Strathearn Marathon (& post-mortem on a difficult run)

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best marathon mascot ever? keen eyes will notice that the squirrel has excellent taste in footwear 😉

On Sunday, I ran the Strathearn Marathon. It turned out to be a challenging day. I’m still disappointed with how it all went down. That said, I’ve gathered some thoughts now that my head is in a (slightly) better place than it has been.

First off, it needs said that the Strathearn Marathon is fantastic event. I cannot fault any aspect of how the Strathearn Harriers organise this one.  It has the friendly vibe of a smaller club race, but there are many perks that you wouldn’t get at a big city marathon for a fraction of the entry fee. In addition to a man-sized squirrel, there’s a personalised drinks service! It’s a rare chance to feel like a pro as a volunteer calls out your name and hands you your bottle as your run past.  There are bagpipers on the route who offer a shot of inspiration on the early hills (or, depending on your perspective on bagpipes, impetus to run quicker to escape?). The home baking and sandwiches at the finish were delicious. The marshals were stoked to be there, genuinely helpful and encouraging. And, as I found out, the first-aid team were attentive to struggling runners.

The course begins and ends at the Cultybraggan Camp (it held WWII POWS — a fascinating history). It’s a unique and slightly surreal setting for a race. The Perthshire scenery is stunning. It’s one of my favourite places in Scotland and the B roads look even better on foot than they do through a windshield.

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As for the course, it doesn’t exactly lend itself ultra-fast time because it takes in 450m of climb (1,500ft for you who deal in old money).  With the considerable ups and downs, this marathon gives runners a course that needs to be run on its own terms. No doubt the experience returning runners bring to this one will pay dividends.

It all started so well. I had completed the training programme without injury or illness and felt great on the morning before the race. I ran comfortably for the first half. More than that, actually. I felt like I was running well within my limits and quickly slotted into an effortless rhythm after the initial hill. The kilometres started ticking by at satisfyingly consistent intervals.

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There is a killer of a hill at 24k.  Looking at the route profile is one thing, but it’s another thing to experience the thing in real life.  I thought the earlier hills would be tougher than they actually were, but this one felt ridiculously steep. At this point I was still feeling fairly confident and took the hill sensibly given the gradient.  It was on the descent that things went awry.

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a moment of joy before the crash (thanks to Strathearn Harriers for this shot)

On the way down I felt excruciating pain in both of my legs, which came out of nowhere.  Not localised pain, just all over.  Everything began to cramp.  My toes started curling and I had difficulty just moving my legs, leaden and stiff. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I took the pace right down, sucked a gel that had salts, but to no avail.  And that was the story for rest of the race: a painful and stiff-legged 19k slog to the finish. I had to slow to a walk regularly, even though my “run” had slowed to little more than walking pace shuffle.  Apparently my stagger looked so bad that a concerned fellow racer told a marshal to come to my aid.  The kind first-aider on a bike gave me some water and a gel and suggested that I pull out of the race. Or that if I decided to plod on, “Just don’t do anything stupid, pride isn’t worth it!”  I was tempted to give up. In retrospect, that might’ve been the wiser option?  With all my goals having quickly evaporated at this point, I gave my self a revised target of simply getting around before the 6hr cut-off. I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d make that, but it got me moving my dead legs in the right direction.

The final few kilometres were agony.  The cheers from the folk in the Cultybraggan Camp gave me a boost and it was great to see my wife at the finish line.  My kids apparently wanted to run over the finish with me, but I took so long that they got bored waiting so were playing football in the field!  I was a wreck coming over the line, physically and mentally: mildly pleased that I managed to finish, but bitterly disappointed with how badly my race had unfurled.

It was hard to accept well-meaning congratulations from friends after the race. “It’s still an accomplishment!” “You managed to push through the pain and finish!” I’m sure it is an accomplishment. But it really didn’t, and still kind of doesn’t, feel that way.  I’m disappointed and that’s that (even though I know that nobody else is disappointed). When I was less fit last year, I ran the marathon distance during training run that was quicker.  I went into the race knowing that I could run a marathon.  The goal was to run the thing well, not just finish; I already knew I could do that. Part of me feels like the commitment to training, the hard early morning runs, lung busting speed sessions, just evaporated.  All the hard graft, all the post-race pain, but without any of the satisfaction to make it feel worth it.

When I ran my 50k, I just did the thing for the craic. I had no expectations, just to cover the distance in one go, to see if I could cover the distance in one go. Preparing for Strathearn was totally different. I had an tangible goal in mind (a 3:30hr to 4:00hr window), one that I knew would be more difficult than just being a “finisher.”  I was well on course for that until the cramp hit.  If I had set an easier goal (say, 4:30hr), maybe I would’ve achieved it. But there’s little satisfaction in reaching a goal where there’s no risk involved. It’s a gamble I willingly took and it didn’t work out the way I planned.

Of course, all the training hasn’t been for nothing. Through the process of marathon training, my running has improved drastically. I’ve dropped over a minute off both my 5k and 10k PBs. This isn’t nothing. I also have a better idea of the kind of pace that I can sustain and perhaps a more realistic understanding of my limits.

I don’t want to make excuses. There’s no doubt that I didn’t manage the weather well. 96% humidity isn’t a thing to be scoffed at and, in retrospect, I should’ve taken the pace down a few more notches. I trained in warm weather, but not that kind of thick muggy stuff. Who knows, even with pace adjustments, maybe the outcome would’ve been the same.  That’s the thing: there are an infinite number of irritating what-ifs swirling about in my head.

For now, I’ll focus on what went well and learn from what went wrong — once I properly figure out the reasons for that! The first half of the race was a cracker. The scenery was stunning.  I’ll never cease to have my faith in humanity restored by other runners – so many people gave me words of encouragement and water or slowed down (sacrificing their own times) to check if I was okay.

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Training for a marathon is a strange thing. There’s a considerable time commitment that creates this tunnel-vision focus over a 12 week training bloc.  To train well, it’s inevitable that the race gets blown a little out of proportion – it’s constantly there on the horizon. Generally speaking, waking up for a 3hr long run along the canal at 6am in the rain isn’t number one on my list of fun morning activities. But I went out and did it because I know it needed to be done. There’s also a balancing act of pushing oneself, but also not over doing it. That meant opting out of other things (like a number of hill races) for the sake of the marathon.

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struggling into the finish

In reality, my “target time” is just an arbitrary number and not particularly impressive in any objective sense. On a perfect day, a flat course, and without injury, I still feel confident that I could run 26.2mi in 3:30min. The Strathearn Marathon is not flat and Scottish weather is seldom perfect in June, but I believe a sub-4hr time on that course remains a reasonable goal.

At the end of the day, it was my first road marathon and 4:45:49 is my new marathon PB. One that shouldn’t be too difficult to better in the future.

I’ll just have to go back next year and see what happens…

PJ.

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post-race cool down in the kid’s paddling pool

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Since writing this, I’ve received some encouraging comments from one of the coaches at Springburn Harriers and my pal Mark (an accomplished sub-3hr marathoner himself), which are worth sharing:

Damian: “…That is beauty (and pain) of marathon running for you – you’ve got to put all your eggs in one basket ( that 1 race day) – when it all works brilliant – when it doesn’t – get to the finish, recover for a few weeks and plan the next one!”

Mark: “…it’s wonderful to run a race and see all your targets smashed, but there is a sense in which the accomplishment of finishing when it goes horribly wrong, when all your erstwhile targets are laughing at you and telling you it’s no longer worth it, finishing without ego basically, is even greater. And it’s only really marathon distances that can humble even the well-trained and experienced in this way. As for doing another, it would surely be a shame not to apply such a gruelling education ;)”

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Race Report: Dick Wedlock Memorial 10k

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A still taken from Gordon Curran’s video of the 2018 Dick Weldock Memorial 10k (link below).

My last race before the marathon was the Dick Wedlock Memorial 10k — an all-round brilliant race run by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service AC in Glasgow’s lovely Pollock Park.

On Saturday, I rode the train down from the north, because I always get lost when I drive on the South Side. The weather was absolutely stunning, blue skies and puffy marshmallow clouds, and it actually felt quite hot (for Scotland, mind you). That in mind, I was aware that this was going to be a very different experience from my last 10k, the Jack Crawford Memorial. During that race, it was decidedly chilly with the added bonus of horizontal rain. Running in the heat would present a different challenge. Also, the contrast between the courses was on my mind: the Jack Crawford is a straight out n’ back on a flat canal path, the Dick Wedlock takes twisty-turny laps on an undulating loop. The Jack Crawford is pancake flat, Dick Wedlock offers 120m of leg busting climbs.

I had been told by my clubmates that the Dick Wedlock is a fun race, but “maybe not a PB course.” With that in mind, I set out to run the race under 45min. That felt like a realistic goal, my PB being 44:33 (set at the Jack Crawford) and having the cumulative effect of pre-taper marathon training in my legs.

I was delighted to cross the finish line in 44:42, only 9sec off my PB, in what felt like a fairly respectable placing of 38th out of 153 runners.

I set off feeling good and surprisingly light on my feet. Even though I was trying to reign my pace in for the first few kilometres, I can see from my splits that I succumbed to my innate strategy of self-sabotage and ran too quickly at the start [note to self: DON’T DO THIS AT THE MARATHON!]. The second half of the race I started feeling the impact of the lesser-spotted Scottish sun and fairly huffed and puffed my way to the finish. I can see from Gordon Curran’s class race video that I was tensed up, reverting into my poor “head-back like a demented chicken” form when the going gets tough (this in mind, I hope coach Alan at Springburn Harriers doesn’t see this video, lest I receive another telling off: “Relax your shoulders, head forward! If you’re straining you’re not training!”).

My pace droped a bit on the biggest climbs at the 4th and 7th kilometres, but according to Strava’s “Grade Adjusted Pace” estimate, I kept the effort level fairly steady. All said and done, I felt like I could’ve gone a bit quicker had a been more mindful of my pace at the start (and, whisper it, maybe a PB?)… but I’m still happy with an effort that was close to my best. Every race is a learning experience, or in my case, a chance to repeat mistakes?

I have nothing but good things to say about the race and it’s organisation. The course was well marked and marshalled, so a big “Thank you!” to all the volunteers. The organisers even set up a water table, taking into account the heat on the day. The kilometre markers were handy because my GPS watch went funky under the tress. It’s a tough but enjoyable route: not as fast at the Jack Crawford, but the ups, downs, and turns breaks the race up so it doesn’t feel as unrelenting as pacing on a flat course. Another highlight was the amazing spread of fruit after the race: watermelons, bananas, oranges… seriously, there is nothing like some refreshing watermelon after a hard effort.

It’s a great race and one I hope to make a regular fixture in my race diary.

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On Tapering:

This race also signalled starting my taper before the Strathearn Marathon. I had an interesting chat with coach Damian about how tapering is supposed to work. My assumption was that is just meant running easily for a couple weeks — well, not really. The point isn’t to take down the intensity, but to decrease the volume. I should be running less but still trying to keep a bit of sharpness and speed in my legs. With the less miles, I should find hitting my marathon pace easier.

I wasn’t sure that I’d be finding my quicker pace any easier, but lo-and-behold, it’s true! I did my (shorter) longer run at the weekend and slotted into and maintained my marathon pace without much difficulty. My legs felt pretty light and I wasn’t too knackered when I got home. At the peak of building miles, I was feeling pretty tired. Tapering has felt like a serious boost of energy. It’s a brilliant feeling and gives me some confidence that the marathon training has giving me a good foundation. Of course, the proof is in the pudding! Looking forward to seeing what happens on race day.

PJ.

Winton Castle Trail Races + Running with a 4 Year Old

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A few paces after my watch buzzed to signal we had reached the 2nd kilometre, my son plopped himself down dramatically in the middle of the trail. With real melodramatic flourish, he yanked off his mud-caked shoes and shouted, “It’s just too far to run!”

A bit of context: my son is 4 years old.

His longest runs thus far have been junior parkruns – only 2k.  He struggles a bit at that distance.  Not due to any lack of fitness (far from it!), he just finds it difficult to focus on running for that long.  He wants to practice his ninja moves off the park benches, talk to the swans, that sort of thing.  It’s all totally understandable for a 4 year old.  Even though getting a pre-schooler around a junior parkrun feels like herding cats, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I want him experience the joy of running, rather than having some negative overbearing dad, trying to force a personal best and draining the fun from a run.

When it came to the Winton Castle Trail Run, I knew that my boy would struggle a bit because the family race was 3.5k. His little legs had always been able to rest after 2k.  He was extremely keen to take part though.  The brilliant fete-like atmosphere at the event only made him more determined to be a part of things.  There was a man dressed up like a daffodil and the promise of edible biscuit medals at the finish line!

As always, when the race started, my son sprinted off as fast as he could.  My 7 year old daughter was also running with us (she now runs in my club as a mini-Harrier – I feel so proud about that!), but she’s more used to these things  and can pace herself pretty well.  Eventually, she got tired her brother’s sprint/walk strategy (and no doubt due to some healthy sibling competitiveness), she darted ahead and braved the muddy route for a stellar top-half finish.  Though she was happy to be the family “winner” she waited expectantly at the finish line to cheer her little brother to the finish.

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After some encouragement and an emergency jelly bean I had stashed away in case of an emergency like this, my boy picked himself up off the ground, put his shoes back on, stomped off some mud, and resolutely said, “I’m going to finish!” The little man was obliviously tired, but he soldiered on.  As we made our way along the trial, the noise from the finish started to grow and my son started to get excited.  He could see the daffodil man and a fabulously yellow-suited emcee encouraging the runners on their final dash to the line.  My son had a burst of energy and with about 200m to go, he careened toward the line in a full-out sprint. “Faster than Bolt!” he claimed afterwards.  It was great fun and feel proud that he didn’t give up and kept at it.  Good life skill, that is.

Me and the kids finished in time to see my wife finish the 10k — it was going on simultaneously on a longer course.  The kids leaned over the tape to give her high-fives as she the finished.

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The edible medals didn’t disappoint!  It was also great to know that the race fees went to support the charities Marie Curie, Pencaitland Primary School PTA, & Pencaitland Playgroup.  The Winton Trails Races are genuinely one of the most fun and friendly races I’ve attended.  It was fun for the entire family and it’s a beautiful corner of East Lothian.  Due to the rain, the course was pretty though, but that’s part of the fun of a trail race, right?

Extremely well organised event, I can’t recommend it more highly.  We’ll be back next year!

PJ.

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Running & fatherhood

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One of the reasons I started running: it turned out to be one of the easiest and cheapest options for staying fit and healthy after welcoming children into my life.  Prior to that, I focused on swimming.  I’m an average runner.  Objectively speaking, I’m much better at swimming.  In the Great Scottish Swim I regularly place in the top-10 of my age group and have finished in the 10% of swimmers overall over 1, 2, and 3 mile distances.  While I still love swimming, it can be a faff.  Getting in 20min of decent exercise can take over an hour when you factor in changing, showering, and the über-complex lane availability system at my local leisure centre.  Outdoor swimming is wonderful, but there’s that frustration of driving hours to a loch and then seeing blue-green algae.

I ran my first 10k when my daughter was still in the pram.  I was still focusing on swimming then, but turned to running as something that I fit in-between trips to the pool. I didn’t particularly enjoy running, but endured it because, like leafy veg, it was supposed good for me.

It was after my son was born that running because the most practical option.  Any baby will turn your life upside down, even if it’s a fairly “easy” baby (in other words, one who sleeps).  My daughter was, after some initial difficulties with a strange transient protein allergy, a pretty chilled out kid.  She loved sleeping.

My son, however, was a different story.  He was born with a cleft palate, was colic, and had a host of other dietary issues.  Even before his cleft repair surgery, we were in the children’s hospital more often than I like to remember (being in a children’s hospital is a terrible, wonderful, and draining experience; you see some tragic things, but I was continually amazed by how helpful, strong, and resilient people can be).  I seldom got out to the pool for my weekly swims because there simply wasn’t time.  The stress combined with fatigue led to some poor health choices.  Too much coffee, sugary junk, and even though I hate the stuff, regular trips to the McDonalds drive-through.  I think what lay behind theses uncharacteristic fast food binges was a psychological attempt to feel in control of something when life was so hectic.  Many days, I had no idea what was wrong with my son, but he kept screaming in pain and would never sleep despite our best efforts.  There was some comfort in buying some horrid apple pie, McFlurry, and a coffee because it became everything that life wasn’t: predictable, controllable, with the promise of instant gratification.

It wasn’t anything drastic.  I didn’t gain a huge amount of weight or anything, but my health was on a downward curve.  In reality, the mental effect of the junk food was worse than anything physical.  The reliance on pure sugar and caffeine to created this awful jittery and often incoherent vigilance.

Then I started running.  The benefits of running are well documented.  It goes without saying that running is no miracle cure or a magical solution to life’s problems.  Everything didn’t change overnight and I still didn’t particularly enjoy it at first.  But it was the most simple way to get myself out the door (be that my house or the hospital) and it afforded me some headspace for 20 minutes.  It was also a much healthier way to deal with that feeling of overwhelming chaos that comes with having a very ill kid.  As Clare Allan puts it:

“Running is the most brilliant way of showing the mind who’s boss. Your brain may be screaming at you to stop, telling you you can’t keep going, you’re not fit enough, you look pathetic, and still you just keep on running.”

Running helped me to manage the chaos in a healthier way.  Fast food offers the semblance of control and predictability, but nothing of value.  You have to keep returning for the sugar high and hit of predictability.  It might be comforting, but if offers no way out.  We really don’t have much control.  Running helped me deal with that fact.

On a run, things change and it seldom goes exactly to plan.  Your legs get tired, but you press on.  You get a stitch, so you breathe with a different rhythm to alleviate the pain.  There’s a tree that has fallen across the trail, so you need to jump over it or double back.  Sometimes a pavement is so icy you have to change your route.  In running, it’s necessary to shift and adapt goals on the fly.  In running, you have to be present in a world in flux, but learn that you can – most of the time – deal with the ebb and flow.  Sometimes a run goes to plan, sometimes it doesn’t, but you have the small victory that you were able to get out the door and do something positive.

I eventually fell in love with running.  It helped me get into a better frame of mind.  It helped me develop resilience. I became an all-round healthier person.

My son’s health eventually improved and his cleft repair went as well as it possibly could have.  Life once again settled into a nice rhythm.  But running became part of my life and it remains that way.  Along with all the other things I’ve mentioned, running gives me solitude.  It has also introduced me to friends and a supportive community I wouldn’t want to be without.  This dynamic of running being such a personal endeavour within community makes for a fascinating dialectic.

Both of my children see that my wife and I run.  The see us sweaty and striving to the best of our ability for rather average times, not winning races, but still pushing outside our comfort zones.  I hope that sets a good example for them.  The kids love coming along to races and things like parkrun.  My daughter was excited when my running club started a mini-Harriers group that introduces young kids to the simple joy of running, jumping, and throwing.

I’m also delighted that my kids now ask me to take them out on runs as well.  My daughter specifically requests trail runs because she loves the feel of bounding down a hill, darting around trees (child after my own heart!).  It feels like a real adventure.  At the finish of a run, she begs me to stop and get a daft self-timer photo, “To make mummy laugh.”  We run at the camera, jump, or goof off in some other way.  It’s silly and something I’d be too self-conscious to do on my own, but with a kid it feels totally acceptable.  And it is fun and reminds me that while running is a seriously important part of my life, it’s better if I don’t take it too seriously and forget the simple joy of it in the midst of track sessions, training plans, and so on.  I’m sure the kids won’t be terribly keen to run with their naff dad when they get older (even though I hope not!), so I’ll enjoy and relish all this while it lasts…

PJ.

Race Report: Jack Crawford 10k

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Look at me, living proof that running is… um… fun?

After some respite from the icy remnants of the “Beast from the East,” waking to the sound of gusting winds hammering fat raindrops against my window made me want to succumb to inertia, stay in my bed, and curl under the duvet.  I’m normally well up for a Saturday run — especially a race – but I’m ready for the gentler climes of spring.  From the cosy perspective of my bed, a 10k didn’t seem particularly inviting.

At the beginning of winter, I’m usually excited about a bit of snow and cold.  Running in adverse conditions can be invigorating.  There’s a strange kind fun that comes with heading out all bundled up, buff over my face, and hat pulled down so that it leaves only a slit for my eyes (my son tells me I look like a ninja, which is kind of cool). I could be sitting inside watching Saturday Kitchen with a cup of tea instead of braving the elements and feeling fully alive.  I like that.

But the novelty eventually wears off and this winter has overstayed its welcome, IMHO.

As much as I wanted to stay in bed, I know it’s important to set down markers in my running.  I haven’t run a hard 10k since I’ve started training with the Springburn Harriers, so this would be an ideal chance to mark my progress, as well as taking part in one of my own club’s events.  Even though conditions weren’t ideal, I felt that a 10k PB was on the cards.  So I pulled on my shorts, club vest, and made the short journey to Bishopbriggs.

As always, the hardest part is the first step out of bed.  Once I arrived at the Bishy Leisuredrome and saw many clubmates and friends also mad enough to run on a day like this, I was glad that I decided to turn up.  It’s always worth getting out, even on the worst days.

The Jack Crawford 10k was rerouted due to the lingering snow heaps that remained on the road.  So instead of the usual course that takes in a bit of the road, the route became an out n’ back along the Forth and Clyde canal towpath.

During the race, there was a nasty headwind on the way out that made running hard going, but thankfully the worst of the rain held off.  Racers were trying to do the sensible thing and draft off other runners.  Unfortunately, the problem with that is everybody wants to draft, so there was a fair amount of leapfrogging that made pacing difficult.  I eventually decided to stick to my own pace and take the wind head on rather than attempting to shelter behind others.  This meant getting a bit isolated, but it was easier slotting into my own pace, rather than trying to set my pace by other runners. There was an “on a dime” turn after the 5k point, after which the wind was blissfully at our backs.  I’m not sure how much the wind, strong as it was, actually slowed me down in real terms.  The psychological effect of the wind, however, shouldn’t be underestimated.  When it’s all up in your face, it the wind is an energy-sapping adversary,  whereas the perception of the wind totally changes when it’s at your back, it becomes an encouraging helping hand.

My plan was to initially pace for a 45min 10k.  That meant heading out at a hard-but-in-control pace of 4:30 per kilometre, then trying to run harder on the final 5k to (hopefully) nip under 45min.  As per usual, I set off too quick and ran the first kilometre in 4:10.  At the time, it didn’t feel too taxing, but I knew it wasn’t a sustainable pace.  The jostling for position to use other racers as a windbreak made the 2nd kilometre a bit wonky; it turned out to be my slowest split.  After that I was able to keep my pace fairly steady at a 4:30 for the first half, and (as planned) picked up speed in the second half keeping under 4:30 (with the exception of a 4:32 wobble on the 9th).

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I find pacing on a flat course difficult because I’m more accustomed to hilly routes.  It feels unrelenting.  Hills offer a chance to change things up.  The Jack Crawford 10k is pancake flat, Garmin only registering 7m of elevation gain.  I’m pretty happy with my pacing, even though the race showed there is room for improvement.

My official finish time was 44min 33sec, which is my fastest 10k to date.  I’m delighted with the PB, especially given the tricky conditions.  Last year, I was running my 5ks around 22:20, so to maintain a slightly faster pace over twice the distance is a nice reminder of the progress I’ve made.

As for the race itself, it was well organised, friendly, and competitive. Big kudos go to the team who had to alter the route at short notice and everything thing still went forward without a hitch (from a racer’s perspective at least).  As Springburn Harrier commenting on a race organised by the Springburn Harriers, I’m probably biased here, but I think the organisers did a great job.

– PJ

 

Crichton’s Cairn… what’s in a name?

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Just a pile of stones?

What we’re doing here, all this running up hills business, is nothing new. I find it sobering to remember we’re running on – quite literally – well trod slopes. The first recorded hill race took place at the Braemar gathering about 1,000 years ago. People have been running up hills for a long time.

This reality was recently confirmed for me. I stumbled across what you could describe as some local hill running history when I looked up a place name marked on my OS Map: “Crichton’s Cairn.”

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As it turns out, the history of that cairn is fascinating as it is muddled. Is it a monument to athletic prowess and spirituality? Or, conversely, a grim reminder of scandal: murder, suicide, or heresy? It could also be a mixture of all of these things.

But why is it Crichton’s Cairn…? And who was this Crichton anyway?

As it turns out, there are a number of theories, discussed in some detail in an 1860 book by Hugh MacDonald, Rambles Round Glasgow: Descriptive, Historical, and Traditional. There’s a story of a smuggler named Crichton who was overtaken and killed by loathed gaugers.[1] The cairn commemorates the smuggler’s unfortunate death. On the other hand, some say that this was the place that Crichton the smuggler killed himself; unlikely because, as McDonald amusingly puts it, “in such a ‘heaven-kissing’ locality, could manage to fling a coil over the horn of the moon, we really cannot see how this horrid purpose could be at all effected, a blaeberry-bush being the nearest approximation to a tree which he would be likely to find” [p.399]. There’s also a folk story about a local strongman who wagered that he could climb the hill with a sack of meal, but died of exhaustion at the site of the cairn.[3]

The more attested story is that the “Crichton” in question was James Crichton, who was installed as the parish minister in 1623. According to legend, he would grab a peasemeal bannok[3] for sustenance and summit the hill, where he would study his sermons.

The accounts differ when it comes to how fast Crichton could go. James Lapslie said Crichton could summit the hill from Clachan of Campsie in forty minutes,[4] whereas Robert Lee and Hugh McDonald say he managed the feat in twenty.[5] Knowing that hill, I can assure you forty minutes is a brisk but not particularly impressive; on the other hand, twenty minutes is pretty quick. It’s impossible to know what’s true, but I like the idea of a twenty minute ascent for a few reasons: first, more sources cite twenty minutes. Second, McDonald bases his account on hearing local oral history. Third, twenty minutes is surely a more notable time than forty, and thus, more memorable (I – as a mediocre athlete – can not only manage that without too much difficulty, but summit and return to the glen in under 40 minutes). Sure, twenty could be an example of how legends grow in their telling, but I’m more inclined to believe it.

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View on the way up to Crichton’s Cairn

Why? Let me explain. Okay, I know that collecting data via Strava segments isn’t scientific, but go with me here as they give an interesting picture. There are two segments that make up most of the late minister’s route: “Glen run to crow road” and “Crow Rd Climb.” Put together, these segments make up most of the route, with the exception of the final 0.5k and 63m climb to the cairn itself. My best times on these segments adds up to 17:35. The Salmon athlete and 2015 Glen Coe Skyline champion Joe Symonds can do both segments in the blistering time of 10:08! Even with the final 0.5k taken into account, even I am within touching distance of the late Rev Crichton’s fabled time (Joe Symonds on the other hand, can do it in nearly half that time!)

Ascending that hill now, of course, is a different matter to what it was 411 years ago. We have fancy light and waterproof kit, grippy trail shoes, and the befit of four centuries of footfalls that have trod a prominent track to the cairn. The author of the brilliant Welcome to Lennoxtown website casts some doubt on the twenty mintue story commenting, “Although not ruling it out as an impossible task, it would take someone with unbelievable strength to accomplish it.” I’m not so sure about the “unbelievable” part. I’ll go with Nemo on this, who says, “The etymology of the name is traditionally handed down in the… pleasing and very probable manner.”[6] Twenty minutes is impressive, but well within the realm of possibility. No doubt, many modern hill runners could, and can, reach the cairn from the glen within the late Rev’s twenty minutes. Again, I have no doubt it was a much more impressive feat in 1623 than it is now. In order to achieve that time, I’m certain Crichton would’ve needed to break into a run, not just walk as the old Statistical Accounts of Scotland report. Lapslie records that Crichton was “a remarkable stout, well breathed man”[7] — that would make sense if he could summit in twenty minutes and did this regularly! Historical hill reps?

There’s still whiff of mystery and scandal to cairn. Lee records in the Statistical Accounts that James Crichton “was deposed for what was called corrupt doctrine.”[8] I’ve looked, but I can’t find the content of his particular heresy, but it’s worth pointing out that Crichton was minister during the tumultuous reign of James VI. “Corrupt doctrine” is so general, so it tantalises the imagination even more so.

That “considerable heap of stones, which no sacrilegious hand ever attempts to demolish”[9] is testament to a fascinating muddle of history and folklore. I also think it’s a monument to the fact that people have been running in the Campsie Fells for a long time. It’s cool to be reminded of that on one of my “backyard” runs.

I’ll close here with a nice little poem that Nemo uses in praise of the Campsies, which is a lovely testament to my local “little” hills:

The tow’ring Alps and Appenines can boast

Their lofty summits in the vapours lost;

But lesser hill may have a pow’r to charm,

And yield us pleasure mix’d with less alarm. [10]

PJ

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[1] I had to look this one up: the “gauger” was the Scots moniker for the loathed exciseman who were supposed to clamp down on the illicit trade of spirits; they were awarded a bounty on whatever seized and were known to be ruthless – see this article in Whisky Magazine.

[2] An author by the name Nemo in the 1811 Glasgow Magazine (Vol. II,) appears to amalgamate this story with the legends associated with James Crichton.

[3] Here’s another thing I had to look up – peasemeal is made from milled yellow field peas; it fell out of favour because of its association with poverty. It is, however, being milled again and is actually a nutritious meal, with a good amount of protein and vitamins. I’m sure it’s fair healthier than those polysaccharide gloop you see many endurance runners sucking down. Read more about peasemeal here.

[4] James Lapslie. “of Campsie.” The Statistical Account of Scotland (1795, Vol. XV p.363).

[5] Robert Lee. “Stirlingshire.” The New Statistical Account of Scotland (1845, Vol. VIII p.260).

[6] Nemo, “A Panoramic Prospect.” The Glasgow Magazine, and Clydesdale Monthly Register (1811, Vol. II) p.12

[7] James Lapslie. “of Campsie.” The Statistical Account of Scotland (1795, Vol. XV) p.363

[8] Robert Lee. “Stirlingshire.” The New Statistical Account of Scotland (1845, Vol. VIII) p.260; Hugh MacDonald, Rambles Round Glasgow: Descriptive, Historical, and Traditional (1860) p.398-399.

[9] Nemo, “A Panoramic Prospect.” The Glasgow Magazine, and Clydesdale Monthly Register (1811, Vol. II) p.12

[10] Ibid.

A (late) 2017 Running Round-Up

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Here’s a bunch of posts shoved into one! New things at work, sick kids, and taking on some new responsibilities (some freelance teaching and training) have kept me from the blog. Yes, I’m still running and have carved out some time to get back to the blog here more regularly. As follows are some pieces that I only half-finished and never posted. Here they are:

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On the joys of “Advent Running”:

In the mad season before the holiday break, in reality the whole of December, everything is too busy. Work is too busy. Home life is too busy. The kids are too busy with their Christmas presentations and parties. So at first glance, it seems odd that for the past three Decembers I’ve given myself something else to do on top of all that: Advent Running.

Put simply, the challenge of Advent Running is to run (or some other form of exercise) for 30min every day leading up to and including Christmas. The Guardian did a piece on it, which you can read here. There are a number of other similar challenges, like the popular Marcothon.

Back in 2015, taking part in Advent Running was when I shifted from seeing running merely as a cost-effective (if not dull) form of exercis, to having a major psychological shift where I started to enjoy the act running itself. December, at first glance, seems a strange time to #FallInLoveWithRunning because the weather is awful and it’s dark and there’s not enough time… and you get the gist.

The challenge of a run streak, however, turns battling the elements into an adventure. An online community that has formed around the slight-madness of trying to run 25 in 25. The Advent Running group on Facebook is a nexus of bonhomie, where people of all abilities support each other in the pursuit of trying to live a little healthier over the holidays. I’ll admit that I’m inclined to cynicism and melancholic by nature. Yet I don’t find the support of fellow Advent Runners cheesy or contrived (like that forced smile of the waitress last time I was in an IHOP). So much is wrong in the world and there’s a lot to be angry about and many reasons to be sad — something a tumultuous 2017 has only confirmed. The Advent Running community is something that reminds me, in the midst of everything, how good people can be and that there is a lot of joy to be found in the everyday. The ability to share what might seem like inconsequential victories and stumbles (“I had a terrible week, but I at least managed to get out the door for a 5k in the rain…”) feels liberating. As Boris Pasternak once wrote, “And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness.” Maybe that’s making too much into it, but if so, I wonder why I’ve kept coming back to it three years in a row?

The other thing about making time to run every day is the realisation that there actually is time. When work leaves me tired, I’ll plop myself on the settee and sucked to a blue-black hole of social media scrolling. Before I know it, it has eaten up a half hour of life. Realistically, I can find time to run. I can also find time to sit and play a game of “Fireman Sam Snap” with my son. It’s a reminder that in the busiest time, there is still time. There’s also the reality that taking a break from the tyranny of urgent workstuff actually makes me more productive.

Here’s to Advent Running!

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Race Report: Kirk Craigs Christmas Cracker

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My final race of 2017 was the Kirk Craigs Christmas Cracker, a perfect way to cap off a year of running. I was hoping to go under 1hr, but managed 57:48, which was good for me. Still worth saying that only put me 51st out of 73 racers. This stuff is humbling.

Kirk Craigs captures the no-frills thrills and unstated brilliance of hill and fell running. Jonny Muir made this apt observation:

Capture

The race stats in a field, goes straight up, and “down to big stone and return via same route.” There was prize giving and homebaking in the village hall afterwards. It was great to catch up with some of my fellow Carron Valley Trail Runners because I haven’t been able to get out for the midweek runs recently.

It’s little brute of a race, packing 536m of climb into 6.8k. It was also my first run in the Ochils and it set the bar pretty high — lovely hills and more mountain like than my local Campsies. The initial quad busting incline is flowed by a glorious fast and flat-ish section along the top that gives that unparalleled feeling I only get when racing in the hills: a sense of presence that come from being immersed in the elements while pushing at the edge of physical ability. It feels a bit like flying. Is that what the cool kids call “flow state?”

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me, all festive, at “the big stone” / photo credit: Pat Fitzpatrick (https://www.flickr.com/photos/152725946@N06/albums/72157690655097324)

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I ran 1,000 Miles

I’m happy to say that I reached my goal of running 1,000 miles in 2017. It was a fun challenge that Trail Running Magazine put to their readers. A bit like Advent Running, they’ve hosted a virtual community where runners of all abilities can find mutual support, ask questions, and argue about the best shoes.

I was happy to get to 1,000 miles in the end after a number of weeks out due to my adventures with pneumonia and sepsis!

I feel like my running has really progressed this year, so I’m hoping to run 2,018 kilometers in 2018. As I pace and mentally calculate distances in kilometres, I’m happy to set a goal in metric because it means less maths.

I also achieved my goal of completing to 50 parkruns this year. Making sure that I dragged my arse out of bed all those Saturday mornings helped me cross that 1,000 mile finish line.

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cheesy photo with the #Run1000Miles pledge — this appeared in the 2018 Run1000Miles supplement!

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Some racing, but less racing in 2017!

I did a lot of racing in 2017. I’m going to step back from bigger events. The running community is wonderful, so I’m hoping to give something back and do more volunteering this year.

I signed up for the Strathearn Marathon. I don’t think road marathoning is my “thing” but I’m keen to give it a bash. I think it will set a good marker as to where I’m at with my running. It’s not a flat or fast course (as evidenced by the men’s record being 2.39.33!), but I’d like to run close to 3h 30min, or at least sub-4hr if training or the race day goes pear-shaped. The Strathearn Marathon is my main focus this year. It also means that I have the marathon under my belt, so I can put my name in the hat for bigger races like the Highland Fling in the future.

I also love that this race is organised by the Strathearn Harriers and is good value for money. If I’m honest, I find the cost of bigger city marathons off-putting. Maybe I’m just getting more stingy as I get older?

I’m toying with the idea running of the Ochil Ultra later in October, but we’ll see how training goes and if I’m able to keep my mileage up. If last year taught me anything, it’s the danger of committing to too much. Increasing training and intensity too quickly is the direct route to injury.

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Au revoir!

PJ