From Ultra Runner to Club Runner – how did that happen?!

Time continues to fly. I continue to spectacularly fail to keep my blog even remotely up-to-date. School work continues to get in the way – of the blogging, I hasten to add, not the running which, through as much luck than management has, if anything, been taken to a new level since the ultra; rather than the general tapering off which I envisaged.

So what’s being going on? I hear you (probably not) ask. Well, since you so kindly (probably didn’t) ask, I’ll tell you.

The 24 hour Adidas Thunder Run.

I did enjoy a couple of gentle running weeks after the ultra, but had generally emerged unscathed from the experience. So, when a running pal asked me if I fancied helping out his Adidas Thunder Run team, I jumped at the chance.

If you have read my previous blogs, you will recall that I was lucky enough to win the 12 hour Conti Lightning Run with the Men’s Running magazine team in 2014. Well the 24 hour Adidas Thunder Run is the Lightning Run’s (very) big brother. I have kept in touch with all my team mates from that event due to their inspirational qualities and one of them, Pedro, had also maintained contact with the race sponsors. (Useful stuff – must remember to get better at this networking lark!)

And so it was that I became a member of the ‘ContiGrip’ Adidas Thunder Run 24 hour team! I’d heard the event was something of a ‘Trail Runners Mecca’ and I wasn’t to be disappointed. ‘Glastonbury for Runners’ was a phrase regularly banded about. If I was more organised, this event would have a blog all of its own, but for now I am grateful to Pedro for letting me borrow his write-up for the Conti Running facebook page – see link below. (Nice that he describes me as a ‘veteran ultra runner’! I assume he means veteran in age, not because of my vast ultra experience!)

My ContiGrip Adidas Thunder Run teammates. (the before shot)

My ContiGrip Adidas Thunder Run teammates. (The before shot.)

Glastonbury for Runners.

Glastonbury for Runners.

The ContiGrip team 'after' shot! (We look pretty good for about 3 hours kip and 4 cross country 10ks in 24 hours.)

The ContiGrip team ‘after’ shot! (We look pretty good for about 3 hours kip and 4 cross country 10ks in 24 hours.)

Pedro’s review neatly sums up a fantastic experience. I arrived knowing only Pedro and Felix, from Continental, of my seven teammates but left with five more new friends who it was an absolute pleasure to spend time with. Great memories. My sides hurt from laughing as much as my legs hurt from running. Happy days.

The Fuerteventura Training Camp (or all-inclusive-fortnight-feed-and-booze-up)

The first thing I packed was my running stuff. The first thing my wife packed was her running stuff. Then we packed the kids stuff. Then, if there was any luggage allowance left, we packed some real clothes.

I think the above is probably the first sign that you have taken your running to another level of commitment. People look at us like we’re mad for getting up at half six while on holiday to go running. But we both love it. And it is an amazingly simple way to get to know your way around an unknown place. Throw in the peace and tranquility of holiday resorts at 7am, as well as the beautiful sunrises, and I, for one, wouldn’t swap it for all the fuzzy headed hangovers in the world. Not only that, but you can then laze around the pool or beach all day knowing you have already done something worthwhile for yourself and ‘earned’ your downtime and food/drink treats!

Off before sunrise - beating the heat in Fuerteventura.

Off before sunrise – beating the heat in Fuerteventura.

'Morning has broken!' Sunrise above Corralejo.

‘Morning has broken!’ Sunrise above Corralejo.

Why wouldn't you want to get up for this?

Why wouldn’t you want to get up for this?

Due to the girls being young, Leanne and I alternate mornings to get up and go out, meaning our running has zero impact on the girl’s holiday. It does create an amusing situation at nights (especially on all-inclusive!) where my running morning leads to a night when I can enjoy a few drinks knowing I’m not up running the next morning. However, this pattern is exactly the opposite for Leanne, so my drink night becomes her ‘dry’ night and vice versa!

However, all this is a choice – we might enjoy running but we’re not monks! Holidays are meant to be enjoyed. We did both have our date with the October Chester marathon in the backs of our minds, but these runs were very much of the ‘ticking-over’ variety. The farthest I ran was 11 miles and that was only once. It was much more of a ‘sightseeing-photo-opportunity’ running program than a serious workout!

We did have one lovely day though, when the rest of the family kindly whisked the girls off to the beach allowing Leanne and I the rare opportunity to go out running together. We resisted the opportunity to turn it into a bar crawl and instead hugged the coast from port to beach to join our family once again. I must admit, charging straight into the sea instead of taking a shower was just about the most refreshing thing I have ever done after a run!

A rare 'Team Morgan-Hillam' photo opportunity! Corralejo jetty end.

A rare ‘Team Morgan-Hillam’ photo opportunity! Corralejo jetty end.

Leanne negotiates the town beach (and a bare bottom...)

Leanne negotiates the town beach and a bare bottom… (not hers, I hasten to add.)

Magazine front cover shot (if you photoshop the face.)

Magazine front cover shot (if you photoshop the face.)

Magazine front cover shot 2 (no photoshop required...)

Magazine front cover shot 2 (no photoshop required…)

Leanne's Marathon des Sables training coming on a treat.

Leanne’s Marathon des Sables training coming on a treat.

Home to Marathon Training.

I have to be honest at this point and say, even in a blog dedicated to espousing the joys of running, that I didn’t really enjoy the marathon training. I was committed to it from a long time ago or else I simply wouldn’t have done it. I am far more interested in trail running now and so continued to use trails for the majority of my long runs. I don’t mind road running for shorter distances; say up to half marathon distance, but anything longer and the body was willing but the mind was numbed.

I was very motivated for Leanne. She was making her marathon debut and it was definitely a leap into the unknown for her. Her training took priority as she had so kindly passed over six months of weekends to my ultra training schedule. I was only running because;

a) I told a friend I would if he did, and

b) my brother entered and got injured. I lost £50 in similar circumstances last year and so I transferred his number so that he got his money back.

I don’t know if it was this slight lack of motivation that meant my training runs felt sluggish or what, but I was revising my 3 hour 15 minute target further and further towards just beating my PB (3h29m58s).

The Wigan 10k – the race that changed everything?

It does feel ironic indeed that, in a year when my entire focus was on becoming an ultra runner, it was my homely little local 10k that was actually the race that changed my running life!

In the first week of September, exactly a month before the marathon, The Wigan 10k was as much a chance to shirk out of a long weekend run than it was an actual race. It is a truly brilliant event though – the best 10k I have ever done, (no bias!) There is a food market, beer stalls and kids entertainment in the town before, during and after the race, turning it into a day out – not just a run. Spectators have just as good a time as the runners, (or better?!) I was injured last year and had gone to support Leanne. It is the only time I have supported her and been genuinely jealous of not running; such was the pull of my ‘home’ race. So this year, marathon or no marathon, I was going to run.

As mentioned above though, my sluggish training times meant that, rather than hoping to beat my PB of 39.25 (same course, 2013) I was merely hoping to run sub 40 minutes and get close to the PB.

I don’t know what happened that morning. Was it the perfect conditions? The flat course? (All my training runs are, by necessity, on hills.) Whatever, within the first km I suddenly fancied my chances.

I spent the first 5k trying to keep a lid on my pace, just making sure I was sub 4mins per km to keep on target. The 6th km is a bit of a soul destroyer, into the wind in the only crowd-less part of the course. The real clincher though, is the last 2km. A slight rise (the only one) followed by a bit of annoying zig-zagging through a park. (The zig-zagging path is annoying, but the atmosphere in the park is incredible – so it sort of evens itself up!)

Having burned out in the last 2k two years ago, I saved a bit this time. I absolutely flew home to crush my PB and run an astonishing (for me) 38mins 13secs. 35th place of 3000 runners. I have no idea where that came from. Given that 3 years ago I thought sub40 was superhuman, this was a turn-up.

Sprint finish to 35th place at the Wigan 10k. (PB of 38m13s)

Sprint finish to 35th place at the Wigan 10k. (PB of 38m13s)

So how did this change everything? Well, I had been tentatively using twitter to follow a few local running clubs, individual runners etc. I do understand the benefits of being part of a club but have always been a lone runner by nature. I think I also felt a bit chivalrous turning up to races as an ‘independent’ and taking on the might of the club running vests all by myself! Maybe it was also the distant memory of a bad running club experience 30 years ago in my childhood that put me off. Either way, I told Leanne on a fairly regular basis that, when the girls were a bit older, I would join a running club ‘one day’.

So I suppose I should be grateful to one of the afore-mentioned local runners, Mike Harris, (@Mchbiker) who spotted me in a picture, then in the results, and gently tweeted to ask “So what club do you run for?”

“None,” I replied. “I am a heroic, chivalrous independent, bravely fighting the evil forces of Clubvestdom!” (I didn’t say this at all, but I was probably thinking it.)

“Right, get your arse down to the DW stadium at 7pm on Thursday night then!” he insisted.

“Oh, OK.” I replied, totally caving in to the powers of Clubvestdom at the first possible opportunity. (Long suffering friends will tell you that standing up to peer pressure is not one of my strong points.)

And so it was that, on Thursday 10th September 2015, approximately 30 years after the last time, I became a club runner again.

Wigan Harriers debut.

One training session was all it took to convince me I was doing the right thing. As everyone will tell you, running clubs are invariably friendly places whatever your level of ability. It is simply overcoming that fear of attending the first time which puts people off. I know it was for me – I was just waiting for someone to push me into it.

Unfortunately, due to work commitments, I have so far only managed three training sessions and two cross country races. I hope this will settle down and I will be a more regular attendee from now on. But straight away I enjoy the banter of meeting up with like minded souls and the gentle ribbing I am already being given for a variety of (well deserved) reasons.

The main reason I wanted to join was the winter cross country leagues. I have read so much about the step up in quality of these races compared to your average trail race that I was really keen to test myself. I have been pleased with my first two efforts, getting into the top 25% of the field, and hopefully more quality training with the club will improve this over time.

The Harriers website kindly published my report of the first race, click the link below to read on;

Proudly wearing my Wigan Harriers vest. Pennington, Leigh.

Proudly wearing my Wigan Harriers vest. Pennington, Leigh.

On my way to 45th of 229 runners.

On my way to 45th of 229 runners.

The push for home. (note: I'm lapping the guy behind, not just saving a sprint for the camera!)

The push for home. (note: I’m lapping the guy behind, not just saving a sprint for the camera!)

This would be a good time to say thanks to everyone at Wigan Harriers for making me feel so welcome. If anyone out there is thinking of joining a club, go and have a go – I’m sure you won’t regret it. And if you are one of those people in the WIgan area, get your arse down to the DW on Tuesdays or Thursdays!!!

So, finally onto…

The Chester Marathon.

Needless to say, running 38mins for 10k meant my target time needed re-evaluating for the marathon. 3.15 was now very much back on! Indeed, most websites (and new club mates) were informing me regularly that my 10k time equated to more like a 3hour flat marathon! I was way too scared to aim for such lofty heights but decided, if conditions were fair, I would certainly be trying to break 3.15 – a time which would qualify as ‘good for age’ in my Vet40 category. (Still can’t believe I’m a Vet – in my head I’m still in my 20s!)

Conditions were perfect as we left Chester Racecourse. My pace was comfortably on target. I’m not going to bore you with the details but, with a half completed in 1h35m I knew i had a chance to break 3.15. Eventually I was to fall 54 seconds over my self-imposed time limit. A couple of stomach cramps probably put paid to my chances as I felt OK the whole way. My legs did get tired a little bit (probably those missed long runs when I ran the Wigan 10k and a club cross country instead of 18/20 milers!) but I was pleased not to hit the wall in any way. Another slight annoyance was joining up with the metric marathon field at about the 21 mile mark. It’s not ideal when you are trying to maintain your pace after that distance to be joined by the slow, back end of a different event on a small country lane. (No disrespect intended to those runners – 16.3 miles is an epic achievement; I just mean that when two races join where the participants are running totally different speeds, it is not a good thing. Hopefully the organisers will look at this again for future years.)

So the slight tinge of disappointment at 3h15m54s was more than offset by knowing I’d knocked another 14 minutes off my PB and had run the two half marathons of the race in 1.35 and 1.40 – 1hr39 was my half marathon PB 3 years ago!!!

Top of the biggest hill on the beautiful, otherwise fairly flat Chester marathon route. Farndon. Approx 18 miles.

Top of the biggest hill on the beautiful, otherwise fairly flat Chester marathon route. Farndon. Approx 18 miles.

The main success stories of Chester marathon 2015 were not mine. And that is where the joy and wonder of the shared running experience comes into such striking play. My mate Gaz, on his marathon debut, ran a superb 3h38m. He learned so much about his training and himself that he is certain to be back to smash that time out of sight in the future.

But pride of place goes to my long suffering running-widow, Leanne, who ran amazingly to break 5 hours! And the crazy thing is – she loved every minute of it! She planned her training and race in such detail that she knew exactly what she wanted to do and executed her plan to perfection. Amazing. I was hobbling round the house and work, like you do, for the best part of a week afterwards. You genuinely couldn’t tell Leanne had done anything! Brilliant.

How can you be this cheerful after 26 miles?! Leanne on her way to the finish line at Chester Racecourse.

How can you be this cheerful after 26 miles?! Leanne on her way to the finish line at Chester Racecourse.

Myself, Leanne and Gaz. Stiff, smelly, but happy.

Myself, Leanne and Gaz. Stiff, smelly, but happy.

2015 – what a year. I will be forever ultra. Leanne will be forever a marathon runner. And, to my great surprise, I will always be a Wigan Harrier.

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