Ten Feet of Pain by Gary Hobbs

It is long run time. Normally this would be twenty miles but today the plan is to do between sixteen and twenty miles.

OK. I will come clean. Actually there is no plan. I have decided, pretty much at random, that today I will run sixteen to twenty miles and I will do this no slower than one minute a mile over my marathon pace. There is no reason for this pace or distance apart from that it just popped into my brain. I think maybe someone once told me that a long training run should be about a minute slower than marathon pace and it stuck in my head. I have decided to do the first six to ten miles on my own and then finish off with the ten mile Eagles run to Richmond and back. Then I will celebrate with a hot chocolate. At this point, this is pretty straightforward in my head.

Then I wake up and it starts ever so slowly to unravel.

The first thing that happens is my bed turns out to be really really warm and cosy this morning and almost impossible to leave. I finally drag myself out, only to discover that for some reason I can now only move in slow motion.

I do finally make it out of the house clutching two bottles of water, each containing a purple tablet, to replace the fluid and electrolytes my body is about to lose. As it has been snowing, and may snow some more, I have thrown on trail shoes and extra layers.

I run to Ealing Green and leave one of my bottle there, a little proud of my cleverness (remember this later), so I can pick it up at nine, when the Eagles run starts and only have to carry one of my bottles at a time. At this point I realise I no longer have time to do six to ten miles before the Eagles run starts so I decide to start with just the long weekday club run, though I later readjust this and do the short club run instead.

This part of the run is eerily and thrillingly atmospheric. I and a couple of other joggers seem to have the streets pretty much to ourselves. At one point I am even able to run down South Ealing Road in the middle of the road, which lets me avoid the snowy pavements. In a strange way I feel like we joggers are somehow connected to each other by our inexplicable decision to run in near dark down cold, empty, snowy streets. Maybe they feel it too because every time I see a runner we exchange nods of… of what? Smugness? Satisfaction? Pity and desperation?

By nine o’clock I have only managed four miles. More unravelling. I do make it back in time for the start though and we set off.

By the end of the first mile, I have settled in alongside John Kenny and Godfrey who in my experience stand out consistently, even among Eagles, as two of the friendliest and most talkative people to run with.

Then, almost without really realising it, I have settled in on their shoulders. Then, again almost without really realising it, I have settled in about ten feet behind them. Only ten feet but it is a very long ten feet as I find when I try to close the gap. It is like I am running in their slipstream. The ten feet does not drift into eleven feet, but equally it rarely gets shorter. By working very hard I can sometimes reduce that distance to nine feet but that is about it.

The run starts to be about this ten foot gap. Once or twice I manage to put in a prolonged extra effort long enough to catch them up but as soon as I do I lose concentration and slip back to being ten feet behind them. Ten feet. Not nine. Not eleven.

At this point it is pretty much only the promise of sitting in a café with a friend and a hot chocolate afterwards that is keeping me going. The snow is pretty and for the most part the conditions underfoot are good but I would struggle to say I am enjoying this. My legs feel dead apart from my right foot which is starting to hurt. My head is telling me I cannot be bothered with this.

However, we grind out the miles. In some strange way the other two Eagles are pulling me through this. Even if I cannot turn ten feet into nine I refuse to let it turn into eleven. I know how easily eleven feet could become half a mile.

Then, somehow, we are back in Ealing. I get to the finish and even manage to drag myself forwards for another two miles before I get to the café, which turns out to be everything I dreamed of and more. I can say that without a doubt I have earned my hot chocolate.

As we have been running, I have been turning over the reasons why this run has been so difficult, the small decisions I made and how they may have contributed. They include:

·         I am running in trail shoes, which I hate doing on hard surfaces as they do not have enough support.

·         My legs are still tired from the marathon last week.

·         I have been rubbish at hydrating. My clever plan which let me only carry one bottle at a time turned out to have a little flaw in it – namely that I forgot to actually pick it up. As far as I know, there is still a bottle of water and electrolytes on Ealing Green to this day. This means I ran sixteen miles with only one bottle of water.

·         My foot is hurting.

·         It is harder to run in the snowy conditions.

·         I did not get much sleep last night.

·         For the first time in years I am running in long trousers and they are weighing my legs down.

·         I am overheating because I am wearing too many layers.

·         I am just rubbish at running and London is going to be a disaster.

All of these may be true but, equally, maybe they are not. Maybe today is just one of those days.

What I have described here is one small part of the strange process of training for a marathon. If I do cross the finish line in April, in some small way this run will have contributed. What I do not know is if it will have made me faster or slower. I did keep going when I was struggling, doing my minimum distance of sixteen miles and coming in about forty seconds a mile slower than my marathon pace, and that could help my mental strength on the day. On the other hand, I have also created doubt in my mind because if sixteen miles is so difficult how on earth can I do twenty six? Maybe it was too soon after my last marathon and I have failed to give my legs the chance to recover properly and grow stronger and this might affect my training in future. What is more, my foot pain could develop into an injury (though fortunately it goes away in a day or two.)

Marathon training continues to be a mystery to me. As these blogs probably show, I stumble through it doing what feels right to me. On the twenty second of April I will find out if it worked.

26.2 Reasons by Gary Hobbs

I am aware there will be people among you who have never run a marathon. Wise, clever, rational people.

I am not one of you.

In the month and a half since my last blog I have run a couple more, the Olympic Challenge in Gravesend and the Thames Meander. These were two very different marathons. The first one was two weeks after Marrakesh so I still had a bit of tiredness in my legs. It was hilly as well and I knew after five miles that I was a long way off the pace I wanted to do. From five miles it was downhill all the way, though unfortunately not literally. I got slower and slower and only a small recovery in the last few miles stopped me from tipping over into the next hour. The second one was better. This time I had had a month to recover from my last marathon. I splattered my way fairly enthusiastically along the Thames through a thick layer of mud. After the first ten miles I was slightly off the pace I needed for a PB but not much. It could go either way. Unfortunately it went the wrong way and I lost another six minutes before the end of the race but felt reasonably happy. I am left feeling ok with how my training is going at the moment. At lot of marathon running seems to be about pacing myself properly and not fading too much at the end.

So, for whatever reason, I have made a decision that running marathons is going to be part of my life. In case anyone out there is considering doing their first, this blog is going to be about that decision. I will try to answer, with 26.2 reasons, the question, ‘why on earth do I run marathons?’, bearing in my mind that this is just my personal take on it as different people run in different ways and for different reasons.

Reason 1: Running marathons helps me not to set limits for myself. For example, after the Olympic Challenge marathon, I decided to push myself further and ran Harrow Hill 10k the following day. This was one of the stranger experiences of my life because I was lining up at the start with genuinely no idea if I was physically capable of running. I ended up having to run a short distance to start on time and was barely able to raise myself beyond walking pace. As we began, whatever it is that lets me run faster during a race – Adrenaline? Common purpose? Fear of failure? Competitiveness?  - kicked in and I was running. It was pretty much the hilliest road 10k I have done, including a brutal hill at the very start, but I found my rhythm and was only about four or five minutes slower than normal.

Reason 2: I like learning. After every marathon I have learnt something about running marathons. What I am learning at the moment is mostly about the need to recover properly afterwards. Apart from the obvious tiredness and stiffness afterwards, I am noticing a kind of residual tiredness. As I run more marathons I am starting to lose the edge off my speed over shorter distances. I think the answer to this is to start doing intervals and hills but I have not tested this yet.

Reason 3: I do not know when to stop.

Reason 4: It fits into my life. Most of doing a marathon is about all the hours spent doing long training runs. It is a big commitment and only possible if, like me, you have time to fit it in. I am particularly lucky because my partner, who quite frankly inspires me, not only also runs marathons but runs at almost exactly the same speed. She understands the madness that is marathon running.

Reason 5: My body seems to be able to take the strain. I am lucky that I recover pretty quickly after marathons and (so far) they have not caused me to get injured.

Reason 6: I am not alone when I run them. Marathons seems more sociable that other races and I can see a few reasons for this: some of them have a much smaller field than other races; I am now getting to the point where I recognise a few people from other small marathons we have both done so we say hi to each other; some are laps so you are constantly seeing the same few people coming the other way and you can encourage each other, even if you are running at very different speeds; at times I have run 15 miles or more beside another runner, helping each other through the pain, much more time that would be possible during a 10k unless something has gone seriously wrong.

In the Thames Meander, for example, another runner latched on behind me at mile fourteen and we ran together for a while. His presence helped me a lot as it gave me a reason not to slow down. We gave each other a few words of encouragement too, without knowing each other’s names or even having seen each other’s faces, there was some kind of bond between us. Around the twenty mile mark he hared off and left me for dead but I was the steady tortoise and three or four miles later I overtook him. He had gone too fast and was in a bad way. After the race was finished we chatted like comrades in arms and then went our separate ways.

Reason 7: I am alone when I run them. Running a marathon is all about what I have done. What I mean by this is that I can run a shorter race just on general fitness but I can only run a marathon if I have put in the effort and done the training. If I finish a marathon, it is because I have earned it.

Reason 8: Anything can happen. Perhaps because it is a longer mileage, there is more scope for unexpected things to happen. I am pretty consistent with most distances but when it comes to the marathon I have never been able to predict how a race will go.

Reason 9: I hate marathon running. Forcing my body to keep running for that length of time can be horrible. Ok. I know, I know. Some of you might be thinking this does not really count as a reason to run marathons but for me it does. Perhaps I should rephrase it slightly: I hate marathon running but I show myself that I can do it anyway and this gives me a massive sense of achievement.

Reason 10: Because one day I would like to do Ultras.

Reason 11: Because I may just be a bit weird.

Reason 12: I can never take running a marathon for granted. When I start a marathon, part of my feeling of excitement comes because I never know for sure if I will be able to finish. I feel this at every race but more so for a marathon. Marathons always feels special to me in a way that no other race does.

Reason 13: Come on! It’s a marathon! That is so cool. At some level, part of me feels like I am Pheidippides (google it- I did).

Reason 14: I do not mind spending a bit more cash on a race which is good because some marathons can be expensive.

Reason 15: They do marathons abroad too. While admittedly I am no Piers, I have visited Paris, Amsterdam and Marrakesh for the first time by doing marathons. Marathon running is a very good excuse to see new bits of the world.

Reason 16: Because I can. It suits my physical and psychological running style. I like the shorter, faster races too, but I do like digging in for a long races: that process of drifting into a meditative rhythm. I never get bored, even in long training runs, and when I set my mind to something I tend to maintain my focus for a long period of time. If this is true for you, maybe you are a marathon runner too.

Reason 17: Because I couldn’t. For a large part of my life I have been a very very long distance away from being able to run a marathon. I wanted to, and in my mind selected Berlin as my first. Then as the years went by I never got past a half marathon. My running cycle would be this: would train during the summer; run a half marathon or two around September or October; not be able to run anything long when it got cold because of my asthma; lose all my fitness; start again in late spring and repeat. Eventually I resigned myself and accepted I would never run a marathon. Then I broke the cycle and have now managed to transform 13.1 miles of hurt into 26.2 miles of hurt. It is hard to describe what it felt like when I ran my first marathon and when, this year, I got a place in the Berlin Marathon.

Reason 18: The medals.

Reason 19: Running a marathon burns up thousands of calories. I can eat whatever the hell I like afterwards.

Reason 20: The mental challenge is intense. In part this is about digging deeply into mental resources when they are the only thing stopping me from doing the sensible thing and falling down where I stand. It is also about judging how to pace the race: finding the delicate balance of running the first bit at a pace that is neither too slow to ruin my time or too fast to fade badly in the last section and ruin my time that way.

Reason 21: Because of the 100 Marathon Club, which part of me thinks I could join one day. For those of you that have not come across this, it is a running club for people in the UK who have run at least a hundred marathons or ultras. You get a t-shirt.

Reason 22: ‘Shut up Gary and just keep running.’ This is the reason I give myself during a race when my mind is shouting ‘Why are you doing this, why are you doing this’. I have finished every marathon so far so I suppose it kind of works.

Reason 23: The crowds. More than in any race you are beautiful and lifesavers. Thank you in advance mile 23.

Reason 24: The buzz.

Reason 25: The finish line. Reaching it is beautiful.

Reason 26: What happens in marathon running flows over into other areas of my life. When I finish a marathon I am inspired elsewhere because I carry inside me the knowledge what I can do more than I think.

Reason 26.2: In conclusion, above and beyond everything else, the single best reason to run a marathon is…

OK. I have set myself the task of giving 26.2 reasons for running marathons so unfortunately in the middle of that sentence is where I am going to have to stop. Finish it yourself. And, if you do manage to, maybe I will see you somewhere around the 26 mile mark. And we will share the hurting and the massive, massive sense of achievement.

Three Steps Along the Road to London by Gary Hobbs

Step One: Middlesex County Cross Country Championships

Why oh why am I unable to just say no to Kieran? What is this strange power he has over me? After somehow letting him talk me into another cross country I am standing frozen in a bleak field somewhere in Greenford learning more than I ever wanted to know about mud, hypothermia and despair. My lesson in pain starts with me being too cold to screw in my new fifteen millimetre spikes (I learnt from staggering down Parliament Hill last year like a new born deer that when it comes to mud six mil just does not cut it). I am so cold that putting in the spikes becomes a three man job (many thanks to you Jeremy and Nils) and we still manage to drop most of them. Then I try to put on my shoes and realise my fingers are no longer working well enough to untie the laces. Fortunately I am standing next to two very helpful strangers who show their kindness by untying them for me and trying to hide their laughter. Unfortunately it carries on going downhill from here when I start pinning on my number. By now I am shaking so much that I end up pinning it to my own fingers more times than I am willing to admit in public. I wipe off most of the blood and, thankfully, the run itself is pretty straightforward.

 

Step Two: Winter Windsor and Eton Half Marathon

It is snowing. With the benefit of hindsight that could have been a sign.

Today is colder than a Greenford cross country and Trevor Pask and I are off to run around Eton Dorney lake. There was a duathlon before our race so it starts at midday and we can take our time getting there.

When we arrive we find out that after the duathlon there were ambulances packed full of people suffering from hypothermia. Maybe that could have been a sign too. I mean, with the benefit of hindsight of course. If it is, it is too subtle for us and we decide to stay.

Out of courtesy I am not going to say who is in charge of the day (F3 events. Remember the name) but they seem to be a little out of their depth. They (F3 events) are stopping cars coming in and telling everyone the half marathon is being replaced with a 10k as their remaining medical cover is limited. Unfortunately this slows down traffic and causes a long tailback. Runners are unable to get in and the tailback is on one of the roads along which we are meant to be running.

Trevor and I spend the next two hours getting colder and hoping for an announcement that fails to come. To this day I do not know if it was some kind of runners’ grit that stopped us all leaving or just that our feet had literally frozen to the ground.

About a hundred people are still queueing to get their race numbers but the race organisers (F3 events., Did I mention that?) decide to start anyway, setting off later runners in waves. Ready, steady… a few of us set off and are soon running around the lake as the wind freezes our faces and hands mercilessly and slowly turns our eyeballs into ice.

Step Three: Marathon International de Marrakech

I am now in Morocco and I seem to have brought the cold with me. It is warmer than London but still unseasonably cold for Marrakech. The city strikes me as having a very distinctive beauty to it but, as I huddle next to the other runners on the start line, most of what I am going to be seeing for the next few hours is my own feet.

I am not proud of my start. Everyone starts moving and I trot along looking out ahead for the start mat. I see no mat but it slowly dawns on me that the people around me are already going a bit fast and I have the awkward experience of having to ask another runner if we have started yet. It seems we have so I hang my head a little and speed up.

The marathon route is mostly on wide, straight roads that seem to go on forever. After about a mile I hear a ‘hello Ealing’ from behind me and I start chatting to a runner from Kingston on Thames. We fall into step with each other and end up running the next twelve miles together, letting our optimism get the better of us and egging each other on to a pace that is much faster than either of us planned. Steadily, step after step after step, we run smoothly and eat up the distance to the finish. He falls back around the midway stage and I keep my speed up until about the eighteen mile mark.

At this point I look at my watch and see my average pace has dropped by one second a mile. I am not too concerned about this and had planned to pick up my pace around this point anyway: I normally try to push myself a little from about sixteen miles, push harder from twenty miles and then even harder from twenty three.

Thanks to a warning from an extremely helpful member of the crowd I avoid joining the list of runners who have accidentally taking the wrong turning over the years and ending up going along the half marathon route and ending up reaching the finish early.

Left, right, left, right. I push my work rate and that feels alright but when I look at my watch my speed has slightly fallen again. This happens a lot from now on. Left, right, left, right. I keep increasing my effort and I keep getting slower.

We are now running outside the city along almost deserted roads with very few spectators. It is getting hot now. This race does not have the enthusiastic voluntary marshals I am used to seeing at most races. Instead, the route is lined by silent men in uniform – maybe police,  maybe army – standing rigidly to attention. They stare with what I take to be a mixture of indifference and hostility. On the plus side, this does work as great motivation: I feel like they are just looking for an excuse to shoot us and that definitely keeps me going.

At mile twenty four I am starting to cramp and even my fear of imminent death by shooting cannot prevent me stopping to stretch a few times. The next two miles are slow, hard, hot work. Left……………………………………………………………. Right……………………………………………………………. Ouch……………………………………………………………. Stop……………………………………………………………. Stretch……………………………………………………………. Left……………………………………………………………. Etc.

Then I see the finish and the final point two miles are joyful and quick.

I have missed a PB by just under two minutes but I know I will get another chance at my next one in thirteen days’ time.

The aftermath of the race is not particularly smooth. When the results come out I am not on them. Eileen Imrie, showing the same determination and impressive organisation skills she showed to make the Eagles’ stay in Marrakech an enjoyable one, harasses the race director until my result finally gets added.

The marathon was on Sunday and I do not run again until the club run on Wednesday and then parkrun on Saturday, both of which are fine. However, on Sunday I do a 10k in Regent’s Park and it is like the end of Marrakech again: my legs stop listening to my brain. After the race we ditch our plan to run home along the canal and decide that a hot drink is a much better option. On Monday I decide to force myself through eight miles at just under my marathon pace (if I am honest I have no real notion of why I make this decision – I genuinely have very little idea what I am doing when it comes to training for marathons). As I write this, I am in the middle of four days of not running to give my legs a chance for my next one, which is on Saturday.

In this horrible tale of first world problems what I have failed to mention so far is that I bloody love this stuff. I do not know why, but I do. What is more, F3 Events do some lovely races I have really enjoyed. I look forward to my next run and the one after that.

This whole blog does leave me thinking about where I stand for London. What have I learnt from my last marathon? Maybe I started too fast. Maybe I need to start doing track and following a coherent training plan. I have some things to think about now.

 

London Blog 1 by Gary Hobbs

“Gary Hobbs”. It was the Eagles VLM ballot and that was the name that had just been drawn.

When I heard it I took a small pause (sadly, this really happened) to make absolutely sure there was only one Gary Hobbs in the room: it turned out there was and that I really had got a place in the 2018 London Marathon. I was not sure exactly what I felt about this. I was definitely happy. I was grateful to the club and touched by how generous people were with their support and congratulations. Also, well, it is the actual London Marathon.

I was, however, also worried about the task ahead. It feels different running with an Eagles place, as if there is an extra responsibility not to let the club down. However, the task that really worries me at the moment is not running the marathon itself but writing this blog. Ah well. Here goes, I guess.

I know a lot can happen before April but at the moment I am reasonably marathon fit. Only a couple of weeks ago, boosted by having extra free time over the Christmas break, I did my highest ever mileage in seven days. During that week a long, stormy run in Richmond Park pretty much taught me what it is like to run in a swamp (for those of you who have never done it and are curious it is disgusting, annoying and strangely exhilarating). I learnt what it is like to get up at 5:30am on Christmas Day and do an 8 miler including half an hour of hill training up and down Studland Road (for those of you who have never done it and are curious, it is also disgusting, annoying and strangely exhilarating). I managed my second ever track session too (and, yes, for those of you who have never done it and are curious…)

In the last paragraph I wrote that I am reasonably marathon fit at the moment as if that were a casual thing. I only started running marathons last year after a lifetime of expecting I would never run one. This has been part of a massive transformation in my running since the start of 2016 when I was struggling along with the tailrunners on the club runs and has involved knocking a few minutes a mile off all of my running times.

I would like to say there was some sort of plan behind this but, as may well become all too obvious to anyone who reads this, my training is for the most part haphazard and ill thought out. Like when I was a few weeks away from doing a marathon last year, suddenly remembered I had forgotten to run anything longer than 13 miles in the last month and then went out and did 22 miles.

10% rule? What 10% rule?

For London I am considering using an actual plan but I guess time will tell.

Ah but all that is a story for another blog.