Thursday, 27 March 2014

The lonely road

Chances are that at some point during the Parish Walk you will find yourself on your own.  Sometimes you feel like you're the only person actually in the race because it is so long since you have seen another person other than your back up crew. 
Whilst competing in the last four or five Parish Walks, I have walked most of the whole distance on each occasion on my own. This wasn't through choice or having a Greta Garbo moment (for younger viewers,  she had the famous line of "I want to be alone." in some film or other) but rather as a result of either losing touch with those who were ahead of me and/or distancing myself from those who were behind me.
I actually like walking on my own in a race. It allows me to 'zone out' and purely focus on the job at hand without any distractions. When racing with a group of people who are all going at the same pace, there is usually quite a bit of banter even though you are all rivals and each wants to out-manoeuvre the others as the race progresses.
If there are other competitors ahead, the challenge is to not let them get further away and to try to close that gap! The further away they are, the more difficult it is to motivate your self to do this. If, on the other hand, you can see your quarry, or you are informed by your back-up crew that someone is 'just around the next corner' (even if that corner is half a mile away), you get a mental lift and try that little bit harder.
A good example of this happened to me in 2007 when, from around the lower Laxey area, I was constantly being informed that Sue Biggart was 'just up ahead' and that I was closing the gap. Sue has a phenomenal record in the Parish Walk: she has 11 finishes, has won the ladies' race on 7 occasions and has a PW pb of 16:23. If I could catch Sue, it would be a major achievement for me. I had long been impressed with the speed and consistency of, not only Sue but Robbie, Sean, Eammon Harkin et al. So to find myself within touching distance of catching one of these icons of the PW was unprecedented.
Bearing in mind it was dark by this point, I couldn't see the red light I was told she had on and I was beginning to doubt that she was actually as close as my crew were telling me she was. Even on the fairly long and straight stretch from the Liverpool Arms public house to the top of Whitebridge, I never saw her red light.
It wasn't until I turned the corner at the Port Jack Chippy and headed down towards Douglas promenade and the finish line that I at last spotted Sue. From Maughold where she was 10 minutes ahead of me, it had taken me 18 miles to catch her up. She was about 250 meters ahead but now that I could see her, and the fact that the finishing line was about 1½ miles away, I sped up, mentally buoyed by eventually catching her up and the closeness of that finishing line. I passed her on the promenade more or less opposite the Queens pub and crossed the line for my 3rd Parish Walk finish in 6th place which I was over the moon about. I couldn't smile wide enough!

If you are not chasing someone who's ahead of you, it is likely that you are the one being chased by those behind you.
Walking at the head of a race is essentially the polar opposite of trying to catch someone up. It doesn't matter how much of a lead you have, it never seems enough. The mind will work with the same information in different ways depending whether you are chasing or being chased. So, for example, if you are ahead of the next person by 10 minutes, those ten minutes seem very fragile when you start feeling tired and, mentally you can see the seconds and minutes crumbling away as the chaser hunts you down. In reality though, it will be your mind playing tricks on you and the gap will be more or less the same unless you really are struggling. 
Conversely, if you are chasing someone with a ten minute lead, you will feel like it is a huge gap which is insurmountable and it just won't get any smaller even though you are trying your hardest. In your mind, the gap must be getting bigger, Again, your mind is doing you no favours.
Whether you are leading or chasing, there is the constant concern that you are tiring (which, of course you are) and that you feel you are perceptibly slowing down as a result: you can start to feel as though you are walking in treacle. In one's own mind, the fact that everyone else is also tiring doesn't register and you then start to become anxious that you are being caught and that the 10 minute gap (or whatever it may be) between you and the next person is getting smaller and smaller (or larger and larger, depending on the situation).
Because (I remember my English teacher saying "never start a sentence with 'Because....'" It isn't proper England, or something. The word 'get' or any of its derivatives was another word which got him excited and resulted in furious scribblings with a red pen usually ending with an encircled SEE ME!!) you can't see the wider picture due to mental and physical fatigue, it is easy to become disillusioned and to panic mentally as your mind races away with every scenario except a happy ending. Unfortunately, this is a normal feeling within an endurance event and is one of the natural lows experienced in racing. Luckily, there are highs too so they tend to balance out however, the lows are much harder to deal with.
As you keep pushing yourself, just remind yourself that:
  • everyone else is tired too, not just you,
  • you aren't slowing down as much as you suspect,
  • the others will be slowing too,
  • everyone else will be in pain and discomfort as well as you,
  • everyone is experiencing the same weather,
  • and so on...
You will come out the other side and feel miles better.
When walking on your own, your mind starts to wander and you think about everything and nothing at the same time. As mentioned at the start of this post, I have spent a lot of PW time on my own so I have had a lot of time to contemplate. 
Ed Oldham from Manx Radio asked me once what it was that I thought about as I tramped around the Parish route on my own. This question really threw me as I had absolutely no idea what the answer was. Other than thinking about feeling low and being in pain and discomfort or conversely, feeling good and digging in, I honestly couldn't give him an answer. I think we all just sit in the moment and don't look backwards or forwards: it is all happening in the here and now as you meander through the Manx countryside and you don't really think of anything at all. That is certainly true for me.

Training with the usual suspects on the other hand, is a veritable smorgasbord of conversations, topics and musings. Mostly we chat about football, tv (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Walking Dead at the mo.), bodily functions,  and other mundane, everyday things.
Now and again though, the conversation will swing way off the usual beaten path and we'll end up on some bizarre topic or other. Vinny is usually to blame for these curve balls with some memorable and on occasion, hilarious comments, most of which can't be put in the public domain.
Some of the more recent conversational gold nominees have included:
  • a free bikini fitting service,
  • lycra standards,
  • collecting bull semen (don't ask),
and my current personal favourite,
  • assisting someone in a diabetic coma with nothing but a Mars bar....
Pretty diverse, I think you'll agree.
It makes me look forward to going training no-end as you just don't know what you're going to get!

Sunday, 16 March 2014

50, 50, sub 50

Today saw Manx Harriers host the Manx 10k Racewalking Championships at the NSC. This is an annual event and is open to anyone. I think the title of 'Championships' deters quite a few would-be entrants from participating which is a shame as it isn't a race for only the 'elite' walkers as the name might suggest: it is for anyone who wishes to have a go. The same can be said of the Ascot Hotel sponsored Manx Open which was held last weekend. When I first started walking and competing in short races, I didn't do either of these events simply because I thought I wasn't good enough and I would end up being embarrassed and finishing well after everyone else had had a cup of tea and gone home.
I soon realised however that this wasn't the case: the walking community on the Isle of Man are an extremely supportive bunch and will encourage everyone regardless of ability or experience. No-one is pre-judged and the whole atmosphere at a meet is one of relaxed anticipation.
And so, today the field was a bit thin on the ground with perhaps 20 people starting the 10k. By comparison, there will be in the region of 50 in the Winter League.
As I usually go out for a long training walk on Saturday mornings, I had planned to do the 10k today but really to use it as a 'recovery' walk rather than as a race proper. As it transpired though, I was out on Friday night with colleagues from work and sampled various beers in many Douglas pubs. It was a good night, so I have been told.
The following morning I was still somewhat worse for wear and, in a moment of clarity, sent a text to the lads informing them that I was going to give the 22 mile round trip to Glen Roy/Laxey a miss in favour of feeling sorry for myself. I was rough all day, however this morning, I felt miles better and turned up at the race feeling not too bad at all.

The NSC perimeter road is more or less exactly 800m (½ mile) which makes it very easy to judge ones own race. So, for example, if you are doing steady 4:30 min laps (9 min miles), you will finish 10k (which is 12.5 laps of this course) in 56:15.

As we set off, I tucked in behind Adam Cowin and Alex Eaton who are both young (compared to me, anyway), talented walkers who have regularly clocked under 50 minutes for 10k. I knew that they would be pushing on at a fast pace but I was surprised to see the first lap go by at 3:45 and the second one  at 3:52. This was way faster than I had intended to go or indeed felt capable of sustaining for the full distance. My aim was to try to maintain 4 minute laps which would result in a 50 minute 10k time. My Personal Best time was 49:51 so I worked on the assumption that if I maintained 4 minute laps for the first, say eight laps, I could try and push slightly quicker for the final 4½ and with a bit of luck, get a new pb.
[Me (142), Adam Cowin (81) and race winner Alex Eaton (147) on lap 3 (photo Murray Lambden)]
After two more sub 4 minute laps, I started to fall behind as Adam and Alex maintained their blistering pace. I was happy though as I could keep a close eye on my time every 200m: 4 min laps = 200m every minute (the NSC perimeter road is marked every 100m) and I was maintaining 4 minute laps fairly comfortably.
On lap 5, I started to doubt whether I could keep this pace going for another 7. This is a normal feeling when you are pushing yourself and are beginning to deplete the stored reserves of energy. It is at this point that mental strength comes into play. Without mental strength and a willingness to succeed, it is very easy to give in and either slow down (because it doesn't hurt and you will be more comfortable) or quit altogether. For those wishing to achieve their target, neither is an option.
After having a drink though (non-alcoholic for a change), by lap 8 I began to feel much better and pushed on, claiming back the 15 or so seconds I had dropped in the previous three laps.
At the start of lap nine, I realised that I was in with a very good chance of attaining a new pb of approximately 20 seconds, barring disasters, and made a conscious effort to up my pace and go for it. Although I felt like I was really pushing on, my watch told me that I was perhaps six seconds per lap up on my four minute lap target. My final lap was 3:46 - which was almost identical to lap 1 but it felt infinitely harder to achieve.
PB's don't come around too often for me so having pushed and pushed, sweated Friday's alcohol out of my system and panted like an old donkey for most of the race, I was really thrilled to finish in 49:08 - a pb by 43 seconds. It doesn't matter how many races you do nor how experienced you become, it never gets any easier! The opposite is actually true but don't be put off by that comment: the fitter you get and the faster you go, the more you push yourself and try to achieve your next target, whatever that may be.
Alex won the race with a new pb, Adam was second whilst I came in a very happy third.

Performance of the day should probably go to Tom Partington, one of the island's most promising juniors who, at the age of 14 (I think) did a sub 55 minutes on his first attempt at this distance. Brilliant walking by Tom who has really come to the fore in the last year or so. A bright future beckons. I blame his parents! (For those who don't know, mum, Cal 10k pb 46:26 and dad, Steve 10k pb 40:40 Bodes well for Tom, I think you'll agree!)

So, going out and getting slaughtered on Friday paid dividends today. Every cloud and all that.
Not a strategy I would recommend, but worth a look.
Since I started competing in 10k events in 2004, I have kept all of my times in a spread sheet. Somewhat anal I know, but useful for posterity. It was when I was entering today's time, I realised that, by a sheer coincidence, this was my 50th 10k race.
I managed a sub 50 minute pb and I turned 50 a couple of weeks ago.
Happy days.

Saturday, 1 March 2014


OK, we're well into February now and training and mileage is starting to ramp up somewhat. Every year in February when the nights become a bit longer, an unconscious realisation kicks in that its only so many weeks until the Parish Walk.
For some, this is a complete kick up the back side as they haven't even donned a pair of trainers up to this point. (A)
For others, it's a realisation that the PW is only so many weeks away and they have only walked 57 miles in four months and mild panic will ensue. (B)
For yet others, it's a realisation that the PW is only so many weeks away even though they are doing perhaps 30 - 50 miles a week and OMG, OMG, OMG............! (C)
Now is not the time to panic. That will come all too easily in June regardless of which category (A - C) you are most comfortable with.
For those falling to bracket (A), well, what can I say? If you are only heading for Peel, fair enough; you'll be fine as long as you start to get out soon and slowly build up the miles. For those looking to finish, especially for the first time, you may have left it too late. I say "may" as there are exceptions to every rule but those are few and far between. Possibly the best example of this rule would be David Collister who does no training whatsoever but regardless has 30 consecutive PW finishes to his name.
However, for the average 'man/woman in the street', training to enable you to achieve a sporting challenge is essential. Natural ability, enthusiasm and luck will only get you so far.
For those in (B), it's not the end of the world. You have obviously intended to do a bit of preparation and got distracted at some point, probably four months ago due to the fact the focus of your training was "half a year away". A natural feeling and one with which I am familiar. You need to start training in earnest now as it not too late to get some useful training under your belt in order to finish this gruelling event. As a rule of thumb, by the time clocks go forward in spring, its too late for a serious attempt at finishing but between now and then, there are a few weeks in which you must really make a start to enable you to make a serious effort at doing well and achieving your goal.
Let's face it; it's not a surprise. The event has always been staged on the weekend nearest the longest day of the year, which is June 21st.
Option (C). This is those not falling into (A) or (B) and is perfectly natural! You are not alone as I have felt this same feeling year after year and I'm sure Vinny, Rich, Michael, Robbie etc. do too. This is simply a natural fear of failure and of being undone by under training, over confidence and apathy.
As I see it, if you have prepared mentally, trained over the preceding months, have a good back up crew, spare clothing and food and drinks that work for you, then you will achieve your goal regardless of what that goal is.

Thursday 20th
Pyramids aka "Such fun"
Meeting at the NSC, Rich, Vin, Dave Walker, Brian Wade, and I kicked off a pyramid session.
This is a really fun way to absolutely knacker yourself within an hour or so but, oddly, feel absolutely brilliant about it afterwards! You feel you have achieved something although you have gone nowhere.
The idea is to do a specific distance (100m, 200m 300m, 400m etc.) at your own race pace or just under race pace (with 100m recovery in between) and to progressively increase the distances as the session goes on. So, doing 2 x 100m, 2 x 200m etc. up to 500m and then all the way back down to 100. This gives the body a great work out and gives the lungs (and mental focus) a chance to recover between reps.
At the end, you feel like you have had a good work out even though you have only travelled about 7km!
Can recommend

Thursday 20th (part 2)
Yoga aka "Pain"
For the past few weeks, I have been having a go at yoga in an attempt to make me more supple. I would like to be more bendy but age and apathy are probably against me in the 'touch your own toes' challenge which, for some, is easy.
One of the routines is to bend forwards with straight back and legs and place your hands on the floor. Although I can see the floor, I haven't been able to touch it in this manner in oodles of years.
I am getting closer though as the weeks progress.
As one stretches the muscles in a particular way and to then hold that particular pose for a period of time, it becomes strenuous, which is probably the whole ethos. Practice makes perfect and all that.
I will not give up and the inevitable "muscle wobble" kicks in as the strain becomes intense.
Next to me was Dale Farquhar. At one particularly intense stretchy/bendy moment in which I was in some distress but persevering, he observed and thoughtfully informed me that I "was shaking like a shi**ing dog". Whilst this was probably an accurate analogy, I had never heard it before and lost any mental focus I had and promptly fell over. From that point on, every time I thought of the comment, or started wobbling, I smiled and lost focus again.

Saturday 22nd
A planned 22 mile excursion from the NSC via Baldwin through Druidale to the 'sheep pens' at top of the hill (which drops down to Ballaugh) and back. A great route as it (oddly) is mostly  uphill. The section from the 'first cattle grid' after Injebreck reservoir to the 'second cattle grid' (half a mile further on) is particularly hideous because it is as steep as a very steep thing on a particularly steep day and even when you get to the second cattle grid, there's a bit more "up-age" to go before reaching the summit (of whatever that hill is called) and descending to Brandywell.
From Brandywell to The 'pens' is, perhaps an undulating 4 miles.
Coming back  to Douglas on the reverse route from the sheep pens, it is another 11 miles which are (oddly) mostly uphill!
Somewhere on this island, there must be a 'mainly downhill' route which I have yet to find. On occasion (for 'occasion' read 'usually') regardless of which direction you are walking in, the wind always seems to be in your face therefore, by analogy, there will always be hills to climb. regardless of where you are heading. Which whilst useful as a training medium, can be tiring.

Saturday 22nd (part 2)
Unbeknownst (<-- word check was happy with this!!) to me, my wife of almost 25 years had arranged a fancy dress party for my 50th birthday. Being gullible, I had no suspicions whatsoever, even though I was dressed as John Lennon in a fetching green Sergeant Pepper outfit (as one does). I had been lured to the Ascot Hotel under false pretences being led to believe it was a party for a colleague of my wife's.
Needless to say, I was totally stunned by the surprise and also by the number of people who were there. I had a great night and I really enjoyed it, apparently.
There were a lot of hippies on show and everyone there had made a great effort.
Sunday was a blur.