Monday, 28 February 2011

Running the Illey way

One of the best parts of getting out of London is taking the opportunity to break new ground in my running shoes. Now on the face of it I can see how Birmingham might not seem much of a change - just more urban running really? Isn't that so? Well yes and no. The great thing about Harborne is that you can be in the proper countryside (fields, cows and all) in just three or four miles and if you play your cards right by aiming for the Woodgate Valley Country Park you can be off-road in under two miles. Even better a lunchtime browsing session suggested that I could hook up with the Illey Way straight from the park and make my way to the Lickey Hills on green lanes all the way:

Now this plan worked out pretty well at first. A glance at the A-Z allowed me to reach California Way (yes, ironic isn't it) without any trouble and here I stumbled across a link path alongside the Bourn Brook (which handily explains the name of a popular student area next to the university). A little muddier than expected this was but a taster! In the quiet and almost deserted country park, could never happen in London, I headed gently uphill and almost due east towards the M5 - its distinct rumble being audible from over a mile away! Before this though I had to travel up the aptly named Watery Lane and past the urban farm; definitely one for the kids:

Then, on the Illey Way proper, I crossed the M5 and stumbled into the real countryside. For some reason there are hardly any roads in this area, the views over the neighbouring hills are often inspiring and even the motorway is barely intrusive. All was not well in this Garden of Eden though. Oh no. Very soon I began to think that trail shoes might have been a good idea, then I started to wish fervently that I had brought them with me until finally I began to wonder if I'd ever get out alive! With not a soul to be seen I headed down through the woods, past some llamas and ever on towards Illey Pastures. Until, just like that, the track became truly impassable without waders and that was my signal to turn around:

Returning home is always easier than the outbound journey and in this case gravity was my friend as I ran along the tumbling stream. For interest's sake I thought that I'd try a few diversions off of the main path once  back in the park but here's the thing; all of the tracks from the main east-west spine seem to head out to housing estates! So no luck there. Instead I stumbled across a brand new path that followed the Bourn Brook out of the park and on towards Selly Oak. Not needing to be asked twice I took the chance and followed it until the nicely hard-packed surface terminated abruptly with a ragged edge; a victim of budget cuts maybe? Still I didn't mind:

It was starting to rain with a purpose and so I legged it back to Harborne central at a decent pace; with eleven or so miles of running in the bag along some novel trails I had nothing to complain about. Even the moment when I wound up in the middle of a waterlogged field in the sure knowledge that trench foot was an option wasn't enough to dent my enthusiasm. Well not so much!

Distance: 11.6 miles
Time: 1h 48m 08s

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Birmingham Thinktank

It's been a long time coming but we're back in Birmingham and it's kind of fun - although it's hard to believe that we left a decade ago. What happened? Well quite a lot by the look of the city centre although Harborne, our old stomping ground, is largely unchanged. Sadly it was raining this morning so we didn't spend any time sight-seeing; we just headed off to Thinktank, Birmingham's newest museum, hoping to squeeze the maximum out of the not-so-cheap admission! First up then was the planetarium and a cute movie called The Little Star That Could:

Then it was time to visit the big machines - those huge, clanking and hissing steam engines that hark back to Birmingham's industrial heritage. Joshua was very impressed with the massive City of Birmingham steam locomotive and I have to admit that its sheer size and sense of raw power made me feel like a little boy again!

However to be honest Joshua was just killing time until he got to visit the Lego Lab and learn the dark arts of animation. Yes, once again, he could sharpen his webcam skills while bringing a story all of his own to life. Well when I say story I mean that in its loosest sense as a viewing of Forest Crazy will reveal:

It's a shame that the sound hasn't uploaded correctly as Joshua chose a banging techno tune for this particular creation; maybe next time. After this excitement a bit of down-time was needed so Joshua and Christina enjoyed themselves immensely in the water-play and dressing-up zones. Who knew that pretending to be car mechanics and short-order chefs could be such fun? In fact it was quite a challenge to drag them off to the Object Handling show; itself a bit of a mystery. As it turned out Joshua and Christina properly enjoyed the deep-sea theme what with shark jaws, turtle shells, a saw-fish and assorted dried sea-life. I was quite jealous of all the fun they were having!

Still my chance came with England vs France in the Six Nations! An excellent rugby match, tense and right down to the wire with exactly the right result. The funniest part though was just how persistent Joshua was in declaring that the game, and TV in general, was a huge waste of time and that he couldn't believe that I'd rather watch the contest than play in the garden. Give him a few years!

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Beautiful Day

Wow. Today was my first day back running in central London since being injured on the 1st of the month. I really hadn't realised that it's been over three weeks. Luckily today was just a lovely day; warm, sunny and an antidote to the rubbish that the Atlantic has been throwing our way. In St James Park the cherry blossom adorns every tree and the daisies are poking through too (and we know that Daisy Doo loves daisies!). So, yes, I went back to running around the parks this lunchtime and very nice it was too:

I have to say though that I felt a bit out of shape and I can't blame it on my sprained back either (well not so much). The best part of a month off has taken it's toll and this was amply illustrated when a young buck tore past me in Hyde Park on the horse trail; this is my turf, if you know what I mean, but there was no way that I could match his pace even if I'd wanted too. Impressive. That said any run that takes in more than 7.5 miles in less than an hour is a success in my book. Also I think that I've identified the weird sliding sensation that I felt when getting injured - in a particularly slick part of Green Park my right foot slid away from me (on what seemed like potter's clay) and triggered a vivid muscle memory. So at least that's one worry answered. Now I've just got to continue the quad stretching and see where it goes.

Distance: 7.7 miles
Time: 57m 12s

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Who's the boss?

Thankfully it wasn't raining today and so I persevered through a medium-grade hangover to make the meet this morning. A bit of a low turn-out today with just me, Mike, Adam, Rob and Amanda making the effort and as no one had a route in mind the baton passed to me - with the proviso being that we came by my house. So I seized the day and mentally sketched out a plan; one that took advantage of the relaxed nature of Sunday running to try some new paths. Starting with the Heath then we headed over towards Highgate; obviously I was going to take us up a hill but which one? Ah the mind games possible at such a moment!

In the end I was kind and barely skirted with Swains Lane before taking us across Waterlow Park, over the Archway Road and through some back-streets to Queens Wood. It's amazing how much green space you can find in North London when you seek it out and with the crocuses emerging the fresh air put paid to my fuzzy head! From here it was all familiar territory leading to my home in Muswell Hill and then through the middle of East Finchley (somewhere visited so infrequently that for a moment even Mike was disorientated and that never happens). Up Winnington Road the group briefly broke up but there were no complaints about the length (around 13km), mud (not so much) or scenery (quite pretty). Maybe I should do this more often!

Distance: 8.2 miles
Time: 1h 18m 24s

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Wet wet wet!

Yuck! The weatherman predicted an overnight downpour and he was spot on. At 7:45 this morning it was still lashing it down outside but I knew that I had to get out there what with only one run this week (though I did get three 100-length swim sessions in!). Things were no better at Jack Straws Castle and group numbers were severely down on the norm - I think that there were nine hardy souls out today. The real hardcore. Still once we got going and settled down to some serious talking somehow the rain became less of an issue. It's funny how often this is the case actually; you've just got to make the effort to get out of bed in the first place.

The crazy thing about today though is not just that we went out but that we then stayed out for a good 20 minutes longer than usual. I was fully expecting the group to cut things short but once we'd strayed down the Parkland Walk to Ally Pally then the die was cast. Which was fine by me because it meant that we ventured up Hillsborough from Crouch End and that's over a km of climbing - and if you include the section over the Archway Road and up to Highgate then you can take in 2km of uphill. Great training. Then came the 3km stretch along Hampstead Lane and here I felt good and managed to open a sizable gap at up to 4 min/km pace.

Overall a decent run of around 15km with 5km of hard effort at the end. In this topsy-turvy world of training it was nice to have something in the tank for this kind of result (especially as my back is still not 100%). However I could hardly feel my hands by the time I got back to my car and I'm just hoping that the weather front has done its worst for this particular weekend.

Distance: 9.3 miles
Time: 1h 22m 29s

Friday, 18 February 2011

The King's Speech

Today was Lenore's birthday (no I'm not going to reveal any details) and for a treat we decided to go out to the cinema. Yeah, alright, I know that we're not talking about painting the town red here but when you've got kids you take what you can get! So with Sarah kindly offering to babysit the choice was all Lenore's and since she's been wanting to see The King's Speech for weeks the outcome was never in doubt. Of course it's never that easy is it? This afternoon we discovered that the local Odeon had suffered a catastrophic heating breakdown, making frostbite a very real possibility, so we had to switch to Plan B; another time and another place!

Luckily everything turned out alright and as for the film - well it's no shock for me to say that it's well worth a couple of hours of anyone's time. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are very much the main protagonists in the drama; they're on-screen together for the bulk of the film and it's their very believable relationship that makes the story ring true. Which is odd because how hard can it be for a King to have friends and with a commoner to boot; their worlds are just too incompatible. But it really happened and it makes sense given how personal an affliction a stutter is and how close you have to get to someone to overcome it. A pretty fine night out then and we even managed a pint in the pub afterwards. Now that is a result!

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Morning in the city

Today it had to be an early morning run or nothing. With the social workers from Waltham Forest dropping in for our review meeting there was no other window of opportunity for exercise. So when dawn broke I dragged myself out of bed, necked a glass of juice and headed out into the gloom. To say that I felt half-asleep is a dramatic under-statement; if I didn't know better I'd say that someone was trying to take me down with a tranquilizer gun! With nothing better to do though I started putting one foot in front of the other and squelched my way through Coldfall Wood. Nice.

I still felt groggy when it came to the halfway point around by Alexandra Palace (so there was no way I was going to flog myself over the hill) but I soon perked up when a policeman stopped me in mid-stride. Just a few questions Sir! Well it turns out that a not-very-nice man has been assaulting people in the local parks recently with the culmination being that he actually killed one unlucky individual in early January. Fortunately this thug has been caught and locked up but enquiries continue:

Sadly I wasn't able to help; partly because I've a terrible memory for faces (or many other things really) and partly because most of my running recently has been at lunchtime. Anyway while the current threat has passed I did pick up the pace after this little chat! Which is not to say that I exactly felt 'great' even then but I did manage to work up a sweat. So mission accomplished I think.

Distance: 7.3 miles
Time: 58m 16s

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Malina's Dream

Today we took some time out as a family and went to see a delightful children's play, Malina's Dream, at the arts depot in North Finchley. We've been here before for other plays and most recently when Joshua took part in the Finchley Children's Music Group's production of their own specially written opera: The Jailer's Tale. That was great fun and Lenore had spotted that this essentially one-off production was playing and so the tickets were booked; sometimes there's just no point arguing!

Anyhow we got to our seats in the nick of time and what great seats - one row from the front and slap bang in the centre. The lights dimmed and the Angel Heart Theatre group took us on a magical journey to the Arctic; land of ice, mystery and (it turns out) penguins! Joshua absolutely loved this beginning as it was just so Pingu and really very charming! Then, though, the story took a different tack as Malina dreamt of a whaling vessel being crushed by the ice and a sailer being lost to the world of man - all done with shadow puppets and music. From here Malina and her grandfather had to rescue this poor lost soul and, well, to say any more would be to give this lovely tale away.

Needless to say Joshua and Christina were thoroughly absorbed by the puppets and their adventure (which is more than I can say for the heathens snacking continually behind us). After the show the performers came out with some of their puppets and you could barely see the children for the blur they made! It really was fetching to see them so engaged and interested; Joshua even mustered up the courage to ask if they would bring out the polar bear puppet for him to touch and they duely obliged. Well done Joshua!

After that we were more than happy to settle down for a cup of tea while both of them went a bit wild in the soft play area. To be honest I was sure someone was going to get hurt what with the number of kids bouncing around and the way they were flinging things around - a bit like cage-fighting for toddlers it was. Luckily though the time passed without incident as Joshua attracted a group of small boys, who chased him incessently, while Christina hooked up with some girls of a similar age and played more, shall we say, co-operatively! All in all a fabulous afternoon out on a wet winter's day.

The Sunday "not so long" run

It's been decided. Whatever ambitions I had for going long this Spring have definitely flown the coop; they've been shelved, shown the door and given the bum's rush. So that's that. There's really no point trying to catch up for lost time as that'll only invite further injury and I haven't even got over my current problems yet.

On that score though there has been some progress. This evening my long-standing sports masseur Sarah came over to give me the once-over and in her opinion the underlying issue is one of tight quads. From these the muscles that go around the pelvis and connect at the back have been strained and right now there is an imbalance in the Universe - or in my lower-half anyway. So that means more stretches. Goody!

Before this revelation there was, of course, the small matter of a morning run to attend to. With long runs out of the question I was quite content with a short, snappy jaunt around Golders Green and the vicinity (although running past baker's shops with their aroma of fresh-baked bagels is almost too much to bear):

That said karma did get its revenge when shortly afterwards we ran the full length of Hamilton Road. Doesn't sound too bad does it? Except for the fact that right behind the houses runs Hendon Way, also known as the A41, and you can really tell. What a depressing street to live on! As it was we still had to contend with the Brent Cross flyover before we reached Hendon Park and somewhat greener surroundings. It's all relative of course but we can't all live in the remote countryside can we?! As ever though I was happy to get out and even happier to finish.

Distance: 6.7 miles
Time: 58m 31s

Saturday, 12 February 2011

A week off - R & R

It's amazing how much difference a little injury makes. All this week I've been rubbing in the Deep Heat, taking a few painkillers now and then and swimming more often than usual. So far it seems to be working in that I'm regaining flexibility but it's slow progress. On the other hand I did feel fairly energetic when today came around due to essentially taking the week off. So the Running School headed off over the Heath Extension; a big mistake given the recent heavy rains. It was a quagmire! In fact there was so much discontent we ended up sticking to the pavement for the rest of the time.

Despite this is was an enjoyable, chatty run and I didn't feel terrible; although the relaxed pace helped here for sure. It was only in the closing three kilometres that the pace kicked up, to around the 4:30 per kilometre level. This was bearable until I increased the difficulty by doubling back to pick up the stragglers along Sheldon Avenue before then working my way back through the pack. It took until beyond the Spaniards Inn before I managed to pick up Darren and he didn't succumb without a fight! So it was nice to be able to run hard but I know that I've got a lot more work to do yet.

Distance: 8.4 miles
Time: 1h 17m 40s

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Regents Park 10K - February

Oh I wasn't looking forward to today that's for sure. I had to race because I want to complete the series (and as of today I'm 5 for 5) but I wasn't looking forward to starting knowing that I'm sub-par let alone finishing. So to avoid any last-minute doubt, and ensure plenty of warm-up time, I left earlier than usual and headed down to Regents Park. Once there I set off quite gingerly for a warm-up lap and, surprisingly, didn't feel all that terrible. This happy feeling persisted all the way until the start and I did start to wonder (hope?) if I could maintain my sub-40 minute record. Well let the record (of kilometre splits) show that this was never an option:

Not a single sub-4 minute kilometre to be seen! Even worse I felt that, subjectively, my performance improved over the course of the race whereas the reality is that I managed an alright 5K in the middle but faded badly towards the end. So much for intuition but what I really want to know is just how my back injury could have such a dramatic slowing effect? It's not as if my legs or lungs feel directly affected but clearly they are and I think that there are two factors at play here:

  1. Because my lower back is tight it's hard to straighten up fully and I reckon that this stops me raising my legs properly - which subtly reduces my stride length. It may only be a few centimetres but over the course of a race this all adds up.
  2. Along with my back my hamstrings are tighter than usual and today it felt like I was having to work against this resistance to run well - so more energy than usual is being wasted on stretching out my muscles with every stride.
Put these two problems together and you end up with a race time well outside 40 minutes and around 10% slower than my PB set last November.  That's one heck of a drop in performance and right now I can't help wondering if I'll get it all back because my form has really been rocky over the last three months. On the other hand this anecdotal evidence just reinforces my belief in the power of stretching as a force for good; the only problem now is working out whether or not I need to add some core stability work too! Why is life so complicated?

Finally the race results will be here when published: February Results

Distance: 10.8 miles
Time: 1h 21m 02s

Saturday, 5 February 2011

More pain at the weekend

After Tuesday's shocker today was my first post-injury jaunt on the ol' legs and it was pretty so-so; which mostly reflects my feelings in general right now. It's amazing how a taste of incapacity and pain really drains the fun out of life - I can't imagine how I'd cope with something chronic without some serious medication. Anyway a few pills and a lot of Deep Heat seems to be helping and luckily today was just a short, gentle jog around the local streets:

It was nice enough I suppose (lots of chat and a decent push up the Bishops Avenue) but my heart wasn't really in it today. Still there are some snowdrops pushing through on the Heath, the weather is a whole heap milder and the days are getting longer. Also I managed to pick up my new running shoes (Brooks Addiction's) from Sweatshop along with a new long-sleeved top and some shorts (both reduced in the sale) so retail therapy has helped a bit. There's nothing like a new bit of kit to make you want to go out running and see how it feels!

Distance: 6.1 miles
Time: 55m 07s 

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Interval run from hell

Sometimes, just sometimes, you think that finally everything is getting back on track and then life kicks you in the nuts once again! At the weekend it felt, after a couple of lousy months, like I was back to feeling sharp and strong. So, foolishly, I was quite looking forward to doing mile repeats around Green Park this lunchtime. The weather was grey but I felt good and on the jog over I bumped into Paul, from TriLondon, as he drilled a hapless office-worker into some form of fitness in St. James Park. Given that he has three Ironman races booked for this year alone that could only be a good omen!

So, anyway, I was warmed-up, ready for action, and, for maybe the first minute of the first lap, running well. Then something happened - maybe I stepped in a hole or landed badly or something - and with a sickening, twisting, sliding sensation I jerked a muscle in my lower back. Oh my but was it painful! So I ran on, of course, but it's surprising how much a back that spasms with the slightest jolt mucks up your ability to run! From that moment on, and for each of the four laps, it was all about survival, pain-management and sheer bloody-mindedness. I wasn't going to stop but for each of the repetitions to take just over 7 minutes is frankly shocking!

Yes there's the evidence; warm-up and warm-down with four intervals inbetween (and four two-minute recovery breaks). On a good day (as happened last September) the intervals tend to drop from 6:30 down to 6:00 as I work through the set and put a bit more effort in; so today really was very frustrating. Even worse my back now hurts like a thousand angry Cossacks and I'm quite, quite miserable. For once there is no upside to draw out of the experience either - I just hope to be back on my feet for the Regents Park 10K this Sunday. We'll see.

Distance: 7.3 miles
Time: 1h 03m 11s