Sunday, June 23, 2013

New York Citi

On the flight over to New York from Boston, I overheard a conversation the guy sitting next to me was having on his phone. He was describing his brother, who was in his sixties and cycling 40 miles a day, as someone who suffered from that "disease, you know, that thing that some kids get which make it hard for them to relate to other people - ah, what was it called again?". I actually got chatting to him and was very surprised that, as a University lecturer as he turned out to be, he couldn't remember the word "autism" and thought that it was a disease. The reason I mention this is because, the next morning I met up with a friend who had gone to the trouble of picking up my New York City 2012 Marathon "non-finisher's" medal and, by a strange coincidence, she was now working for a charity promoting awareness for autism.

One day this will be worth a fortune on ebay ;-)
While I was waiting for her, I had a Red Bull but I was surprised to find a new, completely calorie free version (the sugar free can has about 10 calories). The flavour was a little different and I actually preferred it, so I look forward to that coming to Europe. (Red Bull is a Austrian company based on an original Thai drink.)

As I would have to spend most of the day in the office and I was meeting friends for dinner in the evening, I squeezed in a brisk 40 minute run around Central Park before meeting up with Elizabeth. The combination of the drum 'n' bass music at 180 bpm and the game of overtaking other runners meant that I found myself running at a pace of 4:10 per kilometre, even though I had told myself to take it easy. I arrived back to the hotel drenched in sweat, in spite of it being relatively cool still at that time in the morning.

I decided to try out one of the new Citi bikes, New York's answer to London's bike scheme (which, in spite of being sponsored by Barclays, are commonly referred to as "Boris bikes" after the Mayor of London who is a keen cyclist). Perhaps Michael Bloomberg was secretly hoping that the New York equivalent would become known as "Bloomberg bikes" but that sounds equally corporate as Citi Bank. Anyway, after much faffing around with the slightly clunky bike checkout system with its pages of disclaimers and rules, I took a bike down 30 blocks to a shop which stocked Minecraft memorabilia as my kids are currently hooked on the video game craze.

I didn't get too far though, on my first attempt. Unbelievably, one of the pedals came off the bike and I had to walk it back to the nearest bike rack. Bear in mind that these bikes are very solid and brand new! A couple of workmen who I asked for directions to the bike rack stood there shaking their heads in disbelief.

By now it was dinnertime so I headed to Brooklyn in a cab. I had seen on a map that the bike scheme only covered the south part of Manhattan island but had I known that there were also bike stations in Brooklyn already, I would have made the journey by bike (and have got there much sooner and with 20 dollars more still in my pocket).

As usual, I woke up very early. It's partly due to jet lag but the sun rises much earlier - in fact, by that token the time difference is exaggerated. It's certainly the case that Madrid is out of line with Morocco and Portugal which are in the same time band (I have heard that this was a pact between Franco and Hitler) but the sun seems to rise very early in New York and people also eat dinner very early. I didn't feel too much like running after my night out but I dragged myself out of the hotel. This time I deliberately left my music behind so that I would run at a more leisurely pace (around 4:30-4:40) and, rather than running round and round Central Park again, I decided to head up to Spanish Harlem and back. In an hour I made up as high as 120th street before having to turn back. It always fascinates me how the houses, the shops, the people and their cars change as you go from one end of the avenues to the other.

I caught my flight later that afternoon and I am now writing this on Sunday morning, waiting for my family to wake up. The kids must have gone to bed quite late (there are signs that my wife had a party) because it is very unusual for them to still be sleeping at 9:30 on any day of the week. It looks like it will be a lovely if not a little too hot day. Perhaps I can convince the family to go out on a bike ride: I find exercise the best antidote to jet lag.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Boston strong

I suppose technically it was the same day, although 6 hours more than the clock was showing had past since I ran the 10K race in the morning, so I decided to go for another run as soon as I got to the hotel. I thought it would be a good way to keep myself awake a few hours longer as well as making me feel tired enough to sleep well once it was (finally) time to sleep.

I decided I would try to get to the famous Heartbreak Hill which is in fact not called that at all except for one day in the year when the Boston Marathon is run. It is famous not so much for its climb or steepness but more for its location, just at the point in the race when your glycogen stores are running out. I had downloaded the Marathon course onto my Garmin GPS watch but, with all the tall buildings around, not to mention the cloudy skies, it took forever to get a good GPS signal. The temperature was perfect for running and a welcome change from the heat back home in Madrid but I was soon to discover how humid it was.

I was surprised how few runners there were and how many of them were women (in fact, nearly all – and it wasn’t because I was only looking at the female runners). The course in reverse takes you along the Back Bay area, which is like a slice of England. I was reminded of a short story I once read by Ray Bradbury, in which a couple of guys travel back in time and one of them accidently steps on a butterfly and finds, on return back to his time, that everything has subtlety changed (in fact, this was the origin of the “Butterfly Effect” later coined by Lorenz). The houses looked so familiar but the street numbers in the 1,000s gave them away, as did the cars parked outside that were bloated as if someone had inflated them by pumping up their exhaust pipes.

The Marathon route was actually quite boring apart from a nice lake that I stumbled upon but which was otherwise not visible from the road. I was starting to get quite tired after 10 kilometers, so I asked a fellow runner if they knew how much further it was to Heartbreak Hill and they told me that it was still about 3 miles so I decided to turn back. It was only later, when I uploaded the route to my Garmin, that I saw that I had got within 1,000 meters of my goal… In the end I ran a total of 30 kilometers that day, so I felt as though I had done a good day’s work and enough to justify a day off the next day.

On the Tuesday, I found a chance to run down to the Vibram USA store to pick up a pair of Vibram Five Fingers Seeyas to replace the pair that was now wearing out, as well as a pair of Spyridons which are less in need of repairing but somewhat cheaper in the States nonetheless and some Injinji "toe socks". With the humidity, I arrived at the shop totally soaking but I suppose that running shops are amongst the few shops for which it is relatively acceptable to turn up like this. I was given some paper towels to dry off with while I made my purchases. I ran back along the River Charles and realized that this was where all the runners run.

Later that evening I did a short interval session on the hotel treadmill, of 4 lots of 1,600 meters at 10 mph (approximately 16 kph). The gym, although small, was one of the best-equipped ones I have seen in a hotel.

I couldn’t really go to Boston without having seen Havard University, so this was my objective for the run I did the next day. It was a very picturesque run alongside the River Charles and there were a lot of other people doing the same thing. Every so often my watch would pick up the heart rate strap of some random person I happened to pass by. After three days of rain storms in the afternoon (to which I attribute the fact that I have now got a head cold) the weather was now sunny but noticeably less humid. I felt as though I was running downhill most of the way there and most of the way back and checked of most of my kilometer splits easily between 3:55 and 4:15. Every so often I had to stop for traffic lights, of course, but at one set a policeman actually held the traffic and waved me across.

Towards the end of my 20 km run, I stopped for some water and to cool down and watched the other runners pass by. I always find it interesting in a nerdy kind of way to critique other people’s running styles. Of course, almost everybody was heel striking and – if not actually braking – at least losing the natural spring of the foot. One guy was running on the ball of his foot but in such a deliberate way that I felt sorry for his calf muscles. There were a couple of runners who seemed to be light on their feet – it so happened they were both girls and both running in minimalist footwear. Minimalist running shoes don’t guarantee good running style and are probably more dangerous to run badly in, but I do think it is easier to learn to run well in them.

Now, off to New York…

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Hare of the dog

I’m writing this post having drunk probably slightly too much in business class somewhere between Madrid and Boston.

Last week I was asked by a friend, Carlos, if I would be interested in being a pacer for the Proniño 10K race taking place this weekend. I told him that I’d love to but that it might be a bit complicated given that my flight for Boston was leaving at 12:45 the same day. But then I did the maths and realized that it was just the right side of crazy and, with a little help from my wife, it was actually doable.

I’ve been sleeping very badly all week now that the temperatures have soared. It’s a choice between being bitten by mosquitos, sweating your head off or getting a dry throat from the air con. My preference is for the third option but, in practice, I tend to suffer a mix of all three ailments. I suppose I must have been a little nervous – after all, it is a responsibility being a pacer and it’s not as though my 10K is so much better than 40 minutes that I can just breeze it.  As I was finally dropping off I started to fret that I might not be able to remember what a 4 minute per kilometer pace feels like or that, with the heat, I might find it too hard. To think that I ran a Marathon at that pace not all that long ago. I like that pace, it is fast enough that I have to put a bit of a spring in my step but I don’t get out of breath (at least, not for 35 kilometers or so).

It is probably not the best preparation for a day that is going to be about 6 hours longer than usual, to get up at 7 am (1 am Boston time). I got a taxi down to the start, in the mega complex where Telefónica has its headquarters; my wife would pick me up later with my suitcase and take me to the airport.

The time I would normally spend warming up before a race was spent with the other pacers, tying on balloons and sticking on the transfers with the various time targets: 40, 45, 50, 55, and 60 minutes. I remember the first races I ran, how I would seek out the balloon and try to get ahead. The number of times the balloon man passed me by and, with him, my chances to get a sub 40 minute finish: I haven’t forgotten what it means. I thought I would warm up by doing my usual bouncing up and down on the spot. Unfortunately, this proved too much for my balloon which bid us “adios” and floated up to the blazing blue sky, never to be seen again. I wasn’t the only one to have technical problems: several people burst their balloons while putting the stickers on. (An aside: I can't help but be reminded of a game I wrote for the ZX Spectrum when I was 10, called "Burst the Balloon". I recently went to the trouble of typing it in from the magazine in which it was published. You can now even download it from here and play it on an emulator.)

Finally, after much ado we congregated on the podium with Chema Martínez for a quick photo opportunity (this makes two with Chema in one week for me). Juan Carlos and I, as the two 40’ balloon bearers, eased in to the crowd somewhere near the front (balloons have a certain amount of kudos). We opted for holding the balloon string between or teeth so that we would clear the relatively low starting gate.

Off we went and we quickly settled into a rhythm. No more than 100m from the start some firemen were spraying cold water from a hose that was very much appreciated, even if it did fog up the sunglasses that Juan Carlos had leant me. Shortly afterwards someone pointed out to Juan Carlos that one of his shoelaces had come undone so he dropped back to fix the problem, leaving me on my own.  Of course, he didn’t take long to catch back up but I pity anyone that tried to keep up with him, thinking that he was running a 4 minute kilometer.

The course is not a very difficult one as races in Madrid go, but it is anything but flat, which makes pacing that much more of a challenge, especially as hills effect different people to different degrees. Nevertheless, we went through the halfway mark in almost exactly 20 minutes. I remembered what Carlos (not Juan Carlos) had said to me about pacing. He’d recommended me to go slightly faster than the target pace so that there was some margin left at the end for anyone struggling to get under 40 minutes. I hope I didn’t make too much of a brusque change in rhythm but I was conscious that we needed to up the ante just a smidgeon.

I had hoped that we would form a little group of people aspiring to break 40 minutes but I think it is a sufficiently competitive time that those capable of it want to get in front of the balloon. I felt bad every time I overtook someone because it is a bummer when the balloon man goes past – I know from personal experience. But some people were fading and it was important to keep the foot on the gas pedal.

Around about the 6 km mark I had my first casualty (that I was conscious of). A guy who had been sticking to my left shoulder was starting to breathe more heavily and I could tell he was in trouble. Of course I told him the complete opposite, that he was doing really well and that most of the work was done, but I wasn’t surprised when he dropped back a few meters. Of course, I didn’t let him off easily but it was too late.

I still had one guy running with me of whom I was conscious, at any rate. I’ve no idea whether he was running a Personal Best or not but I decided I would make it my mission to get him across the line before me. I hope it didn’t come across as patronizing or anything like that but I tried to encourage him by simply saying out loud the things I say to myself when I am in a similar situation. “Focus on your running form, run lightly”. “This hill is very short, it won’t affect you – think of all the training you have done”. “That long hill was a real bastard but now we’ve done the hard bit”. “Only 15 minutes to go, think of it like a long interval training”. “Only 1 kilometer to go, think of what you are going to tell your friends, make sure you squeeze out every last drop of effort”. Just then he swore as his watch had run out of batteries so I told him to forget his watch – I said that in any case the GPS could be a false friend - and just run. He sprinted ahead of me and finished very strong. Again, I’ve no idea what his objectives were but I enjoyed his achievement by proxy.

The last kilometer marker was about 100 meters ahead of where is should have been which made me wonder whether the last kilometer would be 1,000 meters or 1,100 meters. Either way, by this stage, no one was interested in the balloons and was engaged in their own personal battle. As I approached the line with the clock ticking mercilessly, I turned back and saw that there was quite a gap between me and the next runners. I started shouting at them that they could still make it and a couple of them changed up gears and managed to sprint through just in time. Again, for all I know, these might have been runners capable of a much faster time on a better day (or maybe they were just training) but you have to assume that most people are giving it their all.

One really nice thing was that a lot of people came up to me afterwards and shook my hand, presumably satisfied with their performance. A couple of people were under the impression that I had finished somewhat faster than the target time (in the end I did 39:52 which was pretty bang on) – I think this was due to the time they took to cross the start line relative to me, which meant that their relative time was much faster.

Now I had to think about my next logistic challenge: find a spot where my wife could get to with the car, in spite of the roads being blocked for the race.  Eventually we managed to find each other with a bit of help from our GPS devices. The kids are still just (but only just) young enough to appreciate being given a helium balloon. I suspect that next year they will be more interested in exploding it or simply not at all. I got changed in the street, slapped on some generous helpings of deodorant (sorry for those sitting in seats 3C and 3H in the 12:45 Madrid to Boston Iberia flight). I kept my Vibram Seeyas on as they are probably the best shoes to wear for a long distance flight.

I was offered the chance to be a pacer at another 10K race next Sunday – the “North to South” race which is a good one for getting a Personal Best as it is downhill all the way – but this would mean going directly from my flight (which arrives at around 6am) to the start. Tempting as it might be, the deciding factor is that next Sunday is our 12th wedding anniversary so I think sport will have to take a back seat (for once).

I’ll be in Boston and New York this week so I hope to be able to do some nice urban runs, as well as popping into the flagship Vibram store to stock up on next season’s footwear.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Summer is finally here (it would seem)

I was just thinking the other day about how I have improved in running over the last couple of years - not so much in terms of times (which have indeed improved) but more in terms of adaptations my body has made.

- The maximum heart rate I reach in the final straight of a competition - be it 5K, 10K or a Marathon  - is significantly lower than it used to be. Only 4 to 5 years ago I would regularly see numbers in the range of 189-192 bpm on my heart rate monitor. Now I finish a 5K race (which is supposedly the most intense) at a maximum of around 182 bpm. I expect that this also has something to do with the relatively cool temperatures I have been competing in lately.

- My feet and legs feel much more rigid and "springy" and I feel like I bounce much more with every stride, especially when I am running at speeds which I consider to be fast.

- My weight seems to be hovering around 80-85 kilos for the most part, rather than the 85-90 kilos I was seeing even when I was training hard for the Ironman.

- I think my posture is much better and my core muscles much stronger even though I don't train them specifically and I certainly don't have a visible six pack.

- I need to drink far less water than I used to both in training and in competition. I think that the need to drink is somewhat psychological and so that when you are starting to suffer you think that a glass of water will solve all your problems. Now I tend to think that I'd rather not have that extra weight sloshing round in my stomach, unless it is really necessary.

It's quite ironic, then, that today should be the first time that I really needed a drink (of water) while I was running since last August. I went for a run around a nature reserve near my work that has a perimeter of about 3.6 kilometers and started to sweat profusely under the relentless 30 degree sun. At one point I asked a gardener to spray me with his hose - which he was initially reluctant to do, saying that the water was dirty, but I didn't care. Then I ran without a t-shirt for a bit before finally succumbing and ducking into a smal cabin where there was the holy grail of a water cooler with ice cold water. I drank a couple of cups and poured a third over my head. Considering that only yesterday I had done a demanding but very acheivable set of 15 minutes at 15 kph, 15 minutes at 16 kph and 10 minutes at 16.5 kph - all on my fan-cooled treadmill - it was quite a comedown.

As our summer holidays are going to be in Morocco in August, I'd better start getting used to the heat again...

My Altum Barefoot Dress Shoes have arrived!!!

Back in November I was very excited to have "kick-started" my first ever project, the Altum Dress Shoes. I had been looking for some time for some shoes that would go under the radar of what is or is not considered acceptable footwear in the office especially since the dog ate my last pair of normal work shoes. I had discovered several options, such as the Ra from Vivobarefoot, but none of them would have avoided attracting attention for the wrong reasons.

Why should I even care about a "barefoot" or "minimalist" dress shoe if I am not planning to go running in them? Firstly, I can't stand shoes with a heel counter. I'm not really sure what the point of a heel counter is other than to allow and to encourage you to slouch when standing or walking. In my case, I quickly find that my knee with the torn meniscus starts to play up and my posture worsens, possibly contributing to back pain. The other thing I can't stand about conventional shoes is the narrow toe box which crams all my toes together: just as well I was not born female otherwise I would probably have to put up with far more severe footwear. I am currently particularly worried about an emerging bunion (more on this soon) which is aggravated by narrow shoes.

The shoes finally arrived yesterday - just in time for the conference I am speaking at in Boston next week - after a longer than predicted wait, although something to be expected for a start up company that is yet to get its teeth. They came in wrapped in a fabric shoe bag (which will no doubt come in handy) inside a standard cardboard shoebox. I don't know what you think but the shoes are very stylish and it is quite difficult to spot anything unusual about them unless you get a good side view - even then, they don't look too weird.

The shoes fit perfectly (just as well!) and have a fairly generous toe box. It could probably be wider but then I think they would start to look too weird, unfortunately. It is wide enough, however, to be able to wear my Correct Toes toe spacers (but only just)*. These arrived very promptly from The Emperor's New Shoes in the UK, courtesy of Jeff who was extremely helpful on email. He explained to me that, contrary to what I had supposed on my blog - that they might act as some kind of "crutch", thereby weakening the very muscles I needed to strengthen - they were specifically designed to be worn while load bearing (i.e., walking, standing and even running) because their function is to put the toes in the correct place, not to stretch them.

In terms of flexibility, they are less flexible than my minimalist running shoes tend to be, but more flexible than any work shoes that I have ever had. The leather seems to be of the usual stiffness which contributes to their deceptively normal appearance and, I suspect, will help them last longer, so the added flexibility is entirely due to the thin rubber Vibram sole.

The only downside (literally) is that I immediately lose about 3 centimetre's of height after stepping down from the MBT shoes I have been wearing lately in lieu of traditional footwear. Being an Englishman in Madrid makes me eccentric by definition and gives me certain license to be unconventional but I was getting a little tired of the friendly but amused comments about my weeble-like shoes; the loss in stature is a small price to pay for a bit of peace.

If you can't tell, I am absolutely delighted with my new shoes. I just need to do my bit now, to make sure the word gets out so that this fledgling company can really spread its wings. I'll certainly be going back for more once they have finished with their kickstarter phase.

* UPDATE: Actually, they are not really wide enough to accomodate the Correct Toe spacers although they do feel comfortably wide when the spacers are not in place. After a couple of hours the slight pressure on my "pinky" becomes intolerable and, according to the Correct Toes people, it is probably going to do more harm than good to have my toes being both stretched and squashed at the same time. One option would be to lop off one of the segements of the Correct Toes but, before I take that radical step (because they are not terribly cheap), I'll try just wearing them without my shoes on. It does mean that I often leave the Correct Toes spacers on my desk, something I have to be careful of because, for some inexplicable reason, everyone who comes to visit me has an urge to pick them up and play with them. "DON'T TOUCH THEM! For your own good! They've been between my toes!!"

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Inverse periodization

Every now and again there seems to be a buzz about "inverse periodization" or "inverted periodisation" - this time it has been the success of the British Cycling team in the London Olympics and, in particular, that of Bradley Wiggins, together with their philosophy of "marginal gains" that has brought the subject once more to the fore. While it is interesting to see how top athletes train, I am always wary about applying the same ideas to myself in just the same way as I wouldn't attempt to train at the very same speeds that they do.

The traditional concept of periodization is credited to Tudor Bompa, a Soviet coach and author of "Theory and Methodology of Training". For political reasons, his teachings took some time to cross the ocean to reach the shores of the US but they have, since then, been established so firmly in the minds of most coaches that they are no longer questioned. A season is broken down into macrocycles, mesocycles and microcycles with a particular emphasis on different aspects of training in each cycle. The fundamental assumption is that volume is key and so the first phase is an aerobic base phase of relatively low intensity. Then, to this base threshold work is added, next, speed intervals and, lastly, a competition specific phase. It can be injurious to add volume at the same time that the athlete is engaging in high intensity training.

When training for an ultra distance event, it doesn't make a great deal of sense to be doing high speed interval training just weeks before an event the whole of which is going to be run at a much slower speed. Intuitively, many athletes move their interval training to the beginning of the training cycle as a result. A common misconception seems to be that this practice is all there is to inverse periodization.

As Nick Grantham explains in his excellent article, the concept behind inverse periodization is slightly different. Rather than the focus being on building up a base of high volume on which to stack intensity, the idea is deceptively simple: to train at race pace for increasing periods of time until it can be sustained for the length of the race itself. For example, if the target is to run 100m in 10 seconds, you might have an athlete run as far as they can in 10 seconds until they are finally able to run the full 100m.

In terms of preparing for a longer distance event, this means that instead of the conventional aerobic-threshold-speed progression, the initial cycles are more like speed work as they are relatively short and relatively fast sessions, while the later cycles are more like threshold sessions as they become longer and longer. In the meantime, the athlete will have adapted to the training in such a way that a speed that was preceived as an interval intensity is now more of a threshold intensity. At least, this is my understanding of the principle.

I also think that this method might be particularly suited to running as the mechanics involved in running at 12-15 kph are quite different from 16-18 kph and 18-20 kph etc. I would have thought that the more practice your body gets at running at race pace, the more efficient your biomechanics. Contrast this with cycling, for which the technique doesn't change quite so radically thanks to gears and the non-ballistic motion.

I'm not entirely sure how these ideas which seem to have had a fair amount of success in events lasting a few minutes can be translated into training for longer distance events. I don't think running an ever increasing distance at Marathon pace would be very effective, for example. Having said that, something that I have found works for me is to prepare 10K races, then Half Marathons before finally progressing onto the Marathon: I find that my speed seems to stay with me inspite of the longer more aerobic training. As Nick Grantham quite rightly points out, for those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, it may be impractical to train outside in the winter months and I can certainly atest to it being much easier to do a short, sharp workout on a treadmill than to run for an hour or more indoors, even at a low intensity. The training plan I drew up for the Seville Marathon based largely on ideas from Brad Hudson's book seems to my mind very similar in spirit in that it starts off with short, high intensity intervals that gradually blur into longer threshold runs, which then become long runs with sections run at Marathon pace. It's always tempting when one sees a new, revolutionary idea (actually, this one is not so new) to say "Oh, I do that already" without taking the trouble to fully understand all the subtle differences and implications.

The way I see it is that this is basically the same debate I have had since I started to train properly, the two extremes being: train fast to race fast or high volume equals high performance. I think that the answer to this depends on several factors:

1) How many years you have been training for. If you have several years of interrupted, injury free, training in your legs then you can probably tollerate more high intensity training safely

2) The number of hours you need to / can train a week and the distance you are training for. If you can only train 5 hours a week, it can hardly be considered "high volume" and you can probably condition your body (and mind) to be able to do much of that at a relatively high intensity. On the other hand, if you plan to train more than 20 hours a week at the peak, you may find it difficult to sustain all year round and you will probably need to build up slowly every season.

3) Your physiology. Mark Allen and Chrissie Wellington have both been repeat Ironman World Champions and yet their approaches were complete opposites: Mark did most of his training at very low, controlled heart rates and Chrissie always went out hard. Do what works for you!

Monday, June 10, 2013

5K Carrera Solidaria Santander III

It may be the only chance I get of getting on the podium these days, but a podium is still a podium and this year I shared it with none other than Chema Martínez...

Shame we both had our eyes closed. (Thanks to Sandra for the photo)
Ask any Madrileñan, the weather has been completely random lately and summer has yet to poke its head around the corner of spring. I'm not complaining though, as the cooler weather is much more conducive to running, and today was no exception.

As in previous editions, 6 races take part in parallel, a 5K and a 10K in each of Madrid, Santander and - this year, instead of Valencia - Seville. I opted for the 5K race as it was the more gentle one in terms of hills and, if I am going to go to the trouble of running a 10K, I'd rather it was a flat course so I'd have a crack at beating my best time; I haven't got to that stage yet in the 5K distance. Today my objective was to get under 18 minutes - something that, given my performances lately in 5 and 10K, seemed a reasonable goal. And, of course, to defend my title of "fastest employee".

While we were lining up I looked left and right at the usual suspects, those short, wiry men with hunger etched into their cheeks but it was hard to spot who would be the ones to emerge first from the pack. I started to fantasise about being able to make the overall podium and not just the "special one" but just then Chema Martínez turned up with his winning smile and slotted in a couple of people to the left of me as if to remind me of my place. During the countdown I found myself thinking "what am I doing here, this is going to hurt" but the pressure of 3,000 people - many of whom were fellow work colleagues - about to trample over me snapped me out of my reverie. The gun went off and I found myself completely out on my own, leading the whole race. I started to panic, "Where's Chema? I shouldn't be first, I must be going too fast". I remembering thinking at this point "Whatever you do, don't look back!". I was soon overtaken by someone for whom I was happy to take the lead. A minute or two later and Chema sprung past probably having held himself back somewhat, not wanting to be seen to win too easily.

Chema making it look easy
After a couple of kilometres I became aware of some runners creeping up on the inside. They appeared to be running in another lane so I asked them if they were running in the 5K. No answer, so I asked again and saw an almost imperceptible nod from one of them before I spotted the motorbike in front with the "5K" label which I had somehow not noticed before. At one point we were a group of about 7 or 8 (not counting Chema who was by now somewhere off in the distance). Eventually, the 10K runners peeled off leaving me in 4th place in the 5K race.

I managed to conserve my position for the last two kilometres and then started to think about my other goal - that of breaking 18 minutes. I decided not to even look at my watch, knowing that I had knocked out some pretty decent splits and that it was just a question of finishing as best as I could. Into the final straight the forty seconds past the minute that were showing on the clock made me realise I was going to have to push right until the end. As I was approaching the line, there was a tentative attempt to erect a finishing tape but then there appeared to be a change of heart. Either they mistook me for a woman (which I doubt) or they were about to bestow the honour of breaking the tape on the first employee, something which I realised I had never done (in rowing, there is no tape at the finish line, needless to say). I did it: 17 minutes and 54 seconds, a Personal Best by 11 seconds.

I went to lie down for a bit on a wall overlooking the river and the risk that I might topple in was not lost on me. When I finally got up somebody asked me if I had recovered, telling me that I had looked as though I was suffering a lot. I was very happy with my overall 4th position (out of 1,110 people running the 5K, so well in the top 1% this time) although I got my first bitter sweet taste of realising that I was close to making the overall podium. Never mind, I got my prize for being first employee as well as being the first "veteran" (35-45) in the 5K, which I was awarded in parallel to Chema Martínez, who was the fastest veteran in the 10K distance, as well as being the fastest overall, of course. His brother, David Martínez, was the overall winner of the 5K in the "senior" category.

When I got home, the first thing my eldest son said to me as I was opening the door was "Dad, did you get on the podium?" so I was pleased to be able to say "yes, twice actually". What was even better than the award ceremony was my son's little dance of joy that my success earned me.

"You again?"
"If you don't move soon I'm going to have to push you off..."
So, after breaking my Personal Best times in all distances from 5K to the Marathon this year, the scores currently look like this:

Friday, June 7, 2013

Where's the limit? Where's my pants?

It was that time of the year again to wear a "Holter" device - a small, portable Electro Cardiagram - for 24 hours, so that it wasn't really practicable to do any training on Monday. The reason for the Holter is that I am having a heart condition that has developed over the last 5 years checked out. It is a side effect of a fairly common adaptation that the heart makes to the simulus of exercise but, all the same, it is worth investigating in case it is masking something else more sinister.

I decided to do some interval training on Tuesday. This consisted of 4 x 200m @ 19 kph, 3 x 1k @ 17.5 kph, 2 x 400m @ 19 kph. Afterwards I couldn't find my pants or socks. I figured that I must have chucked them into a neighbouring locker but - unlike my locker - all the other ones were locked. As I was standing around with only a towel to protect my modesty, and after explaining my predicament to some amusement, I asked a colleague if he wouldn't mind fetching the skeleton key. My pants and socks were nowhere to be seen so I had to execute plan B: I put on my swimming trunks and a pair of flight socks that had been lurking at the botttom of my bag for who knows how long and started to put my suit on over the top. It was at this point that I realized that this wasn't my suit either! What was going on? No pants, no socks and no suit? Had someone stolen all my clothes for a laugh? Then it dawned on me, I was looking in the wrong locker altogether. Eventually, I found my suit and, of course, my pants and socks were there as they had been all along. A case of a lack of blood to the brain after a relatively hard workout.

I cycled into work the next day, as did Tony, so we arranged to go back together along the "scenic route" which passes through the Casa de Campo. With a short stop for a caña on the way, we covered some 26 kms, virtually all of which was either cross country or along cycle paths. We could see a black cloud with the tell tale streaks of rain below but, miraculously, our route avoided it completely.

I opted for another hard workout on Thursday, mainly to get my legs for the 5K race on Sunday. Last year I managed a rare appearance on the podium as the fastest employee; this year will be somewhat harder after absorbing the 10,000 or so employees of Banesto. This time I repeated another workout I did in preparation for San Silvestre of 4 x 1k @ 16 kph, 6 x 200m @ 19 kph and an acceleration run of 3,200m @ 15-17.5 kph. This last section I did at home because I got too hot and my shoes too sweaty and slippery to be able to finish it in the gym at work.

In the evening I attended an event held by Santander in which José Luis Alciturri - the Head of Human Resources of Santander - and Josef Ajram ("Where's The Limit?") talked about their expreiences in extreme endurance events such as the Sables Marathon, their links to corporate values and the role of brands and marketing in sport. José Luis, for being a General Director of a company with 190,000 employees, evidently dressed in such a way to make Josef Ajram feel comfortable (although it was probably unnecessary as he said that this was the only place where he didn't feel criticised for being a "trader"). Apart from having shared a jaima in the 2010 edition of the Sables, they have in common an interest in finance, ultra-distance and tattoos. In spite of aiming to be an equal opportunity employer, there is undoubtably a bias in the male-female ratio although you wouldn't have known it had you been in the audience last night. I suspect it had more to do with the presence of Josef than José Luis (sorry).

Monday, June 3, 2013

Unsung heroes: Charlie Spedding

You might be forgiven for not knowing who Charlie Spedding is if you are not English or, for that matter British. By the same token, you might be forgiven for not knowing who holds the English record for the Marathon, unbroken for the last 28 years. You can probably guess that I am talking about the same person.

What is interesting about Charlie Spedding, as he recounts in his autobiography "From Last to First", is that his talent almost went by undiscovered. He was the typical bespectacled boy who came last in every race until one day he decided to try. From there on in it is a pretty remarkable story of how he found himself running on the shoulder of John Treacy in the last few meters of the 1984 Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles, where he won a bronze medal. This was to be first medal in the Marathon for England in 20 years and, so far, is the last one.

Although he concedes that natural talent is an important part of the equation, his message is basically that, if you put your mind to it, you can (and should) fulfill your potential. The book is well written and an enjoyable read but one of the chapters comes across as a bit of a rant. If you look at the British all-time rankings in the Marathon today, you can see his point: there has been a dearth of progress since his day and that is supposedly with all the advantages of modern training (and funding) that top athlete's have at their disposal. I think that this view is a little one dimensional because this ignores the improvements that British athletes have made in other disciplines such as cycling and rowing coupled with (and probably related to) the relatively recent emergence of African athletes as the dominating force in distance running.

His other rant is about the recent fad of "non-competitive sports days". I have to say I agree with him on this one. Real life is one big competition and so to try to hide this from kids seems to me a great cruelty. Better that they get their first taste of disappointment by coming 4th in the egg and spoon race aged 8½ than by being fired from their first job. It reminds me a bit of what a head teacher at my son's school told me at a parent's meeting: "We don't have any bullying at this school", to which I said that even if I could believe it were true, I wouldn't want my kids to go to a bully-free school because again, in real life, bullies are everywhere.

However, I felt that the rant went a little too far when he started to criticise "fun runners" and people who ran road races in "fancy dress" saying that it was shameful for their kids to see their parents doing something badly. I tend to subscribe to the idea of doing something as well as you can if you are going to do it, but even this is open to interpretation. Am I running my races as well as I possibly can? It is certainly true that, more than from the result itself, my satisfaction is derived from knowing that I have pushed myself to the limit. On the other hand, I can always ask myself the question - had I trained harder, longer or better, could I have done any better? In any case, you cannot do absolutely everything in life to the best of your abilities by definition - you could always do one thing better by sacrificing another. So it is a tradeoff and those "fun runners" have their priorities elsewhere. At least they are doing some exercise which is definitely more healthy than doing none at all and arguably more healthy than the training regime Spedding subjected himself to (his accounts of the operations he had done to his Achilles tendons are gruesome). I would go on futher to say that those fun-runners might just make running seem more accessable to the bespectacled little boys who are currently coming in last at their school, than the elite runners who must seem completely out of their reach.

It does still beg the question why the strength in depth of talent at road races is not what it used to be. These days it seems like a sub 30 minute 10K time will give you a pretty good shot at a podium place; in many of the races Spedding competed in, you wouldn't even have finished in the top 10.

I would be interested to know what Spedding thinks of the whole mimimalist running shoe movement. As someone whose running career started before the Nike revolution and who even worked for Nike as a representative, I expect he would find it baffling. I think the jury is still out as to whether standard running shoes are better or worse for Achilles injures amongst elite runners who presumably have good running technique and are covering hundreds of kilometers a week. I can only speak from my experiment of one: my Achilles tendons have never been stronger than since I made the switch.

Family cycle ride

To be honest I can't really remember too well what training I did this week, which I guess is a good sign in that it means that I am starting to relax about what I do without relaxing what I do. I do remember doing an interval session of some sort but most of the other days involved going for a 40 minute run with work colleagues at lunch time.

Perhaps in preparation for the influx of new members due to the recent absorption of Banesto by my bank, the gym has added several new cardiovascular machines. In particular, my eye was caught by a very fancy looking running machine which, as well as reaching speeds of 24 kph, has a touch screen with TV and internet connection. Also, as it is in a part of the gym away from all the other machines, I thought that it might be cool enough to try a hard workout. First of all, the TV wasn't connected and the internet didn't work so I had to content myself with watching the time tick by second by second while I attempted to run 3 x 15 minutes at 15 kph, 16 kph and 16.5 kph - a workout I have done on my home treadmill several times without any problems. Whether it was the boredom, the heat or the tiredness from the intervals from the day before, I didn't feel up to finishing so ended up running 15 minutes at 15 kph, 5 at 16 kph and then, after a fairly long break, 20 minutes at 15 kph. I would like to be able to do my interval and quality sessions at lunchtime because I don't like them "hanging over me" during the day or having to take time out of the family to do them. Maybe I'll try taking a film in on my computer (although it will have to be a much tamer one than the sort I tend to put on in my basement to run to).

It took a bit of convincing but I managed to get the whole family on their bikes on Saturday afternoon for a 14 kilometer ride along pavements, bike paths and fields down to the Casa de Campo and back. The only hitch was that Adrian, my youngest, started to cough and I had to race back to the house to get a Ventolin inhaler, adding another 8 km to my ride which was probably a good thing. Once we got to the Casa de Campo, the kids loved it and raced off along the undulating sandy paths.

Some of the hills were really quite challenging for them, especially considering that their combined weight with their bikes almost doubled their body weight. As a special treat, we stopped off at a restuarant near home and they got to eat pizza...

Crashing out