One of my goals for 2016 was to drop below 40 minutes on the 10 km. I gave it a shot in August without any specific training. It was flat, it was hot. I failed to go sub 40, but set a PR at 41:35. With the year running on its end, I had decided on a late November race to have a proper go at this, with proper training. The field of battle: the first event of the Natuurloopcriterium Lier on 26 November.
As a plan I started from Pete Pfitzinger’s lowest 10 km plan, adding some more distance to fit with where I was at the start of the plan. I lowered the relative peaking in terms of distance (relative to the first few weeks). VO2max and speed workouts I kept the same. VO2max workouts consisted mostly of repetitions of 1000 metre at 3-5k race pace. Speed workouts were repetitions of about 200 metre at 800 metre to 1 mile race pace. For tempos I made a slight adjustment in terms of the progression, but nothing major. All the tempos were LT intervals. I also extended the plan a bit at the front as I had 15 weeks till the start of the race rather than 12 weeks. So far for the theory.
Alas, in practice it was not quite so. On the first speed workout, during the 13th week before race week, I got injured. I was doing the speed workout on the road and one of the intervals happened to be on an uphill. My left hip felt a bit odd when suddenly it felt like a tendon or muscle shifted over the bone on the side. Things hurt, I immediately abandoned the workout. I still had to run about six kilometre home though. Two days later I thought it had rested enough (this was not the case) and ran an endurance run. After that I finally wizened up and took a week off.
After the week of rest, I could run again. The pain was gone, but the hip remained uncomfortable. This kept me on my toes for a while: at the least sign of weakness from my hip, I gave up on workouts. The real fast parts (speed and strides) I pretty much avoided altogether. My distance remained mostly what I had planned out. I broke my weekly distance record twice in a row right before the first tune up race. First to 72.5 km, then to 72.7 km.
This first tune up race was the fifth week before race week. It went well, I ran 4 km in 14:21. However, I think I might have done it slightly too fast. Since this is a race you mostly “train through”, your plan does not wait for you to recover, you have to be ready for the next run immediately. It seems I might not have been ready and for two weeks I struggled with a very tight right calf, borderline painful at times. This did not stop me in the fourth week before race week, I broke my weekly distance record again, setting it at 73.9 km. The week after, i.e., the third week before race week, I did take things easier than planned: slightly less distance, no workouts.
The short taper for the second tune up race finally fixed the right calf. I ended up racing that race more conservatively simply due wanting not to blow up during the race, but I guess I could have claimed I did not want to be unable to recover. I ran those 4 km in 15:10. After that race, disaster struck.
I got sick. Fever, coughing, phlegm, snot, throat in ruins, and in need of hours and hours of extra sleep. Running was out of the question and I was less than 14 days away from race day. Seven days out I gave running a try, thinking I was feeling better, but my body was not quite there yet. I needed more days off and race day was fast approaching. In the end, I gambled on hoping my training had been enough and that my body would be there when it needed to be. I did not run at all till Friday, the day before the race. On Friday I ran 5 km at recovery pace with some strides sprinkled in. My heart rate was higher than I wanted, but running did not feel impossible. I decided I would indeed take part.
It is a flat course! That is the main reason I picked this one out. It runs along the rivers in Lier, so except for some short bumps for bridges, there is no elevation to be found. Those bumps suck the pace out of you, but at least they are quickly over with. Running along the river also makes the course pretty uneventful, but that is OK, I am not here for the scenery.
The start is alongside the main river. After 1.6 km along one side you come at a bridge you have to cross to run back on the other side of it. In other words two short right angle turns in quick succession. I will refer to this as a bridge turn, there are some more of these further down the line. At about 2.2 km, there is a turn slightly larger than a right angle. Next you are good for a while, turn left under a bridge around 3.8 km and then right immediately to continue in the same direction as before the bridge. Around 4.7 km there is another turn larger than a right angle. At 6.7 km you have another bridge turn. About 1 km from the end, a last bridge turn has to be completed. Once you reach the track where the finish lies, you have to complete one lap to be home free.
The bridge turns were pretty nasty. On the bridge itself you could often only go on the sidewalk, so you had to turn very sharply. This takes your pace away completely. Throughout the race, these and the random short bumps really hurt me.
Goals and Strategy
I signed up for this race with only one goal: going sub 40. Despite the sickness, I decided to stick to that. Just go for the pace and either make it or crash and burn. Right before the race, I was ready to give myself a slight concession and also be happy with a PR (i.e., faster than 41:35). The strategy remained the same though: aim for sub 40.
Nothing too eventful here, though the girlfriend decided to DNS. At first she had planned to do the 10 miles race. Due to her lingering sickness (she caught the same thing I had, with some delay, but not as strongly affected), she shortened it to the 10 km race, then the 5 km race, and eventually deciding it was safer not to push the body just yet. I remained convinced I should give it a try, so we took the train to Lier. This took 1h30 to 2h and was one of those few moments where I wish I had a driver’s license and car. Oh well.
I went to line up for the start on a little road of maybe a car wide. Going by previous results, I figured my goal time would place me around 30th. So I dutifully lined up several rows back from the front. People were still quite spread out, but I did not give that any thought until the announcer pointed out the entire grassy field to my right would also be part of the start line. This approach placed me much further back in the crowd than I had wanted. A few rows back when rows are 6ish people wide is different from rows of 30+ people. Worse, while the startline was now very wide, the path narrowed about 200 metre further to the car-wide road I was on. This reminded me of descriptions of cross country race starts. I decided I would go fast enough at the start to not be in a potential bottleneck. Especially when I heard some guy in front of me say “yea, I am aiming for 45 minutes … if I do not end up walking, of course”.
Once the race started, I managed to quickly move up through the crowd. Once past the potential bottleneck area, I was behind a small group but immediately felt they would be going too fast for me. When a guy next to me expressed that same feeling out loud (“phew, this is going a bit too fast”), I checked my watch and realised he was right. We were going 3:30. I asked him what he was aiming for. He wanted a 3:45 pace. I said that would definitely be more than I could handle today and 100 metre further I purposefully slowed down a lot, letting a group of 10-15 people pass me.
I find my own pace, but after the first km auto lap I realise I am going slightly too slow. Maybe I should autolap more often during a race where I want to PR. I adjust my pace accordingly. By this time, some people have been right behind me. I guess I will be playing pacer for them today. I do not mind, I have my own time goal and dare not rely on their pacing to get me there. I do not try to force them to take the lead in our little group. I do not even bother looking back, so I am unsure how many there are behind me at this point. No pictures showed up of these moments. Only two people I am sure of:
- an older guy with some grey streaks in his hair (he comes next to me a few times in the first two km) and
- someone behind who yells out things coming from the opposite direction. The path we run on is not blocked off for the race, so there are still some cyclists and walkers around. It seems like a little thing, but I really appreciate him doing that while I half zone out, half die over the next kms.
I am slowly reeling in some kid as we approach the first bridge turn. Not wanting him in my way when I turn, I make sure to speed up slightly so I can catch him before the turn. The turn momentarily saps all pace out of me, but as we are only about 1.6 km into the race, I quickly recover and get back into the groove.
I continue leading my group, though often when looking at my watch I feel it is going slightly too slow and speed up some. Just before the 4 km mark, we go under a bridge to go to the other side of some railroad track. The guy standing at the end of the bridge does a poor job indicating the way and if there were no guys ahead of me, I would have taken a wrong turn here. I do not think I lose any time, but it does annoy me briefly.
We pass a sign indicating the 5 km mark, but my watch strongly disagrees: 4.65 km in 18:35. That time would indeed be too fast for 5 km.
Around 6 km a left turn is coming up. As I follow the path towards it, I notice the people behind me just going left through the grassy patch. Apparently everyone has been doing that, so I also take my turn. Suddenly I find myself at the back of my group. Now I can also see what is left of us: two guys, one of which the older guy. No clue if the other guy is the one who was shouting warnings. I do not think it a good idea to try to immediately pass them again to resume my pacing, so I decide to follow.
This quickly bites me in the ass: they slowly pull away from me. I do not know if they speed up or if I slow down, but it is a rather demoralizing moment. I come back to them briefly, but fade away again immediately. Soon after this, two other guys pass me (one in tight sweatpants) and I briefly wonder if they were perhaps part of my little group before. I am struggling as they start pulling away as well, but quickly decide I need to hold on and use their pacing or I will completely fade away. I briefly speed up to latch on and zone out focusing on their steps.
This works nicely for quite some time, the pace feels pretty consistent. The older guy who had followed me for some time remains in sight. With about one kilometre to go, one of the two guys I am trailing, speeds up. I know I cannot carry a speed-up till the finish. I do not react and neither does sweatpants. A final bridge turn once again briefly makes me hate everything. We start closing in on the older guy. About 200 metre before entering the track, we pass him. He looks back at us, recognises me, and yells “As long as I can get under 40!” at me with a grin.
This gives me a mental boost and I slowly pull up next to tight sweatpants guy, passing him right before we enter the track to make sure I can choose my path on its narrow entrance. Breathing gets heavy as I push out anything I have left. The track has many people on the inner lanes: the slower people from the 5k race are also finishing. I am forced into lane two and three to go around them. As I get closer to the finish line, I pass a first timing mat. I think it was only placed there so the announcer could see the names of people about to finish as immediately after I pass it he says “and here is Ward from Brussels”.
On the right of me I see a photographer and slightly behind him the girlfriend, also ready to take pictures. On the left I see three clocks, one for each distance. The 10 km one is at 39:4X. I am happy, but dead. I cross the finish line and hang on a railing. Someone asks me if I am OK and I reply “no” between deep breaths. He gives me a slightly worried face, so I smile and say “I will be”.
Achievement unlocked. Official timing and Strava have me in 28th place in 39:45. Older guy ends up just behind me in 39:54. Sweatpants follows 2 seconds behind him. The guy that dropped sweatpants and I finishes 26th in 39:40. The guy that was part of the group I carried halfway does another spot better: 25th in 39:33. The guy I talked with briefly during the fast start ends up around where he expected: 37:10 for a 12th spot. To win the race, you needed to beat 32:09.
Getting slight injuries or sickness annoyed me (more than it should?) while following this kind of strict plan. It immediately feels like things are being wasted, you are behind schedule, you lose your potential. I reckon I still have improvement in me from just getting more consistent distance in my legs, so I will just do some base building over the coming months. At the very least I want 75ish km per week to be my new normal. I will probably continue beyond that though, 100 kilometre per week is also a nice sounding number to aim for. That will also require adding another day of running in my week, going from five to six. Included in a week, I will likely opt for a day with some strides at the end, a lactate threshold run, and a long run. No particular racing goal for the next months, though I might hop in some here and there to test my fitness.