Thursday, 31 March 2011

Hot and hard in the park

Since running in to work on Tuesday I've been cogitating on stride length, flexibility, stretching and the steps that I can take to improve all of this. So today I decided that while I'd nominally go and do my standard park run at the same time I was going to concentrate on one thing - lifting my knees higher to stretch out each pace (without going so far as to land on my heels of course since that would be counter-productive). Funnily enough as I left the office I felt rather too much like an old man and it probably took until St. James Park before I felt loosened up and able to run freely. Once there though I felt quite cheered up by the floral displays:

St. James Park in the Spring
Beyond the blooms I worked to keep my knees up and it felt good. I had considered, as well, trying a technique where I'd let my trailing leg extend just a bit further back than usual - the theory being that the natural elasticity of my muscles and ligaments would snap this leg forward with less muscular effort than usual. To be honest though I couldn't detect much of a difference and so worried much less about this side of things; which was fine as all around Green Park I was moving at an excellent 6:30 min/mile pace and this continued into Hyde Park. Then, however, I got a bit bogged down in the wet sand and it all started to become a bit of a slog but not because my legs were hurting; instead the difficulty was all about maintaining my technique, controlling my breathing and trying not to overheat. The effort was taking its toll in some unusual places. 

Just look at those stamens!
Coming down the Park Lane side I managed to pick up the pace (assisted by losing the headwind) and drop below the 6:30 min/mile level - holding this all of the way down to Buckingham Palace. By the way I was blowing past the other runners heading my direction I could tell that my improved technique was paying dividends; the challenge now is to incorporate it into my natural running style and, if possible, take it further. So we'll see - when I got back to the office I was several degrees warmer than usual and had a bit of a headache - because the effort level required is certainly a notch or two above what I'm used to!

Distance: 7.6 miles
Time: 55m 26s

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The morning after

With it being the morning after a late night (and a Monday too!) I had the proper double-whammy! Not only did I wake up late but then I had to get out of bed and leave immediately for the run to work; that'll teach me not to leave my bike there overnight. That said the conditions outside were near perfect - just the cool side of comfortable, with a light breeze, and bright without being glaring. It was rather a pleasure to set off for Highgate Woods and try shaking the cobwebs from a couple of non-running days out of my system.

Something that's been on my mind lately is that I read an article where David Cameron's running style was compared unfavourably with his wife's - the key point being that he has a lousy stride angle. This rings a real bell with me since I've been doing a lot of quad (and hamstring) stretching since I hurt my back a couple of months ago and I know from experience that when I want to put in a hard effort then it's mostly about holding a longer stride. If your muscles are tight then you can't help being limited at this point and I very much feel that this has restricted me in the past. So this morning I concentrated on lifting my forward leg and achieving a long, efficient stride at a comfortable pace.

Inevitably then this took me down to the Heath and in the morning light it was quiet and refreshing:

The Heath is quiet in the morning
As I ran over the undulating ground, still soft from the winter and yet not too muddy, past the Ladies Bathing Pond and towards Parliament Hill I couldn't help but feel inwardly settled. Some days you just feel comfortable on your feet and today was one of those golden times. Partly though I think that skipping breakfast and running on an empty stomach helped - I just felt so much lighter with easier breathing and sense of movement - and it's not like I felt hungry. So running up the hill for a view over London was no hardship at all:

Parliament Hill on a March morning
From here it is a straight run down through Kentish Town, skirting Camden Town, and down to the Euston Road. The scenery is nothing to write home about but all of the way I felt strong and at ease with this being reflected in my mile-splits. Across the Heath these were all at about the 8 min/mile mark but in Central London these dropped down below 7 min/mile pace and kept falling all of the way to the office. So a very satisfying trip to work indeed!

Distance: 7.7 miles
Time: 59m 19s

Monday, 28 March 2011

Elbow at the O2

I'd been waiting for this night for a long time - ever since Elbow announced their tour and I had a chance to pre-order tickets. Given what I knew of their live reputation there was just no way that I was going to miss out when they came to London even if it did mean trekking out to the Dome and the wasteland that is the Greenwich peninsula. Actually as it turned out getting there was fine because we could jump on the O2 Express at the London Eye and get whisked down-river by catamaran; enjoying the sights of London by the water in the early evening. It was really a lot of fun although only an appetiser for the main meal:

Hot tickets!
Curiously this was my first ever visit to the O2 -I didn't even make it for the Millennium - so I was quite looking forward to seeing the big tent. The first thing that struck me is how far away it is (30 minutes by boat) while the second thing was its sheer size; they've stuck an arena big enough for 20,000 people in the middle of it and there's still acres of room all around the edge! So it took us a while to get to our seats but what great seats they were; dead-centre in front of the stage and just the right height. Okay we weren't in the mosh pit, where you'd be close enough to throw your knickers to Guy Garvey (literally), but that was probably for the best:

Guy Garvey in action
Anyway once the band arrived on stage and launched into The Birds (from Build A Rocket Boys) I knew that we were going to be in for a special evening. For such a big venue the sound was excellent with very clear vocals, essential for a band like Elbow with their delicate sonic palette, and Guy soon built a rapport with the crowd via some rambling monologues and self-effacing humour. This worked very well in bringing some of the new songs into context although I was pretty glad to have listened to their latest album a number of times before the concert; it always helps to know where you're being taken and when you can sing along! What I didn't expect though was to come away having a greater appreciation of those songs that I'd initially been lukewarm about (such as lippy kids and, especially, with love). Just goes to show I suppose.

The view from seat 204
A nice touch also was that in the middle of the concert most of the band exited the stage to leave Guy and Craig Potter - at the piano - marooned on a peninsula of their own in the middle of the audience. This gave them the chance to cover a couple of tunes that would otherwise get lost in the vastness of a stadium; Puncture Repair from Leaders of the Free World and Some Riot from The Seldom Seen Kid. These are two of my very favourite Elbow songs, both lyrically and musically, so I was happy to see them make an appearance. In fact the whole show was just great and I'm not alone in feeling that way. This was very much one of the best live shows that I've seen in a while; well worth the late night on a Monday!

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Joshua's 8th Birthday Party

So this was it; the big one! Last year, for Joshua's 7th birthday, we'd put the big tent up in the garden and hosted a great camping party. It was the talk of the school and of course that meant we had to up the ante this year with a new and improved version - hence the invitations for a Giant Indoor Sleepover! With fourteen kids on the entry-list we knew that sleep was going to be at a premium and so Lenore came up with a range of wild and exciting activities designed to engage and exhaust the most sugar-hyped child! That's probably why the first half of the party was all about making things - camping beds in the sleeping room, hand-made pizzas for tea, fire-pits for a barbecue and dens to hide from lions:

These pizzas are hard work!

Let it rain - we're snug as bugs

We didn't do it!
After this, well, it was more a case of unmaking things! As darkness fell spirits lifted and the garden became a place of magic, mystery and naked flames:

There's trouble brewing....
Speaking of naked flames there was plenty of fire-worship going on whether outdoors:

I think our marshmallows are ready!

Or indoors:

After these heady times the plan was for everyone to wind-down with a nice DVD, lashings of hot chocolate and some slowly-dimming lights. Well as far as plans go it didn't last long - perhaps up until the midnight feast that got cracked open at about 9pm (luckily giving us adults enough time to relax with a hearty dinner). Beyond this point a succession of increasingly ineffective attempts were made to quieten the troops down and take the edge of the rampant party fever but it was no good; it was rumpus time and we just had to go with the flow. So we made them all sleep in the garden:

Rise and shine!
Okay that's not strictly true but it was certainly the case that 'musical rooms' was the order of the evening! Eventually at some time after midnight, and a certain laying down of the law, peace settled across the battlefield and we all regrouped for the grand finale. Surprisingly enough this didn't take place at 5am or even 6am; not until after the clock struck seven did life emerge and we settled down to the very important business of making pancakes for a succession of hungry customers. And then we made some more. And then I went shopping because we'd run out of ingredients! Talk about a production line!

We love Nutella
Once well-fuelled the mob made for the garden and busied themselves once again with their shelters, bouncing on the trampoline and engaging in a form of hand-to-hand combat with improvised firearms. Probably a typical day if you have fourteen kids! Still everyone seemed to have a great time, the only damage was some nail varnish on the carpet and no-one was especially eager to leave when their parent's arrived. All in all Lenore came up with the goods again - although we couldn't have done it without an army of eager helpers. Thank you everyone!

Next year though - I think that we'll hire a clown!

Down to the (Welsh Harp) Waterline

Given the imminence of Joshua's birthday party, a giant sleep-over, this was destined to be my only run of the weekend - so I made sure that I arrived in plenty of time. Which is more than can be said for Mike MacManus as he swung into the car-park as we headed out! Maybe this is why he took over the reins and headed straight down towards the special joy that is Cricklewood! Actually that's maybe a bit harsh as he did lead us across the little-known open space of Clitterhouse Playing Fields and over to the perhaps more widely-know open space of Brent Cross shopping centre! No one can claim that this wasn't a route of two-halves but in the end the urban landscape gave way to the more rural vista of the Brent Reservoir -  colloquially known as Welsh Harp.

Most of us only know this area as a glimpse of water from the North Circular but it is, in fact, a fun place to run around and, not surprisingly, a hot-spot for water sports. You can tell that we were glad to, finally, get there:

Mike leading Daniel, Jonathan, Lawrence and Josie
What's interesting about Welsh Harp is that the reservoir was originally created not to provide drinking water but instead to ensure that the new-fangled canals in London didn't run dry. To this end it expanded to an area of over 400 acres at its peak although these days it's more like a bit over 100 acres in size - although if you include the Silver Jubilee Park to the north then there's a fair bit of open space available for running. That said it can get a bit boring just putting one foot in front of the other and we were all glad of Simon Bernstein's sterling effort to sustain us with repartee, encouragement and good old-fashioned discipline. Not only does Simon drive himself with a vigour that belies his years but he is also a tireless champion of worthy causes:

Simon Bernstein - legend
So it was with a heavy heart that we left behind this nirvana and arced our way across the A406 via the Brent Cross Flyover - concrete monstrosity and crime-scene in-waiting that it is. One can only wonder how many shopping trolleys have met an untimely end in this moral wasteland! Luckily just round the corner Jonathan and Darren were surging hard up Hamilton Road and so I had to submit to a long chase up the suburban streets; it might not have been Bullitt but the pursuit was exciting enough. In fact so exciting was it that Darren went again through Golders Green and I really had to put myself to the sword to catch up - only closing in on the very final stretch past the Old Bull and Bush. It's amazing what you can do when you try!

Distance: 10.5 miles
Time: 1h 30m 42s

Friday, 25 March 2011

Lethargy rules OK

Urrggghh. What a lethargic day. I couldn't face running at lunchtime, because the streets were just bound to be packed with sun-worshippers, so I didn't. Instead I reckoned that with the longer evenings I could get home while it was light and still fit in a decent (and quiet) run around the home turf. So that was the plan and I managed to leave on time, get home in time and even get changed in time; if only I'd accounted for the lethargy! Heading down to Highgate Woods I felt properly out-of-sorts, all uncoordinated and inefficient, and not myself. So I decided that for my 45-minute sojourn I'd try something new and connect the woods to Ally Pally in a figure-of-eight fashion (perhaps appropriate now that the ice rink has re-opened). Sadly the sunset wasn't quite as spectacular as usual but even so the view over Muswell Hill from the viaduct was nice enough:

Muswell Hill from the viaduct
Down at Alexandra Palace the sky began to darken and I wondered who, or what, I might encounter on my trip around the edge. There were plenty of people around, although not many in the Phoenix Bar oddly enough, so I picked my way through and weaved through the woodland down to the bottom of the hill. There it was all quiet but the view up to the Palace and television transmitter was worth capturing:

Alexandra Palace in the gloaming
It's funny how you can be in touching distance of something and yet be in a different world; not a soul was to be seen at the base of the park, as I ran through the tunnel of trees, and yet all around me life continued unabated. It was strangely peaceful and even coming back over the viaduct, with just a few other runners, I felt more together and myself again. This wasn't a long run in the great scheme of things, and sluggish was my movement, but I'm glad I got out there as now I feel ready for dinner and the weekend!

Distance: 6.5 miles
Time: 50m 46s

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Mid-week run

Hasn't the weather just been amazing this week? Blue skies, lashings of sun and ever so warm in a real "we're just waking up from winter" kind of way. I just love it and today I couldn't wait to get out at lunchtime and start synthesising some vitamin D. With that in mind I planned to head over to Kensington Palace and take in the full glory of Hyde Park; a route that pretty much maximises what I can do if I stick to the central London parks. The first thing that I noticed, of course, was the large number of tourists with foreign school-children being particularly hard to miss in their swarms. Right behind though came the glory of Spring and the sense of horse chestnut trees preparing for conker season:

To be honest I was quite glad to stop at this point, to take a few pictures, as I'd developed a really terrible stitch. For some reason the usual tricks of breathing deeply or swinging my arms about weren't working so I was rather resigned to struggling on. Still the outdoors is always uplifting even if Kensington Palace is undergoing a massive refurbishment and thus surrounded by hoardings. Heading back the trees are loaded with blossom and rather pretty:

Hyde Park in the Spring
So even though I wasn't feeling on top form I was glad to be out - and it's fair to say that by the time I returned back through Green Park I was starting to feel a bit more myself. Of course my usual route is a bit obstructed these days as they construct stands for the Royal Wedding (which can't help the view from the Palace) but that's all part of living in an evolving metropolis I guess.

Distance: 8.8 miles
Time: 1h 4m 43s

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Hounslow Urban Farm

After the fun that we had last week in Kentish Town this Sunday I decided to cast around for somewhere new; a change of scenery if you like (though still a city farm - the kids were quite decided on that point). So I wound up looking through the extensive list held by the Federation of City Farms & Community Gardens (who knew?) and picked Hounslow Urban Farm on the basis of it being one of the largest around. Well that and the fact that they had alpacas and rheas - any animal with a name that's mostly vowels is cool in my book. So we headed off with high expectations (mostly for a cup of tea in Lenore's case) and arrived just after lunch - at which point Joshua and Christina made a bee-line for the toy-tractors:

Natural farmers!

Now I suppose that you might consider them ungrateful, given that you can find these tractors anywhere, but at least they're honest - and they were having a great time! In no time at all we had taken in just about all of the animals on show (literally since most of them you weren't meant to, or couldn't, touch) but then as luck would have it we stumbled across the bouncy castle. So they both scrambled aboard to burn off some energy while Lenore got sent off to secure refreshments (there being no cafe on site); I merely filled the role of press-photographer and sometime publicist! After a while though even sole ownership of the castle grew boring and the kids became more adventurous; deciding to take feeding into their own hands:

Shetland ponies at Hounslow Urban Farm
This worked out well until some caged rats decided to nibble on their fingers (not that the kids cared - they love animals that much). After this we restricted ourselves to the pig race (a real squeal?) before heading off to the wide open space of Hounslow Heath. Now we'd never been to this nature reserve previously but it looked interesting on Google Maps and besides the afternoon remained warm. What we hadn't realised is that the heathland is a magnet for reptiles in general and adders in particular - so there always remained some possibility of snake action as we wandered along the nature trail. As it happened though the wildlife restricted itself to four legs with a waggy tail; a perfect situation for Joshua and Christina as they absolutely adore dogs.

Hounslow Heath
So the heath was a big hit with everyone. It's pretty rough and ready to be sure, a long way from the manicured perfection of the Royal Parks, but it feels very natural (despite the constant stream of air traffic landing at Heathrow) and well suited to little boys with too much testosterone. The closest analogue that I can think of in North London is Epping Forest or maybe Enfield Chase; all are places where you might be less than surprised to come across a highwayman on a foggy night! Then again you might say the same thing about Highgate...

A Sunday Foursome

Sadly today had a bit of a chill on it, unlike yesterday, but on the other hand it held the promise of so much to come - the hours yet to pass (unlike the dismal English rugby team). So today stalwarts Mike and Adam were joined by myself and Mark James; a great combination. With scant preamble we let Mark take the lead since he often coaches his students on the Heath and shows great personal promise; who knows but in time he may yet graduate to the Saturday slot! How quickly we were rewarded by an unusual path around the edge of the Heath before striking off across Waterlow Park and down to Crouch End. So far so good and it turns out that Mark even knows the gentlest climbs back up through Queens Wood up to Highgate Wood; although 'gentle' can be quite relative:

Mark James digging in for the finish
After this excitement we settled back in to an easy rhythm across the posh part of Highgate and down Hampstead Lane. On a Sunday run there's really no need to push the pace too much (why spoil a good day of relaxation?) so even past the Spaniards Inn we could afford to mainly stick together; which is more than you could say for the poor chap sleeping in his Fiat Multipla down on North End Way. It might be a people carrier but it didn't look all that comfortable to me! Anyway at this point I got coerced by Adam into adding on a few miles and as I do enjoy a quick run through Golders Hill Park I was happy to oblige. It's a lovely park with a little zoo for the kids and yet it's hardly that busy on a Spring morning:

Golders Hill Park at 9:30am
So I cruised through the park and up to the Heath Extension. There's much to enjoy about running through the woods all alone, just the echo of your footsteps harmonising to your breathing while birdsong picks up the higher melody. It's a shame that it all has to end but on the other hand I was happy to have got a decent 10 miles in without, in a sense, having to make a tremendous effort; such is the benefit of the running school!

Distance: 10.5 miles
Time: 1h 33m 9s

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Down to Regents Park

With the Chairman (Ira) being away today was the day that a new leader, Michael Solomon, got to try on the mantle of power and see how it felt. Sensibly then Michael decided to stick to a tried and tested formula with a run down to Regents Park taking in Hampstead and Belsize Park - convivial locations with wide pavements - plus a healthy dose of bright sunshine. In fact it was, if anything, a little on the warm side but then again who's complaining when it feels so good? So down Rosslyn Hill we went and up Primrose Hill we went (doesn't it sound like The Grand Old Duke of York?) where we bumped into a photographer willing to capture us for posterity:

The Running School on Primrose Hill
All was relaxed at this point, as it often is with the school, and in Regents Park we trotted past the warthogs with barely a murmur before stopping for water out of real plastic cups - now that is organisation! - and taking in the rose-gardens (which are a little before their best). Even coming up to Swiss Cottage the school remained together at a gentle pace but then swung into view The Beast; otherwise known as Fitzjohn's Avenue. Able to bring a grown man to tears this mighty climb rises to the heights of Hampstead before kicking off again up to the Heath. So, in a way, it's traditional to pit yourself against the terrain and give it your all:
Darren Dryer finishing with strength
All in all then Michael proved up to the task appointed and all of us, in a large group, enjoyed a very nice Spring run (or if there were any mutterings of dissent I wasn't party to them!). What's ever so great though is that finally it feels like we're on the verge of some properly enjoyable weather where you can sit in the garden reading your paper and plan a barbecue at the weekend without feeling like you're taking your life in your hands. What a fine feeling it is to stand on the cusp of summer; that electric sense of anticipation!

Distance: 7.6 miles
Time: 1h 3m 36s

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Battersea and back

Sometimes it's important to make a change and today I just felt like doing something different, something I haven't done for a while. Really it was a toss-up between going out and drinking tequila until I fell over or heading out on a run down to Battersea Park. You can guess which option won as I'm physically able to type at this moment! So at lunchtime I headed out into the fog (or smog) and down the Thames Path on the south bank of the river. In many ways this isn't the most picturesque route but you do get a good view of the Houses of Parliament, Lambeth Palace and a good number of bridges. Eventually though Battersea Power Station starts to loom in an iconic fashion:

Nowadays, of course, it's just a husk surrounded by wasteland (and officious security guards) but there are grand plans in place to develop the huge site. If it means that I'll be able to run along the river rather than the A3025 then that's good enough for me. Fortunately just around the corner is Battersea Park and this is quite definitely an oasis of calm that feels set apart from Central London - not quite Richmond Park but close enough. Of course what goes up must come down and I usually choose to return along the north bank which means following the A3212 until gawping tourists mean that you can't go any further. In other words when you cross the Victoria Tower Gardens and come across this hunk of masonary:

Victoria Tower
It's an impressive building alright, and I expect that the view from the top is very fine, but it's a right bugger to get past. For a start the area outside is clogged by anti-terrorist barriers but then these, like giant pinball flippers, funnel the teeming hordes of foreign schoolkids and capricious tourists directly into the tight spot that you'd like to pass through. It's a total nightmare and I think that I'd take a taxi if I thought that it'd help! Either way it was great to get past and finish off quite an enjoyable mid-week run; maybe I'll venture this way in another six months or so!

Distance: 8.3 miles
Time: 1h 2m 3s

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Kentish Town City Farm

For city children Joshua and Christina are surprisingly at home with outdoor life, farm animals and copious amounts of mud. Actually maybe it isn't all that astonishing - there's something strangely magnetic about getting messy that appeals to children and our kids are no exception. Anyway we'd dropped in by Kentish Town City Farm late on Saturday while returning from our photo-shoot and while we were too late yesterday Joshua was mad keen that we return promptly. So I was very pleased to find that, by chance, the farm was putting on a "Make your own thing" session just this afternoon - which meant that they'd have the chance to get both muddy and sticky!

Eat up turkey - not long till Christmas!
The nice thing about this City Farm, and all of the others that we've been to, is that they are just so child-centric. The kids can wander around, looking at and amusing themselves with the various animals scratching about freely; there's always something on the move that's tame enough to allow little ones to get up close and personal. So that's a real freedom that you just don't normally get, even in the country, unless you actually live on a farm and then you'll spend most of your time mucking out!

After rambling about for a while, spending time watching the frogs densely packed into a pond make new frogspawn and admiring the teenage girls ride the farm's ponies around a ring while their friends applauded, it was nice to get indoors and start some junk modelling. Curiously there were only a couple of other kids there so Joshua and Christina were able to get immediately stuck in to the plant pots, tacky glue, strips of old towel and other creative essentials. All I had to do was make sure that they didn't stab themselves with the scissors or superglue their hand to the chair - they were that interested in taking part.

Actually talking of taking part Joshua couldn't help noticing that there were children helping out on the farm, clearing up and looking after the animals, and that this was something that he'd very much like to do. As it happens the farm does take children as volunteers from 8 years old and up - so in a couple of weeks we'll be able to find out exactly what volunteering involves. Who knows; this could be Joshua's first step towards being a vet!

Mutton Brook - no Spring lamb here

What goes up must come down? I feel that there's no shame in admitting that I felt a tad sub-par this morning; the price to be paid for good conversation and freely-flowing wine I believe. So it was in the nick of time that I made it to the Heath this morning - surprising Adam and Mike in the very act of setting off. No longer were they to enjoy a gentle 10K but, potentially, something more physical. On an ordinary day that might well be true but today I was happy just to potter around the Garden Suburb talking about rugby (Italy beating the French? What a joyful result!), tsunamis and nuclear meltdown in Japan (unbelievable images) and how the media industry might be brought to its knees by digital piracy!

More fun than all of this though we also took the opportunity to explore some new paths, alleys and back-street mews in a bid to add a little novelty.Taking the road less travelled is always interesting when you're on foot and occasionally quite satisfying when you manage to connect up the dots between places you know - almost as if the geography around us is a giant jigsaw-puzzle. Diversions such as these led us to Mutton Brook, an inconsequential stream that runs alongside the A1 to meet, and merge, with the Dollis Brook. The funny thing is that while we padded alongside the culvert in Lyttelton Playing Fields we realised we had no idea where the stream comes from - it just seems to appear from nowhere.

Mutton Brook
So I've looked into this further and it seems that the brook initially rises in Cherry Tree Woods (the site of our local and much-loved playground) before travelling underground to emerge somewhere behind Vivian Way in East Finchley (or this is what the OS map suggests anyway). This makes a lot of sense as there is a muddy area (almost a wetland) in the woods, by the railway tracks, where Joshua likes to play and the water that collects here must go somewhere! It's only when you actually stop and think about your local environment like this that you realise just how much history, knowledge and information is imprinted in the landscape around us despite the best efforts of urban planners. That's probably why Nick Papadimitriou has set up his website on Middlesex County Council or, at least, the bit that he's interested in.

Distance: 7.2 miles
Time: 1h 5m 0s

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Finsbury Park in the sunshine

It's pretty obvious at the moment that I'm not doing that much running - especially in the week - and the big problem with that is that I've really got to hit my weekend runs. So when it became clear that today was going to be chock-a-block (what with speech therapy, violin practice, swimming lessons, a photo shoot and then going out for dinner) I knew that I'd only be getting one shot at the prize. Luckily at 11am, with the family heading out of the front door, the sun was shining and I had a route down to Finsbury Park that wasn't going to run itself.

Halfway down the Parkland Walk
As I've mentioned before it's a cracking little run and today, coming up to lunchtime, it was swarming with recreational runners. Seriously where do they all come from? I'm sure that I didn't bump into them when the snow was 6" on the ground! Still I felt pretty good heading down the old railway track with the sound of birds singing in the trees, which was the case for most of the run, and even Finsbury Park felt busy and welcoming today.

A bit of perspective in Finsbury Park
The best part of this route is the section heading up to Highgate and not just because it's the way home - today I was hoping to catch some of those fun runners and use them as motivational stepping stones. So I hit the trail with some purpose and set off at about 4 min/km pace. And didn't catch anyone. So I persevered. A little while later I thought that I glimpsed a flash of red in the distance and so upped my pace a fraction. But still no one came into view. This was starting to get annoying but all I could do was keep calm and carry on. In fact by the time the end came I hadn't seen, caught and passed a single runner heading in my direction. What are the odds?!

Either way by the time I got back to Queens Wood and the homeward stretch I felt that I'd put my legs through the mill as there wasn't much left in the tank for even the slightest rise:

The 39 steps?
Hence I was quite glad to see my front door and the chance for a refreshing cup of tea. Ah the joy of being British!

Distance: 9.2 miles
Time: 1h 11m 43s

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Two weeks later - back to the park

After missing out on a lunchtime run last week it was nice to get out today and see how Spring's getting on. This is such a great time of year with the evenings suddenly becoming dramatically lighter and the scent of blossom in the air and so I was expecting great things. I'm glad to say that St James Park didn't disappoint what with crocuses and daffodils carpeting the ground while the cherry trees are budding like there's no tomorrow. So while the sky might be grey the park is anything but:

Following my usual route I headed over Green Park towards Hyde Park and the difference that a few week's dry weather makes is massive; no longer is the path sodden and slippery which is good news both for my stride and my shoes! Over in Hyde Park the horse trail is once again navigable all of the way round, not that I witnessed any riders out today, although the water fountains are still out of action. I know that the winter was unusually bitter but even so - warm weather is on the way and we runners need to stay hydrated! Actually while on the subject of the horse trails there's always a choice in the park between the hard and soft options:

As you might expect I always like to take the harder route (isn't running just a reflection of life itself?) but it's doubly enjoyable when you get to overtake joggers on the tarmac! Obviously one has to make it look easy while easing past but the loosely competitive pleasure is worth the effort. So an enjoyable run through the London parks even if a few of my muscles are still a little sore from last Sunday.

Distance: 7.7 miles
Time: 1h 5m 23s

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Regents Park 10K - March - End of Series

It's finally happened - the Regents Park Winter Series has come to an end and my but what a curates egg! On the plus side I achieved an excellent PB of 37:39 back in November, I've managed to complete every one of the races (six for six!) and on the whole I feel like I've finished strongly. On the other hand since November I've struggled with something in every race, whether injury or illness, and last month my time of 41:12 was perhaps my worst result in a serious 10K since, well, forever. Certainly since I first began running this distance, or any distance, back in 2003. So it's fair to say that I haven't managed to match my aspiration of placing well in the V40 category for the entire series but I'll come back to that.

As usual I turned up early at the Park to fit in my customary warm-up lap and was immediately glad that I'd dressed up warmly (having almost forgotten to do so) - the chilly weather that's pinned London like a cold, dead hand all week remains with us (I almost froze to death in Trafalgar Square on Friday at World Book Night). The other motive behind this pattern is that it allows for certain, essential, pit-stops without having to worry about missing the start; I guess that even after all these years I still get a little nervous! Fortunately I bumped into friendly TriLondoners Gordon, Chris, Olivia, Anthony and Lotte (not racing) in the pause before the off and so my mind turned to happier things.

Given my poor showing in recent months I determined to take the first lap very sensibly this time around and to reassess the situation after 2-3km - which meant seeding myself a good chunk back, next to Anthony, and then having the "pleasure" of watching him shoot off in his typical, fast-starting fashion. Soon enough I'd lost sight of him in the crowd and it was only Lotte shouting to me at around 2.5km that he was 10 seconds in front that gave me something to work with. So when the first lap passed in around 13:10 I figured that I should be able to manage sub-40 and that perhaps it was time to get a move on. Even so it took until the halfway mark to drag myself up to Anthony's group and right then I had to disavow my previous struggle and push on past. Luckily there is a downhill section to the children's playground just beyond this point and I was able to freewheel and recover a bit (a favourite tactic after the uphill that comes immediately before).

The irritating part was that a fellow runner attached himself to me at this point and from then on we were like each other's shadow. For example on the northern section past London Zoo I put in a hearty effort and, satisfyingly enough, managed to drop him but then he clawed his way back as we came through the start/finish. Then it was my turn to suffer and I was breathing hard as we skirted along the lakes before he really put me to the sword on the hill past St.John's Lodge. It was just too much and at the top I had to drop a few paces back or blow up - but that was enough. He gained no further ground and by the fountain we were once again shoulder to shoulder and doing our level best to bring back the 3 or 4 runners immediately in front.

Down by the playground we turned again and then the pace got a little hot as we rose again towards the zoo - in the final 2km - and I mentally figured that my previous effort to catch up had done for my chances. As it came to the final 1000 metres and that stretch along the zoo edge I still felt at the limit; just about able to hold my own but very much looking for the finish line. Right then, though, with about 800m to go I just decided to lay my cards down and go for it. Surging forward I passed my shadow and then his wing-man before continuing with the suicidal effort. They were broken but I felt like I was going to break up, to fly apart into little pieces at any moment, the effort causing spittle to cascade down my chin as every fibre of my being stretched to the limit. I love this final uphill stretch, it really suits my strengths, but I was just holding it together as I came around the final bend and the final, awful, steps to the finish. This was racing ugly but then what do you expect from a 3:38 final kilometre?

Looking back I'm very pleased that my finish time featured a 38 and a 48 in the right order as it, kind of, makes the effort worthwhile (although it was only good enough for 20th place - again!). That said the series has been anything but consistent as my times demonstrate:

October -  39:14 (20th)
November -37:39 (20th)
December - 38:28 (22nd)
January -39:08 (21st)
February - 41:12 (37th)
March - 38:48 (20th)

I mean what is it about 20th place that's so great? Anyway I continued this trend by being 21st overall in the series rankings with 52 points (enough to give me 5th place, out of 173, in the V40 group - very competitive obviously!). Certainly it's my best result in the series yet and what's more I have the Summer Series coming up; yes I wangled myself an entry now that these are being held on a Sunday too and I remain optimistic! All I want to do is stop coming twentieth - can that be so hard?

Distance: 11.2 miles
Time: 1h 21m 4s

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Running Muswell Hill

Many people don't like hills but not me; I love them! So from my perspective living in Muswell Hill is just great - I'm surrounded by gradients in every direction and if you're feeling masochistic you can devise a route that does nothing but take you up and down hills. Okay it's not the Alps or even the Peak District but it is home and that's good enough for me. Anyway today's route was very much an urban run in the traditional style but it found favour with me by including the main climb up to Muswell Hill from Crouch End - a proper kilometre at 10% all of the way.

So it felt good to put in a solid effort all of the way to the top (where I managed to just about reel in some unrelated runner and assert my masculinity!). This was especially sweet as all week I've suffered with a sore knee and haven't felt up to running once - even walking down the stairs was painful enough - and couldn't help but entertain doubts as to whether I'd be able to perform this weekend. The weirdest thing though is that running itself turns out not to be painful; just anything slower. So I guess that I'll just have to keep trotting along until I feel better. Our bodies sure are full of surprises. Just when you think that you've got them cracked they throw you another curve-ball.

Distance: 7.8 miles
Time: 1h 7m 52s