There are clearly many benefits to training for a long-distance race. After last year’s exploits with the Dublin Marathon, I was able to sling-shot off the back of all that exercise and get a PB in a half-marathon of 1.40:17 a month later. I hadn’t set out to get that time, but as the kilometres ticked away, the pace stayed steady, and then as I edged closer to the finish (which is a hilly end to the race, so it’s a tough last few k) I realised I might be on for a decent time.
I just ran out of road for the sub-1.40 time, but I plan on giving that a good rattle again this year. The Waterford AC half is a popular race, and sells out each year. I bought my ticket months ago, but it seems like I will be Billy-no-mates this time around as none of my running colleagues are going. Not to worry. It clashes with our fireman’s Christmas night out, so it will be a quick run around the city, and then straight home in the car. There won’t be time to savour the famous ‘blaa‘.
And already this weekend past, I have managed to take a bite out of the 10k PB. The only registered time I had for that distance was several years ago, in November 2015. It was a wet and windy charity run in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, and neither S nor I really had the heart for it. My 47:00 dead was hardly inspiring. Only last week, I ran faster than that in training. Well, the opportunity to capitalise on the hard work put in over this Summer came to pass on Saturday 10th when Mark and I took part in a Pop-up Race in Clane.
Pop-up Races are a bespoke event company. They handle everything: chip timing, T-shirts, medals, results – the lot. I have taken part in a good few events they have managed, and they are excellent. Clane was no exception.
Mark and I met up at the GAA club in time for me to pick up my T shirt and race number, and as it was a cold morning, we dallied in the car before we admitted defeat and warmed up on the way to the start. Most folks were doing the 5k option, which was an out and back. Our 10k was a single loop, heading north out of the village towards Kilcock before taking a left and briefly joining the Rathcoffey Road before ducking left onto the back roads and home.
There were three pacers, 40, 45 and 50 minutes, and Mark and I decided to stick with the 45, but it was clear from the first kilometre that Mark was not in top form, and he dropped back with a hamstring problem. I stuck closely with the pacer, and when I say close, I mean every now and then, the balloon would bounce off the top of my head.
I didn’t have any strategy other than stick with the pacer and see how I felt. As the kilometres ticked away, I seemed to be in good shape. 45 minute 10ks are bang on 4:30 pace. Most of our splits seemed a little under that, and about halfway through (the sixth kilometre), we definitely went a good bit under with a 4:15. I wasn’t saying anything, but there was a small knot of runners around the pacer, and everyone’s watch would beep at roughly the same point, so no doubt others would have noticed the rich pace too.
Somewhere during the eighth kilometre, I picked up the pace a bit, and then tried to put some distance between me and the pace group at the 9k mark. I found a runner up ahead and we chivvied each other along the last straight stretch of road before turning into the car park of the GAA club and the finish. As I sprinted towards the gantry, the clock was reading 43:57… 58… 59… and as I passed under it ticked over to 44:00. The last kilometre took 3:50, according to the watch. I would have to be happy with that; that is more like the sort of pace I would expect for a 5k.
The chip time came back a little while later with a 43:57, which accounts for the short distance to get over the start line and trigger the chip in the race number. All of which means a good day’s work, and a new PB. Mark also clocked a PB which is good going considering he was essentially running on one leg. Once he gets back to full fitness, he will no doubt take a chunk out of his time.
The whole business of PBs is a personal one, of course. Not all runners are too bothered with it. Serious athletes are, needless to say, though at that standard, racing is more about podium finishes, or your placing overall. For the rest of us mere mortals, PBs are your own personal tally of success, and a reasonable yardstick to gauge your improvements. I mean, if times were not important, then all these chip-timed races wouldn’t exist, and Garmin would probably be a little-known business making specialist emergency GPS equipment.
No; when it comes to running, we do like to keep an eye on our times. And that is fair enough. And also what is fair is to put those in context. By that I mean go easy on yourself. If times are not important to you, then you can cheerfully ignore them. If you can use them as an encouragement to improve your fitness, and get you out running a little more often, then that’s great. But don’t allow them to become the only goal. And also compare like with like, if you are scanning through hundreds of names in a results sheet from a race you did recently, and get disheartened when you have to scroll 12 pages down to find your own result.
If you are not a regular club runner, you are probably competing against athletes who can knock out sub-20 5ks, for example. Or maybe 3 hour marathon runners. These are serious athletes. And if you are like me, and other side of 50 years of age, then your time should not be compared to a 20 year old gazelle. This is one of the reasons why I love the more democratic nature of parkrun, and also why it’s good to do races where the results clearly show you age and gender categories.
For Clane, did I finish 32nd? Or 28th? Or even 4th? It depends what column you are reading. Overall, out of 289 runners, I placed 32nd. 28th, if you count gender. And 4th if you allow for the old codgers, over-50 male category. I’m not bent out of shape about times, but most runners I know will admit that certain targets are important to them. When we are starting out, that target might be to simply go for a run. Then it might be to run for a mile without stopping. Then maybe do a 5k and finish it. When (or if) you get to the marathon stage in your career, then the personal goal is often to just finish the damn thing. (Or in my case, it might be to run a marathon without having to stop several times for a piss…).
What I’m trying to say is use times for a positive reason. They are an obvious metric to check your own progress, and to see where you fit in in the teeming, sweaty world of running. They shouldn’t become sticks with which to beat ourselves. I know two local blokes who have both run marathons in 3 hours and a handful of seconds. Does that hurt? I suspect it does. I know for me, getting that magic 3 before your marathon time was important to me. But that was my goal, and my journey there started out with a rather grim 7 something, moved quickly to 5, then stalled on 4, so it’s all relative. Once achieved, it’s in the back pocket. And it’s also unlikely to get a whole lot better.
Each race we do (and I mean a race as opposed to a run) is a chance to measure ourselves against, firstly, ourselves. Pace is the only game in town. You are going to run that race as fast as you can. And maintain, or adjust that pace, to get across that line in a short a time as possible. It’s a simple task, though as the distance increases, your judgement will be called into question. And so, for the longer events, you are often at the mercy of your own belief. And perhaps the watch strapped to your wrist is not always your friend. I suspect we can get wedded (or even welded) to a set pace, to the point where perhaps we don’t believe we can go any faster. As pace increases, the graph starts to climb, and the curve quickly reaches the event horizon. And for each of us in the running game, we realise that there are, indeed, limits to everything, regardless of how many Disney movies you watch.
But we can begin to break that pace riddle down into smaller segments. And indeed, in order to improve, that is exactly what must happen. As we postulated in this post, when the frog can leap halfway towards its goal, and then half again, and so on, it may get ever-closer to its destination but will never reach it. And so those large pace markers that we use may need some recalibration. Fine tune that mile or kilometre pace. For me, I use 6 minute kilometres as a handy signpost for an easy run. That’s about 9:40 for you milers out there. 5:40 was my marathon pace. When I hit 5 minutes per k, then I am running faster than any training run, bar speed work. 4 is the marker you need to hit if you want to get a 20 minute 5k, and that is the next goal. In-between all these neat, round figures are what happens in real life. And as we have already alluded to, the metric and imperial systems don’t dovetail in any way that makes sense, other than roughly-speaking, we know 5 miles is ‘about’ 8k. And so my 5:42 pace for a 4 hour marathon is another runner’s 9:09.
Or put another way, sometimes you need to focus on the running, and less on the watch. Trust your training, fitness, and your legs. The watch will do its job regardless, and will record your time.
And as I have said before, the secret to getting better times is to run faster. I know. Groundbreaking research on that one!
Sometimes you just have to have a little faith, put the head down, and go for it. That’s what I plan to do (within reason) in Waterford in a few weeks time. I plan to get in under 1.40. And yes, that would be a new PB. If it doesn’t happen, well, so be it. Life goes on.