being put to the test. When the energy levels had gone, I was able to keep turning my legs over all the way to the finish line. The final descent from 25 miles was the nail in the coffin, however and a cramped up hobble was all I was able to sustain to the line, from the line to the car, and never has someone had to suffer so much discomfort on the near 300 mile journey home.

So, what on earth was I doing returning to this place of my former undoing? Well, as part of this very unscientific study of one, the plan was to try to replicate my situation of 17 years ago and discover if I still had similar levels of endurance ability and psychological fortitude by re running this toughest of marathons. Of course the study cannot be a completely objective one, I simply cannot forget the experience of the past 17 years, nor the shell shock of having raced the event before. But I would at least have 3 hours to consider the benefits of this non-training policy, assuming that I actually made it to the start line that is.

Deedle de deddle de, dum dum, dang dang
Deddle de deddle de, dum dum, dang dang
Deddle de deddle de, dum dum, dub dub
They say I’m crazy but I have a good time…

I reached the YHA just after the closing time of 10pm but a warning call had been made and the receptionist had stayed on. The dormitory was already full of snoring males with running kit spread liberally around the room. To ease my aching muscles I took a walk back into town to register and collect my race number. The fresh air did me the world of good after such a drawn out journey but, regrettably, it re awoke me and I then spent several hours in the dorm trying to fall asleep. My room mates were not only early to bed but they were early risers also and, although I tried to blot out the noise, I eventually succumbed and got up for a pre race breakfast.

At breakfast everyone was quite chatty with the usual pre marathon nerves. I was, however, in this wonderful position of having no expectation but to run 26.2 miles as a training run. After breakfast, the chatter continued and I found out that I had roomed with a runner from Lakeside Runners, Milton Keynes. I also endured a few confused stares when I mentioned my idea of recreating the circumstances of one of the hardest runs of my life.

Before long it was time to move to the start line. This is positioned a brisk walk away from the town and, with a steady drizzle being sent sideways by a stiff breeze, I opted for an extra layer and the provided plastic ‘jacket’. The rain continued to fall and I was slightly worried that I was under dressed for the occasion having left my own jacket behind. Although everyone takes this race seriously, this is a very sociable race with no evidence of the start line nerves encountered at many marathon venues. These are ‘real’ runners and I was just breathing a very personal sigh of satisfaction at the absence of Elvis (see previous marathon reports) when I chanced upon 25% of Abba loitering near the start line. It was slightly alarming to realize that my ‘steady run’ may now turn into a race as I knew that my ego would not tolerate Agnetha Falskog beating me….especially an Agnetha sporting an early entry to Movember. I decided to focus on the rain instead.

Two minutes before the start, the start line banner blew over. It was obviously going to be one of those days. Thankfully, the starter got us underway and I could focus on my running. For such a hard marathon, the first couple of miles are very easy, being downhill, and it is difficult not to get carried away. Thankfully I started pretty much to pace – well slower than I usually go at least – and started the first climb happy with my progress. As ever, my calf muscles were not terribly happy and I had my first psychological test in balancing the benefits of the experiment I was undertaking and the risks of damaging my planned winter base training. The experiment won over and I continued to climb at my leisurely pace, taking in the view as best I could. The rain had stopped and, in the sheltered parts it was really quite warm. The breeze was behind us most of the time which was good but did not bode so well when it would be against in the latter parts the race. I was being passed left, right and centre but still enjoying myself as I went over Pen Y Pass in 37:22.

The first descent is on the road and I started to take back some of the places I had lost but was mindful of overdoing the pace too early. However, I have spent a lot of time this year working on my descending and was keen to at least take advantage of it. At the turn however the course goes from road to stony track. I continued with my progress although some of the stones were quite painful through the limited soles of my Inov8 Flite 192s and I was passed by some fell runners who were at home in this environment. The descents just keep coming in this race which highlights just how steep the climbs are. Therefore even I was beginning to tire of running downhill and my hip flexors – site of much of my recent running discomfort – were tightening.

In the final few miles to half way I fell in behind a couple of runners who were busy chatting away and I then exchanged a few words with a guy running with me. The act of talking was sufficient to slow me and an indication that I had been running just a little too fast. I did enjoy the exchange and I stayed with him to the half way point at Beddgelert. Half way in 1.38:30, some 6 minutes ahead of my planned schedule, but I thought I may need those minutes in the miles to come…and how right I was.

The noise from the crowds at Beddgelert really is something special. For such a small village, they put on a great show and it is hard not to respond to such spirit. Knowing my tank to already be running dry, I chose not to put in a little spurt for the crowds and decided to applaud them instead. The reaction was more cheers from the crowd and a positive mood as I entered into the second half.

The climb from Beddgelert does not appear to be steep however the next few miles are all uphill and I watched my former running mate slowly move away. I caught the occasional slower moving runners, but, in the main, I was losing ground to all and sundry. Apart from doing my time challenge, my secondary task was to try to regain my running form whilst under pressure. At my previous event, the World Long Distance Duathlon Championships in Zofingen, I had set myself up nicely for the final run with a PB in the first run and the bike. Sadly, I was unable to get into my running form for the final 30km and, although I still managed a PB on the day, it was not the solid performance I had wished for.

Now entering the final 15km of Snowdonia I wanted to retain my full focus on my running form but, as hard as I focused, I simply could not get the deddles, dums and dangs of Joe Walsh out of my head. Between his squeals and the rather catchy tune, I was just able to keep some semblance of good running as we again started to descend. This race really is a test of mind over muscle and even those who overtook me were not moving smoothly. At 22 miles the road turns uphill once more and it becomes a struggle to maintain forward momentum. Fortunately, despite my limited training this year, the introductory run group and I have been working on economic climbing drills and I eased my way through the early part of the final climb. I had hoped to reach 23 miles by 3 hours to give me a fighting chance of running the final 3 miles in 28 minutes but I turned the corner at 23 miles in 3.02:35 and I knew that my race was run. The next two miles are extremely hard and once again forward momentum is maintained through willpower alone. There was a Riverside runner just ahead who was walking and every time I got close to him he started to run away from me! Once again I had to battle this blessed tune and accept that my form was shot. Trying to run a marathon without having completed the necessary groundwork is unwise and, on ageing legs, I was paying the price. These were possibly the slowest 2 miles of my running career over the last 17 years, since I had last run this blessed race.

I had to again try to compensate my disappointment by taking in the views and I finally crested the climb at the 25 mile point just short of 3 hours and 28 minutes. In 17 years I had lost 1 mile. The final run downhill to the finish was excruciating last time out with cramped quads and calf muscles alternating with every step. This time, and much to my pleasant surprise, the final mile was a much more pleasurable experience and, whilst I can’t say I coasted to the finish, at least I made it without the previous tears.

I rewarded the crowd with my own cheers as I entered Llanberis and, although slower than last time, at least I could stand when I got to the finish. Home then in 3.37:11 and just one mile slower than I ran in 1997 based on similar levels of fitness. And this despite having been seriously ill and breaking my tibia and fibula during that time. All in all, not too bad from just an average of 3.5 runs per week and less than 27 km weekly mileage. Although I never seem to be happy with my fitness levels – there always seems to be more that I should be doing – this performance, on a demanding course, shows that I have hung in there pretty well since I left the army. A focus on good running form through using Natural Running Form drills, backed up with a strong nutrition plan seems to have worked out well for me. Time to get in the car, turn for home and crank up the music…

Deedle de deddle de, dum dum, dang dang
Deddle de deddle de, dum dum, dang dang
Deddle de deddle de, dum dum, dub dub
Life’s been good to me so far.

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