Monthly Archives: February 2016

One hill, one gel, one second

Once again I had volunteered to run the Tunbridge Wells Half Marathon as a pacer. The event is organised by my club, and everyone works hard to make it a success. This year the race was also part of the Kent Grand Prix series, so with points on offer for the championship a lot of the fast guys were keen to race, and there were few volunteers to run the 1:30 pace group. I did this role two years ago, and although I’ve not run a competitive half marathon (or indeed any shorter races) for a while, I felt I would still have the speed to do the job, but it would be tough.

The hilly nature of the route makes it tough to judge pace. I had my notes from 2014 (1:30 pacer) and 2015 (1:40 pacer), so planned a couple of training runs to practice. Sadly these never happened as something always got in the way, so I felt slightly under prepared on race morning. As we lined up for the start one of the runners nearby told me he was aiming for his first 1:30 so “Please don’t have a bad day”… With the pressure on it was a relief when Dame Kelly Holmes sounded the hooter to start the race.

My pace plan from 2014 was to run the first two miles at 6:50 pace before speeding up for the next few miles to take advantage of the downhill section to Penshurst. I would then arrive at the half way point in 43:45 before tackling Spring Hill – one mile of steady climbing at 6% gradient. The pace here usually drops to 7:40 or even 8:00. After this, from mile 8 to the finish it is more or less flat, so a steady 6:50 pace to the finish. I decided to use the same plan, but go a little slower in the first half, as the last mile is downhill, and most runners should be able to pick up the pace a little along Mount Ephraim, especially with the wind at their backs.

The pacing teams always work in pairs, and I was pacing with Chris Smith. We had agreed we would not run side by side, but spread out a little. This means you don’t get a large bunch right behind you, as runners can slot in the gap between pacers. After a mile of so, Chris took the lead and I was happy to drop back to about 30 or 40 metres behind him. As usual there was good support as we ran through the villages of Bidborough and Penshurst, and everything was going well. The only issue was the wind which seemed determined to try and blow the pacing flag out of my grip and smash it into the runners next to me.

One hill

We hit the half way point in 44:05 and started the long climb up to Fordcombe. It’s a tough climb, and I hate seeing runners get dropped from the pace group, but it inevitably happens.  However our plan to split up a little seemed to work. When runners got dropped by Chris, they could try to latch on to my second group and stay in contact. After the race a couple of people told me this really helped them.


While the hill itself is hard, it is usually the next mile that really breaks people. It’s fine to slow down for the hill but you need to pick up the pace once you get back to the flat. As we came up to the 8 mile point, I was getting back to my 6:50 target pace, and quickly closing the gap to Chris and his group who were struggling to get back up to speed.

One gel

Every race as his ups and downs, emotional as well as literal, and this was no exception. I was swapping the flag from one hand to the other, when I saw a used gel wrapper thrown into the hedgerow at the side of the road. Casual littering always makes me mad, so despite being out of breath I shouted at the runners in front demanding to know who and thrown it, and why. I don’t understand why people can’t put their litter in a pocket, or just carry it to the next bin or aid station. The offender confessed and apologised, but i was running angry for the next couple of miles. Sorry if my pace seemed a little erratic!

Casual littering

Casual littering!

Most people in the race were very good, and I had seen several runners cross the road or pavement, going out of their way to deposit litter in the street bins. I just wish everyone could do the same.

I ran alongside Chris for a while as we came into Langton Green, and we picked the pace up a little to ensure we were on track for our 1:30 finish. We were both a little concerned when we saw the 10 mile marker, as it suggested we were 30 seconds late at this point, but we agreed it was probably in the wrong place. After the 11 mile marker we confirmed we were on track, so I again dropped back from Chris and the main group. There was a small group some 40 to 50 metres behind us, so I waited for them and then tried to encourage them on. I also reminded then that we were pacing to Gun Time, so they could still get under 1:30 chip time even if they were slightly behind us. A strong finish should seem them home.

One second

I knew Chris was on pace, but I was now some way back, so had to put in a fast finish to catch up. It is a gentle downhill from St Johns Church to the finish, so I didn’t find it too hard to speed up and was only just behind him as we turned off the road and into the school car park to see the finish line and the clock ticking steadily up towards 1:30:00.

As we crossed the line and stopped our watches, both Chris’s watch and mine recorded 1:29:59, so 1 second out. However the official results list Chris with a perfect 1:30:00 gun time and me with 1:30:02. Not a bad effort.

One second

Pacing is a great way to help out in a race. For a start you get to run as well as marshal, but with a bit of luck you get to play a small part in helping other runners achieve their goals. For anyone to run under 1:30 at a half marathon they have to put in the training, and work hard on the day. On a route like Tunbridge Wells where the first half is downhill and the second half has 445ft of climbing, local knowledge is also important, and hopefully the pacing team can provide that.

p.s. I’ve went back after to collect the gel wrapper i saw thrown in the hedge. What I saw disgusted and enraged me. There will be more on this in my next blog.

Running has a problem… and it’s not drugs

When you ask people why they run, they will often give you a list of health benefits: to lose weight, reduce the risk of heart disease; it makes you feel good, it reduces stress. All these are true, but for many runners it is now an ingrained habit. We may have started for health reasons, but now we run for the enjoyment of being outdoors and running.

Today that enjoyment went. I came home seething mad and ashamed of my running community. We have a problem and it needs to be dealt with.

This is the problem:


The IAAF may worry about the impact of drugs on athletics, but I’ve yet to see EPO syringes or blister packs littering the hedgerows. Elite athletes may have a problem with PEDs, but far too many amateur athletes have a problem with gels. In my local half marathon at the weekend I saw a runner throw his gel wrapper into the hedge. At the time I gave him a bollocking, but carried on running. This morning I decided to run back to the hedge (about 4 miles from my home) and pick up the wrapper.

However on my run there I saw at least half a dozen other gel wrappers on the pavement. I stopped at the local newsagents and asked for a bag, so I could collect them all.

As I carried on running I picked up every gel wrapper I could see. Here is what I collected:


Yes it is a big bag of rubbish!

Over 100 gels from just 6 miles of hedge. Many of these wrappers looked fairly clean, and some were still oozing sugary gunk. Clearly these were from this weekend, but some are much older. Runners or cyclists out on training runs / rides are discarding wrappers where ever they want to. I passed half a dozen refuse bins today on my run today. There really is no excuse to drop rubbish anywhere you please.

So what do we do?

  1. Ban gels
  • This may be a little outrageous, but I can see no reason for runners to take 6 gels out for a 13 mile race. Do people seriously believe High 5’s marketing crap? One gel every twenty minutes!


2. Get manufactures to give these away

  • At UTMB this year, they were handing out these little bags with your race number and drop bags. You simply attach them to your pack and use them for your rubbish. It means used sticky wrappers don’t get mixed with your fresh gels.

3. Disqualification

  • I know a number of trail races where the rules clearly state that runners will be disqualified for littering. I don’t know if Race Directors enforce this, but maybe they should, and at road races as well as on trail. There is always a bin at the water / aid stations.

4. Take responsibility

  • If you see someone throw rubbish – shout at them! People know it’s wrong, and can be shamed into behaving better. Shouting is also therapeutic.
  • Clean up your own streets and trails – I did today, and I’ll try and remember to take a rubbish sack on my next long run.

Don’t be a Tosser… Bin the gels!


p.s I’m a runner. However cycling has the same problem. I’ve seen cyclists set off on rides with a dozen gels in their pockets. I’ve seen them throw used gels into the gutter. Cycling has the problem too.

Dark Star River Marathon

This was my first race organised by Sussex Trail Events, and I was very impressed. It was well organised and friendly, and i’ll definitely be back for more of their events.

The race itself is a flat route, starting in Shoreham by Sea and heading north along the bank of the River Adur for about 10 miles before turning onto the Downs Link path. You follow this for 4 miles, before turning round at a CP and heading back the way you came to the river. On the way back down the river you follow the east bank for a mile, back over the path now churned up by 150 runners, before crossing the river at a foot bridge and following the path on the other bank back to Shoreham. It’s a total distance of 28 miles, so a little long for a ‘marathon’, but great practice for some of the longer events i’ll run later in the year. In pre-race communications the guys at Sussex Trail Events had promised a mudfest, and they certainly delivered!

It was grey and drizzling as I drove down to Shoreham for the 9am start, but by the time the race started the rain had stopped, so i rolled my jacket into a waist pack. If the rain came back, i knew I might need it as much of the route is very exposed to rain and wind coming off the sea. I had recognised a few runners at the start (Stuart Mills – who went on to win, and Tom Sawyer), and was soon chatting to some others as we ran the first few miles. The path by the river was very muddy in places and quite slippery. One runner took a tumble just in front of me, but was up and running again quickly. I was glad I had chosen my Mudclaws as I had no trouble with grip, apart from on a couple of treacherous wooden styles.

Slowly the field spread out, and not long after the first CP at mile 5, I found myself running in a small group of three in 4th or 5th place. We were running at a steady 7:50 – 8:00 minute per mile pace, which felt comfortable enough. Where the route leaves the river and follows the Downs Link path, the running gets a lot easier. This path follows a disused railway line, so is a flat and mostly graveled path. Much easier than the mud, and the pace naturally picked up. I ran through Partridge Green (home of the Dark Star Brewing Co) and stopped briefly at CP2. A little later on I saw Stuart Mills heading back towards me. I had covered just over 13.5 miles so guessed he must be a  mile in front of me. A quick count of the other runners confirmed I was in fifth as I made the turn. I could then see the runners behind as I headed back towards Shoreham.

I tried to take advantage of the easy running on the Downs Link as I knew the river path would be hard work, and did manage a few quicker miles, but the fourth placed runner was still out of sight as I crossed the River Adur and turned onto the path. This was the worst part of the race. 19 miles of running in my legs, a head wind and a churned up muddy trail under foot reduced my speed a lot.

Training has been going well this year, but I had just completed a tough training block and had no rest coming into this race. I knew my legs would feel heavy after 20 miles, but kept reminding myself that everyone would be tired at this point, and i can run all day…

Five minutes later I saw another runner ahead on the trail, and very soon I had caught up. I was busy with some mental arithmetic at this point, trying to work out what finishing time I would get if i could keep an average 8 min/mile pace. These sums can take ages when i’m tired, and distract me for at least a couple of miles. Eventually I figured out a 3:45 finish might be possible if i could keep going at a steady pace.

The final CP was at mile 23, and I paused for another drink and to thank the volunteers. It wasn’t a great day to be hanging around for hours to help keep 150 muddy runners moving, but they were doing a great job, that i’m sure we all appreciated.

I hadn’t expected to see anyone else, but before long i saw another runner up ahead, and that spurred me on. 3rd place is so much better than 4th even though the podium at most races is more a concept than a physical thing. Passing him with about two miles to go, I concentrated on running form and trying to stay strong all the way to the finish.

Eventually the line was in sight, and I could finally relax. Third place in 3:47:39, and a massive medal.

There were hot showers at the finish, and then a very welcome bowl of chili, washed down with a glass of Dark Star’s Hophead ale.


Thanks to Sarah Sawyer for the photo – much better than a selfie!

Thanks to Jon Lavis for the photos below, and the encouragement during the event.