School sports – all must have prizes

"There's my little darling in his chariot race!" (Photo: IMDb / Warner HE)

“There’s my little darling in his chariot race!” (Photo: IMDb / Warner HE)

Every first of September I cheer inwardly – and a little outwardly too – that I’m not going back to school today. School’s out forever, baby!

Running wasn’t a major part of my school days. In my all-boys secondary school our weekly P.E. class was usually devoted to Gaelic football.

One day we were given sticks and told to play hockey. Surveying the ensuing carnage, our P.E. teacher made a mental note to avoid that mistake again.

At primary school, though, we had running as part of our annual sports day.

Now you may be thinking that my marathon finisher medals and personal best times of today were forged on the playing fields of my primary school. You’d be wrong. Despite being a member of our local underage athletics club, I had little success at the school sports.

In my early years of primary school, sports day was a summer outing with a festive feel, where our parents would come along. Indeed, my fondest memory of those first school sports day is from when I was around seven years old: a sudden shower sent everyone sheltering under the dry arch of a nearby bridge, where I remember my mother giving me the rare treat of a Mars bar.

Running was obviously peripheral to my experience of that day, although today I get an exquisite Proustian thrill when I find a bar of chocolate in a post-race goodie bag.

As I got older and sportier, perhaps I overcompensated and focused too much on tactics over hunger. One year, for the longest race of the day – three laps of the school football pitch – I hatched a plan. I would go easy at the start, let everyone else hare off, and then in the last lap I’d skip past the exhausted bodies to victory.

The starting whistle went, and after a few measured strides I looked up to see a dozen of the field at the far corner of the pitch, already a half lap ahead.

My plan hadn’t factored in the chink in my athletics armour: my lack of speed. In sprints I would finish halfway down the field – never slow enough to be embarrassingly last but never fast enough to get near a medal place.

But that school sports day included some non-standard events, probably a commendable effort at ‘all-must-have-prizes’ inclusion by our kindly principal. (He was the same principal who got us taking part in my first 10k and later brought us for swimming lessons.)

One popular event was the slow bicycle race. All the competitors would line up on their bikes at the start. The winner was the last person to cross the finish line without going backwards or putting a foot on the ground, which meant you had to inch forward and balance carefully on your bike.

And then there was something we called chariots. It was a sprint for teams of four: one carrying another on their back, and then the two others holding each leg of the person being carried. (It was discontinued as an Olympic event after the Fake Leg scandal at the 1956 Games.)

That same year as my ill-conceived long-distance strategy, I was in a chariot team. For my role of carrying the left leg of my classmate there wasn’t a technical or positional name. You can just call me a charioteer, a veritable Judah Ben Hur.

We blasted off at the start, covered the grassy 60 metres and crossed the line in a blur. Only when a teacher came up to us and handed out slips of paper marked ‘3’ did we realise what had happened. We had come third! We had won bronze!

In my years of football and athletics up to then, this was the first sports medal I had ever won.

Actually, what I won was a small, square marble plaque with the bronze-coloured medal embedded in it, above the word ‘Chariots’. I received it at the school awards night the following week; when I went up on stage to collect it, I showed it proudly to the audience of parents, including my mother, as if I had won an Oscar.

And do you think I can find that precious bronze plaque today? Of course not.

Posted in School athletics | Leave a comment

Crossing the lactate threshold

You, after your lactate threshold training (Photo: janice ann1 via photopin cc)

You, after your lactate threshold training (Photo: janice ann1 via photopin cc)

If I had to pick one reason why my race times have improved in the last two years, it would be the regular lactate threshold runs in my training.

Without getting too technical about it, your lactate threshold is the point in an intense physical activity where your bloodstream starts to accumulate lactic acid. You’ll have seen the effects of this most graphically when a middle-distance track athlete starts to ‘tie up’ in a sprint down the home straight – the legs get heavy and the head rolls from side to side.

You can increase your lactate threshold, and therefore go harder for longer, with a regular run that includes at least 20 minutes at a controlled, sustained pace that feels slightly hard and uncomfortable without ever becoming a reckless sprint. You’ll find it tough and you might start to dread it, but you’ll be as strong and fast as a horse after it, and these days any reputable marathon training plan will include them.

For most of my running years my threshold sessions were fairly haphazard; once a week for the middle four miles of an eight-mile run I simply ran faster without keeping track of how fast that was. I only started doing them properly early last year when I discovered Daniels’ Running Formula, which includes a table that calculates an optimum lactate threshold pace for you based on your previous race time. A spring spent on Daniels’ Red Intermediate Plan got me in great shape for summer marathon training.

My current marathon training guide, by Pfitzinger and Douglas, draws on Daniels and has a specific lactate threshold phase in weeks 6 to 10 of the 18-week schedule I’m using. Recently this has prescribed to me a weekly run of 10 miles during which I run 5 or 6 miles at a pace around halfway between my 10-mile personal-best pace and my half-marathon personal-best pace.

If you keep a log of your training – and you should – then looking back over your lactate threshold runs is a great way to see your progress. Two months ago, at the start of my current Dublin Marathon training, I was struggling towards the end of a four-mile session. Now, though, I can see out five miles at a slightly faster pace and still feel like I have something left in the tank. Lactate threshold runs will turn you into a faster runner.

For my lactate threshold runs I have a four-mile parkland loop – two miles on tarmac and two miles on grass – where I have enough space to focus on running hard without worrying about colliding with walkers or tripping over dog leads. The mental focus is important: running at a sustained hard pace demands some concentration. My parkland loop has two hills in it, which adds to the rock-hardness of this workout.

Also, because I use this loop specifically for such a hard session, I almost subconsciously run harder and faster on it than my prescribed threshold pace – although, as I said, it shouldn’t be an eyeballs-out madcap dash. I definitely recommend finding a regular spot for your lactate threshold runs which you don’t use on your long runs or slower recovery runs. Make it your special rock-hard route.

With regular lactate threshold runs as part of a proper marathon training plan, you’ll be smashing PBs left, right and centre.

Posted in Training | Tagged | 2 Comments

Frank Duffy 10 Mile 2014

Frank Duffy 10 Mile 2014 finisher t-shirt technical

The purple PB beater!

Here’s a moral dilemma worthy of your Solomon-like wisdom:

If you were running in a race, on the cusp of a hard-earned personal best time, and suddenly saw a 20 euro note (or 20 pounds or dollars or whatever) on the road, would you stop to pick it up, despite the risk of missing your PB or colliding with runners behind you?

This brain-teaser arose for me this morning in the Frank Duffy 10 Mile around the Phoenix Park in Dublin. Around a mile and a half in, as the tightly-packed field of competitors passed the cheering wildlife of Dublin Zoo, I glanced down at my feet just in time to see a folded-up 20 euro note beneath me.

So, focus on the PB or try to turn a 20 euro profit on the race? Of course I’d go for the money, and don’t say you wouldn’t either. Alas, I was going too fast, with too much traffic up in my rear bumper, to pull up and risk missing my PB or even getting a race-ending shunt from behind.

This raises an interesting follow-up question: what amount of money lying on the race route would make you stop to pick it up, and potentially miss out on a personal best time? A twenty could get you a post-race meal or taxi, and even a tenner would give you some small post-race treats. But a fiver might not be worth endangering your PB.

I missed out on financial gain but at least I cashed in on my athletic prowess. I finished the Frank Duffy 10 Mile in Dublin this morning in 1:07:08 – a new personal best time by over 5 minutes and my first sub-70 ten-miler.

(You can check the Frank Duffy 10 Mile 2014 results online or in Monday’s Irish Independent.)

Sub-70 was my plan A, with plan B a new PB to beat my time of 1:12:30 from last year’s race. Basic survival, as innate as the instinct to pick up money found on the street, was my baseline plan – Dublin Marathon training had left me tired all week, and I wondered if my midweek long run would prove to be folly.

But it was too late now for second or even first thoughts. In the starting corral I drew my sword and, at the signal, charged down Chesterfield Avenue with a field of almost 6,000 other runners. The race was on!

That 20 euro windfall was the main talking point in the early miles of the race. Despite my natural self-interest I felt a bit sorry for whoever lost their funds for a post-race taxi or lunch or beer. (Twenty euro wouldn’t get you all three.)

But there were others in the race who were, quite frankly, acting the eejit and looked set for a worse fate than mere financial loss. If you take part in races you know some of the types – runners taking selfies; runners wearing earphones and weaving across the road while browsing their playlists; runners wearing unsuitable clothing. (I passed one guy in mile 2 who was wearing a short-sleeved smart-casual cotton shirt. Not a t-shirt, but an actual shirt with a collar and buttons. Just ahead of him was a guy in a black, sleeveless, padded body-warmer – on a sunny August morning.)

The busy field, bulked out by these Darwin Award contenders, might explain why the number of spectators was noticeably lower for this year’s race compared to last year’s – perhaps last year’s crowd have joined in. Chesterfield Avenue was lined with parked cars a good 45 minutes before race time, much earlier than for other events, but when we ran down it the second time for miles 5 to 7 there was hardly anyone along the route. (As the second pass down Chesterfield Avenue goes along the footpaths, the lack of pedestrian obstacles was welcome.)

As for my progress, I ran a steady pace for most of the race except for speeding up in mile 3 and slowing down in the last mile when we had just tackled the only climb of the route, a mile-long drag up from the Chapelizod gate to the park. By that latter point I was driving on fumes.

That said, my sub-7-minute mile pace felt comfortably hard, if you know what I mean, for most of the ten-mile trip. Getting to the 9-mile marker right on the hour mark, I knew I could just sail in for a sub-70 PB, and that’s a great feeling. All those threshold runs in Tymon Park had paid off.

This year’s course was a good deal faster than last year’s, though – the Military Road hills were gone, replaced by a brief sortie from the Park to follow the flat Chapelizod Road. The weather was ideal too; sunny but still cool enough for a refreshing breeze and some shade in spots. The unusually disorganised baggage tent and the small number of portaloos were the only black marks for another excellent organisational effort.

Next up for me is the Dublin Half Marathon in September, along much of the same Phoenix Park route as today’s ten-miler. Dublin Marathon training manoevres will continue too, of course.

See you back in the Phoenix Park in September, then – and mind your money.

Posted in 10 mile and 10k, Dublin | Tagged | 2 Comments

10-mile tune-up

Only going up to 10 for the moment (Photo: ocodia via photopin cc)

Only going up to 10 for the moment (Photo: ocodia via photopin cc)

My next race is the Frank Duffy 10 Mile in the Phoenix Park in Dublin this Saturday.

Part of the annual Dublin Race Series that culminates in the Dublin Marathon in October, this ten-miler will be an excellent tune-up for me for longer races to come.

This will be my third time running in this race. My first time was ten years ago, when the race started and finished on the sloping Upper Glen Road – starting downhill and finishing uphill, alas. The run-in (or run-up, even) to the finish was like Dunkirk, with bodies strewn along the roadside and others staggering forward in hope rather than expectation of reaching the line. I finished in a time of 1 hour 17 minutes, or 77 minutes.

Last year’s Frank Duffy 10 Mile was a great day for me. It was my first race after moving back to Ireland, and I turned in a new personal best time of 1:12:30, or 72 and a half minutes. While the finish line had moved to the now-habitual Phoenix Park home straight on the Furze Road, the hills remained – the second half of the race first went up Military Road and the undulating S-bends, before then going to the top of the Upper Glen Road. Anyone who set out too hard in the first 5 miles was sure to have had a suffer-fest in the second 5 miles.

However, this year’s course has lost some of those fearsome hills. Instead of heading up the Military Road after 7 miles, the route now goes out the Islandbridge gate, leaves the Park for a stretch, and then re-enters by the Chapelizod gate. From here there’s a steady climb up the Upper Glen Road for a mile, but it’s a single hill rather than having to go up and down the Military Road and S-bends as well. The last half-mile is flat.

This year’s Dublin Half Marathon in September, the next race in the series, will also skip the Military Road hill and S-bends. Why have the organisers made this change? Perhaps they want these two races to be a bit more PB-friendly and compete favourably with other events – or maybe they want to reduce the strain on runners in the second half of a long race on a potentially warm day. (Those of us who ran last year’s half marathon will remember the sight of an ambulance treating a stricken runner on the Military Road.)

Anyway, if the 2014 Frank Duffy 10 Mile course runs a little easier but still keeps a challenging hill, that’s good news for us all. I’ll be aiming to beat my current PB of 72:30 and go under 70 minutes. Hopefully my marathon training won’t have left me too tired – thankfully this week’s schedule is a bit less intense than in recent weeks.

See you in the Phoenix Park on Saturday morning!

Posted in 10 mile and 10k, Dublin | Tagged | 3 Comments

Dublin Marathon 2014 training – month 2 review

A few more 50+ miles per week to get to Dublin (Photo: John.P. via photopin cc)

A few more 50+ miles per week to get to Dublin (Photo: John.P. via photopin cc)

Two months done in my Dublin Marathon 2014 training, and you’ll be sickened to read that so far everything has gone well.

Using the Pfitzinger and Douglas 18-55 marathon training plan, I’ve gone over 50 miles per week in each of the last two weeks. This is something of a departure for me; after overtraining for the 2011 Dublin Marathon I kept my weekly mileage to a maximum of around 42 miles in subsequent years.

The increase in distance has been incremental as the weeks have gone by, which means that I haven’t run myself into a serious injury. A visit to a physical therapist a couple of weeks ago helped to relieve some minor tightness in the muscles of my left foot which I had initially feared was the onset of plantar fasciitis, but aside from that all parts have been working smoothly. I’m writing at the end of a 54-mile week, and I feel quite fresh in my legs.

Along with more miles, the second phase of the Pf. and D. plan has pushed up the lactate threshold work. Looking back through my training log, I’m heartened to see my progress; four weeks ago I struggled through a session with 4 miles at faster than race pace, but this week I sailed through a similar 6-mile session and felt fine afterwards.

I had started using threshold runs in my training last year, but this year I’ve been more structured about it, thanks to following Pfitzinger and Douglas. If you want to run faster marathons, you need to be doing lactate threshold runs in your training.

Another innovation in this last month of training has been my introduction to the world of Pilates. After years of hearing physios recommend it to me, I finally had the chance to join a local class. Just as I expected, it was bloody hard – two days after my first class, my abdomen still felt like a small child was jumping up and down on it. That said, I really enjoy Pilates so far; it’s satisfying to get a good hard workout in muscles that I never usually exercise. I intend to keep up the Pilates – although I had similar good intentions with the swimming lessons I started in March but let drop recently.

No training plan is impervious to the demands of real life, including holidays. During the last month I spent a long weekend in Copenhagen, and so I took the opportunity of taking a run in the Danish capital. Having chosen my route in advance from looking at a map, I ended up with some great straight miles of tarmac paths through a rather desolate and run-down park called Amagerfaelled which reminded me of the notoriously seedy Bois de Boulogne to the west of Paris. Still, it was a good run.

I haven’t had any races or parkruns in the last month, but as the Dublin Marathon gets nearer I’ll be fitting in some preparatory races. Next Saturday I’ll do the Frank Duffy 10 Mile in the Phoenix Park in Dublin – it’ll be my first race in six weeks, and so I’ll get a better idea of my form and my marathon potential.

The Dublin Marathon definitely feels closer now, but these last two months of training have given me some substantial evidence-based confidence in how I’ll fare on the big day. Before then, though, I have ten more weeks of Pfitzinger and Douglas training to do, and anything could happen!

Posted in Dublin, Marathon, Training | Tagged | 1 Comment

Swimming lessons beached

You might have a point. (Photo: cornfusion via photopin cc)

You might have a point. (Photo: cornfusion via photopin cc)

Since I started learning to swim a few months ago, you’ve probably been waiting for news of my progress and how I’ve been managing to combine swimming, Pilates and marathon training.

I’m afraid I have to disappoint you, though. I’ve given up my swimming lessons – for the time being at least.

My main reason for stopping was that I wasn’t enjoying it. I love running, even when marathon training gets heavy and tiring. And despite finding Pilates tough I still get great pleasure from the feeling of a good hard workout. But swimming lessons always felt like a drag, from day one to day last.

Breathing was my main problem. I just couldn’t turn and lift my head enough to get in a decent breath, and perhaps I wasn’t relaxed enough to breathe in properly anyway – my attempt at a breath would be just a brief gasp that never seemed to suck in any air. This meant that I was always out of breath after just a few minutes of the lesson, and I never recovered.

What’s more, as my pre-marathon-training running increased I started getting cramps in my calf muscles while I was in the pool. My leg muscles are important to me at the best of times, but especially when I’m about to launch myself into a summer of rock-hard marathon training. Another point in the debit column against swimming, then.

Maybe in November, with the Dublin Marathon done, I’ll drift back to the pool. Pilates will cater for my cross-training needs until then, though. Juggling three demanding physical activities has proven to be a bit too much for me right now.

So, be careful when you’re running along a canal or by the sea – if you fall in, don’t count on me to jump in and save you.

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Running in Copenhagen

"Stuck on a rock, surrounded by tourists - and I can only swim, not run. Sigh." (Photo: "Sirinìna Cupenàghen" by Francesca Sara - Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Mermaids can’t run: no fairytale ending there (Photo: Francesca Sara / Wikimedia Commons.)

Hej! I was in Copenhagen for a few days recently – and naturally I made time for a run in the Danish capital.

This was the first visit to Copenhagen, and indeed to Denmark, for my other half and I. We did most of the classic touristy things – a stroll in the picturesque old port of Nyhavn; a boat tour through the inlets and canals; a visit to the Tivoli Gardens (where I took a spin in the rollercoasters); some fantastic local cuisine (including a chocolate and cinnamon pastry called a snegl); a day trip to Malmo in Sweden by train across the Oresund sea bridge (now famous from a Scandinavian detective show called The Bridge).

On the boat trip we passed by the small but strangely popular Little Mermaid statue, one of many examples of the legacy to Copenhagen of Hans Christian Andersen. Indeed, statues of Andersen himself seem to be all around the city – and there’s a quaint little giftshop in his name in his former home of Nyhavn. (You might even meet him sitting outside.)

Speaking of shops, the Lego flagship store in Copenhagen was a little disappointing. Sure, you can buy all the latest Lego sets and fill up with extra pieces at the pick n’ mix wall, but the nostalgic grown-up like me won’t find any Lego paraphernalia like books, t-shirts, pens, mugs or what have you.

But enough of the holiday programme stuff – I had some running to do.

My pre-holiday research suggested that the best running route in Copenhagen was a four-mile loop around the Søerne, a chain of five small lakes in the old city. However, this seemed to involve a lot of street crossings, and I fancied something more open and uninterrupted.

A glance at the map showed me a large park called Amagerfaelled not far from our hotel. So I worked out a 10-mile route to take me there, around and back.

That morning I was awake earlier than expected, so I decided to get up and go for my run at 6 a.m. The streets of Copenhagen were surprisingly busy at that ungodly hour – young people emerging from parties and doing the walk of shame; prostitutes outside the main train station; groups of tourists wandering around in a haze of time-zone confusion. At the Tivoli Gardens, not yet open for the day, I turned right onto Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard, featuring yet another statue of the man himself.

In the clear summer morning the temperature was already up to 20 degrees – I did well to get my run in while the low sun still cast some shade. Also, a welcome breeze came in off the Baltic.

Crossing over the Langebro bridge to the island of Amager, on which the airport is located, I headed out along the Orestads Boulevard, a bleak-looking area of waste ground, isolated tower blocks and a university campus. Where the early-morning centre of Copenhagen was already humming with people, this place was deserted. A van shot through one junction and screeched off with dubious haste. It felt like a dodgy part of town.

The park of Amagerfaelled did nothing to dispel my first impression – its clumps of bushes, shot through with gaps and clearings littered by rubbish and the odd piece of old clothing, reminded me of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, a famously seedy park at night. (One evening while running through it, night fell sooner than I had expected. Even in only a running top and shorts I soon proved to be the most overdressed person in the Bois de Boulogne.)

One gap in the bushes had a kitchen chair beside it, as if a bouncer or ticket-seller would normally be stationed there. I resolved to keep an eye and ear out for anyone I might be disturbing, although the sound of my shoes crunching the gravelly surface of the paths called a bit too much attention to me for my liking. (In the end, I saw and heard nobody.)

Saying all that, Amagerfaelled is an excellent park for running – I followed an almost-straight road for nearly two miles uninterrupted along one side, as the trees and tall bushes shaded me from the sun. Maybe at a more sociable hour it would feel a safer place to run.

For the return journey I left the heart of the park and came back along the main roads and waterfront on the western side of Amager. A large youth hostel lay silent; no doubt all the backpackers had been up partying late last night too. Cyclists began to appear, and even though I had to run on a cycle path to get to the waterfront they didn’t ring their bells at me in polite outrage.

Along the quays I passed behind office buildings and hotels without seeing much life. The view wasn’t great but I caught the breeze and shade quite nicely here. I crossed over at the Brygge Broen bridge and then joined the wide multi-lane Kalvebod Brygge until I came back to Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard again. Then I headed back to the hotel and finished my run.

My Copenhagen run mightn’t have been as scenic or tourist-friendly as my former Paris routes, or those in Rome and London. But it did the job – I kept up my marathon training schedule without having to pick my way through traffic crossings or crowds of sightseers.

Less Hans Christian Andersen and more Grimm, then, but it still ended happily ever after.

Posted in Copenhagen | Tagged , | 4 Comments