North East Marathon Club Newcastle Race Course Half Marathon, 12th May

North East Marathon Club Newcastle Race Course Half Marathon, 12th May

I ran my first Half Marathon in 2017 at the Great North Run.

Although I really enjoyed the experience deep down I was disappointed with my time of 1hr 20m 28s as I had been targetting more like 77-78 minutes.

Having said that, my training leading up to the race wasn’t as I’d hoped and mileage was low and my shins sore.

So I’d had to nurse my way to the start line and in many ways I should have been pleased with getting round in a respectable time and in one piece.

One of the doubts I’ve always had about my running is whether I have the stamina to support my natural speed and I’ve always been aware that my 10km and HM times aren’t in line performance wise with my PBs over a mile (4:49) and 5k (16:43-16:47).

I’ve also ran a 1km time trial in training in 2:42.

These PBs and training performances give a wide range of equivalent times for a Half Marathon of approx 72-76 minutes.

So part of me wanted a very low key half marathon to treat as a hard long run/threshold effort to move closer in line with these predictions and simply test myself and my current form.

Perhaps I could banish the idea that I have an issue with stamina?

I picked out the Newcastle Race Course half marathon as fitting the bill.

The event is put on by the North East Marathon Club (NEMC). I was aware of these events for some time and had been meaning to attend the Town Moor event as it is very close to where I live.

I entered the race late on Friday night just before the deadline and set about coming up with a decent plan. Unlike a normal race where I would be persuading myself to not wear the Garmin at all, I wanted to set a good progressive pace plan and to get faster each 5k and use my watch as a tool quite religiously, also tracking heart rate – I wanted to get into an effort I knew I could hold strongly.

The below photo shows what I came up with –

I was working with both pace development and heart rate development as mentioned.

The last time I had lactate threshold testing my LTHR was ~175bpm at around 6 minutes per mile on a treadmill. To run a good HM you need to be able to hold at or around LTHR (preferably bubbling just slightly above) for pretty much the whole race.

But the plan was to start conservatively at 6:05 pace and go through 3 miles in approx 1:19.45 HM projection time. Although I felt it was conservative this would still be ahead of my current PB pace of 6:07 and therefore felt about right.

I’d then look to ramp the pace by 5 seconds per mile the next 3 miles (improving the predicted finish time to 1:19.15 after 6 miles) and then down to 5:55 pace miles 7, 8 and 9.

The pace increase would then get more aggresive in the last 4 or so miles. I would be expecting to exceed LTHR from mile 10 onwards (where things would start getting tough) and I’d be looking to be running at my current 10k PB pace (5:36/mile) in the last 2 or so miles. I believed this would feel like all out.

Overall this was the only part of the plan that concerned me a little but on balance the predicted finish time of 1:17.20 seemed about right and a planned 3 minute improvement on my current PB.

But I also had in mind the current Tyne Bridge Harriers club record for the mens 35-39 age bracket of 1:16.04. Indeed, something between 76-77 minutes would be bang in line with recent 5k performances of 16:38-16:43.

Although I knew this was not a licensed event, part of me felt that if I was going strong the TBH 35-39 record was in my range. However, I wouldn’t bust a gut to break it as I want this to be a stepping stone to breaking it at an official event in a reasonable time frame.

So it was against that back drop that I woke to glorious conditions on Sunday morning to get ready for the 9:30 start time. I’d made sure to eat and hydrate fairly well on Saturday and just had a pint of water, half a tuna sandwich and some soreen before setting off on the 10 minute drive to the race course (the handy location being another reason I decided to enter).

I picked up my number and completed a 10 minute warm up. The sun was high and quite strong and part of me wondered whether it might be an unexpected factor. I hadn’t applied or packed any sun screen. The temperatures were still comfortable at around 11-13 degrees C. I comforted myself that I wasn’t doing the full marathon or 50k! Maybe next time!

Things were quite relaxed at the start with the organisers and other competitors. The start of the 3 races were staggered with the HM starting behind the marathon and 50k so I readied myself for some grass running to get by those groups.

The 9:30 start was a little delayed but only 5 minutes or so.

Two male runners shot off and within 30s I was looking down on sub 5:30 pace and I’d lost about 10 metres on them. I immediately reigned my own pace in and just focused on the best way to get through the other races. Once done the two guys still had a similar gap and I just focussed on settling in.

The running felt like jogging but I was still sub 6 minute miling and ahead of the planned 6:05.

I moved into second place and focussed on the back of first place. The first lap was only a partial lap and on the first full lap I was maintaining a 5-10 metre gap on first place.

I could hear that he seemed to be working quite hard already in terms of his breathing and perspiration so I felt I could just keep it very easy/steady knowing that I was feeling good and would naturally go by as he slowed off.

That happened shortly after the start of the second full lap and I got ready for a long and lonely time trial.

It didn’t take that long before the sound of second places breathing had disappeared and I only had runners from the other races and lapped runners to chase down.

The first 3 miles were passed in 5:55, 5:49 and 5:58.

I was enjoying myself.

There is something about a longer race that is starting to appeal. In 5k’s the only option is to try to bury yourself as much as possible but for the HM I felt like I was able for perhaps the first time ever to get in a great rhythm with comfortable breathing. And enjoy it!

The only slight issue was my inability to deal with the water cups at the end of each lap. I had decided I would try to take a few sips per lap and get some over my head to avoid any possible dehydration/over heating. The first attempt I struggled to drink what water was left in the cup after spilling most of it and the next attempt I didn’t even feel like trying to drink. So after the 2nd full lap I didn’t attempt to pick up water again.

Those first few miles, the wrist monitor on my Garmin was telling me that I was operating at below 170bpm but in the third and fourth miles there was a sudden correction to around 178-179bpm. I didn’t let this concern me as the effort felt right and I ticked off miles 4, 5, 6 and 7 in 5:48, 5:47, 5:45 and 5:44 feeling very strong and probably bang on threshold (or just above) at 178bpm. Perhaps a little part of me was starting to think “can I keep this up?” after the 7th mile. I had gone through 10k in 35:59 which, according to Strava, is my 3rd best ever time.

I knew I was significantly ahead of my progression based schedule and part of me started to wonder whether I could avoid now a positive split.

Indeed miles 8, 9 and 10 were slower and I was unable to continue to hold my HR just under 180bpm. It fell off to more like 174-176bpm and the miles in 5:51, 5:50 and 5:53.

Depending on where the mile laps beeped dictated whether I could relax a little or had to dig in just a tad. Any one who has been to Newcastle races will know the finishing straight is a little draggy for the horses and so the last third or so of each lap negotiated this, leading to a slight slowing of pace. It was around these miles I think that a new mile clicked and I was looking down on a lap pace reading of 6:12. It gave me a slight jolt and made me wonder if the wheels would start falling off. But pleasingly I was able to get back on track.

So mile 8, 9 and 10 were definitely the toughest part of the race. Incidentally I passed both 15k and 10 miles in PBs of 54:10 and 58:11 respectively.

But mentally things got easier in the last 5k or so. I recall at the Great North Run having an awful time of the last 3 miles (having gone trhough 10 miles in 60:10ish) due to the draggy incline of John Reid road (those who know will know) but I didn’t have this to contend with this time.

What I did have was the continued monotomy of the course, what was starting to feel like a touch of a headwind (although this was just tiredness and the headwind caused by running >10mph for a prolonged period!) and having to pick my line through lapped runners.

My HR continued to fall off a few beats in those final miles suggesting a slight lack of strength and ability to keep pushing on. Don’t get me wrong, I was increasing the effort and keeping the pace there or thereabouts. But with a bit more strength (and confidence in my ability to finish) it could be possible for me to move more towards 15k or even 10k effort/pace in the last few miles of a half marathon.

As it was miles 11, 12 and 13 were completed in 5:54, 5:50 and 5:54. I was starting to want the finish. As I approached the finish line for what I hoped was the last time the time keepers didn’t seem to be aware I was finishing. As I went over the line I looked at my Garmin which had something like 13.0* miles. So I shouted am I finished or do I need to go to the HM start line!? (which I think was another couple hundred metres away). I didn’t hear a reply so I decided to push on until my Garmin said 13.12 miles to ensure the HM was completed! I’d picked the pace up to 5:40 in the process!

I then turned round to see one of the organisers had chased after me to tell me that I had finished! Not to worry, I felt remarkably fresh for having just run a HM in 1:16:32, knocking a good 4 minutes from my previous best!

We walked back to the finish and I received my trophy, voucher and medal. I was pleased to have finished and to have beaten convincingly both my previous PB and race plan.

It also gives me confidence that I can translate my 5k/10k performances to the longer distance. So I can now focus on improving my 5k time to seek to achieve the TBH club record (low 16mins) for the 35-39 age bracket and then try to convert that to the record 10k and HM as well. And, who knows, I may have a full marathon in me yet!

Thanks for reading.

A tale of two relays…

So almost two months has passed since the Northern 12 stage relays on 24th March.

Since then we had the disappointment of not being able to put out a Tyne Bridge Harriers team in the National 12 stage relays on 6th April. I managed to slightly offset that disappointment by running a parkrun PB at Newcastle on the same day instead. That said, I was gutted when I crossed the line and saw 16:43 as I felt like I’d smashed it, not merely taking off 4 seconds from my previous best!

But if you can’t enjoy a PB, no matter how small, you have to ask yourself why you are on the journey…

Unfortunately in the background was an ear and sinus issue which wasn’t clearing and looking at my training diary I was starting to slip into pushing the pace too hard in training, perhaps an unnecessary panic, overreaching.

This came to a crescendo on Monday 8 April and Tuesday 9. Below are my training diary entries for those days –

8/4/19 10 miles easy @ 6:47/mile (1hr 7m 51s) – felt v. strong

9/4/19 TBH session – Pyramid (1min/2min/4min/6min/4min/2min/1min with half recoveries. 4.88 miles in 30mins (6:09/mile pace)

The TBH session was undoubtedly my best ever session where I found myself running just off the fast lads at the club that night. The pace of the efforts were low 5 minute miling except the 2nd 4 minute effort where fatigue and a slight headwind kicked in.

And yet something didn’t feel right – sore throat and run down. I realised it’s no good running PB sessions, I need PB races and I was starting to feel exhausted and not recovering as well as I had been. The left ear got worse to the point where I was partially deaf come Thursday 11th.

A trip to the walk-in centre revealed a completely blocked ear and tonsilitis.

I took 3 days rest and then continued my over zealous approach to play catch up and try to maintain a minimum of a 40 mile week. So on Sunday 14th April I ran a total of 14.8 miles split am and pm with 6.6 miles in 40 minutes part of that. Again, over zealous and unneccessary.

Things continued in the same vain the following week.

By now I’d had my ear syringed which felt like literally a weight off my shoulders. But I was still over training at least in terms of pace and was forced to take 2 rest days that week. On Saturday 20th I ran 10 miles in 1hr 7mins with two 20 minute segments based on HR, building to just under threshold. Although pace was thereabouts where I would expect (based on my Newcastle parkrun at the start of the month) it felt over taxing for less than LTHR. I put it down to the unseasonal hot temperatures that day (>20 degrees C) and the fact I was still flushing out some kind of an infection.

Coming into the last week or so of April I finally realised something needed to change – I needed to slow down.

The final straw came on Thursday 25th April with an attempted threshold. Although I managed 3.5 miles in 20mins (5:46/mile) pace it felt insanely difficult. Admittedly I’d gone through the first mile far too hard (5:3x) but I was barely hanging onto 6 minute miling in the last 5 mins. And I felt like collapsing in a heap on the ground, not how you should feel after a “comfortably hard” effort. I recalled floating around the same course without a car in the world only a few months earlier, running a 16:3x 5k unplanned.

At this point I was kicking myself and licking my wounds. Why had I ended up in this position when I’d already found the real key to my training in November 2018?

So the entry in my training log on 26th April stated *Bring back Van Aaken! Inspired by Ed Whitlock! If in doubt, slow down! Run to time. Aim is to increase Heart Rate Reserve.

Since that day I’ve been training to heart rate and time, keeping HR below 140bpm where possible. This has led to training paces in the range 7:30-8:45 and a solid 56 mile week coming into early May. To be honest, however, I was still feeling throaty leading up to my next race at the North East Masters Athletics Association (NEMAA) relays on 1st May.

I wasn’t feeling “thirsty” for a race and, making my way on the metro from Newcastle to Jarrow, I felt over tired after a day at work. To be fair I’m yet to feel good before a race. I find it very hard to avoid negative thoughts and the only real way of ensuring fight rather than flight is to just say to myself “just do your best”.

My lack of confidence had led me to turn down the offer of running first leg and with the benefit of hindsight I regretted it as I believe it would have enabled me to run faster as there was a decent race on.

As it was I picked up 2nd leg in a decent position from Paul Turnbull. I was able to pick up two positions in the first half mile but the rest of the race was solo.

Unfortunately the course doesn’t suit me as there are too many sharp 90 degree turns which kill momentum. Looking at my Strava data post race I felt I was able to run well on the long straights but lost too much time on the corners.

Coming into the 2nd lap I felt good and picked up as much as I could. The position in front was too far ahead but I received some welcome support from the TBHers out on the course and finished very strongly.

Pleasingly my time of 10:07 was 16s faster than my outing on the same course for Elswick Harriers in 2016 and 15s quicker than the 10:22 in 2017. So I had to take the positives and to top it off our third leg Justin secured a bronze medal for the team in the 35-44 age group.

But waking up the next day I felt wasted again, with the sore throat flaring up in the afternoon. So another forced rest day whereas I would have expected at least a little recovery run.

The throat persisted on Friday so I kept it very easy with just over 6 mile at 8:30 pace.

Then came Saturday and it will go down in legend for the strangest but most satisfying (and enlightening) day of training I have ever partaken in.

Ideally I wanted to at least repeat my 2hr+ long run of the 27th April, admittedly only covering 16.1 miles in the process. But given I hadn’t felt great the previous two days I put that to one side. As it happened I had a completely free day and night and knew I could rest up with no plans until Sunday lunch time.

Anyone who has read Ernst Van Aakens book will know well the chapter titled “Training for the future” where he envisages the training a young student runner would need to do to run incredible times from 5k (12.45!) through to the marathon (1.55!). It includes multiple outings spread across the day and into the night, and totally around 40km for each day!

Although I didn’t want to repeat that, I did manage the following –

  • Run 1, 9am – 4.2 miles in 36:05
  • Run 2, noon – 5.1 miles in 42:09
  • Run 3, 3pm – 4.7 miles in 36:08
  • Run 4, 7pm – 6.2 miles in 46:30

A total of just over 20 miles for the day and unbelievably I felt remarkably fresh with each run feeling stronger and stronger. I felt bloody good for a change!

I also got out for a 4 mile jog on the Sunday to round off a 57 mile week. I felt like the tide was turning in my favour and thoughts turned to the Gordon Smith 2 mile relay on Wednesday the next week…

On Bank Holiday Monday (6th May) I decided to get some speed into the legs without taxing the cardiovascular system overly. So I completed 4x downhill 800m reps at 2:30, 2:23, 2:23 and 2:26. Felt strong. This was advice taken from Dr Phil Maffetone – it is possible to get some speed work in without killing yourself on the track. Only word of caution is it can bring soreness to the quads if you are not used to running hard downhill. But this session came into play well at the Gordon Smiths in the second mile.

On Tuesday I ran an early 5k slow (8:19 pace) and a PM 5 miles slow (8:00 pace).

I decided against an early morning jog on the day of the race like I had done a week earlier, taking an extra hour in bed instead. Unfortunately the weather was grim all day and showed no signs of improvement, if anything getting worse (wind and rain) as myself and fellow TBHer (and team mate in the B team) Michael Hedley arrived at the course.

Yet again I felt less than tip top and felt pretty cold having not really prepared kit wise for what felt like a wet winter evening. The benefit of racing a bit more often is to get used to feeling a certain way. I am a negative thinker pre race, coming up with every reason available as to why tonight may not go well. But I’ve come to know that when I get on the start line I will be ready.

Running the last third leg it was a little difficult to judge when to get on the start line. I’d ran, for me, a nice long (>20mins) 2.7 mile warm up but it was completed before Michael had even gone off in Leg 1. So I was starting to cool down again quite quickly.

I trotted about a bit bumping into our 2nd leg Vet runner John Hurse and former Jesmond Jogger team mate Scott Armstrong (now running for Heaton Harriers). Finally I decided to get on with it and stripped down to racing gear and made my way over the starting pen.

The atmosphere was quite pensive and I heard utterances of “this is going to hurt”. I even heard Morpeth running legend Jim Alders telling the Morpeth lads “its going to hurt” and to “take the best racing line”.

I was standing in some very good company – as well as about 3 or 4 Morpeth lads, young running sensation Sam Charlton of Wallsend Harriers was limbering up as well as the likes of Zack Wylie (Gosforth) and James Meader (Heaton). I felt the adrenaline starting to build.

It felt like a very long wait, just trying to keep warm as the rain continued.

The TBH A team came in right up there in the mix for medals, then Lewis Timmins of Morpeth set off in front of me and then in came team mate John and I was off. I missed the start button on my watch which was a bit of a distraction but I was quickly into stride and gaining ground on Lewis.

Getting to the first left hander I was right behind Lewis but Sam Charlton had already gone by seemingly running about 30s per mile faster(!) than we were and Zack Wylie was on my shoulder as well. Before long Karl Taylor of Morpeth was also in the group and I tried to just focus on being competitive in this company. It would have been easy to feel somehow unworthy but here I was heading towards halfway and competing well.

Shortly after the mile Lewis had picked up somewhat and had opened up a gap which Zack had filled and Karl Taylor also went in front. I tried not to panic just yet but the pace was picking up up the slight incline. I was glad I knew the course here and so I knew we were close to a prolonged downhill. I cast my mind back to the aforementioned downhill 800s I’d done on Monday and just tried to replicate that feeling of 4:45-4:50 pace downhill. It felt light and attainable on Monday and, although I wasn’t aware of my pace here, I felt pretty strong both in my breathing and in my legs. Could I push on?

A little earlier, just before the brow of the hill, I’d received some much needed support from Michael and Tom Charlton that helped give me some impetus that put me back ahead of Karl Taylor and felt like I could also get back close to Zack and Lewis.

At the bottom of the hill the positions were unchanged and I knew the end was drawing near. I was sitting in 6th with a chance of 5th or 4th but also the continued risk of 7th. Of course it was hurting but I also felt strong (I believe) from the recent focus on easy, aerobic running in training.

There was a sharp left hander to contend with and footing was slippy due to the conditions. The ground into the finish was less than ideal. The four of us were running a similar pace and as I rounded the final corner into the finishing straight I tried to summon a sprint finish.

The crowd was loud here but it took me a while to pick up to top effort. I couldn’t close down on the lads in front and Karl had gotten into full flight a bit sooner. I afforded myself a quick look over my left shoulder and his proximity pushed me to an even greater effort, maintaining 6th place.

I crossed the line in 10:21 which was a 13s improvement on the course from my 2016 run for Elswick Harriers where we finished in second place.

Overall it was great to feel the racing adrenaline again and I think this is the first race I’ve had an opportunity to actually compete with a really good group for a prolonged period (albeit 10mins of running), each of us encouraging the others to keep pushing on.

And it makes me hungry for more race experiences like this…

Thanks for reading.