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Posts Tagged ‘Florence marathon’

Tomorrow is the 2011 London marathon and I am running it. I have spent the day today resting and eating and drinking… and thinking. I believe the marathon is a challenge that requires mental as well as physical strength and that is why I write down, before every race, the reasons I know I will succeed on the day. In previous races I have done this on a piece of paper in a hotel or even just run through it in my head, but this time I will indulge myself and stick it up here. So here goes…

  1. I am fitter at this very moment than I have ever been at any point in my life
  2. I define myself as a runner and as such races like this are the reason I get out of bed every morning
  3. I know what it will feel like to finish in my target time and I want that feeling more than almost anything in my life
  4. My 74:20 PB for the half marathon tells me I am ready to get the time I want in London
  5. I have met the most amazing runners, especially in the past few months and I am utterly inspired by them
  6. This race is the next step on the road to finding out what I am really capable of
  7. The conditions are predicted to be perfect. I ran 2:40:49 in terrible conditions in Florence so good conditions will be a massive benefit tomorrow
  8. I see succeeding in the marathon as one of the keys to happiness in my life and I will hurt myself to get that
  9. I want the people I love and admire to be proud of me
  10.  I have trained for this harder than ever before – I know I can succeed

I will let you know how I get on.

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This is an unabashed plug. I will take just a moment to say that this is unsolicited and in no way have I been financially incentivised to write this. But whether you believe that or not is up to you and I don’t really care – I had a really wonderful experience in a shop (which almost never happens to me and you’ll see why if you keep reading) and I want to ‘big up’ the people behind Running Shoes London.

The first time I went to Running Shoes London was their first or second day of trading and I had been given a flyer or seen an advert or something offering a free pair of socks or a free t-shirt or something like that with every pair of shoes. Unfortunately when I arrived, I got there before the ASICS rep had been in so the shoes I was after were not available. And indeed aside from the lack of ASICS, the shop was pretty sparsely stocked. I left without the shoes (or the free gift). I haven’t been back since and that is probably 3 years or more.

The reason I haven’t been back is that in general I hate shopping. That was not always the case – in the days before I discovered running, I treated shopping like a social event, hanging out in Selfridges G&T bar after a busy afternoon destroying my credit rating.

Since those dark and depressing days I have completed many u-turns in my life and my old love of shopping is one of the things I now regret having done and vow to never get into again. This is partly due to my distaste for wasting money in general and also partly because I hate having limited choice, offered by mindless assistants in hot, noisy and crowded shops.

However a couple of weeks ago two converging factors saw me making my way, once again, to Paddington Basin to Running Shoes London – I wanted to buy a sportswear specific detergent to battle the ever present permastink that so many of my t-shirts suffer from and I was going away to the Forest of Dean on a training weekend where I would need gels and recovery drinks that I didn’t have time to order online.

The two chaps at Running Shoes London were super-friendly, helpful and informative to everyone I saw them deal with. The owner knew me and my recent time from Florence (I still don’t know how on earth he knew that – it’s not anywhere near the sort of time I would expect people to know) and knew my coach, Nick at Running With Us. We talked about the surge in interest in running that came about thanks to the economic crisis, the state of specialist retailing and innovations in running footwear and how to achieve the right balance of nutrition whilst training and working. Indeed I spent one of the most pleasant lunch hours I can remember in there as well as getting all the stuff I wanted.

Indeed the whole experience was so positive that I want to share my thoughts; there are very few good, independent retailers left – especially since the recent acquisition of Runners Need by Snow and Rock – and the big chains are simply transactional places I go to when there is a sale on to try to pick up a bargain, not somewhere I go to get interesting gossip from the running scene. There are very few shop owners and assistants who have the sort of experience, qualifications and enthusiasm that the guys I met in Running Shoes London have. There are very few places with the diversity of stock and range of shoes that they have in Paddington. And if we don’t support retailers like Running Shoes London, there will be even less of these places. So if you are in the area or indeed if you are curious and have the time to make a trip, go and see Running Shoes London and ask the staff there an interesting question – I assure you, you will leave with more than just a bag of new kit.

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Like so many people who take up running as they approach their 30’s my primary aim was to try to look better by losing some weight. I also wanted to get fitter and almost as soon as I started running I wanted to compete with myself and see what I could achieve. But primarily it was about the spare tyre around my middle and the fear that at a relatively young age I was on a slippery slope to obesity and all the terrible damage that does to health and well-being.

After a couple of years of regular running, by the time I had completed my first marathon and was training for my first ultra marathon, I had slipped into a mind-set where I thought that I could pretty much eat whatever I liked because of the amount of running I was doing. In my experience that is a common feeling amongst runners. The club I run for – the Mornington Chasers – even has a t-shirt which proudly proclaims “we do it for the biscuits” on the back.

However I am now looking into nutrition and viewing food in a different way. Now that I have more challenging targets as far as running is concerned I am determined to maximise every area of my life to give myself the best possible chance of reaching my full potential.

Undoubtedly since I started running my diet has improved and when I met Julie it took a big leap towards being what I would call a well balanced and nutritionally sound diet. However I know that I succumb to my sweet-tooth all too easily and eat too many treats and too much chocolate. So I now find myself in an interesting position – leaner and fitter than I have ever been and yet possibly no less dissatisfied than when I gave up my old crappy lifestyle. The problem for me is that I know there are improvements that can be made… if only I had the discipline.

Last week I started re-reading Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald to try to find the motivation to make the small daily changes that will allow me to drop a couple of kilos and get down to the weight that I know I should be. Now I should say at this point that I am writing this at the end of an unbroken 8-day stretch with no running – post Florence marathon, my coach said that I should have at least a week off, so I have followed his advice to the letter and spent a week nursing a cold (OK that wasn’t on his orders), eating and spending my free time reading and surfing the web. And I have put on some weight. So the man in the mirror is part of the reason I am looking into my diet. But I also know that if the target my coach and I have discussed for the London marathon next year is going to happen, I will need everything to be perfect, including losing my love handles!

Fitzgerald’s book really is a mine of brilliant information and tips. He seems to be mindful of the fact that every athlete is different and that the audience for his book, whilst highly likely to be motivated and dedicated athletes, are also likely to struggle with the everyday issues of work and family and social commitments which can play havoc with one’s good intentions (another family Sunday lunch anyone?) I have taken a few interesting thoughts from the book and I’m happy to share them;

  1. we each have an ideal racing weight and it is not easy to scientifically work out what that is. It is a matter of judgement and experience and only when you get it right will you know. Like so much in running we just have to feel our way to the perfect balance for us.
  2. it is unwise, unhealthy and extremely difficult to stay at racing weight for extended periods. Much like Nick’s insistence that I should have a week or more off running after Florence, Fitzgerald suggests that it is both practical and indeed wise to add a little weight (he suggests 8%) in the fallow periods between training and racing build-up. Just don’t go mad like Ricky Hatton or Jan Ulrich!
  3. eating smaller meals more than three times a day, whilst highly unlikely to affect one’s metabolism, can help to reduce appetite and at the same time align the body’s need for fuel with the inputs it receives.
  4. body composition is much more important than actual weight. One of the things I really like about the book is its focus on being lean, not light. I know that my weight in itself is not the issue – it is the percentage of that weight made up by fat (useless) vs muscle (useful)!

So this sort of advice is how I intend to ensure that the relationship I have with food is absolutely optimised so that I have the best chance of reaching my goals. However I think it is also worth reflecting for a minute on how lucky I am to be trying to ‘trim’ and ‘adjust’ here and there. For so many people the issues they have with food are overwhelming.

I am forever saddened by the weight issues that so many people in this country (and indeed in the most of the richest countries on the planet) suffer with. Recent research tells us that one in 20 British adults has diabetes, according to new figures from GP practices, while data released by the charity Diabetes UK also shows that almost one in 10 adults, or 5.5 million people, in the UK are obese. At the moment the NHS is spending £9bn per annum (or 10% of its budget) treating diabetes. I think the numbers speak for themselves.

So I am going to try to continue to improve the way I eat so that I can squeeze the maximum from my training. And I am also going to try to see if I can help to inspire others to start running and realise that a bit of hard work and dedication will bring rewards that are tangible and sustainable – a healthy approach to food, improved health and a sense of achievement that running provides in bucket loads.

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This weekend I ran in the 27th Firenze Marathon, in beautiful Tuscany.This is some of what I thought of the race.

The weather forecast promised rain and it delivered. Man, did it deliver. I have to admit that I tend to be a cynic when it comes to weather forecasts and this isn’t inspite of being a geographer and meterologist – it is because of it. I know how susceptible weather systems are to winds and pressure systems, how a small pressure system dictating the weather can suddenly veer away thanks to a change in temperature or wind direction. So it was no surprise that in the week leading up to the Florence marathon today, I could find every forecast from torrential rain to clear skies. Sadly however, by Saturday morning all forecasts has coalesced on one certainty – rain. Oh, and low temperatures and a fairly stiff wind.

So how was it that here I was, atop a hill with what should have been a magnificent view of the beautiful city of Florence (or Firenze to give it is proper name) in a total downpour that ran off the plastic poncho we had been given and poured down my shivering legs to soak my shoes as thoroughly as if I was standing in a bucket of water?

Well those who have read these ramblings before will know that in August this year I started training with a coach – Nick Anderson from Running With Us. Nick suggested that we target a few races of varying distances culminating in a marathon before the end of the year to give us a benchmark. He suggested Firenze because it is a race he knows and if there is going to be decent conditions anywhere in Europe for a marathon at the end November, there is a good chance they’ll be in Tuscany.

The truth is that I decided the moment I first met Nick for a coffee in the cafeteria of a gym in west London, that I would trust him completely and follow his suggestions to the letter. I reasoned that he is an excellent and well-proven coach and that to do anything other than exactly what he said would be a futile exercise – better to give it a year and see how we go and then pack it in if it didn’t work, than half-heartedly follow a diluted programme and then never know if I was able to improve under his guidance.

I have to say though, that at 8.30am on 28 November under the rapidly emptying leaden skies of Firenze, I was starting to question whether my faith in Nick should be this total.

As expected from a mid-sized marathon with an over-zealous organising committee with questionable professionalism, on a day with such nasty conditions, the start wasn’t exactly smooth. We were herded into overcrowded pens at least 45 minutes before being lead down to the start line. By the time the barriers were removed and the line of linked-armed stewards lead us to the start line proper, I (and everyone around me) was completely drenched and shivering quite badly. We were then stopped again 50 metres from the group of elite and celebrity runners actually on the start line, before the marshalls finally stepped aside and a minute later the gun went and we were away.

The race follows a road downhill for the first mile and I was really aware of Nick’s advice that I should run conservatively and not get carried away by the overzealous Italians determined to break the 10 second barrier for the 100m as a primo piatto to the main course of the marathon. I suspect that as we reached the bottom of the descent I was probably somewhere between 200th and 300th place – I was confident I would see quite a few of the sprinters again.

Nick and I had discussed a plan for the race that would see me aiming for 6min/mile to 6:10min/mile – or 3:45min/km to 3:50min/km in Eurozone marathons – running conservatively to 16 miles and then attacking the last 10 miles. As is often the case for city marathons in order to get the miles in, the course tracked north and then west to the Parco della Cascine to eat up the first half, then tracked out east to take up another 10km before we headed back to the city centre for the cobble-y finale.

I was careful to not get caught up running with people too quick for me in the first 16 miles and indeed I struggled a bit with the fact that I couldn’t find a group at my pace so ran long stretches alone. Luckily the wind wasn’t too bad and I was so wet that there was no way the rain could affect me. I passed half way in 1:21:33 and decided to hold off my attack on the end of the race for a little longer. In fact even when I got to 27km I was still a bit concerned about over stretching myself, but a plan is a plan and I had to see whether I could do what Nick asked of me, so I pushed as hard as I dared. My average pace from 25km dropped from 3:53min/km to 3:46min/km.

As ever the last few miles were really tough and there were a few lonely stretches where I really zoned out and felt quite ‘out of body’. I was convinced that I had hit the wall and was staggering along, whereas in fact my pace only increased the closer I got to the end. Finally around 39km I remember snapping back into reality and realising that I had barely 12 minutes of running left. I started to focus and work out that I had a new personal best in the bag – I just needed to keep doing what I was doing.

And so I did keep the pace and suddenly I rounded the bend into the magnificent Piazza san Croce and the inflatable finish line. Time: 2:40:49 – a PB by 3 minutes, a negative split by 2 minutes and 48th place. Job done!

I find it difficult to describe how cold I felt at the end. I had to grab a foil blanket and a cup of tea and get back to the hotel as fast as I could for a 20 minute hot shower. But nothing – not the cold, nor the state of my feet or the fact that I knew I had no time to relax before I needed to head to the airport – could dampen my elation. I was really proud of myself!

So what does this all mean. Well I think that the conditions and the super-twisty nature of the course cost me a couple of minutes so I think that on a different day I would have gone under 2:40. This means that I am another big step closer to the next target for spring next year and it also validates 100% the faith that I have put in Nick. I am sure of one thing and that is that without his input I would not have run that time in those conditions. So I am looking forward with relish to the next phase of our training. But in the mean time I have two weeks off running and I am determined to enjoy that time and recharge so that when I start to build again towards London next year I am in shape to make me proud of myself again!

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I have been in a bit of a bad mood today – not in the sense I have been in an angry or an ugly mood, but I have been in the opposite of a good mood. I would call it a grumpy mood. Slightly annoyed by the unwanted intrusion of work at the weekend and the seemingly endless list of things that I should be doing, I have dithered and only done half the things I could have done. But it isn’t just work. It is work combined with the upcoming Florence marathon. And I recognise why that is curtailing my happiness – I hate the waiting. I hate imagining every time I sneeze or cough that the tendrils of some evil illness are insinuating their way into me to destroy my plans. I hate the thought that I will forget something and have a mad panic trying to buy it in a foreign city where I don’t speak the language. But more than all that I hate the fact that I can’t really concentrate on work (because I keep sneezing or remembering things that I mustn’t forget) or the race (because I really need to work) and as a consequence I end up being unsatisfied with my work and my marathon preparations.

I heard an interview today with a chap called Simon Amstell who I gather from the BBC website is a game show host renowned for his irreverent humour. He was being interviewed about the reason he quit the TV show he was hosting. Now please don’t think that I am holding Simon Amstell up as some great modern philosopher, but one thing he did say, was that he thinks it is only possible to be happy in short isolated and fleeting moments. And I agree. I think it is possible to be content for long periods of time, but real happiness is a short-term feeling triggered by total immersion in something wonderful.

So this is why I think I have spent today not being happy. I have not immersed myself fully into anything. I worked, but I was thinking about the marathon. I thought about the marathon but I was distracted by work. Indeed even now at this moment as I write this, I am thinking about something that I need to do really, really urgently for the marathon and two emails that I really should send to clients tonight. Not fully immersed.

And so that I think is at the heart of the marathon for me. When I am training I sometimes allow random thoughts to steal into my mind. But not when I am racing. When I am racing I am totally focussed on what I am doing. I think about the course, my breathing, how my legs feel, the person next to me or behind me (or indeed in front of me), the reward I have promised myself at the finish line, the time for the last mile, constant calculations about finishing times. Nothing creeps in that is not about the race, about the next stride, the next 100 meters, the next mile, the final 10km.

I think this quote accurately sums up my feelings: “If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes.” (Andrew Carnegie, November 25, 1835 – August 11, 1919) and that for me is marathon running – it is the thing in my life that fulfills all Carnegie’s criteria and so I thank goodness I have running to fuel my happiness and until Sunday I need to be patient and know that soon enough I will have the opportunity to savour another happy moment. Can’t wait!

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I have just been to see my osteopath and, dare I say it, friend Gavin Burt at Backs and Beyond. I have known Gavin for almost as long as I have been running. A runner himself he has treated me for all sorts of, thankfully, minor complaints and kept me running the whole time. Before the Paris marathon this year I went to see Gavin a week or so before a key race for a bit of a MOT and realignment and it seemed to work so I went to see him again today. I tend to get to the taper period before a race feeling a bit crooked – stiff back, inflexible hips, the odd niggle here and there. So Gavin and I talk through the upcoming race while he checks me over, works on any tightness and cracks my back. I always leave feeling looser and taller and readier than before I went in. I know I now just have to maintain the improved form and posture for 10 days until race day.

As Gavin is a runner, I make sure we also always talk about his running. He is a busy man with a demanding and successful practice (witness the phone call I overheard as I waited to pay in reception, between the receptionist and a customer who was calling for an appointment only to be told that it was at least 5 days until he could have the time he wanted) but Gavin always keeps up his running and bangs out at least a brace of marathons and a clutch of halfs every year. Today when we were talking I mentioned one of the benefits I get from my coach Nick Anderson – the fact that we discuss race strategy and pacing together and Gavin said that he thought he might benefit from coaching, especially when it came to getting his marathon time down. Now to protect his privacy I won’t actually go into numbers, but Gavin’s marathon time is much slower than his half marathon time suggests it should be.

I was curious. “Is that because you start off at just slower than half marathon pace and then run a significant positive split?”

“Oh no, I set off at the pace that I finish at” said Gavin.

Me “So really Gavin, like so many of us, the problem is between your ears not in the legs or lungs?”

I am increasingly of the opinion that we are capable of more than we can possibly realise and that what limits our performance is psychological rather than physiological. While we were talking this afternoon, Gavin had asked me what my ultimate aim was as far as marathon running goes. Six months ago my answer would have been that I would dearly love to get under 2:40 in 2011 and then target a sub-2:30 marathon in the following 12 months. But now I am not so sure. Why aim for an arbitrary time like 2:30 if I am capable of running 2:28?

The beauty and the challenge of distance running is that every one with a target time in mind must make a decision about the pace they want to run before the race starts or within the first mile or so. There is no point running 20 miles at 8 min/mile to pace and then trying to break 2:45… there isn’t enough road or time left. So if you want to break 2:45 you need to start off at somewhere near 6’15” per mile. Logical that.

But then how do you decide what the target time should be and therefore the pace? Well training helps, I think. Training allows us to experiment with paces and see what works. If you think that a 3 hour marathon is possible then a 50:50:50 session with 50 minutes easy, 50 steady and 50 at race pace will tell you whether 26.2 miles at 6’50” pace is possible. Or 10 x 800s in 3 minutes per rep (good old Yassos) will let you know whether you are in shape.

Or we can approximate our potential race pace from shorter races – a half marathon time doubled plus 10 minutes. Or a 20 miler at target marathon pace should feel comfortable at the finish line.

And yet… the marathon is still a really significant challenge. There is something about the full 26.2 miles that means that experienced runners with many, many races under their belt, will start off at a pace that is so significantly slower than their training or tune up races suggest they are capable of, that their results have a very obvious kink that can only be explained by their psychological state rather than their physical one.

This is, of course, exactly what I am wrestling with in my own mind with 8 days until the Florence marathon and if I look at a couple of online calculators I get some pretty exciting (or, ahem, scary) numbers:

According to the McMillan Running Calculator my recent results suggest the following:

  • 01:14:20 half marathon (Birmingham 2010) = 2:36:46 marathon
  • 55:58 10 miles (Cabbage Patch 2010) = 2:36:45 marathon

[now that is nothing if not consistent!]

And the Runners World calculator gives similar results:

  • 01:14:20 half marathon (Birmingham 2010) = 2:34:58 marathon
  • 55:58 10 miles (Cabbage Patch 2010) = 2:35:21 marathon

But I was planning on targeting a slower time than both of the calculators suggest I am capable of. What to do? Well whilst I don’t like the idea of hitting the wall with an almighty thump and having a horrible last 6 miles, I think that fortune favours the brave and so I might just have to readjust my target. But I think I’ll keep the fine details to myself for now… sorry!

And the final word goes to Gavin. Having done the MOT and given me a full assessment he told me that I am in good shape. No terrible tightness or misalignment. So that is a green light. One week to go and my focus is on staying healthy, hydrated and relaxed. Facile, as they say in Italy.

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