My first road race- Snowdonia Half Marathon

I don’t know what it was about the TORQ trail team assessment but it tempted me to run a road race. My first road race. Eeugh!

There was something about what Stuart Mills was saying about belief, and mental attitude that I wanted to test, and a half marathon with hills was just the right thing to do it on.

Obviously, like all serious runners, I treated my body like a temple on the lead in. Not. My dinner last night was a rather nice Chilli Chicken Kebab and Chips, not exactly a perfectly balanced meal! I’d had a hell week at work, some really long days and some very short nights of sleep. If there was a time to test getting the race done on the mental approach alone, this was going to be it.

I had it in my head that I wanted to run the race in a certain way – I wanted to get to the high point with an average pace of 5 mins/km and then open the taps and see how close to 4:30 mins/km I could get on the run to the finish.

As it was a race close-ish to home I had the family with me for support, which led to the discussion of what a good finish would look like. The Kiwi gauntlet got lobbed down with a “top quarter finish” should be expected.

I don’t race that often, so I rarely compare myself to other runners. Top quarter sounded tough, but as it was “expected” I sort of got on with thinking what that would look like.

Getting fluids in, and a bit of energy from Jelly Beans, followed by several trips to the toilet to get rid of the Kebab was how I spent a good half an hour in Llanrwst. Then a little run to loosen up a bit and settle into running. I bumped into Gaele, who does the photo’s at the National White Water Centre, where I work. She was there helping Sam from Bodhi Movement Massage (who beats my legs up occasionally). A quick chat and then over to the start line. Down to a vest top and shorts, it was a little chilly, and a couple of people said “ooh you’ll be cold”. I responded “if I get cold, I’ll run faster” to hide my doubts among these roadies.

I tried to mentally work through my plan, steady start, run through the steep hill, lengthen my stride passed Llyn Geirionnydd, attack the second smaller hill, over the top, lengthen the stride, and then run at the point it hurts all the way back to the finish. I was going to look at my watch once, at the high point, have two sips of water at mile 4 and mile 7.

I’d normally start any race in the back third of the field. However, the wife had said a top quarter finish. The only way I could judge this in a field of 700 odd was to be in the front 100 people over the line, and not get overtaken too much.

A quick estimated head count of people put me about right. A 30 second silence for Boston, then a cheer, then a countdown. We were off.

A bit of jostling, finding space, I settled down to my breathing, letting everything warm up whilst I was still really aerobic. A few people heading off fast, but generally I was holding my own on the way to Trefriw.

Shot just before the hill from Clic Clic Photography
Shot just before the hill from Clic Clic Photography

A double back on to a single track road and a couple of simple inclines, I ran through these, making up places, legs feeling really strong. The start of the 1:7 hill, a medal for those who run the whole way. I made about 10 places here, at one point I thought walking would be faster, so I backed off, let the lactic acid subside, but I kept passing runners with a fast walk. A gulp of water, then onto the flat-ish and lengthen my stride, looking for Geirionydd, a couple of faster runners passing me, but I upped the pace and tucked in behind them. At the end of the lake the road turns uphill again and I attacked, passing them back and putting some clear space in. The high point, a glance at the watch 4:58 mins/km, I was on target. My legs felt good. A gradual  descent to the 7 mile water station, a gulp of water. A short bit of off road. Then onto roads I know. I caught a runner I’d spotted on the start line, and sat with him, leaving him on the steep downhill, only for him to surge back on the flat bits between. The final long descent into Betws y Coed was great, my legs felt strong, the support was brilliant from the crowd and I kicked. The runners ahead were spread out, maybe 100 m apart. I wasn’t working on time, I was working on places. Top quarter, I must be close, I need places. So one by one, I started chasing down the vests ahead of me. My guts hurting but everything else feeling strong. I was blowing, but not as much as those that I was passing. This felt alright! A quick shout from Ifs and Es Richards from Meirionydd Running Club supporting from a car. Round the corner and the finish was visible over the river and a few fields; a couple of right had turns and I would be done. I picked a guy 4 runners ahead, got on with it. Onto the final bit of road, I passed him, turning into the football ground, 400m to go, one more place – go on then. If this guy kicked back, I had nothing. The crowd was cheering, and I really didn’t have much left. I saw the girls cheering me on, but I’d given up on thanking marshals and supporters at this point. My eyes were on the red inflatable finish line. Get over the line, stop the watch. Get my medal and an isotonic drink. Wander through the taped area and sit on the ground. The girls winding their way through the taped area, whilst I try and keep some fluid down.

Snowdonia Half Marathon Medal
Snowdonia Half Marathon Medal

Look at the watch, just under 1hr 35 and a 4:29 min/km pace. Tick.

I ask whether I might of made the top quarter. “Definitely” says Michaela, “Probably top 40”.

I can’t quite believe that. The finish area is pretty quiet, maybe that is why. I still can’t quite process that though.

A pretty quick recovery and I neck down a bit too much drink. I stop the trampoline tummy, just, as I walk back to the car.

Get home, get the oven on, and a chicken roasting. Have a look at a watch download on Strava. Of the ten that had already downloaded, I was KOM on the climb by a minute and fourteen seconds over 4.4km!

Have dinner, enjoying feeling the energy coming back in.

Will wait for the results to be published, but I’d be over the moon to have finished in the top 10%!

Did I enjoy it? I enjoyed running well, I enjoyed controlling my mind and I enjoyed my finishing position.

I dislike running on the road though. I’m a trail runner through and through.

For the Strava May Massive I’m looking to explore some new places. I will be doing some road miles as well though, but every run will have trail in it. Fact!

Next races Trail Marathon Wales (June), OMM (October) and the Brecon Ultra (November). Maybe a few fell races between, but a whole load of soul running out and around in Snowdonia National Park.

Strava of the race

Making tiny changes-believing in big returns.

A pretty misty run on the Long Mynd with others from the TORQ trail team
A pretty misty run on the Long Mynd with others from the TORQ trail team
Lots to think about at TORQ Trail Team.
Lots to think about at TORQ Trail Team.

Nearly a week on from the TORQ Trail Team weekend; it’s made me think a bit. 

Roy Belchamber took some great photo’s of the event, and was kind enough to send some to me for use. The chap sat next to me, also chin stroking, is Mike Evans, have a look for his results at the London Marathon this Sunday, he’s aiming for a PB of sub 2:30hr. Anyway more about the TORQ weekend later.

Mid week, I went to see Bodhi Movement, for my fortnightly treatment to try and get rid of some the damage I’ve accumulated in my muscles. As always, I felt a bit bruised afterwards and Sam gave me a telling off for not spending enough time on my foam roller and stretching. I’m definitely improving but there is more I can do!

When I had a lower leg injury last year I saw Matt Williams from the Physio Clinic. Matt’s advice and know how is a really important part of my preparation for Marathon des Sable. Recently Matt has been getting more involved in performance. With a new(ish) arm to the business which is the Sports Performance Clinic. Matt has been involved in improving some pretty high level athletes and I’m confident he’ll help me along with MdS. As well as physio advice he recently put me through a performance screening session. A few low threshold movements and some high threshold movements. Nothing that breaks a sweat, but enough to identify where there are any muscle imbalances. These imbalances are what can cause injury when doing high miles, and also make the stride more inefficient. Inefficiency over long distances obviously challenges the chance of success. I was really surprised at how simple the screen exercises were, but how much control they took.

It’s identified that I’ve got a few areas to work on, and the screen is followed up with 7 simple exercises I need to do twice a day. I’ll be back for another screen in six weeks and we’ll see how my muscles are changing. If you’re serious about not being injured in a sport that you love, I really recommend making the effort to discuss the Performance Matrix with Matt.  

These small changes in training take me back to the TORQ trail team weekend.

At the weekend there were a couple of people who were of the opinion that cross training wasn’t a part of an Ultra runners armoury. You want to be trail fit – just run on the trails. I disagree.

Now, these people have far more experience than me, so why am I so sure? Well those same people are also adamant that you have to believe you have done enough training for your event. Mental and physical training. Cross training for me is an inherent element of my mental training, but it also has a physical benefit. I believe I need to cross train, and target specific exercises. I do not want to be on the start line thinking “I wish I’d worked on loosening my hamstrings, or strengthening my core”. I want to hit that start line feeling the strongest, most powerful and fittest I’ve ever been. For the first time in 20 years my body fat is heading down into the mid teens. I’m starting to feel the benefit of having watched my diet for four months. I’m starting to feel competitive.

I’d describe the running I most enjoy as solo adventure running. I love to run new places, on my own, challenging myself. I’m not fussed about racing too much. The competition is with me, further, higher, longer, more remote or quicker than I was before. I don’t need, well haven’t needed, to be quicker than person X or Y. The Saturday in Ratlinghope challenged that a bit. Maybe I’ve got a bit to go performance wise, but I might just start to feel like racing! Eek.

That said, I’ve had some lovely soulful runs this week. This morning particularly – I woke up early thinking about work, stressed about work at 4am. Lying in bed knowing I wasn’t going to go back to sleep just made me want to use the time to set me up for the day.

I love going out before dawn, I always have. Getting ready to fly balloons, sailing the ocean or being up early for a mountain adventure has always been special. Sometimes cold, but always really peaceful, undisturbed. Better still with running at this time of year when it’s warmer than the winter. All my senses focussed on my breathing and my foot strike being even, restricting other senses is great for this. I just love it. The sky slowly brightening, switching the head torch off and running in the first glow of light. No stress of being able to see a watch. Just running for the feeling of covering the ground, journeying, moving through the countryside. It’s my spiritual thing I guess.

Running easily down the little lanes and into Coed y Brenin. Seeing Barn Owls hunt, deer finishing grazing in the open and heading back into the forest. Knowing that anyone after me just won’t see those same sights is really special. I grew surrounded by a wood in Sussex. It’s a comfortable, familiar environment for me. Even though Coed y Brenin is technically a Forest (an area set aside as a royal hunting ground) and much bigger (9,000 acres) than my childhood woods, I still think of them as woods. So running 20 km around the woods and then being home in time to have breakfast with my girls before 7 am is pretty special.

I’m pretty sure Sam will be grumpy though, I spent the rest of the day driving a laptop, which probably means my hamstrings and back muscles are shorter now than ever. Hey ho.

TORQ haven’t announced who will be joining their trail team yet. Social media means we are all able to stay in touch. The ‘official’ hashtag is #TORQTrailTeam so if you’re interested in all the news, look it out. There are a couple of Twitter and Instagram feeds beneath.

Have a great weekend running, or having a fun time whatever you choose to do!

On winning

Today was the TORQ Trail Team assessment in Church Stretton. I have to admit to being really, really pleased to have been selected for assessment. Getting a place on a team like this would make a whole heap of difference to me, well to anyone. I went with a level of intimidation, surely everyone would be better than me? The venue was open an hour before the start of the programme and there was lot’s of chatter about the “how’s” of the assessment.

TORQ meeting before #TORQTrailTeam assessment.
TORQ meeting before #TORQTrailTeam assessment.

As with most off road running events it was really friendly. Chat’s about races done, doing and targets. The normal small talk about the journey, and I suppose a little bit of figuring each other out.

The programme was kicked off by Julie and Simon from Freestak, a social media marketing company specialising in running. They gave context to the day and were quick to point out that they wished they hadn’t called it an assessment. To take what they were saying and put it in my own words, they wanted a speed dating style networking event for trail and ultra runners. They certainly achieved that.

Next up was Ben from TORQ. In the cycling world TORQ is a very well known nutrition brand. It’s built from passion, and grounded in science. Ben was clearly able to cope with both. I’ve played with nutrition in the past, but not with any great science. Ben gave clarity to a few things, and was easy to talk to during the rest of the day. In a stage race like my target of Marathon des Sable it’s obviously something I need to get spot on, or do I?

After Ben was a quick lunch break, cheese rolls and fruit. I have to say that given Ben had just been discussing the block that fat puts on our metabolic pathways for carbohydrate, there were a few discussions about whether we should be picking out the cheese. All in jest though.

Stuart Mills at #TORQTrailTeam day
Stuart Mills at #TORQTrailTeam day

Straight after lunch was Stuart Mills. Stu is a Kiwi who has become a pommie. He is also a very talented ultra runner and a sports science lecturer. He laid out some challenges to conventional thinking, and pushed us to think about ourselves. This guy wins 100 mile races by running 40 miles a week at 9 min/mile pace. But, he spends as much time on mental preparation. That’s preparing his mind not going at preparation at 100 mph.

I can’t really explain the effect of some of the challenges on me. They made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck-it really affirmed my approach. As of right, there is no way I should have run 50km on New Years Day, but crucially I had rehearsed it and believed in it. I had no doubts.

Here was a legend to ultra trailies, reinforcing everything I believed about the preparation I need to run across the Sahara, that no-one else seems dare to say. No warts, no ifs, no buts. And in typically Kiwi style, denouncing anything that he didn’t believe in, like genetics and talent as “Bollocks”. Even if ‘science’ was against him, he believes in himself. Sound.

Next up was a “non-competitive” run in to the hills around Ratlinghope. Nice, easy trail running, a few slippy bits, a few bits of snow, but despite the low cloud and drizzle, a really nice run with everyone. At the top of the run there was a need to re-group a bit. I doubled back with Simon from TORQ and swept a few people up who had been sightseeing (temporarily of course). Then three of us ran back talking, and enjoying the moment. I guess for me, a solo adventure runner by choice, the smaller group suited me, but it was quickly back in to social mode at the hostel.

We started to go our separate ways. It was a shame to miss a pint in the nice looking pub. I spent the drive home thinking about the session.

The day actually made me feel more positive, more confident. I’ve heard not to set restrictive goals, I heard to believe in me and I enjoyed running easily with people who would have intimidated me 12 months ago. That for me is a win, a massive win. That average Ash, actually isn’t that average. That’s flipping brilliant. Imagine if I was immersed in this environment, for a year. What might I achieve?

I want to be a part of TORQ Trail Team (I still have no idea what the selection criteria might be). Unfortunately, believing I might run MdS with a black and gold TORQ shirt on probably isn’t enough. I’ll be keeping my eye on my e-mail though, just in case.

A massive thanks to the organisers, the venue, the partners who supported the event and all the others there.

To read more about the companies/people, here are their websites:

Apologies for the phone camera pictures, there are some professional photo’s to come.

Best foot forward

March has been a bit of a weird month, lots of positives, a few disappointments, some good achievements and some hope for the future.

I started slowly with running in March, I was keen to check my leg was completely healed. Apart from a tight calf (the other one) all is good and I managed to get a couple of longer runs in and although my running fitness has fallen off a bit, I can still get some miles under my belt with no discomfort.

I received an email in the last week, inviting me to assessment on the 13th April to joing the TORQ Trail Running Team. I’m a realist, I’m no elite athlete and I suspect my chances of getting a supported place on the team is relatively minimal. However, I think just going along will teach me lots. Although the chances are small, there is a chance and so I’m off to Church Stretton to run in a new place, meet some new people and learn lots. With some sessions being taken by Stuart Mills, there is some serious expertise on offer. Stuart has a great blog – UltraStu, definitely worth a nose around!

I had my first ever sports massage. I’d had a nagging worry about my calves and wanted to get them rubbed down. I headed up to Plas y Brenin for a session with Bodhi Movement. First up, an induction of all the things I’ve broken, when and what I was doing training wise, and an assessment of how I plant my feet from my trainers. Then it was some elbow needling tight bits, but generally ok. A few tight spots on my right leg, but it seems stretching, foam rollering and wobble boarding are doing some good things. I’ll go back for another session to try and get my legs free of knots (though I know now that this isn’t the technical term). The day after I’d been warned that I might feel a bit fragile. Wow, I felt pretty assaulted on the morning after, but with fluids and some light exercise it all passed quickly and my legs felt terrific.

Twisted ankle
Twisted ankle

I had planned to do a few longer runs back to back over the Easter weekend, but a game of squash on the Thursday night put that out of possibility. On game 2 of 9 games I turned my ankle over. The result was a lot of swelling and a good bit of discomfort.

This gave me a bit of an opportunity to see how much mental strength I’d have. After working on Good Friday I decided to see how the injury would cope on a rowing machine-limited range of motion but not too painful. This meant I was going to be okay to ride. Friday, Saturday and Sunday totaled 296km. So despite not getting lots of running in I definitely managed a bit of mind training. The mind is such a fundamental bit of endurance sports it never hurts to train it.

A quick round up of my human powered miles for March and a tune up towards 2013miles in 2013. March reads:

  1. Rowing 81.6 km
  2. Running 128.8 km
  3. Cycling 316.2 km

This gives a total of 526.6 km or 329.1 miles. (monthly target is 167.8 miles). So a solid month. 691.4 miles year to date so well ahead of the 503.3 miles I was aiming for.

I didn’t get much chance to snap any activity pictures so it’s just a few pictures from being out and about.

Oh, and there was an excellent game of rugby on 16th March !