October 2013 Archives

I Feel London

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I am in a warehouse in an undisclosed location in Hackney, East London. I am crouched at the edge of a single-lane running track whose surface is covered in AstroTurf. To my left is a second track covered in hay. To my right a third track, this time in dirt. Less than two meters in front of me is crouched the Team GB Olympic sprinter Harry Aikines-Aryeetey. The sound of a wood block being struck echoes through the air as Harry explodes out of the blocks and flies away from me, legs pumping and arms driving in an indescribably graceful unity of form. This is surely what Spalding Grey meant when he spoke about perfect moments. This is not the sort of experience you can buy. Nor is this the sort of experience you can fully appreciate by reading about it. Not even video shot from my point of view would come close to the actual experience. The way the footsteps echo through the cavernous space, yet the grunt of exertion as Harry launched himself into motion seems to hang in the air. The crisp, cold, autumnal feel of the air. The sound of gently cushioned feet slamming into the various track surfaces. My senses are alive in an almost magical way. I feel this moment.

The story of how I came to this time and place is all about running, as so much of my life is these days. If you've seen pictures or video of the event you understand on a visceral level why so many of those present are there. Harry is magic on the track. Shameek is the next generation, he is hope, and grace, and an infectious winning smile. Charlie is our Yoda. Our zen master. Our surrogate father. The man who changes lives while saving himself. He is the inspiration and soul of Run Dem Crew. The others are, for the most part, a glorious collection of youth, energy, creativity, and hope. But who's the balding guy with the stringy long hair and the goofy grin? How do I fit in? There are a lot of answers to this, but for tonight the best one is that he is a guy who has run the streets of London, New York, Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris and more; he's run the hills of Croatia, and the mountains of the French Alps; not to mention the beaches of LA and Turkey; and he's done it all with barely 3mm of rubber between the soles of his feet and whatever surface he is covering. When he talks to you about how a run felt it isn't just about his legs, his arms, his lungs. He will also talk about the rich tapestry of surfaces. The awareness of every rock, the roughness of the bark on a tree root, the feel of a mountain stream. For him running is many things, but tonight he is here because running is always about the feel of what lies under his feet.

Because tonight is a special night put together by Nike to introduce a broader audience to this very tactile aspect of running. And, being Nike, this is something they are doing by introducing their most minimal shoe yet, the Nike Free Hyperfeel. And I, who am not known for buying into the frenzy of the latest shoe, am actually quite excited. I know that the way I run is not for everyone. There is an austerity and a commitment which I thrive on. I have long hoped that my understanding of why Nike doesn't make shoes like those I favour was mirrored by Nike understanding that while I was happy to sport their kit from head to knees, they couldn't have my feet, at least not while I was running. And I must confess I have had my pangs of jealousy when I have seen some of the beautiful pieces of engineering and design Nike has put on the shoes of others in my crew. But tonight is the night that I get to help introduce the world to my way of running, with a little more comfort. Yes, Nike, these are shoes I can run in. And I really hope that a lot more people are going to start experiencing the magic of really feeling what is under their feet. Appreciating the many different textures of concrete in their cities. Gaining a new understanding of cobblestones. Sensing a different aspect of nature on the trails. And beaches. Learning a whole new level of what running feels like.


Blazing Through Berlin

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Berlin Marathon Post-Race.jpg

For runners, there are certain magic numbers which serve as milestones of our progress, and indicators of our place in the pecking order. The truly gifted strive to set a new world record. For the rest of us the markers are generally fixed. But when you hit a certain time, it isn't simply a statement of 'this was my personal best.' It is a stake in the ground. It says 'This is the kind of runner I am now.' My friend, and fellow Run Dem Crew member, Paul Bains achieved such a time last Sunday in Berlin. He ran a sub-3:00 marathon. I mention this because Paul is the sort of guy who always takes the time to do special things for other people. He's helped many people become better runners, and he richly deserves to have his praises sung. Well done Paul!

As long as I am singing the praises of the unselfish behaviour of friends in Berlin, I have some special words to say about Ed Shattock. Ed is one of those guys who seems to be effortlessly fast. When I am running almost as hard as I can on a run, Ed seems to be cruising. This ease is quite inspiring, especially since  Ed is always so encouraging of those of us struggling to keep up with him. Ed also ran Berlin this week. And he could have taken this opportunity to improve on his personal best, which is already sub-3:00. Instead, he was willing to run with me and help me run the best marathon I have run to date. For this I am enormously thankful.

I've been focused on training for Berlin for months, barely taking a break after Mont Blanc. A big emphasis for these past three months has been on speed. Race day in Berlin was my day to find out how far this training has taken me. I went into this race feeling like I should be able to get my time down to 3:30. But that wasn't the goal. The goal was to run a strong race, push myself, get the nutrition right, and finish strong. The strategy was to go out at a slightly ambitious pace, see how long I could maintain that faster pace, and then see how hard I could push myself to not lose too much time as I tired at the end of the race.

I made major changes to my nutrition plans for this race. Most significantly I went with a much easier schedule. There was some sort of nutrition every thirty minutes. A Shot Blok in the bottom half of the hour, a gel at the top. I also changed gel brands, switching to SiS (Science in Sports) Go Gels which have two desirable qualities: you don't need water when you eat them, and they are less sweet than most gels. The original plan was to have fruit instead of Shot Bloks after the first hour, but that switch never happened. This race was the first marathon where I really felt like the nutrition went according to plan.

The start of the race was absolutely shambolic. Ed and I walked from our hotel up to the starting area, dropped off our bags, and felt like we had plenty of time to get to the starting pens and warm up a bit. As we got closer and closer to the pens the crowd we were walking in kept getting denser. We finally reached the turn off to our pen, and the pen for slightly faster people that was next to it. Then things ground to a halt. It looked like it was congestion around the toilets, and we joined others in trying to work our way around to the side. Which resulted in us having to climb over a fence (it turns out that Vibrams are very good for fence climbing!). Then we were next to the pen, but couldn't actually get in! So we ended up climbing a second fence into the faster pen. Which was already emptying as people were starting the race. So much for our warm up. We looked at each other. Shrugged. Headed for the start line.

Berlin Marathon Start.jpg

Berlin has a very dramatic course, especially at the start and finish. You cross the start line, and have a nice straight stretch heading towards an impressive column with a gold angel on top of it. We had near-perfect weather, with a blue sky and cool temperatures. The angel was glinting in the sun as we ran past her, and continued through the Tiergarten. We passed the Trödelmarkt, and continued on out of the park. At this point there was a lot of congestion and it wasn't possible to go at our target pace of 7:30/mile. We commented to each other that it was weird that we were the ones who had jumped into a faster pen, but we were still passing lots of people.

We ran in congestion for the first four or five miles, but were gradually picking up some pace. At one point we reached a gentle rise over a bridge, and all of a sudden we were passing lots of people! It was very funny. People were slowing down as they hit this 'hill!' As we were flying down the small decline on the other side of the bridge we were both laughing. Ed commented that I saw the slope and accelerated. We eventually found some space, then had a decent amount of running room the rest of the way. But we never felt like we were totally in the clear running our own race. It was definitely great to have support along almost the entire route, but this is not a race to run if you don't mind constantly having other runners around you.

We ran quite strongly for the first 25K at which point my battle with pain really got started. I was still able to maintain a decent pace, but was hovering more around 8:00/mile than 7:30. This actally got us to 20 miles in 2:35, which was five minutes behind my target, but still a big step forward. The big problem was that I felt like I was running as fast as I could and still losing time. Ed sensed my struggles. He kept telling me that my pace was fine. He tried to distract me. One of his observations was that if we were only Danish we would be getting a lot more cheers. It was true that the Danish cheering contingent was quite impressive. And then Ed started yelling 'Denmark' whenever we passed a group of Danes, and that did get us cheers. And totally made me laugh.

This was where I made some mistakes. I kept looking at my watch; and thinking about the time; and thinking about how much my legs hurt; and thinking about how far there was still to go. All the things I knew I shouldn't be thinking about. I considered turning my watch around so it was harder to see, and I probably should have done that. I definitely should have been better about checking in with my technique. The best indication of how off I was getting was that I started to get a stitch (which is very rare for me). I was tired, I wasn't keeping my back straight and my shoulders pulled back, I wasn't getting enough oxygen. Ed told me to just focus on breathing, and I was able to breathe through it. And started to get my technique back. And kept fighting to keep my pace where it needed to be. I did take a couple of longish breaks at water stations because I needed to stop running for a bit. But this was not going to be Vienna all over again. The weather was cool. I didn't need that many water stops. I was still strong. So the mistakes I made probably increased my suffering, and cost me some time, but they didn't mess up my race entirely. And my ability to get past these errors is very heartening.

For the reasons I have already gone over, the last ten kilometers were hard. Fortunately we had the second of two cheer points along this stretch. I had been going strong the first time past Cheer Dem Crew (aka Suzanne and Claire), but by the second pass, around 22 miles, I knew I was looking pretty rough. I also knew that as long as I kept running hard this could still be my day. And seeing friendly faces reminded me once again of all of the people who were rooting for me. I knew I hurt. I knew that the harder I pressed now the more it was going to hurt later. I definitely had that gut check moment of asking myself just how badly I wanted this. The answer? Badly enough to keep pushing. Badly enough to respond to the pain by bearing down instead of easing up.

For a while when I had first started slowing down Ed had been running ahead of me, trying to pull me along. And then he had gotten a little further ahead of me. And this is where I really learned the importance of knowing myself, and having a good connection with the person I was running with. I realised that Ed being that far ahead of me was making me feel slower. So I called him back, told him to run with me. And he got it. This will definitely be a lesson I will be carrying into my next race when I will be pacing someone slower than myself (in the same way that Ed was pacing someone a good deal slower than he is).

The final four miles are a bit of a blur. I know that Ed promised me cake. I knew that at some point it would end. The course was flat, it was straight, it was right through the heart of the city. But that straight stretch seemed like it would never end. Then we came through Potsdamer Platz and I knew we were almost home. But we turned left to head north, and left again. No Brandenburg Gate. Now right to go north and left. No Brandenburg Gate. And every kilometer marker seemed to be 1100 metres from the previous one. And right again. And left again. And there was the Brandenburg Gate! And I knew I was short on time. And I knew the finish was some distance past the gate. And I knew that now was the time to finish strong. And I started accelerating. And kept accelerating all the way to the finish line. Crossed the line. Turned off my watch. Looked down. 3:30:23. Euphoria. And I could finally stop running.

And yes, 3:30 for the marathon is indeed another one of those magic numbers.

And there really was cake.

Berlin Cake.jpg

And there's always a bear.

                      Berlin Medal Bear.jpg

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This page is an archive of entries from October 2013 listed from newest to oldest.

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