19 days to go…..

…..until the Great North Run! I’m dedicating this post to that very occasion therefore. It’s after all the occasion in terms of any event I have ever done, or ever will do, that means the most to me. It is the first time since 2019 (and because of the pandemic) that arguably the North East’s very greatest asset and occasion will be winding its way on its full route to the seaside.

So I’ll explain here as to why it is so very special….

Can’t wait to be here – “Sea” you in September!

Well firstly (although I should say that this is in no particular order) it is the World’s biggest half marathon. Each year (and this one certainly no exception) some 60,000 eager runners take on the 13.1 miles from Newcastle to South Shields. And that’s good for me because I love the buzz. Moreover, although it is impossible to count, spectator numbers that line the route are estimated between 1/4 to 1/2 a million people, which is simply incredible. There is nothing to beat the excitement from start to finish, and it is something that I absolutely love.

Secondly it is a veritable homecoming for me. I grew up and went to school in South Shields, and although I left home now some 40 years ago now (that’s a very scary thought in itself!) – it is a true pilgrimage of the purest order. My parents still lived there until they died (My Dad the last, 8 years ago, more of that below) and so I went to see family and good friends several times a year and have done my whole life.

Then the route of the GNR itself almost follows a storyboard of my early life. It begins very close (within about 400m in fact) to where I finished my schooling, in Jesmond, Newcastle. Then goes through Gateshead and Felling, where my Dad took me to learn to swim. Then it is on to Hebburn, formerly home of one set of my grandparents, and where my Mam and Dad met. Then it is Jarrow, where I was born, and home to my other set of grandparents. And then onto South Shields itself, which was my home and where my heart still beats the most vibrantly. It literally finishes just off the beach where I would spend as much time as I could as a kid.

An overview of the route to the seaside…

The most emotional thing about the Great North Run though is that it literally passes the top of the road where I was brought up, Mitford Road. The Great North Run has been on TV since its inception (over 40 years now), and every year wherever I happened to be, my Dad would phone me up on the day of the race. He’d tell me he was going to stand on the corner of the road by the roundabout, and ‘wave at the camera’. I’d never see him of course, but did always have a look. It excited him a lot, and like so many people (and also being a former sportsman and runner himself) loved everything that it brought to the North East.

After my Dad died, and in subsequent Great North Runs which I have taken part in, I can’t help my eyes wandering to the crowds at the roundabout at the corner when I run past. I know that my Dad is there somewhere, waving at me and cheering me on.

And finally, The Great North Run is just massive for the North East. It is a weekend long party, bringing money to the hoteliers, pubs and restaurants. It also brings the Red Arrows, and a massive amount of money in donations to charities (second annually only to the London marathon I believe in terms of sponsorship monies raised). I could go on (and should, so I will) to say that this year alone we have none other than Kenenisa Bekele, Joseph Cheptegai, Selemon Barega and Jacob Kiplimo taking part. Kiplimo is the world record holder and the other three have run four of the fastest half marathons in history. That’s all a tribute to Sir Brendan Foster, champion and founder of the event, and my boyhood (and indeed adulthood) hero.

And so onto the running then, well last week I did 55.1 miles. And all thankfully passed without incident. I have to say though that it is all really hard work both mentally and physically, and I wish I hadn’t taken on such an intensive training programme now. But I’m at week 14 of 18, and am not going to stop or slow down now – plus if things like the Great North Run don’t inspire me, or indeed the thought of being in Berlin (despite BA this week cancelling my flight, more of that next time), then nothing will.

My running progression for the last 12 weeks – 55 for the week just ended!

And so finally, to end where I started (and if you thought I’d finished waxing on about the Great North Run then you’ll be disappointed, because I never will!) – my final thoughts on the GNR are this: It brings people like me home, and families together, and hope, excitement and entertainment to so many. I’ll be there every year as long as my legs will carry me. Long may that last!

Can you hear my heartbeat…..

So I said in my last blog post that I’d talk about running shoes and also heart rate next time around, and here we are. The reason for raising both is that I really hadn’t realised that they are related – oh yes! Let me explain….

Well firstly I’ve always suffered from a pretty high heart rate, under anything less than resting conditions. Tachycardia I think is the medical name. It doesn’t take even the slightest bit of angst and my heart can pound almost out of control. It gets bad when running too – if I look at any of my previous half marathon attempts, or a hard run of any significant distance (in fact even a Park Run) and my heart can average 180bpm. 

That’s not good really. And especially when the formula of ‘don’t let your heart rate go above ‘210-your age’ would have my max heart rate at 152! I have had alerts before when doing a run to say my heart rate is up at nearly 190, which is actually pretty terrifying. So the very interesting thing when doing a prolonged bout of training for a run like a marathon is the effect on your heart rate, and also shoes matter here too, and here’s what I understand of it, scientifically, as it were:

So basically our bodies have a ‘fight or flight’ reaction in many situations – it is what is called the sympathetic nervous system, something I find fascinating. An(y) increase in intensity basically produces an adrenaline surge, which means blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate all increase.

Over time however, like a period of sustained training (which I am very much in, obviously), your body adapts to it, which decreases the burden on your cardiovascular system. As your muscles, and your heart, get stronger, they do a better job of extracting oxygen from your blood, so your heart itself doesn’t need to pump as fast to drive blood around the system. It’s all about the oxygen in the blood, which is why the key measure of fitness for example is called Vo2 max. This is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise, and the higher the measure the fitter you are basically. 

So this all manifests itself in various ways – your heart rate gets lower for the same amount of strain (or length of run at the same pace), and also the spikes get lower too, as your heart doesn’t react so badly to that fight or flight thing. There is a key to the running too though – in that the majority of it needs to be done aerobically, at a slow and easy pace. If you did lots of running but just thrashed yourself every time then you wouldn’t improve, in short. That’s how I understand it anyway – and if anyone realises that I’ve got this all wrong then please let me know!!

And the tie in with shoes is very interesting too. So again as I understand it, the more your shoes have the likes of ‘rebound foam’, or as is the case with some shoes a carbon plate, then the less energy you need to expend for a given pace or intensity. The shoes are basically helping return some of the energy expended as downforce and basically not letting you waste it by letting you have it back. It’s a bit like being on a trampoline. This also means that for a longer distance you get less tired, and your heart has to work less. Now the differences aren’t staggering – maybe about 3 or 4bpm according to the advertising materials for the Nike Vaporfly Next% or the Alphafly, but every little helps as far as I’m concerned.

For me (and I have both of the above pairs) I think I do actually notice the difference, particularly over longer distances. In my only marathon, where I wore the Vaporfly Next%, I did my fastest mile in the last mile for example. Now adrenaline and excitement I am sure played most of the part in that, but the fact that I had enough left in my legs to do it was the main thing for me. I’ve bought a pair of Alphafly for Berlin – after all if they work for Eliud Kipchoge then who am I to say otherwise? So far I’ve taken them out on just two (slowish) runs, and the jury is still out overall as to how I like them compared to the Vaporfly (they feel a bit heavier and ‘flappier/noisier’ to me so far). I’ll keep going with them on the faster training runs and decide nearer the time whether they get the vote.

Alphafly or Vaporfly Next% – what’s a boy to wear?

And so here we are then at the end of week 12 (of 18). This week was 47 miles, a slight reduction on last week thankfully, but it was still very hard work as it has been brutally hot here – not a phrase normally heard in the Lake District! At the end of week 12 I’ve done just over 400 miles on the programme so far, and it feels every inch of it. I have four weeks of hard training to go, harder than I’ve done yet, and then two weeks of tapering towards Berlin. Having said that, both of the last two weeks are around 50 miles too, albeit at less intensity. One of those weeks includes the Great North Run, which I will be itching to run ‘properly’, but I know I can’t/shouldn’t, as it’ll take too much out of me. I’ll enjoy it nonetheless (and that’s an understatement of all time) – and I’ll talk more about the anticipation of that next time.

Oh and I’m also dreaming a bit of being in the Himalayas in the autumn (in fact I’m just dreaming of not having to run anywhere at all!). Everest Base Camp of course. That needs a lot more thought and planning too, but where there’s a will there’s a way…..

Countdown to Berlin – 42 days. Countdown to the Great North (training) Run – 28 days. Come on!!!!

The road to Berlin goes on, and on……

A long time ago, I went skiing to Andorra. I remember it quite vividly. It was all cheap bars and cheap food, lively music, and short but fairly decent ski runs. It had the sort of ski runs that if it is your first ever ski holiday they would be almost overwhelming, but if you’ve been on two or three you would avoid as being not worth the effort of getting back on the ski lift so quickly again. The reason I mention all of this is that there was a guy on the holiday who I used to work with, and let’s call him Simon (because that was actually his name). 

It was Simon’s first ever ski holiday (first time on skis full stop in fact), and despite suggestions and indeed firm instruction from those around him to book into ski school, he refused. “I’ll be alright” he said, and took the gondola up with the rest of us and decided to just ‘wing it’ back down somehow. Being of a nervous disposition, and frankly not wanting to see him hurt himself or worse, I stayed well out of the way. His closest friend Steve, who could ski well, chaperoned him to the point where he was stood, somewhat Bambi-like at first, with skis pointed vaguely at the direction of the slopes. 

“Which way do I go” was all Simon wanted to know. With a bit of a directional steer from Steve, all of a sudden Simon was off, hurtling downhill, all arms and legs, and the biggest grin on his face I’d ever seen. He crashed of course, albeit into a bit of a bank of soft snow, but got up, dusted himself down, and off he hurtled again. He hadn’t a care in the world. By the end of the week he was skiing runs that I was unsure about even for myself, and I think this was my tenth time skiing. I think that it has been said before that skiing is about 20% ability and 80% confidence – well in Simon’s case it was more like 5% of one and 95% of the other. Go Simon!

And onto the running then. Last week was the biggest week so far – 54 miles on the schedule in six runs, culminating in a 16 miler on the Sunday. That would be the longest run I had done since running the TCS New York Marathon in 2019. It’s fair to say there was a degree of trepidation on my part, not just because my last two long runs had ended slightly short. The first, a 10 miler, I stopped after 9. It was too hot. The second, a 15 miler, I stopped after 14 – I had some fairly uncomfortable chafing. With the second one, if I’m very truthful (and why shouldn’t I be, I am after all really just talking to myself here :D) I could have stopped anywhere between about 10 and 12. There’s always a reason to stop, right? 

So this week I was just determined to get to the end and see it through. All of my midweek runs have so far been going pretty much ok. The easy runs are of course, well, easy (thankfully :O) , and the intervals have been ok, if much harder work (7:30 pace in the main which is basically my top speed). It is the tempo runs which are now the test. The tempo runs are at race pace (8:30 for the marathon) and should be the real benchmark. They started in week 3 at about 4 miles and are now up to 8, plus a mile each side of warming up and cooling down. This week I did this in Nottingham as I was privileged to be asked to look after my gorgeous granddaughter Jessie, whilst my son and his partner played in the European Touch Rugby Championships. 

So the Thursday tempo run also followed a Tuesday interval run at my lowest heart rate so far (I’ll talk about heart rate and also shoes in a subsequent blog post). I was therefore confident, and set off with gusto along the banks of the Trent, a route I know well. After about two miles I knew it wasn’t good. My heart rate was pounding, up at over 160. Now 160 is ok if I’m flat out (and so is 170), but not for the start of a ten mile tempo run – it is only going to get worse from there.

And get worse it did – after mile three and four my breathing was more laboured, the effort too high. After 5 miles I stopped, drained. I did sort of jog another mile to see if I could get to a six mile total out of the intended 10. All that did was add another mile to my Strava count – it did me no good whatsoever. I was very deflated. I’m still 7 weeks from Berlin, with all of the big and toughest weeks ahead of me. Take nothing for granted, I told myself, amongst other things.

On Friday I had a shortish 6 mile easy run when I got home from Nottingham. On the Saturday it was 8 miles, again easy. Thankfully both passed without incident, and I braced myself for Sunday’s big one. A moderate (for me!!) alcohol intake on the Saturday evening gave me a decent sleep, even if I did wake early on the Sunday. I drove for my long run to Ambleside (to get some flattish ground as there is literally none by me bar a running track), my favourite place, some four miles away from where I now live, and set off with a determined air. I am very happy, and also relieved, to say that the 16 miles got ticked off without heat exhaustion, chafing, or other (reasonable or unreasonable) excuse. The week thus finished with around 50 miles completed, which I have to be pleased with. There are probably only two or three weeks in my life when I have run that far, and this programme is a test of both physical and mental resolve.

Another week over then. I don’t know how many miles I’ve run so far – it’s just been a lot. This week is 50 again, next week 56, then 54, then 57 I think – it’s a long August that’s for sure. But after that it is September – and on the 11th is the first proper Great North Run since this horrible pandemic took over (and so much worse for so many) so many lives. I can’t wait until the Great North Run – the phrase “it’ll be emotional” is the understatement of the century. More of that anticipation and excitement next time. I’m going to be blogging weekly again now. 

And so for now I will continue to believe, that Berlin will happen, and that I can do it. I’ll never have Simon’s gusto or confidence, but I am nothing if not lacking in determination. I also found out recently that none other than Eliud Kipchoge, undoubtedly the greatest distance runner of all time, and world record holder for the marathon (set in Berlin four years ago) will be running too. If I said that he’s a hero of mine that would be significantly understating my admiration for all that he has achieved in running and in life. And if that doesn’t get me motivated to ‘go like Simon’ then nothing ever will.

The one and only Eliud Kipchoge leading the way home through the Brandenburg Gate.

Oh and as more than a little footnote to all of the above, both my Son and his partner’s teams won their respective finals of the European Chamionships, and I am so very proud of them both – happy days 🙂