23rd December 2019
by Rodney McCulloch
Before the end of the 2019 I wanted to look back on my favourite 3 races of the year which I’ve completed over the last couple of months, starting with the Royal Parks Half in October, Battersea Park 10k in November and the 5ks of Christmas on the track at Battersea Park.
Royal Parks Half Marathon 2019
Having already achieved the required time qualifier for the 2020 New York Marathon at the Maidenhead Half in September, I felt less pressure going into the Royal Parks Half, I had a free shot at it (and a free entry!) so I was looking forward to it. After Maidenhead I enjoyed 3 weeks away in warmer climes in France and Italy, still ticking over with training and getting in plenty of steps with lots of walking every day. On fresh legs I ran 17:20 at Lucca parkrun in Tuscany, my fastest parkrun in over 9 years, so the relaxed holiday mode had helped not hindered the fitness! Returning from holiday, I got back into the more intense training again with some tempo efforts on Tuesdays at race pace and felt like I had a decent chance of beating my 1:22:30 PB from Hampton Court Half in 2017.
The Royal Parks Half takes in the four of the eight Royal Parks in London: Hyde Park, Green Park, St James’s Park and Kensington Gardens and also passes several major landmarks in the heart of the capital, including Buckingham Palace, The Mall and Trafalgar Square.
I headed up to London with fellow SHAEF Shifter, Stew – who was on the comeback trail having had some awful luck with injuries in 2019. With 16,000 runners and many spectators, the Tube was as busy as rush-hour, so we walked the last 15 minutes to Hyde Park in light rain. There had been plenty of rain that week so the race area on the grass at Hyde Park was very cut up and muddy, so the first objective before the race was to keep my feet dry! Once we dropped off our bags, we headed to the warm-up area and the start pens. Compared to some big events I didn’t need to get into the start pen too early, and I was able to get in a decent warm up before moving on to the start line about 10 mins before the start. The roads were wet from the overnight rain, but by 9am it wasn’t raining anymore although it was quite humid in the capital.
At bang on 9am we were set off in Hyde Park with a slightly downhill section heading towards Hyde Park Corner and Wellington Arch. The Wellington Arch (pictured below) was built to commemorate Britain’s victories in the Napoleonic Wars and was completed in 1827. The arch initially stood in front of Buckingham Palace, before moving to its current home on Hyde Park Corner.
I got a bit caught up in the adrenaline at the start with a few other fast starters as the first two km were 3:41 and 3:43 – I immediately pulled it back after that to low 3:50s for the next few km and let a few others that were breathing too hard already pull away – safe in the knowledge I may see them a bit later on. I went through 5k in 19:11.
From 5k onwards I settled into a good rhythm with a smaller group who were all doing low 3:50 kms (including the first woman who was getting a lot of encouragement) so I was able to enjoy the race at this stage and take in the various famous landmarks on the course, including Buckingham Palace via Constitution Hill (which is flat). The Palace (pictured below) has been the royal residence since Queen Victoria took to the throne in 1837 and it has 775 rooms. After passing the Palace we headed on to Birdcage Walk, Whitehall, Trafalgar Square and The Strand.
After The Strand we headed west again past Trafalgar Square and Admiralty Arch on to The Mall. Admiralty Arch (pictured below) was commissioned by Edward VII, dedicated to Queen Victoria and it was completed in 19:12. It was quite humid around London so I took on drink at every drinks station to keep the head cool. After leaving the Mall we headed back towards Hyde Park, and I went through 10k in 38:31 still feeling relatively comfortable at this point… hard controlled running is how I’d describe it, those many weeks of Tuesday tempos helped with this feeling.
The race atmosphere was very good, especially in Hyde Park and around Buckingham Palace. Going through halfway by the Serpentine lake there were so many charity groups lining the route… and for some strange reason either because I felt so relaxed or high on adrenaline, I was encouraging more noise from the crowd and waving my arms about (sadly no photographic evidence of this)… after doing that I reminded myself to snap out of it and knuckle down, one km at a time!
By 15km (57:53) the group I was previously with had broken up and I just had one other person for company. I felt I had done enough already to probably get a new PB as I was still averaging around 3:50/km, but I knew the longer I could stick with the other guy I was chipping off more and more time. The effort was cumulatively getting harder between 15 and 20k, and it’s in those moments when I like to think back on some particularly tough training sessions and think about those last few miles of a hard tempo and get into that mindset.
On a switchback section I heard Stew give me a shout out, I think I raised a hand but was in tunnel vision by this point focusing on tracking any runners ahead. The route around Hyde Park for the second half was a bit twisty in places, but the surface was good. I reached 20k in 1:17:12, it was a nice feeling at this point to know I would get well under 1:22 and a PB, even if my expression above doesn’t show it as I was eager for every second.
The last km was a long flat finish straight on the road in Hyde Park; it felt like it wasn’t getting any closer seeing the finish gantry, but I focused on increasing the pace for a short effort that I felt I could manage through to the finish line, and I was delighted to finish in 1:21:35 – a 55 second PB! My last km was 3:46, one of my fastest km of the whole race – that’s easily the strongest I’ve ever felt towards the end of a Half Marathon.
I had a detailed look at the stats, that was the best paced half marathon I had run before, unlike at Hampton Court and Maidenhead (my previous two fastest half’s) I was able to maintain a very consistent pace throughout the whole race, with 4 consecutive sub 19:30 5ks. From 5k to the finish the projected finish time stayed between 1:21:00 and 1:21:45. Doing those tempo sessions on a regular basis at race pace for the previous months as well as doing the Maidenhead Half a few weeks earlier had made all the difference, especially being able to hold the pace from 15k onwards (blue line in graph below is projected HM pace during Royal Parks Half).
I would recommend Royal Parks Half if you get a place, it’s a relatively fast course despite a few switchbacks and it is all on closed roads around many landmarks in central London, so there is PB potential there. Well done to fellow Shifters Stew and Ian C on their runs as well!
Battersea Park 10k
After getting a Half Marathon PB, my attention turned to focus on getting a 10k PB, ideally sub 36. I entered a 10k race at Battersea Park the week after Royal Parks and ran 36:19, only a few seconds outside my PB (36:13). My recent running form and tempo training had helped with 10k racing but doing a 10k race 6 days after a half marathon wasn’t enough recovery time. Another month of specific 10k training before finding another 10k would help build that form.
For the rest of October and through November the training was focused towards a 10k PB on 30thNovember, with easy runs through the week and one key interval session each Tuesday. The key Tuesday sessions through November were: 1. 4 x 2k, 2. 2x3k, 2k, 1k, 3. 3x3k, 4. 6x800. Towards the end of session the aim was try and finish the last interval closer to 5k pace than 10k pace – the purpose of this was to try and get the body used to pushing harder at the end to try and replicate this in the race. The 3 x 3km session at 10k pace especially gave me a lot of confidence going into the 10k race that I could get under 36 minutes.
Come race day conditions were perfect at Battersea Park, dry and no wind, albeit a very cold and foggy start so I was layered up for it and did a long warm up with an early 8:30 start time. This was my 4th10k race of the year and my third at Battersea Park with Sri Chinmoy AC who organise many 5k and 10k road races in the park throughout the year. Those that know Battersea will know it is a very fast and flat course with only 4 corners.
We set off just after 8:30, as you can see from the photo above most of the runners had chosen t-shirt and shorts, it was probably going to take me several kilometres to warm up so I was happy to have the extra layers on! Once the race settled down after a few hundred metres, I checked my pace was ok and then stuck with an unusually large group of about a dozen doing around 3:32/km pace, so I sat at the back of that group for a few km to conserve as much mental and physical energy (having a nap at the back of the pack in the photo below). This pace felt relatively comfortable in the first half of the race.
After two laps of the 4-lap course I went through halfway in 17:44, at the faster end of where I had planned to be but not a crazy pace at all. By 6-7km the big group I was with had begun to split up, some ahead were pushing on for a low 35 min time, some had fallen off the back of the group. I was trying to hang on at this stage and maintain a sub 3:35/km pace for as long as I could.
Around 7-8k I could feel the pace slipping for the first time without even looking at the watch. At this stage I knew I was running quicker than I had in a 10k race before and was likely to get a PB and sub 36, but I wanted to make every second count. When I reached 9k I gave myself a talking to and just wanted to push on as hard as possible in that last km and chase down any runners ahead, treat it like a 1k interval at the end of a hard Tuesday session – this seemed to work as I managed a 3:31 last km to finish in 35:42, a 31 second PB. I was over the moon with that, despite the pained expression at the finish and the fact it took quite a while to get my breath back afterwards, but there was a feeling of satisfaction in that moment that I couldn’t have given much more.
Looking at the stats above, there was a small drop off with the pace in the second half (17:44/17:58), but not as much of a positive split (14 seconds) compared with my previous fastest 10k races at Battersea Park. The focus this year was getting a fast Half Marathon time, but the momentum I picked up from that carried through to the 10k as well, with that combination of longer tempo runs combined with some medium to long distance intervals working very well. Well done also to fellow Shifter John W on his 10k at Battersea on the comeback trail.
With a Half Marathon PB in October, 10k PB in November, I was hoping to complete the hat-trick with a 5k PB in December.
Battersea Park 5000m – The 5k’s of Christmas
The 5k’s of Christmas is an annual 5000m open meeting on the athletics track at Battersea Park, which has been superbly organised by Clapham Chasers for the last few years. As far as I know it is the only 5000m track meeting that takes place during the winter months in the UK. With a couple of sub 17:30 5k parkruns completed in November, this event felt like the perfect timing and a big opportunity to beat my long standing 5k PB of 17:16 – which was set way back in September 2010, when the words Instagram and Brexit did not exist in the lexicon, and the idea of Boris Johnson being Prime Minister would have been considered fanciful in the extreme.
This year’s 5k’s of Christmas was on 7th December, exactly a week after my 10k race. I only had a couple of runs in race week, the first was on the Tuesday which was 10x400 at 5k pace, they were around 81-82 seconds which would be around 17 mins for 5k so that was a good sign; and then a final easy 5k jog 2 days before the race with a couple of strides.
The 5000m races were seeded by time, and I chose to go into the race which included a 17:10 pacer. Having a pacer going just inside my PB pace felt like the right strategy, and if I felt strong once the pacer dropped out, I could still get that PB. My feeling was if I went into the sub 17 race, it’s likely that the lead runners would’ve been going sub 16 and I might not have had anyone to track around 17-minute pace in a strung-out field. Tom H was also taking part, he was in the race before mine, with the aim of going for a PB as well.
I didn’t see much of Tom’s race as I was warming up, however I saw the last few laps to give him some encouragement, and he managed a PB by a few seconds, as he ran 19:04.54! Sub 19 definitely on the way Tom! Not long after his race finished, I headed over to the back straight on the 200m start area for my 12.5 laps of the track. There were 25 runners in my race, and as we set off there was a lot of jostling for position, initially I was further back than planned in the mad sprint at the start, so I had to spend a bit of time in Lane 2, but by the third lap I was where I wanted to be just behind the pacer.
The first few laps were reasonably comfortable around 3:25/km pace, 82-83 seconds for each lap. The GPS watch was all over the place on the track so I mostly ignored it, so it was an advantage having a pacer doing metronomic laps so I could just stay as relaxed as possible tracking him and save the energy for the closing laps. A group of 4 runners had moved ahead of the pacer early on, and my feeling was that they were going at sub 17 pace. At 3k the 17:10 pace pacer peeled off, with the race clock at 10:14.
There were still 5 laps to go at this point, and with the pacer gone I needed to stick as close as possible to the leading group of 4 runners. Tom H was giving good encouragement on the side of the track, I knew every lap I could stick close to the leaders it was pulling the time closer to sub 17 with every lap. The first 4km were 3:25, 3:25, 3:24, 3:24, so a PB was very much on the cards, but if I was going to get under 17 I needed to find a bit more.
I was really struggling and fighting to stay with the group in the last km as they picked up the pace slightly, and coming into the bell lap the race clock had 15:41, for sure a PB was coming but with the chance of a sub 17 so close I had to dig in and treat it like a 400m rep at the end of a tough interval session, that sharpened the focus. No point looking at the watch now as I knew it was going to be tight and that would be wasted energy.
Coming into the home straight I just threw the kitchen sink at it and sprinted as hard as I could on tired legs and breathing hard, crossed the finish line, stopped the watch and saw the time – I stopped it at 16:58.6! The feeling afterward was the best I’ve ever felt after a race, that was the one PB I wanted and had been chasing for 9 years, and to get it by sneaking under 17 minutes felt even more special. It almost didn’t feel real. Fortunately, the official result came through a day later which was 16:59.14. PB and sub 17 confirmed! The last km was 3:21 and the last lap 78 seconds.
It was good to share the moment with Tom and his encouragement in the closing laps gave me the reminders I needed to not let the sub 17 opportunity slip away and maintain the focus to the finish. It doesn’t matter what races come in future - I will remember this one for many reasons as for a long time.
As I was with the 17:10 pacer for over half the race, I was then able to use that extra energy in the final laps to get 16:59. If I had started quicker I’m not sure I would’ve had the same strength on tiring legs, so I paced it about right for a negative split. The track feels about 20 seconds quicker than a parkrun for me. If you feel in good 5k shape in December, I would definitely recommend this event, it was well organised and good encouragement coming from lane 5 – and free mulled wine and mince pies too (after the race might be best for that).
The last few months have been my best ever running-wise, and I don’t think it’s a co-incidence that it’s my first year since 2012 that I haven’t run a marathon or ultra – this has allowed me to focus on once race distance at a time and give that the necessary focus. Every race distance is different and each one needs its own focus and specific training. I’m looking forward to 2020 and hopefully a few more PBs, wishing the best to all of you for your running in 2020, most of all enjoy it!