Saturday, 17 March 2012

View from the back of the field

The next three paragraphs may seem unrelated at first, but stick with it and all will be clear...

I am no marathon hero; my 2:44 PB is okay but it's not as if I am some sub 2:20 stud (much that I wish I was).  On better days I still harbour dreams of cracking 2:30, but I know it will probably remain just that - a dream.  But the fact remains that my 2:44 got me 2nd place in a field of hundreds - that is just the standard of many marathons these days.  The vast majority are running well over 3hr; often several hours more.

Of late I have had an injury. My own stupid fault.  I can run mega-miles injury free, but I have to take real care at increasing the speed or else injury beckons.  I knew half way through the run that I was pushing it but declined to slow down.  The next day I paid for it and yet still could have eased off a bit and recovered within a few days, but again stupidity reared its ugly head.  Now I have a long term problem that I can barely describe let alone diagnose - have barely run for over a month.

Two Harbours, Catalina Island
View from the hills down to Avalon below
Catalina Island is beautiful; just stunning!  It is an island just of the coast of California and was once owned by the Wrigley family - they of chewing gum fame. It has barely any paved roads and is very hilly too.  I went there and ran the marathon as a training run last year while in the States for a conference and it just beat me up - there must have been no more than 800m of flat terrain in the whole race!  Getting one hour of sleep and very sea sick on the overnight ferry was deeply unpleasant, but the beauty of the place surpassed that all. Truly the most beautiful place I have ever run.

Typical Catalina views
These three tangled webs of thoughts came together last weekend when I was again in LA for the same conference and once again entered the Catalina Marathon.  Except I was injured and out of shape.  A week earlier I had accepted I'd not be able to run it, but then I went out to do a token 1 or 2 mile tester jog and found that my injury got no worse as long as I went no faster.  Having not done more than a couple of miles for weeks I covered a very slow 18M bumping into a great guy called Yong Park and chatting most of the way.  The next day I thought I'd really test it out - after all a marathon is a long way and Catalina is very hilly whereas the roads where I was staying were very flat. So I ran my first 30 miler (as you do). Even slower!  The previous day I had only managed just under 11min/mile pace; this day was nearer 12s.  It was easy - ridiculously, breathtakingly, "why am I even doing this" easy - but any faster and I was limping.  And, with my capacity to eat, I'd rather be moving.  My legs survived the 30 miles okay, but after 6+hr (inc. walking breaks and food/fluid stops) my skin hadn't - ouch! I bought a cap before Catalina...

2am: Leaving Long Beach past the Queen Mary

But I knew I could survive the race (probably) and it was just so beautiful out there last year that I thought I'd give it a go.  The plan was pretty simple - aim to double my PB (2:44 becomes 5:30ish), practise walking and eating on the run (in preparation for my first ultra later this year) and just enjoy myself.

Sunrise just before our 6am arrival
So I travelled down to Long Beach after the conference and stayed at my friend Kevin's house - he has raced Catalina 13 or 14 times and this year was no exception.  We awoke at 1:15am after a couple of hours sleep and after persuading Kevin to just ignore his dodgy stomach and man up we got onto the ferry at 2am, chugged out past the Queen Mary and into the Pacific.

Race start
Kevin got more sleep on the ferry; I felt surprisingly awake but lay down and rested some more.  3hr later we arrived at Avalon, the island's main town and the race's finish, where we picked up the racers who had taken the sensible option of staying on the island the night before.  Then it was another 1hr until, just after sunrise, we got to the other end of the island - Two Harbours - where the race was to begin.

At 7am the race got underway; after a few hundred metres we started climbing and we continued to climb, often very steeply, until past 2.5 miles before a brief dip gave way to further climbing.  I started out with Kevin towards the back and was soon passing tons of people who had gone out too fast.  You'd think people would know to take it easy at the start of a marathon, but we met one guy from Huntington Beach who had never run more than 11 miles before! He had no idea what he had let himself in for, poor guy, but he finished.

Clear skies and high temps
Race day was forecast to be mid 60s F, but it definitely got well into the seventies in the middle section.  The heat proved to be pretty tough, not only for those of us coming from British winters, but also for locals like Kevin who was more burnt than me (in my new cap) by the end though he comfortably pulled away early on while the sun was still rising.

Beautiful views were a constant from start to finish
Early on I realised I'd be seeing lots of people rather than running with one group. My injury would bother me if I ran fast, uphill or downhill mattered not to me.  So, somewhat inevitably, it was the downhills where pace naturally picks up that were the problem and many folks would come past as I carefully eased my way down, but then I would pass them all back and more as I ran almost exactly the same pace up the hills barely breathing (to the probable frustration of those I passed).  The hills and injury were starting to make my legs work in ways they weren't used to and it soon became clear that though my heart rate would barely touch "dead easy" all day, my muscles were going to take a battering. I had promised myself last year I would do some squats and leg strength work before ever returning here - I was starting to regret not sticking to that resolution.

Me (in the red) getting passed on the downhill by Ed "the jester" and Andrea "the cookie monster"
When racing a marathon you think about pace, fluids, fuelling, competition and such things; this was different - I was really having fun.  Meeting a whole bunch of friendly people, chatting, eating and enjoying the day.  It was a totally different feel further back the field - less intense and more relaxed.  Initial brief words of greeting and encouragement became sentences and conversations and by the end friends were made; the further we progressed the more we relaxed and the more fun we had.

Ed was promoting Sketchers new running shoes by dressing as a jester and carrying a board with him all the way - at the start he displayed it saying "26.2 miles to go", during the race it said "almost there" (which was mostly a lie) and at the end he came back to the 26 mile marker, crossing out the "26" and declaring ".2 miles to go"!  Andrea was competitive; her running speed wasn't the issue - eating the cookies before I got there was!  Which leads me nicely on to the feed stations...

The biggest...
... And the best!

Wow! Water and Gatorade I am used to and I have also done races in the past with a few jelly babies or similar.  But these feed stations were spectacular - far more similar to what I am told ultra race feed stations are like.  There were cookies with the fluids at almost every station and there were loads of them - no chance of getting dehydrated even on a hot day like the one we were having. The biggest feed station ( at the top of the biggest climb at mile 19) had fruit, pretzels, nuts, cookies and much, much more.  But the station before (at the bottom of the climb) was better still - homemade cookies and brownies.  I honestly think I consumed  more calories than I burned!


Back to the people.  Caleb had come from Boulder, Colorado, and knew the big name ultra guys from out that way - we chatted about ultras and such things to pass the time.  Nadia was more local but was in a similar situation to me - as a 3:20 marathoner she was taking it easy as she accompanied her Dad, Jorge, around his 32nd marathon.  She was on a mission to have fun and, fortunately, unlike me she had brought her camera.  It is she who took most of these snaps (Thanks, Nadia!).

Father and daughter, Jorge and Nadia

Jorge's entry into the world of marathon running was a fascinating story. Nadia had come to him at 14 years old and told him that she had entered the LA marathon.  He knew his daughter was too young to do that (not to mention undertrained), but she was determined so he simply ran it with her to look after her.  13 years later they must have run about 100 marathons between then since!  Classic! And I though my son was crazy...  And Ellen, who kindly chatted me to sufficient distraction to keep moving when my legs were completely shot in the final miles, had simply seen the words "Catalina Marathon" and entered knowing only that the race was 26.2 miles long and nothing of the hills or even the fact that it was an off-road race! (That kept me chuckling for a few miles)!

Buffalo on the hill
The other companion was one of the famous buffaloes - they were brought to the Island for a movie as I understand it and have been allowed to breed and roam around.  Last year one of my fellow runners, Christie, saw the buffalo - I was a bit further ahead and I missed it.  This year Nadia got a photo of it and, despite being only a matter of minutes away, I somehow missed seeing it again!  Maybe next time...

Jester Ed

 The last 3 miles were downhill (and very steep at that) - it would have been very fast if you actually had legs that worked still at this point.  Nobody near me qualified for that status!  At the bottom we came into Avalon where a last half mile of tarmac and the rare sight of civilisation came back into view along with Jester Ed's board and the finish line.  I was amazed how easy the run was and yet how hard it had been on my legs.  I will definitely do leg strength work before I do something this hilly again  - promise!

I finished a chunk under the 5:30 target, my injured leg had survived (just), I had walked, eaten while running, been on my legs for hours and reckon it had all been good ultra training.  But most of all I had great fun!

Catalina Island is the most beautiful place.  For running it can be unforgiving terrain, but its sights make it thoroughly worthwhile.  If you ever find yourself nearby in March, do yourself a favour and come and see this most beautiful of races!  Or maybe, like me, you find yourself tempted by the prospect of the Avalon 50 miler in January... :)

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Minimalism 101

I was 18 or 19 years old (or thereabouts) and a keen triathlete, back in the early days of the sport when people still asked what that was.  I was seeing a podiatrist as my reoccurring shin splints were getting worse; they were now stopping me getting much over 30mpw.  Over the previous 3 years, as my training had gotten more serious, I had moved to progressively bigger shoes and at that time I was wearing a monster of a shoe from Brooks that was called the "Beast".  Heaviest running shoe on the market - maximum cushioning, maximum motion control.

Latest version of the Brooks Beast - 400g of shoe!

The podiatrist lady was confident and charming, the kind of person that convinces you easily of their own excellence.  She measured me up for orthotics - the first of several pairs I eventually had - to correct my weak arches that she told me were causing me to overpronate. I remember her telling me clearly and firmly, "You will never be able to run again without orthotics!"

I certainly got more done with the orthotics and was able to run up into the 40+mpw zone.  A few years later I even got a 70mile week done, but that was isolated and followed by injury.

Fast forward a decade or so to 2003 and I was no longer the athlete of my youth.  My 5' 8.5" frame weighed 17.5 stone (245lb / 111kg).  I was determined to get back into shape so I started walking and eventually progressed to running - the first single mile nearly killed me!  So, anyway, I went out and got a new pair of running shoes - well cushioned and well supported as before.  I was surprised that I was a full size bigger than when I had raced in my youth, but otherwise it was insoles out and orthotics in as before, and slow, slow progression of plodding.  Another thing remained unchanged - 40 miles in a week = chronic shin splints.  Progress halted, I was distraught.

But now there was a big difference - knowledge. I had been reading on the Let's Run message boards about a concept known as "minimalism".  The concept was, simply stated, that when it comes to running shoes, less is more.  Rather than merely racing in lightweight racing shoes, you trained in them as well.

The theory was, and is, that we were designed to run a certain way and that adding excess cushioning simply encouraged poor technique (specifically landing on one's heel with the leg extended in front of one's centre of gravity).  That in turn resulted in a longer period of time when the foot is in contact with the ground during each stride giving more opportunity for overpronation - this led to more "motion control" features in a shoe to correct that.  In addition, the excess cushioning raised the foot off the ground - in the same way that running in platform shoes would make you wobble and fall over, so any raising of the foot above the ground creates instability.  Cue more motion control features.

Now this does not mean that every runner can throw away their heavy shoes (and orthotics), buy some lightweight racers and be injury free.  Years of running in shoes with additional cushioning, weight, motion control, height from ground and heel-to-toe drop brings about what the human body does best - adaptation.  And it takes time, and lots of it, to adapt back again; not to mention strengthening exercises and what not.

So is that what I did?  A carefully planned regime of restrengthening unused arches and slowly working down to lightweight shoes over a period of years as I would recommend today that anyone wanting to go minimal does? Nope.  I ran a mile on the treadmill one day in agony from sore shins, took off my heavy shoes and orthotics and threw them away!  Did I suffer setbacks as a direct result of my impetuous and dramatic cold turkey approach to minimalism? Absolutely!  But I got there in the end.

My beloved New Balance RC150s - less than half the weight of the Beast!

The first mile run in my comeback was at the end of May 2003 - within weeks I had thrown out the shoes and orthotics.  In June 2004 I ran the North Downs 30K ( a hilly off-road race that is tough and unforgiving) and finished 7th.  More relevantly, I had done so having hit 100mpw in training for the first time and I was now running in featherweight racers - New Balance RC150s.  The legend that is Paul Lincoln at Fast Feet Sports in Bishop's Stortford (a former amateur boxer who sold me my first pairs of running shoes in my schooldays - I would try the shoes on while looking up at the picture of him finishing Comrades) found them after they were discontinued - I sent a bunch of minimalists his way to buy them and he gave me a discounted rate.  I bought 12 pairs (or so) and they lasted me for years.  Until recently I had struggled to find another shoe as good, but I will make a separate post on that later.

Another year later I had peaked with a 160 mile week and in June 2005 I won the Norths Downs 30K, almost 2 years to the day from my restart.  I attribute that transformation to three key areas:
  1. Weight loss - 90+lb to be precise
  2. A higher mileage / lower intensity approach to training 
  3. Minimalist footwear
#1 and #2 could never have happened without #3: if I had not made the switch to minimalism I would have never managed the mileage and without the miles the weight loss would have been an even greater struggle than it was. 

I will talk much more about minimalism in the future ( as well weight loss and high mileage) - explain the science of it, speak about the recent minimalism craze of the past few years, give shoe reviews of the models that have come out of that craze (both the good and the "epic fail bandwagon jumpers") and talk more about how to transition.  But that's my success story.  When I was tempted to make the change but it seemed too radical, it was the success stories of others that inspired me and prompted me to make that change.  I simply hope that my story inspires you too.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Introducing Hadd

Having relaunched the blog yesterday on my birthday, it seems appropriate to continue by introducing one of the most significant influences on my running thinking on his birthday. Or rather what would have been his birthday, for this year is the first one since his passing last summer.

They say you always remember where you were when something significant happens, though that's not normally true for me, but I will always remember where I was when I got the awful, gut wrenching news that Hadd had passed away at a ridiculously early age.

John "Hadd" Walsh cheers home the other runners at the first Malta Marathon

John Walsh was a running coach / guru originally from Scotland who lived in Malta with his wife, accomplished marathon runner, Carol. He was the founder and organiser of the Malta Marathon.  But for the bulk of the time that I was in contact with him I did not even know his name; to me, and to many like me, he was simply "Hadd".  That was his login name on the infamous Let's Run message board.  His posting there stood out from the crowd - he knew his physiology and he also had the character and mystique typical of the best coaches; there was certainly something very Lydiardesque about him as a person, as well as with his approach to training.  His insight was nothing short of profound - not simply in regards to training theory but also, if not more so, with his practical applications to individuals.

There was a little gang of us that got together on a private forum where "Hadd" would advise us in our running, but it was so much more than that: he connected so firmly with us and understood us so well despite never having met us (at least not initially).  He was so generous to us with his time, with his affections, with himself; this cannot be overstated - a man of his greatness had no business associating with us (none of us were running greats) let alone assisting us.  And so we adored him. As it has been said, "Hadd has a fatal flaw; he cannot see someone doing something badly – yet with all their heart – and not want to do something to help." And that certainly applied to me; he once said to me, "I will do all I can. If I ask for 100% during training and the race, I believe the athlete has every right to expect the same from me in setting their training. Although this is all online and we've never met and all that jazz, I never take any runner's hopes and dreams lightly."

Gang founder "Jay" pointed out after his death that, despite the fact that we all knew who he was by then, nobody "outed" him.  That was a measure of the respect we all had for him.  And I hope he was fond of us too - he certainly loved us in deed.  And what an adventure it was!  The progress made by "Pete", a Canadian masters runner, was a highlight, as were some great times put down by our star runner "CD".  Friends were made, lessons were learned; runners ran faster, people grew.  Characters abounded like "Woody" who even came across the Atlantic for a visit, "Flagpole" who got his own "special place" and "JONeill" who got to know Hadd better than any of us.  But we were all richly blessed for knowing him.

"Woody" comes to visit - with me and Lydia

So what did he preach?  What was his training philosophy?  Well, it certainly can't all be wrapped up in a single post (and I hope and pray that one day somebody gets all his ideas, thoughts, principles and methods down in a book), but certainly the introduction that we all had to his approach was what came to be known as "Phase 1".  You can read that HERE.

This is of course just the beginning of what we learnt from him.  On occasion he was criticised by a few who misunderstood and thought that "Phase 1" was the entirety of his approach, which of course it was not.  Seeing how, post Phase 1, he would advise a predominately fast twitch runner like "Pete" compared to a classic slow twitcher like "CD" was amazingly insightful; there was much discussion on these principles and I think his genius was seen there as much as anywhere else in his training approach.

There is so much more that I want to say about what I learned from Hadd and he will be mentioned and referenced here time and again, no doubt.  If you are intrigued and want more now, you can read a brief bio HERE and his tribute thread at Let's Run. And if you go to the Let's Run message board  and search for "Hadd" you will have enough gems to delight you for days!

Oh, and one thing that was very clear if you conversed with him even a little bit: he really loved his wife and he got huge delight out of working hard to serve her as well as he could as her coach (as well as her husband).

John and Carol Walsh

And why "Hadd" as a moniker? Apparently it means "nobody"... What a guy!

Saturday, 25 February 2012

"Keep on Running" Relaunch

So, my name is Anthony Forsyth and today I turn 40!  In running terms that makes me a "veteran", well, at least here in the UK;  in the States I am now a "master"! Sounds great, but it just means I am getting old.  Anyway, it seems as good a day as any to restart this blog.

My first marathon - Iceland 2010
Previously I had been blogging here at "Keep on Running" and, like so many other running bloggers, had just been posting up my training.  It had been going pretty well too.  But by the time I had jumped into my first marathon in Reykjavik in August 2010, deciding to enter literally half an hour before registration closed thus requiring a final run to get there in time, I had bored myself sufficiently not to even bother with a race report (I came 2nd in 2:44:51 with almost no specific preparation other than running a lot).

It's not that my running bored me per se, just that it was a lot of effort to keep it up when there were only a few people interested.  After all, I knew what had happened before writing it down!  Training blogs can get a bit like that when that's all there is to write and read.

So, why the restart?  Well, it occurred to me that I do enjoy wittering on about running and that most people that enjoy running also enjoy wittering on about running; we can be passionate peeps us runners!  We are never happier than when chatting away about our own training, but there is plenty more that we discuss: nutrition, shoes, injuries, kit, mileage, races, etc.  And one thing I am rarely ever short of is an opinion on anything running related; you may not agree with it, and I may well be wrong, but I usually have a view and it is, more often than not, well considered.

And as I thought about it some more, I realised that, even though I do read some training blogs of other runners on occasion, what I would prefer to read is a more eclectic blog - and there are several good ones out there.  So, in no particular order, here is some of what you can expect to see here at "Keep on Running" in the not too distant future:

  • Training discussion - always reading, thinking, discussing, learning and trying stuff in the ol' "experiment of one"; this is the heart of running discussion.  From middle distance theory (because I am not going to be practising it), to marathons (I will run a good one one day) and ultras (this year...) we will discuss the "how to do it" of training. And it will definitely involve many a mention of high mileage...

  • Kit discussion and reviews -  I have some very specific ideas here that have been forged through the years regarding kit choices for different events and circumstances.  It's a big deal here in the world of running.

  • Race discussion and reviews - it is amazing to me how good and how, well, not good, certain races can be.  So I don't want to just post up my race reports (though the precious few that there will be will surely be posted), but rather talk about races, organisation, chip timing, cross country, clubs and what not too.

  • Shoe discussion and reviews - I have been a converted "minimalist" for about 8 years now.  Not as hardcore as I used to be, but I will defend the cause.  I may not be a Vibram Five Finger freak (though I do own some and use them on occasion), but they are less strange to me than the "boots" that pass as running shoes for the masses.  There are some great options out there right now for us minimalists as the rest of the world catches up with us and I am excited to share them.  If you are not yet a minimalist (or don't even know what that means), then I will be informing you of the benefits and encouraging you to make the change.

  • Injuries - they happen and they suck. We don't like to talk about them until we have them; when we do we can't shut up about them.  I'll try and keep an appropriate balance - discuss them more than desired when they are absent and try not to go OTT when they crash the party.

  • Introductions and Interviews - there are people in the running world who you need to meet.  Some of them blog, some don't, but they all have a lot to share. Some may be more well-known, some accomplished, many neither, but all with much we can learn from.  I'm looking forward to telling all who read this blog about the many people in the running world that excite and/or interest me.

Tim racing cross country this winter
  •  Family training - so I will talk about my training on occasion too - not a complete training diary, maybe a monthly update or something; I'm not entirely sure yet.  But my kids (five) and my wife all run and (if they allow me to) I'd like to put up a few posts about what they are up to as well.  In particular, my son Timothy (who has just turned 15) is very serious about his running - he beat me for the first time last year and will probably whip me frequently this year.

  • Nutrition - as someone who has spent much of his adult life obese, nutrition is a topic that interests me greatly.  I have much I want to say on nutritional theory for runners, but also there will be topics such as eating on the run for ultras, runners' relationships with food, gels and energy drinks, refuelling, and perhaps even a few recipes. Yum!

  • Books and articles - I love reading about running and, if you are reading a running blog, you probably do too.  I have quite a collection of running books and will be reviewing many of them (some the bad as well as the good) as well as linking to important articles.

  • News - The running world has its own headlines.  My job here will not be to keep you in touch with the important news as it happens (other sites do that much better), but I will be discussing certain running stories that interest me as they happen.  Two or three current stories have ramifications and implications that I want to get off my chest.

Not that this blog will be limited to the above categories; I am sure there is much more running related ruminating that will flow from my brain to the blog with precious little filtering.  In fact, if the blog is much like my running reading, thinking and discussing, there will be something for almost everyone.  Well, everyone who runs.

So, for now, keep on running...