Monday, 2 November 2015

Home runs: Oxford Half and Abingdon Marathon

Ten years ago this autumn, I ran my first marathon in Amsterdam. It started a passion for seeing new places by running around them with friends. I’ve enjoyed races around the UK, and sampled post-marathon beers across Europe, but one crucial luxury has been missing: waking up in my own bed on race morning. A decade on, I finally decided to enter my local marathon this October.

A week before Abingdon Marathon, I had a chance to test my new race day ritual and finish my taper by trying out the new Oxford Half Marathon route. The race has only been back on the scene for a few years and, until this year, had comprised a jaunt along the eastern bypass and a short detour through the local car plant before heading back out to the football stadium past a queue of confused and grumpy motorists hoping to go out go out for their Sunday lunch. It was more crossed wires than dreaming spires but it was local and easy for me to get to. This year, now supported by Vitality, the run had been completely revamped with a city centre start and a route that took in many of Oxford’s sights, and most of my local training runs.

The new course had attracted more than just a few locals and, with a field of 7500 runners entered, the event was bigger than ever. The Park and Ride ferried out of town runners in and the start was delayed slightly to allow people stuck on a disrupted rail service into town the chance to make it. Despite the larger numbers, the race village set up in the University Parks had a friendly buzz and didn’t feel too crowded. The first mile felt the same until an event motorbike drove the wrong way down Broad Street, parting the mass of runners, beeping at us to clear the way. Behind him was one of the frontrunners. I wondered if it was an oversight with course design to bring the leaders back down the same piece of road so early in the race, or whether he was just heading back to the start having realised he’d forgotten something. It turned out someone had forgotten something – the map – and the leader had been taken off course early on.

Oxford was looking its best in bright autumnal sunshine for the rest of the run, with green and oranges boughs across the familiar roads, made partly unrecognisable by the sea of fluorescent vests and bobbing heads filling the course ahead. The masses had thinned out by the time we went back through the parks in the second half of the race. This is one of my favourite places to run in Oxford so I was a bit sad to see someone throw their water bottle into the flowerbeds. Later, as I cycled home along what was left of the course, I was really impressed to see that every cup and bottle had been cleared up in record time by the event team – if you don’t think twice about littering at a race normally, you will when it’s your hometown. If there’s water provided, there are generally bins provided too.

Any home advantage was lost in the last mile: while I could see a direct route back to the finish, the course was busy twisting and turning and taking in some iconic Oxford sights, like the Radcliffe Camera, to make up the remaining metres. The finishing straight was packed with spectators, which gave it a ‘big city’ event feel, and we were handed a nice medal and t-shirt. There might have been one of two organisational hiccups to iron out for next time but it was already a far more inviting race than in previous years and one I can see the appeal in travelling from out of Oxford to run.

One week later, with the dress rehearsal complete, I was running around at home having left sorting my marathon kit out until the last minute. While there’s always a risk of forgetting something, travelling somewhere for a race does at least force you to get organised early. Abingdon Marathon itself is a well-rehearsed affair, running for the 33rd time this year. Often described as flat and fast, it attracts a loyal crowd and the 1200 places sell out quickly each year, partly because it hosts a number of county championship events too.

While the course was quiet compared to Oxford Half the week before, there were some great pockets of support, particularly running through the centre of the town, and where the lapped part of the route started and ended. There was a brilliant turn out from my running and triathlon clubs, be it racing, supporting or marshalling, and a familiar face and a cheer on almost every corner. I started out running with a club mate and we chatted happily and ran at a decent pace for the first half; things certainly became quieter at 13 miles, then slower at 15 miles, until my legs were setting their own pace and I let Dave go on ahead. I ran by myself until I ended up alongside a couple of guys on the final lap of the athletics track and tried out my best attempt at a sprint finish.

Being flat and fast might be Abingdon Marathon’s main attraction to many but it also has some other notorious features, namely by enforcing a 5-hour time limit and a strict policy on disqualifying people listening to music - the latter being something that many races claim to uphold but don’t appear to. It’s a great race if you like your marathons straight up with a slice of serious but it’s probably not for everyone; that said, it was very well organised with lots of cheerful and friendly marshals, and I would certainly run it again.

This was neither my fastest nor slowest marathon in 10 years, but I was happy to be enjoying another one and very grateful for the support from friends, family, and from people simply cheering a runner in a local club vest. After all, waking up in your own bed isn’t the only luxury of running an event close to home.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Oh, relay?

Organised chaos: that's what the event organisers like to call the Triathlon Relays, held at the National Watersports Centre in Nottingham this weekend. They're not wrong.

The relays have been running since 1991 and have become a popular event in the triathlon calendar; originally held as an end of season championship event between clubs, they were revamped this year to also include teams of participants who aren't necessarily members of triathlon clubs.

On first glance, making sense of the format can be as exhausting as the race itself. A relay team of four people each complete the 500m swim, before the first person starts the 15km cycle and so on, until the last member of the team crosses the finish line at the end of their 5km run. Without a traditional transition, the need for a so-called 'fourth discipline' of triathlon seems to be met with gazebo construction, and many clubs set up camp to make a weekend of it, staying for the Sunday 'elite-style' tag relays too.

I raced on Saturday as part of a women's team with my club, Oxford Tri. Things became even more complicated for our men's team when their 4th member dropped out on the morning, leaving them to pick up an extra leg each, and solve some complicated logistics over their order and timing chips. We all made it around, with big smiles, and without missing a single changeover. That last bit isn't as easy as it sounds.

Here is a bit of the organisation, the chaos, and the fun from the day. If you fancy getting a team together to have a go next year, there is more information here. I really recommend it.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Something to shout about: The London Triathlon

Events are always so much more fun with friends so, earlier in the year, Laura and I asked for people to join us for a triathlon this summer. We had lots of great applications but six lovely people stood out and made up Team Tricurious this Saturday at the London Triathlon. I’d been planning to support from the sidelines until a well-timed retweet won me a very last minute entry to the Olympic distance race and I jumped at the chance to join in with the team and a few friends.

We zipped Becca into her wetsuit in the morning, waved her off to her Super Sprint and went to watch her swim start. As I’d peered at a computer screen the night before, trying to work out driving directions to London ExCeL, I’d wondered why the event is held there – it seemed to be pretty inconvenient whether you lived in London or not - but when you see the swimmers exit the water and run into an exhibition hall that houses the world’s biggest transition area, it all sort of starts to make sense. An aeroplane flew in over the swim wave to land at London City Airport and I wondered if it would be an easier way to travel to the venue next time.

It wasn’t long before we were waving Kat and Laura off to their swim, and I was joining our friend Cathy to assemble for the mixed Olympic wave. An enthusiastic official marshalled us in and handed out last minute tips. His tone was perfect for an event that caters for all abilities – supportive and positive, encouraging everyone to look out for each other so that every athlete had a great day – although, when he asked us to turn around and hug the person next to us, I was never more glad to be there with a mate. We were in the largest wave of the day, with 394 competitors setting off, so they made the call to split it into two halves and slim down the masses in the swim.

London Triathlon is a huge event – around 13,000 participants take part in different distances over the course of the weekend. It’s a perfect race for first time triathletes or anyone wanting to enjoy the atmosphere at such a big event, and there are elite races and faster waves on the Sunday for the racing snakes. It’s obvious the course is going to get congested, particularly on the bike, but at least the closed roads offer a unique opportunity to cycle in London without the buses. The roads themselves have the potential to be pretty fast in places, with some straight sections and only two really tight turns on each of the 4 laps, but you had to stay alert to other competitors and respect each other on the course.

At one point, a man overtook shouting aggressively, and unnecessarily, at anyone and everyone to stay out of his way. I noticed he was wearing a long-sleeved cycling skinsuit and aero booties over his cycling shoes, so I made an assumption that he hadn’t been swimming first. Either that or he’d had to spend a long time in transition (maybe that’s why he was so cross). I hope his relay teammates were lovely and gave him a hug at the end; he seemed to need one. Like him, I rode my timetrial bike but I found enough space to have a good race; there were plenty of people on road bikes and hybrids too, and the majority of people were there to enjoy their race. There are better races to set PBs on the bike than the London Triathlon.

The run course involved four very straightforward out and back loops; at any other event this could have become tedious but there was lots of encouragement from other runners, as well as the crowds in and around ExCeL. I got to see Kat, Laura and Cathy at least once on each lap for a cheer or a high five. We were like our own mobile support crew, finally meeting at the finish line inside the ExCeL each with a big medal and a bigger smile.

Back: Helen, Cathy, Laura, me, Josie, Chrissy, Sarah
Front: Laura, Becca, Kat
With the rest of the team out in the Sprint races later in the day, we headed out on to the course and assembled with cake and beer. Will was in one of the last waves to start and we cheered him on each lap of the run, then waited to support every last finisher on the course at the end of a wonderful day. The man I encountered on the bike seemed to be just one in 13,000: an anomaly in what was an overwhelmingly positive and inclusive event. We saved our voices for shouting encouragement, and for laughing and trading stories with our amazing team of triathletes. Well done, Team Tricurious - you are all brilliant!

If you'd like to read more about Team Tricurious and how they each got on at the London Triathlon, have a look at the Tricurious blog.

Back: Will, Laura, Josie, Helen, Chrissy, Anita, Sarah
Front: Laura, me

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Crowded 'round: an alternative London marathon

I was lucky enough to run the London Marathon last Sunday. It was an incredible day, with crowds lining most of the route, and it felt like a 26.2 mile party. Over the years, it has become increasingly difficult to gain an entry to the event so I recently tried an alternative way of running a marathon around the nation's capital. There was no ballot to get in but, as it turned out, the crowds were just as big.

I counted my urban jogging adventure as
an emergency and evacuated the station
as quickly as my legs could manage.
The London Underround in an 'anytime' challenge, dreamt up by performance coach, Rory Coleman. Taking in 42 underground stations in Zone 1, the route covers more than 20 miles overland but don't expect to stay outside in the open: the real challenge is that you have to touch the yellow line on the platform in each of the stations, and exit using the stairs or escalator.

I thought 9.30 on a Tuesday morning would offer the perfect window to set out from King's Cross: just late enough to miss the morning rush, just early enough to be back before the evening one. By the time I reached the third station and encountered another hoard of people piling down the escalator, I started to wonder whether I'd be the life and soul of the commuter party at both ends of the day, and struggling to beat the last tube home.

Rush hour was starting again by the time I reached some of the later stations in the City that afternoon and, as I weaved my way around the maze of Bank station and the people who filled it, I marvelled at the current record for the route. Standing at four hours 36 minutes, it's only half an hour slower than my marathon PB at Berlin: a flat and fast course, where world records are often broken. A man did a wee on my leg in the start pen of that race and, however long I took to complete the Underround, I figured that if I made it out of the crowds without that happening, it would be a performance I could be proud of.

The crowds weren't the only thing slowing me down: I don't live in London and my sense of direction isn't the most reliable. I received the route from Rory the day before and printed out my booklet of maps to help me find the stations but, running the route by myself, the navigating took me more time than I expected. I was very grateful for a friend's company for 2 miles in the West End, not only for his witty repartee, but his local knowledge too: entry to Covent Garden tube station was closed and only accessible by train but he had a plan ready that involved a quick sprint to Leicester Square and short tube journey back. Enjoying a 20 second sit down between stations, I proudly declared that, at 260 metres, this was the shortest tube journey in London. Phil looked at me sympathetically. If it weren’t for the fact we were underground, I suspect he would have abandoned me there.

The only major navigational hiccough happened after Sloane Square, where I ran for 15 minutes in completely the wrong direction. A local newsagent shook his head when I asked him for directions back to Victoria, and he suggested I get on a bus; instead, I bought a bottle of water from him and carried on running. The route itself was spectacular, taking in some beautiful parts of London; with my GPS showing nearly 26 miles, it looked like I'd also seen some bits of London I wasn't supposed to.

If you want to try the Underround, you can find out more on Rory's website. I've also written about it over at the Guardian Running Blog and recorded a podcast for Lazy Girl Running.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Crossed legs


It was enough to give anyone stage fright. Seconds later, two women in brightly coloured club vests emerged sheepishly from the undergrowth to a large crowd of onlookers – who knows if they managed to go. Just moments into lining up for my first race I was learning that cross country is a serious business, and going to the loo in the right place even more so. I could only assume that shouting at the top of your voice attracts less attention from the locals than two women quietly having a tinkle in a bush and, after a series of complaints from residents last year, the hard-working race organiser was taking no chances. Luckily, I’d read that bit on the website and knew this wasn’t the done thing.

I’ve had the local cross country league on my radar for a while but had yet to make it along to a race; the people I’ve met at my running club love it and I think “are you doing the XC this weekend?” might come a close second to “how was your week?” in the questions most frequently asked at the club run. Today was the last round of our local series and so, inspired by the antics of my friends Laura and Laura, at the nationals last weekend, I decided to give it a go. Besides, I had a pair of leopard print spikes that I’d bought in a sale last year sitting there gaining suspicious glances from my boyfriend; space in the shoe cupboard is at a premium in my household and I needed to justify their existence by getting them as muddy as all of my other shoes.

Serious face, serious accessories.
(Photo credit: Emma Carter)
Thanks in part to all the shouting and, possibly, the misfortune of the two ladies now waiting to run with their legs crossed, the chat at the women’s start was all very light-hearted, with different clubs mingling happily. That was until the gun went, reminding us all we were there to race, and sending us on our way around the 6.5 km course. The Lauras had told me how cross country works: places matter, not times, and that’s why it’s such serious business. I wasn’t just racing for myself but for everyone wearing my club’s distinctive yellow vest; I was glad that I’d taken the time to pick out a hairband that matched in that case.

The course was less muddy than I’d expected. There was a large, fairly dry field to run around, with some bumps and long grass that got caught up in my spikes if I didn’t lift my feet. A couple of tarmac sections made me wish I’d spent less time accessorising and more time finding out about the course. Still, at least I’d read enough to know I should have a wee before leaving the house. There were two steep hilly sections, with enough mud at the bottom to vindicate my footwear decision; while tough on the legs, this tricky part of the course also attracted the most supporters. “You can catch her and work together,” came a cheer from a man in the crowd, reminding me that this was a race and every position counts. I’m a bit passive competitive at best, normally preferring to set my own targets than race others, but I tried to stay with the runner in front, and to push hard on the downhills. I even sprinted the last 100 m to try and hold off the girl behind me; I didn’t quite manage it but maybe I’m more competitive than I first thought.

I’ve rarely raced an event with all women. Ignore the drama in the bushes and my misplaced priorities over a hairband: standing at the start surrounded by club runners of all abilities, seeing the leading woman charge through the end of her second lap, and shaking hands with the girl who overtook me before the line, I realised that there is probably no better demonstration of strength in women’s amateur running than at a cross country race.

Forget my shoe choice – my only regret is not doing this sooner. I’ll be back. As long as we still have the venue.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Three degrees of celebration

“Whose silly idea was this?” came a text message from my friend, Laura, on a very cold Saturday morning a few weeks ago. In the interests of honesty, I admit the word ‘silly’ has been used to replace a word I don’t say on this blog. You probably get the picture.

A couple of hours later, we were both sat giggling and shivering in a hot tub, ‘clinking’ our paper cups of hot blackcurrant squash, mostly in celebration and partly in disbelief. The silly idea had been to swim across Tooting Bec Lido, an unheated outdoor pool in London, as part of the UK Cold Water Swimming Championships. Swimming in 3oC water does sound a bit silly but it’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to some of the other ideas one or other of us has come up with in the time we have been friends.

In October last year, Laura and I travelled with some other great friends to run Snowdonia Marathon. We then hopped on a ferry and ran Dublin Marathon with just a day in between. That seemed quite silly but we did it, singing and laughing as we went. We celebrated in much the same way, with some dodgy headwear, a drink in our hands, and lots of giggling at the end.

I don’t really know what my expectations were when I started this blog a few years ago; I think it seemed a good way of making myself accountable for my attempt to run another marathon after becoming really unfit. And it did just that. What I really didn’t expect was that I would make some incredible friends along the way: people who ‘get me’ just as well as those friends I’ve made in other areas of my life; people who say “go for it” when I mention some silly challenge; and, even better, people who ask me to join them when they have their own ideas and opportunities.

Tricurious by Laura Fountain and Katie King
Published by Summersdale
About a year and a half ago, Laura pitched an idea to me that seemed quite silly at the time. Her idea was that I would join her to co-author a book about triathlon. A book that would tell Laura’s story our how she went from a non-swimmer to completing an iron-distance triathlon, and that would provide practical advice to people starting out in the sport. I suppose it seemed silly not because Laura would write it (she’s got form with this kind of thing) but because she asked me to join her. But I’m so pleased she did.

Like training for a marathon or ironman, the book took time, patience and a lot of hard work. We both like a challenge though and, just like training for a marathon or ironman, it was also made a lot of fun by having a good friend to share it all with along the way. We hope you’ll enjoy reading  Tricurious as much
as we enjoyed writing it.

Tricurious is officially out in March but we learned today that Amazon have started to send out the pre-ordered copies. This weekend, I’m joining Laura and her friends to run between some of her favourite pubs across London for her birthday. It’s another idea that I suspect will be accompanied by the clinking of glasses and a lot of laughter.
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