Even the best of plans can fail

Here is the story of how a good solid couple of months of training went wasted on race day.
After the Denbies 10 mile race I had just over two months to prepare for the South Downs Way 50 miler. Things were all planned.

I did two more weeks of interval training with some longer runs in the weekends (for a total of 88k and 104k) and then started the tempo runs block. I loved them. I did one solid week of 108k with a nice long run in the snow with Craig in Wimbledon common, then took it easier by skipping two days to do a very tiny tapering before the February race, the Hampton Court Half Marathon.
I wanted to do well and see if I could beat my PB. I had not done any flat half marathons in years, so this was a good occasion.
Things went fine for the first 13k. I kept an average pace around 3:50/3:55 min/km and felt ok, but I could not hold the pace long enough and did the rest of the race just above 4:00 min/km. I finished in 1:24. My target was 1:23, so I was not too far off, but still, I was a bit disappointed. Here is the Strava of the race.

Hampton Court Half Marathon February 2017 by #SussexSportPhotography.com 10:30:19 AM #racephoto

The week after I did a couple of easy days and then resumed the tempo runs sessions. Here is an example if interested. In the weekend I did a longer tempo run session up and down Richmond Park and then went for 30k on the NDW (saying that it was muddy is an understatement), completing a 96k week.

The last week of February I was feeling a strange pain on the soleus and Achilles tendon in the left leg, so I took it a bit easier but still managed to run 33k with Craig which is always fun. And that was the end of the tempo runs block, time to start the Steady State Runs part. Here is an example.

On the 11th of March I ran the Thames Meander Marathon with almost no tapering and with the left leg still a bit sore. I was not sure whether to do it or not as I was afraid to get even more injured but I went anyway. Good thing I did as I enjoyed it a lot. I started slow to see if the left leg would behave, but when I saw all was fine I just kept running at a steady pace actually accelerating quite a bit in the second half.

I suffered in the last 5k and slowed down a bit too much, but overall I am happy with the result: 3:17, which is also my marathon PB. I think I can do better than that, but probably not break 3 hours like I had planned at the beginning of the year.

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At this point there was only one month left before the South Downs Way 50. I really enjoyed the Steady State Runs even if it meant waking up at 4:30 in the morning to be able to run 20k before going to work.

The week after the marathon I ran 127km. On Saturday I killed myself by running 1:30 easy and then do the usual SSR training, for a total of 35k with a massive negative split and then, not tired enough, on Sunday I went on the North Downs way for 26k of pure joy.

The week after I did even more, 138k. Concluded with 40k on the river on Saturday and a killer SSR session on Sunday. You know when Rocky runs up the stairs and knows he is ready? I felt the same. I reached the top of Richmond Hill with many km in the legs and still sprinted up like crazy. I felt invincible, ready for the SDW.
And invincible I was not, sadly.

I started 2 weeks of tapering. First I did an easy 67k week and then disaster struck. I got ill!
The Tuesday of the SDW race week I was in bed with a fever. Months and months of training, rigorous every week, I probably just skipped 2 days, woke up at silly hours, killed myself in the weekends. Did everything right, foam rolled every evening, fixed minor injuries, kept a relatively good diet, I did EVERYTHING right for four months and I end up in bad 3 days before the race?
I was sad, very sad. I hoped it was going to go away quickly and I actually thought it might have been good to sleep for days before the race, but on the Friday I was still feeling like my head was going to explode and my legs were made of rubber. I went to the office to convince myself I was fine, but I was not.

On Friday evening I packed all the race kit with the plan to see how I felt the day after.
I really did not want to miss the SDW50 again. Last year due to the shin splints injury I missed it and lost the chance to do the Centurion 50 mile Grand Slam. So even if I woke up a bit energy-less I went to the race anyway.

The weather was amazing, not a single cloud in the sky. The South Downs are some of the most beautiful hills and when I got to the starting line and sucked all the excitement from the other runners I forgot about being ill and I really looked forward to racing.

After a couple of miles my head cleared and the legs seemed ok, so I decided to race it as I had originally planned, which was quite fast. I reached the first aid station at Botolphs (11 miles in) in just over one hour and a half. Almost 17 minutes faster than planned. Was this worrying me? No, because I am not smart enough.
I reached the second aid station at mile 17 in 30th position. Now only 8 minutes ahead of the race plan. Maybe it was time to get worried as it was clear I could not keep the pace.

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Then things started going horribly wrong. My legs decided it was time to go in flu mode and everything started aching. Even my knees were painful in the downhills. As if that was not enough my stomach felt upside down.
I painfully reached Housedean Farm (26 miles) hoping to find a toilet. When I was told there was none I felt lost.
The South Downs are not like the North Downs. There are no trees or bushes big enough to allow people to hide and do what they do when there are no toilets around! I had 7 more miles to run before I could find a toilet at the next aid station and this is where the worst part of the race started. I could hardly run uphill and I was super slow.

Even after the long toilet break I still felt bad and the long climb after Southease was a long death march. At the top I felt better and actually ran 5k under 5 min/km but when I left Alfriston (mile 41) my stomach was not having it.
Luckily I was joined by Tim, who kindly decided to wait for me and finish the race together. I am sorry I made him do the last 8 miles so slowly, but every time I tried to move faster the stomach made sure I knew I was not in charge of the day.

We finished in 9 hours and 18 minutes. 48 minutes slower than I was aiming for. I was actually convinced I could do it in 8 hours. I have the excuse of the flu but I was really disappointed with my performance. Less than 4 hours to run the first half, more than 5 hours to run the second? Not good!


It was an amazing day, beautiful vistas, plenty of nice people to meet, but not the race I wanted to do. I will have to go back next year and do it right.

Now I need to concentrate in keeping the form and not getting ill for the NDW50 next month. I will not have any excuses there and I will try to race smarter. I always say that!

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North Downs Way Marathon

Last Sunday I went back to the North Downs Way to run the NDW Marathon. The first edition of this race organised by Hermes Running, the same people that organised the Thames Meander I ran in March. I loved the NDW when I first ran on it during the NDW50 and I was keen to get back there.

The day started with pouring rain but by the time I was at the Reigate Golf Club (where the race HQ was) the sun was out and it looked like it had no intention of raining again.
I had to park quite far away from the starting line, but that gave me the chance to get to know a couple of other guys including one I ran the first kms with, which is one of the reasons I like going to races.

After a bit of pre-race briefing by race director David Ross with his cool Western States buckle we were off. Some people in front just disappeared straight away. I had no intention of letting the excitement make me run too fast and I decided to stick to a 5 min/k on flat, run fast downhill and do whatever possible uphill.

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I was feeling quite good. The sun was shining, the woods were thick and the paths were perfectly dry. I did not even feel the first uphill bit. After around 5k we were at the first big downhill, Reigate Hill. I remember doing it uphill during the NDW50 and it was as steep as I remembered it. I decided to go down fast. A lot of small steps and boom I was at the bottom pretty fast feeling like a hero.
I started overtaking some people. I remember hat part as being the bit I liked the most during the NDW50 but doing it the other way round I did not remember it much. I was going to do it again on the way back so I was curious to see if I was going to get some flash back from May.

At the 10th km there was another climb and on top of that I should have gone right and kept at the top of the hill until the famous Box Hill steps. Instead I took the wrong turn and went straight down. I thought I was going fast and instead I was overtaken by two guys (not taking part in the race) that were going at least twice as fast. Amazing speed. My eyes were watering, I could not go faster than that, I was scared of tripping and these two guys went down like missiles. I later discovered they were @TheGingerKenyan and @kendall_danny. At the bottom I found myself with the first lady and we both realised we were in the wrong place. The two guys told us how to get back to the Box Hill steps and off we went. I don’t think we lost much time, but we had to do an extra climb to find ourselves back on Box Hill.

150719213406_HThe downhill on the steps was fun, but my legs were starting to complain a bit. I was happy when I got to the stepping stones.

After crossing the A24 we ran up the asphalt road that I hated doing downhill at the NDW50, the bit through the vineyards. Doing it uphill was not too bad and after 2 more flat kms on top of the hill and through some woods we arrived at the halfway point where we turned around and started running back. I felt quite good. I was 10th (I counted the runners coming back). Stupidly I forgot that the worst part is after the 30th km and the good feelings I have at 21k do not count. Like an idiot I tried to keep my 10th place and ran a couple of kms at 4:30 but then the downhill via the vineyard really killed my legs and I started losing positions. I was happy when I arrived at the stepping stones again and I stopped for the first time at an aid station. I took some extra water and started going up the box hill steps, walking for the first time in the race.
When I arrived at the top I had lost 2 more positions and my legs were broken and still had 15km to go.

The rest of the race was just pure suffering. When I was running I was doing 6 min/km, but when the trail was uphill I had to walk and ended up doing some very slow kms. Cramps were always around the corner and I started eating salt sticks every 20 minutes, I even chewed one and almost puked, disgusting.

At the 37th km I walked up Reigate Hill. It felt like vertical, a lot harder than when I did it at the NDW50 even if I only had 37k in the legs and not 50+. At the top I could not get the legs moving and spent too much time walking and chatting with a guy on a horse. I then shuffled for a bit until I got to the last aid station, 1.6 miles before the end. I probably stopped to drink there for too long and two more runners caught up with me. As it was the end I tried to fight not to lose more positions. One guy stayed behind but the other one, a 60+ veteran, was just too strong. We did some bits at around 4:15 min/k and still as soon as there was a uphill part he was too strong for me.

I finished 22nd in 4 hours and 8 minutes.

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As always I think I should have paced myself better and saved my legs a bit more on the downhill bits. It’s quite a difficult trail, but I really enjoyed the day. I had a couple of kms where I hated myself for being there, but the rest was fantastic. The belly, for the first time in a marathon, have not given me any problem. I stuck to my gels and just water and did not get anything strange form aid station this time.

The medal at the end was also the biggest one I have ever received. Beautiful day on the trails, met some nice people, seen some nice scenery, wasted my legs a bit, all in all: a happy day.

If you are interested here is the Strava upload you can check it out here.

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Another marathon in the bag

Being a race week I took it easy this week and only ran twice before the week end.

On Tuesday I did 10k at 4:32.
On Thursday I did only 8k and tried to keep my heart rate very low, 136BMP average. I ran at 4:41 min/km and I thought that was what I was going to aim for during the marathon on Saturday. Obviously things were not as easy as I planned.

Saturday was a wonderful morning. Cold, but sunny. I went to the start of the Thames Meander Marathon by bicycle. Had my usual menu of snacks, water and banana getting ready for the race. I had a chat with a guy that I had also met at the first Rail To Trail marathon I did in January and then it was time to warm up.

The race was taking place all along the Thames, from Kingston to Putney and back. I know the route very well as I’ve done it many times before. It is all flat and mostly off road. There was not going to be any mud this time, but the terrain is not my favourite as in many places there are a lot of solid ground with rocks sticking out. The first time I ran 25k over that way I had a sort of plantar fasciitis and stopped running for 2 weeks. I have done that route many times since then but I am always a bit afraid.

This time there were no excuses, no unknowns regarding hills or mud. It was just a question of running at the correct pace. I did not. I did stick to my plan of running around 4:40 min/km, but that was not a good plan. Everything went well until the 23rd/24th km. It was the bit in Putney where we had to turn around and come back.

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Unfortunately there was also a boat race that day and the bank of the river and the road was packed with people, cars and boats. To run you had to squeeze between bystanders and rowing boats being loaded on cars. It was a mess. Plus there were also the 40 or so runners ahead of me coming back too. I think those two messy kms really punished my legs and from then on it was a downhill spiral through pain.

I went slower and slower. Tried to drink and eat gels, but nothing helped. I started being overtaken and demorilised. When I got to Richmond I overtook a couple of people that paced themselves even worse than me, but it was a slog. 5:30 was the maximum I could do. The 40th km I basically ran on the spot as I was starting to feel like cramps were coming. Then I looked at the watch and realised I was not going to make it under 3:30 like I hoped and that gave me a  motivation to run a little bit faster, but the damage was done. I got to the finish line really spent. This time I could not even drink or eat anything for the next 30 minutes. My stomach was upside down.

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I ended up running the race with an exact average of 5:00 min/km for a final time of just some seconds above 3:30. Very annoying as last December I did 40k of this route a lot faster, around 4:40 min/km, so I was pretty sure I could be well under 3:30.
It was anyway a good experience. As soon as I finished it I was thinking about the next and then realised the next one is 50 miles!

So now I have a bit more than 2 months to prepare for the North Downs Way 50. I will try and learn to run slower but for longer. I will try and do 2 long runs each week end and as @manuontrail keeps telling me, I have to practice patience!

Trailscape Wendover Trail Marathon

This week was a race week so I had to take it easy until the week end.

Monday I did 10k at 4:31.
Tuesday rested.
Wednesday ran for 9k a 4:48.
Thursday I did 7k at 4:49.
Friday I rested and started worrying about all the things that could go wrong in my legs and feet, but nothing felt wrong.

I felt in a good shape and ready for the Trailscape Wendover marathon.
I prepared my bag with the cold temperature kit as the weather forecasts was predicting temperatures around 1 degree and possible snow fall. Ate lots of pasta and potatos and went to sleep early.
The race was in the Chilterns hills. I knew it was a nice area as I had been there for a long walk a couple of years ago.

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I also knew it was going to be quite a hilly race and as it had rained the days before I was again expecting mud. I was just hoping it would be less terrible than the previous one. I was soon going to discover that there is worst mud than the one experienced before.

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I got there quite early and it was pretty cold. It had snowed a bit during the night and it looked very nice. I went to take my bib and register and then went back in the car to get warm, listen to some inspiring music and get dressed.

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I packed more gels that the last one and this time I tried to run with electrolytes in my water bottle. I ate a banana, a power bar, drank more water, did a quick warm up and then went for the race briefing. As last time everything was very well organised and everyone was friendly.

And then we were off. Around 70 people started running on a nice field that gave the wrong impression that it was not going to be too muddy after all.
Two guys in front just shot off and even I knew there was no point in following them. I stayed a bit behind and after a bit the track started going up hill and we thinned a bit. I think I was fourth when at the 6th kilometre I encountered the first problem. By then I had already realised the mud was going to be a problem but on a long downhill slope that looked more like a small river bed there was also a bit of snow. I gathered too much speed and at the bottom lost control, slipped and fell on the ground. Like an idiot I was worrying about cleaning my gloves (so that I could grab my gels and water without problems later on) and did not notice a small sign and took the wrong turn. I run for 200 meters uphill and then realised there were no signs, I turned around and saw 20 runners going completely the other direction. It took me a lot of effort to catch them all. On a long large uphill track I overtook almost everyone again: error number one.
By the first checkpoint I think I was in the top 7 and I was running with four other guys.

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The next 10 km were a mud fest. Probably the hardest of the whole race, even if on flat ground. It was impossible to run with consistency. We had to jump puddles, change direction, hold on trees not to fall in deeper mud. It was very tiring, the sucking on the shoes was terrible, I tfeared cramps again. At that point I should have slowed down a lot and I should have run by myself instead of trying to stay with those guys. Instead I pushed and pushed and ran with an average of 5:30 even in that mud and uphill. That was error number two.

At the time I did not realise I was doing a mistake and I felt quite good when me and one of the guys arrived at the halfway point. As the race was basically a figure of eight with the start, end and middle race in the same spot we were back at the start at around 22km. A nice lady marshal shouted at us that we were doing great, so well we were 3rd and 4th (someone had retired). In my own sick mind I thought “that’s cool, I feel super good, the worst climb was in the middle, I am close to third, now it is just a race between me and this guy, if it goes badly I will just finish 4th and he will finish 3rd”. I was so wrong. the only correct assumption I had made was about him, he did actually finish 3rd.

We run together for a bit but while chatting we did not notice we had taken the wrong path again. Error number three. We had followed the signs that we were supposed to follow at the end, on the way to the finish line. So back we went and again I killed myself running uphill on the slippery mud to catch all the guys that had overtaken us.
By the 30th km I was dead. There was no gel, no water, no aid station snacks that could help me. I could not run anymore. I walked uphill, shuffled in the mud on the flat and sort of run downhill and people started overtaking me. Then the worst happened, I started having cramps in my belly. Terrible ones, I could not even walk. I started feeling cold. I stopped and put my jacket on and then discovered how low you can feel when wet, tired, cold and alone in the mud. That’s what I love about trail marathons. They make you feel stuff that half marathons don’t do. States of mind that are completely new. I hated it at the time, but I am treasuring those moments now. It’s all experience.

I started counting every step I did running, up to 10. then back to 1, 2, 3… again. If I was not running I was not counting, but then my head started counting by itself and the legs had to follow. I stopped thinking about my legs and my belly, I only wated to count, which made me want to run too.

I made myself run/walk for the next 10km and then saw a sign that said “Last mile”. Yeah, finally, I could not believe it!
I started running fast towards the sign and then boom, the track turned 180 degrees and went up the hill again. I wanted to kill someone.
At the top of the hill I found myself were I went with the other guy by mistake 20km earlier and I knew it was the end. As it was downhill it was a pleasure to let myself go, thinking about the hot tea and cake slice waiting for me at the finish line.

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I finished 14th in 4 hours and 34 minutes. A terrible result, I finished an hour later than the first guy! I hate myself for having wasted so much energy in the first half. I really need to learn that 42km are a lot, there is no point in trying to catch up people ahead, there is time. I have to learn to run my race and when it is hilly and muddy I should not just add 30 seconds to my minutes/km pace, I should add 1 minute and run consistently at that speed.

Anyway it was a blast. I hated and loved it in equal measure and I am already looking forward to the next one (which is flat, so I might again calculate my pace wrong).

The organisation was fantastic and I will definitely take part in some (if not all) of the races they will organise next winter. I would like to thank the organisers and marshals for the wonderful work and Maurizio Crispi for the two photos of me above.

Overall I ran 69km this week. I will now rest a bit the next week.

See you on the trails/roads.

A muddy emotional rollercoaster

What an epic week it has been.

I had to do a bit of tapering before my very first marathon on Saturday so I decided to only run 3 days of the week and not for longer than 10k each time. So Monday I did an easy 10k run and pushed a bit only the last 2k. Tuesday I was meant to go running but instead overslept, but bought a new pair of socks. Wednesday I did 9k to try the socks and then Thursday did another 7.5k easy with the Brooks Cascadia I was going to wear at the race, just to “prepare” them. Disaster struck! My left hip got stuck. It happens sometimes, I just kick in the air a bit and it goes “click” and everything is fine. It did not happen. Thursday afternoon I was limping and crying inside as I saw my race Saturday turning into a disaster or a no show. In the evening I did every possible stretching I could find in Bob Anderson’s book, copied tens of youtube videos to try everything possible to get the hip to click in place. Nothing. Friday I was limping even more. I tried running for the train in the evening and it seemed like running was less painful than walking so I decided to go to the race anyway. I tried to forget all the little niggles, the hip and how scared I was of running my first marathon and prepared everything for the day after and tried to go to bed early.

This was the menu for the day, before, during and after the race:

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I got up at 5, had my usual pre-race breakfast of tea/toasts and made sure my belly was ready. I got into the car and drove to Ashurst, in Kent, even if most of the race was taking place in East Sussex, in the Winnie the Pooh forest.
I got there quite early, registered and waited drinking my water, had a banana and a power bar. The marathon was starting an hour or so earlier than the half marathon and 10k race, so there was not a lot of people around. Around 40 runners or so. After the briefing I hardly had time to get the GPS to lock and we were already running. No time for warm up! So I had no idea if the hip was fine or not, but completely forgot about it.
The very first thing that we all noticed was how much wet the terrain was. Mud everywhere, it was worth going off the beaten track most of the time to find some solid ground. After a couple of kms I was in the group of the top 5 and we ran together for a while. Nice guys, we chatted a bit and I started thinking, well if I do not do anything silly and stay with these guys at this pace the worst I can do is finish 5th (as no one else was behind us close enough to be seen). I kept on telling myself, try to stay behind the first guy, or lead for a bit but always stay with the group.

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But then the silly novice in me made me do the opposite. After the first check point, around the 12th km there was a small climb and I felt good and did not slow down and found myself gaining terrain and I just kept on going. Big mistake. For the next 2 hours I ran alone, I kept on looking behind me and could not see anyone. I could not believe no one was catching up. I felt good at first. It started raining, I got to the steepest climb and power hiked in the mud and started telling myself how cool a guy I was etc. I was talking to myself aloud, like a crazy person. I felt heroic.

Things changed dramatically around the 30th km. I was supposed to get to the third checkpoint (which was the same as the second) but it never seemed to arrive. The trail was always the same mud with some bushes, mud, bushes, mud, bushes. I started to feel like I was lost and was going around in circles. The signs on the side of the track told me I was on course, but maybe I had been there before or was I going back? There were some dog walkers around and I was sure I had seen them before. I started panicking, I could not see anyone behind me either. Finally I got to the third checkpoint and the nice marshal lady there said something like “I was not expecting to see you here so early!” and I thought, well I am kicking ass here and got a bit of a boost. It did not last long. All of a sudden someone caught up with me and overtook me around the thirty-second km. That was a massive blow to my confidence. I ate my final gel and tried to stay with him but I could not, cramps were around the corner. As soon as I tried accelerating my legs stiffened. That was something I was not prepared for. I started seeing all the other runners behind me and all of a sudden I was 8th. I was so upset with myself. How could have I thought that I could just run at that pace all the time in that mud and be faster than all those more experienced guys? And now I still had 8 very hard km to do in the mud and I might lose even more positions. Running half marathons does not prepare you for psychological situations like that. In a way I was happy I had decided to do 3 marathons before the NDW50, I need these kind of lessons. These kicks in the teeth.

Luckily at the last checkpoint they had Jaffa Cakes! That really gave me a boost. I could not eat any more gels but the Jaffa Cakes were miraculous. I started running with a better pace and started catching up with some guys.
Then everything became confused. The half marathoners and 10k runners were finishing their race too and we all mixed. I did not know who I was supposed to try to catch up with or whether I was losing positions or not. I raced with a guy I then discovered was finishing his half marathon. Anyway it helped as I must have overtaken some marathoners too as I got to the end and I was 5th.

What a relief! At least I did not do worse than I had planned before the first check point. I still managed to finish with the 4 people I was running with at the start. I wonder if things would have been different. Probably not as they would have probably had more energy than me anyway at the end. You can see the final results here and how I managed to lose a 5 minutes advantage and finish 5 minutes after the first finisher.

So, I finished in the top 5, in 4:11 on a course I believe was quite tough. Not much ascending, but the mud was really relentless. Even running downhill was hard as it was so slippery. Good experience, next time I will be smarter.

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The race was very well organised. The marshals were super friendly, the atmosphere was good and I cannot wait to taking part in the next race in the series.

Once I got over the fact I made it harder for me from the start and I realised I finally managed to run a marathon (and a trail one) I was very happy. I still am, I am a marathoner now! I’d like to thanks all the friends and family who sent me messages before and after the race. I like to feel people care about my adventure and you are all helpful.

I’ll wait a couple of days and they I’ll start preparing for the next one. More hills work and at least one run over 35km.

See you on the trails (in the mud maybe).