The best days are tri days

A week day off work is a pretty good start. When the forecast predicts fair weather, no snow or wind and you drive north under spring blue skies with the radio on, you know it’s going to be good. When you hear the new David Bowie track, it feels pretty special. And when you’re spending it doing tri stuff with Lesley and Al it’s a great day.

Brownies baked and bike loaded along with kit for all weathers, it was a relaxed drive up the A1 and I was soon at Lesley’s place ready for a catch up, jaffa cakes and then meeting Al and his friend, Michelle.

First stop was the pool for a swim and we commandeered a lane to ourselves. After an initial couple of lengths where I set off too fast, I chilled out, relaxed and pretty much stopped counting, just going with the flow, stopping and starting after 100m or so, trying out a couple of drills and watching the swim styles.

It was nice to take advantage of a 25m pool though (I usually swim in a 20m) and I did at least one 400m set, but it was a decidedly leisurely swim and I was surprised at the distance recorded on my Garmin, even allowing for a couple of discrepancies where I didn’t touch the wall because the lane was busy.

My stomach had been rumbling in the pool and it seemed a long time since breakfast, so a quick bite of cake, and a banana scoffed as we were getting bike ready filled the gap for a short cycle round to see Lesley’s lovely mum for more cake and chat.

Refreshed, we set out again for a longer ride this time. A mercifully flat route for those of us lacking bike miles this year and an easy pace along the country roads, past a wood full of snow drops and in the distance the blue sea and the big rock.

Easy chat and taking it in turns to ride up front, together and in different groups. It didn’t matter that I fell behind on anything like an incline, I was never too far away and as the ride went on I felt very happy to be on my lovely road bike, clicking easily through the gears and enjoying the experience.

When the question about carrying on a bit further or heading home came up, we all made noises to keep going, it felt so nice to be out. But at the turn around, I began to regret it slightly as we faced into the wind and hit a couple of uphills. With shoulders and back tensing and the back of my knees tightening, I was starting to feel weary on this, my longest bike ride of the year to date. But there really wasn’t too much further to go and the up was rewarded with some down and a nice little burst of speed towards the end.

Once off the bike and changed into running shoes, any aches and pains were forgotten in the pleasure of trotting up the road beside Lesley. We’d said nice easy pace and kept chatting throughout, but managed 9 min mile pace, which is a bit more than easy, especially after a long bike ride,

The day had galloped away with us and it was half past four by the time we sat down to refuel with soup and bread and the most glorious light and moist chocolate and beetroot cake. What a feast!

I didn’t want to leave, but time marching on and a call from Gary to check I was okay prompted me to pack up. Under darkening skies, a bounteous moon rise lit the way along the coastal roads and back home after a brilliant day.

Trainer tart

I have 5 weeks to go until my first race of the season (a 10k) and I have no idea about what kind of running form I’m in. With one thing and another, I haven’t really settled into a consistent training routine this year which unsettles my head a bit.

But, on the positive side, I’ve kept ticking over and done some okay mileage, and more importantly, I’m not recovering from injury like I was at this time last year. Fingers and everything else crossed, but it looks like my plantar fasciitis and other bio-mechanical niggles are behaving (please don’t let that be the curse of death).

I was hoping to get out and do a fast blast at Newcastle parkrun this weekend, but a covering of snow, snow falling during the run and still slightly recovering from my cold, meant I had to dial back expectations. I still ran quite hard, given the conditions, and was happy to be within about 90s of my best time this year (run in very different conditions). A few more parkruns should give me a feel for what I can come up with on race day.

In a way, the running really just has to look after itself. I guess it just feels a bit different, that there isn’t a big run only event looming later in the year. No half marathons for me in 2013. Just a big old standard tri – and if I can find the right event, maybe 2 standard distance events.

One thing I have changed is my running style. After spraining my ankle in October, I took the opportunity to retrain myself with a walk to run plan and move to a more midfoot strike.

The initial impetus was to try and run more efficiently. So I ran for a while with a shorter stride and faster cadence, trying to land lightly. But it was only when I really went back to basics, adding in running drills and going back to walk run, that I really made the changes.

Some good strengthening work and stretching helped overcome the initial tight calves and I still need to work on mobility in my toes. But I’d be lying if I didn’t also hope that the change in style will make me faster eventually too.

This weekend was the first time that I’d been able to actually see that change in running style for myself.  There’s always been a bit of a nagging doubt at the back of my mind that changing my stride may have messed about with my running and just developed new bad habits.

I went to Sweatshop in the MetroCentre  to try out some new trainers. It’s a good place to go, as the sales staff are runners and they have all sorts of kit to help you test out your running style, including a treadmill where you can film your feet and see how you run in slow motion. When I ran, I could see I looked nice and straight with no wobbly ankles and I was definitely midfoot landing rather than heel striking.

There were lots of people waiting to be assessed when I got there, but everyone got great service from the staff, and I was very happy to have Niyc Pidgeon, who I know from Newcastle parkrun, helping me choose a new pair of running shoes.

I tried loads of different trainers, including the Nike free (towards a barefoot shoe) and some Asics racers in a stunning orange and purple. It was great to be able to compare and contrast different makes and styles so closely together. I reckon I could have run in any of them, but there a few subtle differences. Some felt wide at the front, so my feet shifted more from side to side. Others were loose at the heel, and tightening the laces to get them to a better grip put a bit more pressure on the top of my foot than I liked.

I was going purely on a research trip, but with some vouchers burning a hole in my pocket and a generous parkrun discount, I came away with a pair of New Balance 1080s. Lighter cushioning than my current Asics Nimbus, but still not really a minimal or racer. I’ll be weaning myself into them over the next few weeks and hoping we’ll be ready for our race debut together at the North Tyneside 10k at the end of March.

I’m still thinking about the Nike frees, which I really liked too, but I’d have to move into even more gradually. But they were the only barefoot style I tried and they were pink (there are places I will not go and pink is one). I’d like to try a few more barefoot/minimal trainers and maybe think about them as a second/short race pair.

But I’m laughing at myself as a total shoe agnostic. I don’t seem to have settled on a favourite brand. I started in Nike Pegasus (I still have a pair that I wear in the gym); I made a bit of an error with Saucony (too stiff and rigid for me, and I went through the toe within a month of wearing them); loved my Asics Nimbus (the shoes I ran all my 2011 PBs with before I bought another pair which saw me round the Olympic park and another Great North Run). And now I’m in New Balance and flirting with barefoots on the side.

So from saying that running needs to take care of itself, I’ve actually spent a good bit of time thinking about it . But that’s helped me work out something that I can also apply to another aspect of my triathlon training.

Changing my run style wasn’t easy and it felt awkward and unnatural and frustrating at first, but I stuck with it and now it’s second nature. In fact, I can’t imagine running any other way now.

Just like the swim drills that should improve my stroke technique (and there’s lots to improve). They feel strange, they upset my natural rhythm and I have to think about what I’m doing when I try them. But, like changing my run style, I’ll get the results I’m looking for if I stick with them and look for long term, rather than short term progress. I have 9 weeks until my first sprint tri – plenty of time to keep working and improving.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, no one from Sweatshop or any of the shoe brands asked me to write about them in this blog. But I’d happily recommend Sweatshop if you’re looking for advice and running shoes.

50th parkrun

On Saturday 26 January, I ran my 50th parkrun. It’s taken me a while to reach that particular milestone as I only started running the free 5k timed runs  in September 2009  and I haven’t particularly made a big deal about notching them up.

But they have become a very welcome part of my weekend, giving me a chance to run or volunteer, catch up with friends I’ve made through parkrun or just see someone else enjoying the experience.

Me and Jeff at my 50th parkrun at Whitley Bay
Me and Jeff at my 50th parkrun at Whitley Bay – thanks to Mick Durnion for the picture.

I was sorry I couldn’t run my 50th at my home run on Newcastle’s Town Moor, but with snow, ice and flooded footpaths, the race director had no other option than to call it off. Doing so on Friday night meant that those of us who wanted to run could look to other venues, and with only a small dusting of snow, my nearest parkrun at Whitley Bay was declared on.

As I made my way to the start, I spotted a Newcastle regular on his warm up run and spotted  a familiar gathering of Toon run regulars, including Malcolm, Jeff, Fred, Eric and Mick who took a commemorative photo. So I felt in good company for a landmark run.

With a covering of snow being churned to slush beneath the pounding of multiple pairs of trainers and trail shoes, it was never going to be a fast run. I just focused on keeping my form as best I could and enjoying the contrast of the white ground and the clear blue skies, full of sunshine that would soon make the snow a memory.

I gave a good shout to runners I knew as I saw them come along the finish straight as I headed out to the second lap and managed a thank you to all the marshals standing around in the chill. There was even a Scribbler sprint finish, which was a fine way to mark my 50th.