Good Intentions

Things to do in the next few days:

Run the Liverpool Half-Marathon on Sunday. I suspect my time will be the same or worse than last time, given the fact that I’ve only been training once a week for the last few months. Then again, the awesome power of the iPod Shuffle playlist might manifest itself and motivate me to run faster. Who knows.

See Rilo Kiley play at Borderline on Tuesday. Should be a lot of fun, because it seems like a small gig and there’s no boring opening act to wait through. Rilo Kiley has been getting a very respectable amount of publicity lately due to their tour and new album. Clearly I was there first though.

Other things to do: write more about ARGs! If only I had the time…

1:42:34

1:42:34 – that’s the time in which I completed the half marathon, and represents an average speed of 7.67 mph, which is okay, but not really that great. Granted, it’s about three minutes faster than what I managed last Sunday, but I’m sure I could have run faster. I’m certainly convinced I can break 1:40 next time now.

On the tube today: saw a guy reading a book with a strange inked-in graph. That looks strangely familiar, I thought, and then glanced at the title. I was very satisfied to see that it was Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson – and the page was the bit with the plans for the mine in the mountains. Definitely a turnup for the books in the war against Dan Brown, I felt. Looking further down the carriage, there was a guy reading the Collected Works of Arthur C Clarke – truly, ’twas a veritable teeming mass of literary good taste!

Halfway there

There were no toilets, and it was windy. Those are probably the two things that I’ll remember about the half marathon I completed about three hours ago in Liverpool.

I arrived at the Albert Dock at about 9:15am for the 10am start, and a few nasty things became apparent to me. Firstly, the aforementioned lack of toilets, which is a terrible thing considering that most runners will have drunk enormous amounts of water before arriving and a lot of them will need to relieve themselves. This wouldn’t have been such a problem if the Albert Dock, or indeed any establishment with toilets, had been open – but of course, it was.

Secondly, the little leaflet runners received in the mail said that the start line was by the Yellow Submarine, a big, easy to spot landmark. Unfortunately the council had removed the submarine a month earlier, which confused no end of people (including myself) and I think a fair few got it mixed up with the yellow banana-cow, another nearby scultpure. So, whoever made that leaflet deserves to be made to apologise to all inconvenienced runners (plus the leaflet had pretty horrible design).

Thirdly and lastly, it was very windy – not surprising given that the Albert Dock is quite exposed, but still not very pleasant. Apart from those two things (the wind doesn’t count), the race was extremely well organised. Indeed, there were plenty of clean toilets at the end.

While I wasn’t able to judge the numbers myself, there were apparently 10,000 runners either doing the 10k or the half marathon this morning. Certainly there were enough to create a train of runners over a mile long.

I managed to pace myself much better than previously for this race, starting off at a very comfortable 7.5mph (8 minute mile) speed and gradually ramping it up to 8.0 and 8.5mph later on. Since I started well behind the start line* this meant that I was consistently overtaking people for the entire race, a much better (and novel) experience than the opposite.

* Not that this was a problem since our times are worked out by when RFID chips on our shoes go past the start and finish lines

There’s not an awful lot to say about the race itself. The course was quite interesting, relatively windy and by no means flat – there were plenty of ups and downs. The wind calmed down for the greater part of the race and even the sun made an appearance. While there weren’t that many bystanders, those who were watching were very good natured and encouraging.

My main strategy for the race was to ensure I didn’t drop below 7.5mph and to keep on trying to overtake likely-looking targets ahead of me. I’d assign these targets superhero names based on their T-shirts, like Heinz Boy, Asics Lad, iPod Man and Wilmslow Woman (Wilmslow Woman was unfortunately one of the few that got away). I found it interesting that I hardly saw anyone my age running in my cohort – most people were much older. I’m not really sure why this is the case; perhaps people take up running when they’re older, or my generation has just turned into a bunch of coddled gym-going layabouts.

As for myself, I took the race a bit too casually (again) because I didn’t feel particularly tired at any point and I was able to speed up to a sprint for the last few hundred metres. Now, this is a great thing to do, plus it really annoys all the other people around you, but there’s no reason why I couldn’t have just sprinted for the last mile or so instead. Sure, I would’ve been more tired at the end – but that’s the point – and I would’ve shaved maybe a good 30 seconds off my time.

In any case, I think I came in at about 1:41 or 1:42, which you’ll is a good three or four minutes faster than my effort last Sunday. I wasn’t able to time myself exactly because I had to reset my track data on the GPS halfway through, but they put the race information online I’ll post the time here.

This half marathon was my fifth and I’d say most successful this year. I made it to the end in a good time and felt quite comfortable throughout. I’d be disappointed if I couldn’t make my next half marathon below 1:40. When that’ll happen though, I’m not sure. I imagine my next races are likely to be 10ks in London. What I’d really like to try is fell running, but I have no idea exactly how I’d get to the fells.

The Race

I did my fourth race of the year this morning, a 10k charity run along the Hoylake embankment in Wirral, a mere few miles away from where I grew up. The last time I did a 10k run was in May and I managed it in just under 48 minutes; not a bad time for my first 10k run, but certainly something to be improved on. In June, I took part in a 5k race in Clapham which I completed in 21 minutes or so, pretty speedy.

Since then I’ve been training once or twice a week, generally doing runs of 5 or 6 miles (8 or 9k) in Oxford, with the occasional 8 or 9 mile run interspersed. While I generally train for distance, I still try and keep my speed at an average of 7 or 8 miles per hour, thanks to my handy-dandy GPS watch (which came in quite useful while I was in North Carolina).

Now, I only know I did my last 10k in 47:50 or so because I just looked it up; before this morning I thought it was about 46 minutes. As a result, my aim for today’s race was to make it in under 45 minutes.

The course was very simple – a long, straight run along a wide concrete embankment not far from the beach, turning around at the 5k point, with roughly half of the run in fields adjoining the embankment. A little boring, to be sure, but with stunning views. The weather was fairly pleasant, with a perfect cool temperature at the 11am start. The only problem was a moderately strong wind that was directly against me as I ran back towards the finish line; yes, I know this means that it was behind me during the first half, but the result was that I was slowed down overall.

Although the race was supposed to have a maximum of 300 runners, I think they signed up close to 500 on the day. At the start I found myself right up by the line and sprung off at a ridiculously fast (for me) 10 or 11mph. I slowed down to a more manageable 9.5mph after a few minutes, and then progressively down for the rest of the first half to reach about 8.5mph by the 5k point. The fast start was a major mistake; it meant that I was being overtaken by people for most of the race. I’m not particularly bothered by this because it’s happened in a lot of my races but it upsets my rhythm.

I think part of the reason I started so fast is because I underestimated the caliber of the other runners – at the 5k I did in Clapham, I attached myself to the back of the leading group and didn’t have much trouble keeping up. Clearly those guys weren’t as good as the runners in Hoylake, who sped away. I suppose I should have expected this, since the Hoylake race is 11 years old (opposed to the 2 year old Clapham race) and it’s a favorite spot for runners to train on.

By the 5k point, I was feeling a little better and started to overtake some runners who’d come out even faster than I did, overexerting themselves. Perhaps my best part of the race was a 1.5k stretch along a path in a field, where I overtook a few runners who I’d been keeping pace with for a while. I’m not a road runner, I find it a bit boring. I do practically all of my training along trails in Oxford along the various rivers. The trails are more often than not waterlogged with uneven ground – just like what I encountered in Hoylake. I like to think that my experience with the Oxford trails helped me get ahead at this point.

Unfortunately we returned to concrete at about 7k and a couple of groups overhauled me. I could pretend that this was solely down to a painful blister that was developing on the inside of my right foot (as it does in every race), or perhaps the wind, but I just didn’t feel like I could keep up with them. As usual, when I reached the 9.5k point and could see the end, I ramped up the pace and passed a couple of people in front of me, finishing in 45:16.

Not bad, I thought at the time, although I could’ve done it under 45 minutes if I just tried a little harder. As it turns out, 45:16 is over two and a half minutes faster than my previous time from four months ago. Not too shabby at all, especially given that I did a 5k session yesterday (another mistake, I admit).

My next race is exactly four weeks from now in Liverpool, called the L1310k, and it’s a half marathon (13 miles, or 20k). This is significantly longer than I’ve ever run before so I’ll need to try doing at least one 11 mile practice run. I expect that I won’t do too well in Liverpool; I’ll need to bring my speed down dramatically and watch my pace. Still, it should be a fun challenge since there are almost 10,000 runners signed up. Most of them will be for the 10k segment, admittedly, but that leaves a good few thousand for the half marathon. Running in the middle of a city deserted by cars and among a huge crowd is a great experience, as I learned from Oxford.

10K

Of the various things that have been happening in my life lately, the 10K race I did this morning is probably one of the most interesting. You might recall that the last time I did a race was a few months ago, and I did OK although it was only 3.6 miles along. It was so cold on the day of the run and the fact that I hadn’t warmed up properly really hampered me.

The race today was 10K long – about 6.2 miles – and was in aid for a muscular dystrophy charity here in Oxford. Before today, the longest I’d ever run in one period was about 4.5 miles so while 6 miles isn’t that much longer, it was certainly different.

I woke up to glorious sunshine this morning at about 8am and discovered that the temperature was loitering around 18C – pretty warm for a race. By the time I left my room, it had already risen to 21C which ended up causing many people grief. Luckily I get on well with high temperatures (as long as it isn’t too humid) so this didn’t bother me.

On the cycle to the Parks, almost every other person I passed was wearing a runner’s number and it was a wonderful experience to see hundreds of people streaming in towards the start area. Apparently there were 3100 people taking part in the race today – a very respectable number which meant that I was surrounded by people for the duration of the race.

I was very pleased with the way the race went. Using a combination of my latest gadget, a GPS watch that tracks speed, location and distance travelled, and some runners in front of me going at my speed, I was able to keep up a decent pace which in fact was faster than any speed I’ve run for a distance, ever (8.1 mph, in case you’re interested). Aside from this, my mind was unusually bereft of worries and thoughts for the entire race and I was able to enjoy myself, taking in the scenery and the experience of running through the centre of Oxford along roads that are normally snarled up with hostile traffic.

To be honest, most of the race was uneventful and what thinking I did do involved trying to stay on the racing line and figure out the best way of overtaking people. At about 8.5K, I started feeling a bit tired and I’d developed a minor blister in my right foot. However, I didn’t want to let the two cavemen running in front of me to get any further ahead so I kept up the pace. Shortly after the 9K mark, I caught a glimpse of the finishing post in the Parks and promptly sped up to about 11 mph, waving goodbye to the cavemen who’d brought so much joy to onlookers. 48 minutes after I’d started, I crossed the finish line.

I must’ve looked a bit dehydrated as I finished because some guy came over and urgently pressed a bottle of water into my hand. In reality, I was feeling pretty good – too good, actually – which meant that I probably could have picked up the pace even more during the race and shaved a minute or two off my time. Anyway, 48 minutes was good enough and in any case I was happy making it under 50 minutes; my next goal is to run a half-marathon in the near future.

The rest of the day went predictably – I met up with some other friends who’d been running, lazed around in the sun and then we adjourned to a pub to consume large quantities of carbohydrates (an all-day breakfast in my case – a 30 oz. steak in someone else’s). And now here I am, about to watch another episode of Firefly.

The Race

8:30am – I wake up with a totally parched throat, despite drinking a huge quantity of water the night before. Less than six hours to go before the relay race I signed up to a couple of weeks ago begins. 3.6 miles per leg – I’m hoping to do it in under 30 minutes, at least.

12:15pm – Finish an early lunch of a tuna and cheese sandwich at the lab. Check the outside temperature for the thousandth time – it’s a balmy 5C. My supervisor exclaims, “I think it’s started snowing!”. I jump up and look hard out of the window. She laughs cruelly and says, “Only joking.” I grumble something in reply.

1:25pm – The race starts at 2pm, and I don’t know what the race order is yet, so I have to turn up early. I hop on my bike and cycle towards the Iffley Road track, site of the famous four minute mile by Roger Bannister. It is damned cold outside.

1:35pm – There must be hundreds of people here! They all look extremely fit and worringly, they all look like bona fide runners. There are visiting teams from universities across the country including Imperial, Cambridge, Birmingham and Bath. Each team has four runners, each of whom run the same 3.6 mile loop around Oxford, and they enter into the male, female or mixed races.

1:40pm – I’ve decided to wear both of my T-shirts and take my coat out to stay warm before I start. It turns out that I’m going to be the third runner in my team, which is composed of graduates. The other runners – Andrew, John and Jason – are all far more experienced than me but they assure me that my time of around 26 minutes for a slightly shorter distance than 3.6 miles is fine (I ran the race course, or at least what I thought was the race course, on Monday).

1:55pm – All the first runners are assembled on the start line on the race track in an enormous crowd, easily close to a hundred. Suffice to say that it is pretty intimidating for me, who’s never run a race before.

2pm – They’re off! The front runners are zooming along at a fearsomely fast pace, and our guy Andrew has set off pretty quickly as well. John, the second runner, begins to look worried. Many of the serious teams have clearly put their fastest runners in first so they can get ahead of the pack.

2:15pm – John departs to the start line across the track to have a jog around and warm up. I chat with the other people in the Queen’s College contingent about running stories. The Queen’s College is probably the most successful college in the university at sports – we seem to win most competitions and athletics, despite the fact that we’re not particularly big.

2:18pm – The front runners have just started returning. 3.6 miles in 18 minutes – not a shabby result by anyone’s standards. Surprisingly, there’s quite a bit of separation between the front runners.

2:22pm – Andrew has just entered the stadium and is making his way around to the start/finish line! 22 minutes is a very good time and not what any of us were expecting. I start worrying about the fact that if John is also fast, I’ll find myself in the midst of a pack that is significantly quicker than myself.

2:23pm – John zips past the stadium and on his way out I give him an encouraging shout. I begin to bounce around to try and warm up.

2:30pm – I remark to Jason, while bouncing around, that I feel like getting into a fight. Evidently the adrenaline is kicking in.

2:38pm – I pin on my runner’s badge and make my way to the start line. I do a few sprint and jogs around, but for some reason I’m getting progressively colder.

2:42pm – I see someone who looks very much like John entering the stadium, which startles me immensely because it seems impossible that he’d be able to do it in 20 minutes, given that he was supposed to have had a leg injury recently. Luckily, it’s just someone else who doesn’t have much hair.

2:46pm (T0) – John appears! He might not have been as fast as 20 minutes, but 24 minutes is pretty decent. My worry increases. I make my way to the handover point and bam, I’m running.

T+1 – It is very cold. Too damn cold. It seems like I didn’t warm up properly.

T+4 – I’m on Iffley Road, just approaching Magdalen bridge. I’ve already been overtaken by two people, which isn’t surprising since I’m in the middle of a much faster pack, but it’s still depressing. The race marshalls are very encouraging though.

T+6 – I’m feeling pretty tired already, running by the Botanic Gardens. I briefly ruminate on the utility of actually going and running outside instead of cheating and using the treadmill. This accomplished, I return to watching the runners ahead of me recede into the distance.

T+10 – I’m getting into my stride now, but a stitch is developing. I find this entire development to be almost unbelievable – I’ve never found it this hard to run outside. Perhaps it is psychological. Perhaps I should do more training. I’ve warmed up quite nicely though.

T+14 – Running along the Isis River now. There’s a guy running by my side – he’s been keeping face for the last few minutes but now he’s set to overtake me. Thankfully, he looks pretty fit.

T+17 – I can see Donnington Bridge! That means that I’m well past the halfway line and I’m on the way home. Things are looking up.

T+19 – I’m on the penultimate final straight, which unfortunately is very long. I can see a long string of runners making their way along it, and there’s one guy in the distance who appears to be walking.

T+23 – I put on a spurt of speed and overtake the guy who was walking (he’s gone back to running now), which pleases me to no end because otherwise I wouldn’t have overtaken anyone in the entire race.

T+24 – There’s not far to go now – I’m on the final straight on Iffley Road and the rugby ground are to my left.

T+26 – Just before I enter the stadium, I pick up the pace by quite a bit and make it around the track at a decent clip.

T+27 (3:13pm) – It’s over – I just handed off to Jason, who appeared at the start line a mere second before I reached it.

3:15pm – Wander over to the stands and collapse. Drink some water. Go into a daze. Visions of armoured bears with cockney accents and windows in the sky pass before my eyes.

3:17pm – Wake up. 27 minutes is almost exactly the time I thought I’d get. I feel like I could have shaved at least 30 seconds or maybe even a minute by picking up the pace closer to the end, but 27 minutes isn’t bad and it was my first race, after all.

3:38pm – Jason enters the stadium in a flamboyant multicolour jersey, alongside a guy in a very sober black and white T-shirt setup. Jason steams past the sober guy with apparently zero effort and everyone from Queen’s speaks admiringly of his frankly excellent stride technique.

3:43pm – Have a chat with Jason, and then celebrate by going into the gym and spending 20 minutes on the weights. Definitely a quick race, but not one I’m going to forget… and there’s still the 10k race I intend to do in May to train for…

Vignettes of an active lifestyle

After I got back from Australia in August, I started doing an awful lot of exercise so that I might develop some good habits that would last in Oxford. I hadn’t been to the gym for about a year or so, and so when I went there and did my usual workout, I basically felt like I was going to die, or at the very least, have a heart attack. When I went two days later, I felt even worse afterwards.

Eventually it got a bit better, and then a lot better. I was pleased to see that there wasn’t anyone else in the local gym who could beat my split time on the rowing machine, although admittedly this was more due to rowing technique than actual fitness. In any case, one happy result of this increased exercise was that I could play football without collapsing into a heap after twenty minutes.

The only problem with all of this was that I was conspicuously not losing weight. I wasn’t gaining weight either, and while I knew that I was probably gaining muscle mass while losing fat, it didn’t make me feel much better.

Of course, the simple answer to this problem presented itself when I got to Oxford: eat less. It’s remarkable how much less you eat when you:

a) have to buy everything yourself and
b) have to cook everything yourself

I’ve kept up the exercise here at Oxford and I’ve also started running and playing badminton a few times a week.

Running always seemed like a sucker’s game to me. What was the point? You just end up doing your knees in and being bored. I used to run for a couple of miles every so often when I was at school, but that didn’t last for long – probably because the only place I could run was along a busy road, down a slope. Not exactly ideal conditions.

Unlike Oxford. I live about a minute’s walk away from Christchurch Meadows, which in itself has a wonderful running route over a mile long that meanders along a stream, over bridges and beside pastures. Even better, it joins onto a path alongside the River Isis that goes on much further than I’ve ever run (only a few miles, admittedly).

Back in October and early November, when I ran in the evenings, the views and sunsets were absolutely spectacular. I managed to increase my length of running from 30 minutes to 60 within a few weeks and these days the problem isn’t getting tired, it’s not being able to see where I’m running.

Once, when I was out running in my usual T-shirt and shorts, I got stopped by a couple of teenagers on my way back to my room at college.

“Hey, stop! Yeah, stop!”

I stopped and wondered whether they intended to try and rob me of my Domokun keyring or something.

“Yeah?” I said guardedly.

“Aren’t you cold?” asked one, concerned.

“Uh, no.”

“But you’re only wearing a T-shirt and shorts, and it’s freezing,” he said, gesticulating wildly. It was indeed quite cold that evening.

“Yeah, but I’m running. It warms you up. You should try it,” I replied.

He shook his head skeptically, and with that, I set off running back home in a decent pace with a grin on my face for the rest of the day.

Anyway, despite all of this exercise, when I went to Cambridge and met up with a friend, she exclaimed, “Hey Adrian, have you lost-?” and then glanced downward and continued, “Nah, you haven’t.” Then again, she is known to be a particularly ungenerous individual when it comes to anything to do with me…

A Badminton Vignette

I know this game will be challenging; I’ve played against my partner, and I know that he’s pretty good. Not amazing, but he’s got a lot of power and finesse. We’re well matched against our two opponents, a male and female. Individually, I would say that we’re better than either one of them, but I’ve seen them play together and they’re perfectly complementary, each knowing exactly which shots to take and which to leave. A game of tactics, then.

We advance our points practically in lockstep and there are some furious rallies. One moment stands out in my mind as the shuttlecock arches over my head and I have to twist backwards to tap it back over the net. Almost immediately, it’s smashed back over my left shoulder and I have to desperately spin to my right, hoping that my racket will collide with it. It does, and the point isn’t lost.

Some time later, after a quick exchange of drop shots and miniscule taps over the net, the score is 13-14 to our opponents. My partner and I know we can still win this game, and we almost do after I manage to scoop a smash up from the floor and skim it to the far corner of the court. Almost, because the smash was deflected by my partner. But our opponents still look dismayed, and I explain, “I think that was a double touch.” My partner says, “You don’t have to be so honest,” and then smiles.

Afterwards, I ask the winners how long they’ve been playing together for. They look pleased as they answer.

“Oh, only two or three games. We just met today.”