Running from Shadows

My Marathon des Sables . . . and beyond

First race of the year: done

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January has been about getting the muscles, tendons and capillaries engaged again after a long spell off from regular training. Today’s Caythorpe Dash half marathon seemed like a good idea when I entered it just after Christmas, a test of the first month’s “Welcome back!” training plan. I would spend January with 30 miles-plus per week of running and thrice weekly gym schedules to get me fit for this half.

The first four weeks of 2015 haven’t quite turned out as I’d meant though: my maximum week’s running was 14 miles with 2 or 3 gym sessions a week! And when I say 14 miles, I don’t mean a 14 mile run. Toe-ing the start line of the Caythorpe Dash today my longest run since September has been 6.87 miles, the result of a Rory Coleman PowerHour on a treadmill.

But those dreaded PowerHours do the trick: it took my third attempt during January before I could complete the full hour, bathing those around me in a squall of sweat. And they do the trick because of their effect on the heart rate, which doesn’t get a rest as it continuously rises throughout the session to max out at the end: my second January PowerHour attempt just two weeks ago saw me wiped out from overheating after 40 minutes and an average heart rate of 165 beats per minute with a max in the high 170s. The PowerHour I finally completed this week saw that average, for the full hour, at 160 bpm and a max in the low 170s.

Just 5bpm on the average makes an awful lot of difference.

The Caythorpe Dash has been going just a few years now, a tough off-road challenge around the Lincolnshire fields and tracks, and is one of the earliest half marathons in a new year. The object of the race organisers is to raise money for the Caythorpe Playing Fields and on pulling up to race HQ it was pleasing to see the evidence of previous race funds actually having gone where promised: into a still pristine playing field and shiny kids’ playground equipment.

I last ran this in 2013 when 98 runners got round the sticky, wet, freezing cold course. Its popularity increases with, today, its 4th edition seeing 172 starters. With nowhere near as much recent training in the legs as in 2013 my goal was simply to finish a long run at a steady pace. Being off-road, I knew the course was tough and in today’s force-gale freezing winds across flat, unsheltered farmers’ fields, somewhere between 2h20m and 2h30m would do me.

A very civil 11am start saw many start out too fast and it seemed a number just in front of me were taking false security from the smooth, flat road surface leading out of the village to the unknown fields: a mistake. With barely 2 miles of this route on roads, the course would find them out and sure enough I began reeling a few in after about 5 miles.

With my heart rate settling at the 160-165bpm range it felt hard work but manageable, so I just sought to run my own pace and maintain that to the finish.

The course became progressively harder: we all tried huddling close to the field edges in a pointless attempt to reduce the battering from the side and frontal freezing winds, and stepping off the clawing muddy fields at a couple of points onto the course’s few short sections of road revealed the sudden heaviness of mud-covered shoes. I was easily carrying a couple of extra kilos with the added weight of clay and mud, nigh impossible to get off.

At just one such point I could see ahead of me the Farmer’s Hellish Hill. In 2013, when I was on track for sub-2 hours with just 2-3 miles to go, this was what stopped it! It’s not much of a hill really; what makes it a problem is that the path goes straight up the middle of it for around 400 metres, and its a path of the type which is the source of groans amongst off-road runners everywhere: the farmer ploughed much of it in the autumn!


So oi plough oop the feel, roight, jus before Caythorpe Dash, roight, and yer should see ’em! Slippin aroin loike Bambis I tell yer! Absolute hoot. ’tis!

If there’s any leg strength left at this point on the course this is the hill that saps it; everyone walks and kisses goodbye to the race time goal, slipping around like a new-born lamb (or Bambi) in an effort to heave the legs through deep, muddy ridges. This is where my gym schedule’s weighted squats came in use though, power-walking to overtake 3 or 4 struggling here to the next drinks stop.

After which I realised, with just 2 miles or so to go, I felt stronger than I would have thought possible at the start line. So I stepped it up a bit. Bright Red Jacket Man, with whom I’d been swapping places for the last 11 miles, also stepped it up and overtook me at a fair whack: I couldn’t keep up and let him go.

Then it was back on the road for the final section back in to Caythorpe village . . . and there was Bright Red Jacket Man with 0.5 miles to go! I could not resist. I found some energy from somewhere to blast this last section (well, 8m30s a mile pace feels like blasting after schlepping through mud for over 2 hours) and sailed past Bright Red Jacket Man (the look of disbelief!) to finish in 2h15m and feel sick. Just 9 minutes outside of my Caythorpe Dash 2013 time, so I’m quite pleased with that based on the little I’ve trained.

So that’s a gentle introduction January, and one day of February, done. The first of several 2015 marathons is though fast approaching, and the start line of the 140 mile Ancient Khmer Path in Cambodia will appear all too quickly: February will be all about building on January’s soft start, to build up to almost-daily training and make more of an effort to shift the weight that’s piled on since last February!

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