Helsinki City Marathon

Sunset

This must be the furthest I’ve travelled for such a short period of time just to go for a run. I arrived into Helsinki at midnight on a Friday, ran the marathon the next day and flew back out on Sunday. My thoughts were that by running the marathon I’d get to see a fair bit of the city to know where I’ll come back too!

The story didn’t start here though. Back in 2017, Sandra got in touch off the back of one of my Instagram post of my 2018 races. Sandra and I briefly worked together back at the Energy Saving Trust around 2009. We didn’t work closely together, nor really know each other too well, but we did bond over a mutual appreciation of the ‘first nuclear powered South Korean’ – Park Ji-Sung. It was as simple as that. Some 9 months later and we’d both left and other than an occasional message here and there, that was that.

So when Sandra got in touch she basically said she’d like to join and run one of the races with me. Amazing!! We settled on Helsinki (neither of us had visited before) and a plan was set.

Dai & Sandra
The reunion

Over the months leading up to the weekend we chatted and reminisced. Or tried too. We realised how little we knew of each other and our lives and also that, back when we did know each other, neither of us had any prior passions or interested. But here we were, reunited by individual passions for running that we’d since discovered.

Sandra’s journey to Finland was somewhat more complex than mine. Living in South Africa she needed a visa. She was also pending a move to Canada and was visiting family in the UK beforehand. So we met and flew together from Gatwick. On the way back she’s also be going back to South Africa to visit family. I on the other hand had it easy, fly out of and into Gatwick.

We arrived late Friday, getting to the apartment for about 00:30 on Saturday. Thankfully the race didn’t start till 3pm (I don’t understand why!!). So we had time to wake early, walk to the start, explore the expo and collect our kits. The registration was very simple and, due to last minute injuries, Sandra was able to swap to the 5km run rather than the marathon.

Pre Race
Dougie representing. Don’t ask

We decided to get some coffee and explore Helsinki. A few hours of walking around made us question two things. What is in Helsinki and where are all the people?! Other than some Asian food markets and cruise ships in the port, it was a ghost town! So back to the apartment we went to eat and relax.

Race time cane about pretty quickly. We had to go our separate ways due to different

Statue
The ‘Flying Finn’

start locations and arranged to meet at the finish line, where I was also starting. A quick walk over, dumped the bags (and sparkling water I’d mistakenly bought, yuk!!) and we were invited to line up in the road.

There was a great atmosphere at the race village as it was bubbling with activity from the half marathon which had just finished. Loss of spectators and runners lining the streets and the MCs were on good form gearing up the crowd.

We set off. I had a plan. I was intended to run 8min miles consistently to get a 3:30 finish time. There are a few reasons here. Firstly, in three weeks I have another ultra. Secondly, I have a few niggles in my feet which were concerning me (that pain since Brighton still!). And thirdly, the demons from Limassol are still there. But that’s for another time. As I set off I quickly changed tact. I decided 7:50min/miles would be my pace.

It was a good challenge. To stop me racing. To focus my mind. To help me enjoy the day. It isn’t as easy as it sounds though. I felt good. I wanted to run harder. I wanted my space and didn’t like being crowded in. I also wanted to compete when people over took me. It was a case of constantly checking my pace and adapting. I was constantly aware and constantly thinking of my pace.

The course started off at the national stadium and we headed our towards Vanha and along the roads. There were water stations almost imminently. Damn cups. This again. I stopped. I knew I’d always have to stop to drink now. So I did. Each water station though had Sportyfeel isotonic and water. I took both. And carried on. There were a few little hills to deal with. Hilly enough that many runners were walking them, but nothing I’m not used to!! It wasn’t long before we hit some trails and paths in Lehtisaari Lovo as we started crossing some of the islands. In around the second park was an ice zone. Volunteers with ice spray no made a mental note to stop on the second lap.

We crossed several little bridges which offered amazing views of Helsinki. My mind was changing. I felt now I was seeing Helsinki. And from this aspect it’s beautiful. I couldn’t stop smiling. I was full of energy and trying to contain it. We continued through the streets of Lauttasaari Drumso

I needed the toilet though. It was on my mind. Then soon at a water station manned by clowns. A little scary! There were portaloos. Perfect. But, once I emerged, the road was heaving!! Runners everywhere. The 3:30 pace group had caught me up. And there were loads of them. Not just runners.  But pacers no counted 6 pacers with 3:30 on their vests. All running together. Completely unnecessary. Why?!!  Spread them out surely. I had to sprint and weave to break free of the crowd and avoid getting stressed by the them all!

As we reached the part of Kaivopuisto Brunnsparken. There was a lot of activity. People in parks, lining the streets cheering and supporting. As always I made sure I acknowledged and thanked each and everyone of them. I had the energy to spare to clap and cheer. We reached Kaartinkaupunk, near where we walked in the morning, I recognised runners coming the other way. It was sometime before I eventually hit the turning point. At this stage I was running in sync with another guy. We’d be running together for a while and He looked strong and I sensed we were likely to stay together for sometime.

We were heading back to the city. A loop we wouldn’t need to replicate second time round. We reached an underpass that was a maze of of tape and directions. We’d been here once before and were now directed in a different direction. There were also signs for the 5km run and the second lap of the marathon.

Coming up out of the under path we were in an open public space filled with locals cheering and supporting. Such an uplifting moment. I was racing ahead of my time and needed to reign it back in. We then ran along a path passing under all the main roads. Filled with street art and passers by. The guy I was running with pulled off to go to the toilet and that would be the last time I’d see him.

I enjoyed this section of the race. It was shaded and varied. You emerged into the ‘Garmin PowerZone’. The what?!  Hardly a PowerZone. It had some young girls with Pom poms cheering. Riiiiight. I cheered back and carried on. I soon recognised the road, we were near the start. So nearing lap two. We’d done over half a mararhon at this point I think. Coming along the final straight to the finish were more supporters who I cheered and hi-fived and continued on for lap two.

I won’t go into the details here, it was the same as lap 1 just not the whole loop. I was eagerly anticipating the ice spray though so I stopped when it found it. It wasn’t as good as I hoped. Yes it was cold, but it just left my legs sticky.

I was full of energy and could easily have run so much faster. I was conscious of my target though and was on average 1 second per mile too fast. So I had to slow down. I was overtaking so many Runners. As a tactic it was clearly paying off in terms of racing. Slow and steady!! I passed people I saw way back ahead of me in the other direction of lap one. One woman had her partner running with her, cheering and encouraging her. She looked in pain as I passed them both and clapped him. There was also a street full of kids where I had great fun getting the hi-fives out. I always find I run faster after a burst of crowd enthusiasm!!

Before I knew it we were back at the underpass of directions. Shorter route this time. I was still feeling so strong. The challenge really was slowing down. I was still slightly ahead of my target pace. There was an elderly chap nearby with a 100+ marathon club t-shirt, he was on my mind. The admiration. The thought of the sheer amount of effort and dedication to hit that many. And how strong he was running. ‘I could have him’ I thought. I don’t want to finish behind an old geezer. Not my target though. Not today. I did speed up through the “PowerZone” taking the piss and mocking the cheerleaders and on into the tunnel of street art. A small kid (practically a toddler) with his father. The kid jumped off his scooter and started running. The old chap loved it. I loved it. The kid loved it. We were all cheering and clapping him along as he sprinted passed us. He kept going until a grumpy marshal stopped him. A bit unnecessary I thought.

The finish came up pretty quickly after that. I was slowing even more to hold my target pace. All those around me were also slowing, I assume more so through fatigue. We rounded the corner into the stadium. A short sprint across the turf to the finish. Some cheers from the crowd. I played up to the camera (not for the first time!). Puffing out the cheeks. Over the line and job done.

Dai 19

Time for the goodies. First up, Ice spray. I got it all over my lower body. Next, coffee.

Swag
Get in there

Yes!!! It was good. I had a long chat to the lovely lady serving. I got some water and went back for another coffee. Finishing picture taken, up next cake the goodie-bag. It was empty. Fill your own. Yes!!! Here we go. I got plenty of Water, Chocolate corn bars, Wasabi puffs, Raisins, Yogurts, Recovery milk drink, Icecream and Non alcoholic beer. I was pretty happy with that haul! Helsinki, you did good!!

 

A Weekend on the Trails

This weekend saw the excitement of two group-based trail runs, first up a trip to West Sussex with the Never Stop London crew and then on Sunday popping the Epping Forest Cherry with a few of the Cool Cats runners.

 

Never Stop London – West Sussex

Every month the North Face community (Never Stop London) lead a free (yep!) trail run. Tickets sell out pretty damn quick and I usually miss out because I’m either too slow or not about on that weekend. This month though I managed to get a place…

We met at 9am outside the store in Regents Street where a bus was waiting and we were greeted by free coffee provided by the Workshop Coffee. Plug – it was bloody good Workshop Coffeecaffeine. Jack, the community manager, gives the first of many prep talks and we board the bus heading towards West Sussex.  There must have been about 30+ of us. The drive was a bore. Slow and painfully escaping London (and passing back near the area where I live on the way!) we arrived in Fulking around 11ish and assembled in the car park of the Shadow and Dog pub. Prep talk number 2, an intro to the team (Jack, Mark, Mathilde and Yvette) and an explanation of the route planned by Jana who’s leaving the team to start new adventures in Chamonix later this month.

Intro to the trail
TEAM NSL

Group photo taken and off we go, starting with a climb of approximately 400ft where we were presented with some glorious views and plenty of happy cows and hikers.

Team NSL

About 3 miles in, after some undulations and more breath taking views of the South Downs we were upon Devils Dyke, a spectacular v-shaped dry valley. Time to run down, wooooooooo. Jack as always was behind the camera, dashing ahead to capture the emotions and joy of each of us running.

Earlier in the week I’d agreed to meet up with a friend Jon and some others he knows through Instagram, I got my dates wrong however and had to bail for the NSL run as I’d already committed too. They were also out on the South Downs doing a 30km Trail, and then we met. Amazing that in such a vast space you can cross paths with so many familiar faces. A quick detour and I went and said hello, introduced myself to those I recognise from social media but hadn’t yet met. And then a dash back to rejoin the group.

A few more pleasurable and breath-taking (literally) climbs and there were more views to savour. I chatted a bit with Mark, who is a very experienced runner, about the different techniques for hill running. Now I just need to put them to good use!

Along the course we were constantly greeted by the wildlife. So many young calves and lambs out on the Downs, cautiously saying hello and minding their own business.

Cow

As we started to near the end of the 10 mile route we hit some mud (yay!) and it started to rain. Only ever so slightly did it dampen (get it?!) the spirits. But by now everyone was already thinking about the food in the pub.

Miles done and t was food time. We’d ordered ahead and the shadows and Dog were pretty good (I thought) with the group and the food was excellent.  Now it was time to board the bus again and be lethargic. All in all a great day with plenty of laughs and memories and fun on the trail!!

Epping Forest with Cool Cats

 

Cool Cats before
The obligatory before ‘black and white’ mugshots

The shortest version of this story is that I took the responsibility to arrange this cool cats adventure. A group chat identified that Jorge and I had never been to Epping Forest. I put out the Facebook post and the Vesseys, Yvette and Verity put their hands up. Nick was going to come but on the day bailed. I didn’t have time in the week to look at routes so I begged Jana for some from her collection. What came next was the result of the group.

Team Cool Cats

I opted for the shorter of the routes Jana provided, a 15km route. I had the NSL run the day before and the Helsinki marathon the following weekend so a shorter run was preferable to me. I’m also concious I’ve still some unexplained pain in my foot. There was some noise from the group as we were all travelling longer that what 15km would take, but we were easy. We could continue on the day if we felt like it.

On the day though we were all in favour of the 15km as a few of us were carrying injuries and niggles. So off we went from Loughton…

It was a greyish morning and we could feel the chill as we stood around setting our watches and bags. A quick mile or so up the road and we hit the ‘forest’ and you could immediately feel the humidity. We had the choice of a clockwise or anti clockwise loop as we’d be finishing in the same place. We went left and for the clockwise option.

LakeSoon we hit the lake and had some great views and crossed some wooden bridged-path before rejoining the trails. We were all smiling and glad of the flat but spongy gravel track and talked a lot about our injuries, inability to heed our own advice and the technicalities of different running shoes (always fascinating with Dan’s insight as he works for Runnersneed!)

To our surprise the trail took a little hilly turn. We had some up and downs to contend with. As relaxing as they were, I wasn’t expecting them! This is pretty much how the rest of the run went. It was very relaxed and we were all smiling and together for the 9 miles or so and only took a wrong turn a few times!

It amazed me that I wasn’t alone in never having previously ventured to Epping Forest. I’ve intended too many times before, just never made it happen. I was blown away by the scenery and in particular the “greenness” (if that’s a word?!) of the place. so many shades and variations of the green, it really is a gem of a place, and despite the time, so easily accessible from London with the Tube!

So much greenery

Food. Was on our minds and we finished up and went in search of a pub. None were open yet so we opted for Cafe Rouge. I’ve no idea why I felt the need to devour a whole sharing platter. Oh yeah I do, because it had baked Camembert on it. Result. It was time to traverse back across London and Home!

Brecon Beacons Ultra Trail

Ridgeway
This event was the first I’ve done as a result of social media  shortly after  I discovered Instagram and decided on my running challenges for 2018, A post by @lil_em_loves_to_run sparked my interest…
It would was to serve as a good training/baseline to kickstart my training for the Alps later in the year. The run was sold as a 32 mile ultra with a ‘strenuous ‘ difficulty rating. What does that even mean?  Who cares, it was  £55 which I think is damn cheap. I booked it and pretty much ignored it as it was so far in the future.  Sometime later my sister was talked into signing up for the half Marton as part of the event. That would be fun with her.
May soon arrived I’d planned to do some hill training, but I hadn’t. I generally felt good, although I was intimidated by the elevation and climbs. I needed to experience some hills though. My parents had arranged to come up for the night so we all stayed in a hotel in Talgarth the night before and they’d be waiting at the finish line along with my sister. This would be the first time my family had joined me for a run, and also the first have done in my home country! The hotel had a tiny chip shop attached to it, so we prepped with some greasy fish and chips and a beer, got an early night and I headed down to the start to register at 6:30am.
Race T collected, number 39 for the day. Despite the predicted warm temperatures,  it was very cold at that time so I’d layered up to keep warm.  Soon I was spotted by Camilla and Dorota from the Cool Catz group. These cats get everywhere.  It was the first time I’d met Dorota,  she would also be running the ultra and Camilla the marathon (crazy cat had signed up just one week ago). We listened to the race briefing, From which I took “you’ll go up Corn Du” 3 times and “you don’t need the wet gear from the mandatory kitlist”, I had no choice at that point but to carry what I’d brought. The only other thing of note here was that the half marathon was actually 15.5 miles my sister would kill me when she discovered this!
Start
Outside we went, a quick photo of the cool cats and we were off. Dorota and I started off together at the back, chatting and getting to know one another. The race started in Gileston farm in Talybont-on-usk and we headed out on the Taff Trail heading out towards the Talybont Reservoir.  After about 4km we came across the first checkpoint, I thought this was a little early in the race, but it was also served in the kother distances so I’m sure the half and 10k runners would have appreciated it more than I did! We didn’t stop. Very soon after though we were upon the reservoir.  A very picturesque scene indeed and many runners stopped to take pictures. This actually helped thin the crowds out a little bit!
We carried on along the Beacons Way (parallel to the TaffTrail Trail) and continued along side the reservoir which presented us with some incredible views. As we reached the end, probably around 6 miles in, I said my goodbyes to Dorota and we continued on at Ice Creamour own pace. I spent some time briefly chatting with a group of guys running together and we shared some stories before shortly after I hit the second checkpoint. They carried on but I I stopped for some coke, Yes, and a few jelly beans and continued onwards. At this point the ultra and marathon routes headed left, with the half marathon turning right to loop around the reservoir back to the start. I stopped to capture a picture of this sign, there was no ice cream. They lied. Briefly we were back on the Taf Trail before heading across fields towards the Beacons Way again. All around us were spectacular views of the mountains and the uncertainty of not knowing which we’d have to climb! I passed the guys again and carried onwards, smiling away and sing my little song that I had on loop in my head that went “gonna shit in a portal,  dum dum, gonna shit in a portal,  dum dum”. I don’t know why, and I don’t know to what tune, but it made me smile.
The path at this point was  covered with trees and fresh smells, we were heading towards Rain Gauge and the old Filter House which is where we’d turn left, toward the first climb. We cossed the Taf Fechan and the climb was in sight. It was steep. I could see people going up all the way, runners and hikers. Out came my poles. This was the first time I’d used poles. I brought  them to try out ready for the CCC.  Mine are the highly rated Black Diamond carbon z. And damn they were light. I wore them horizontally across my back in a Salomon Pulse waistband. I hardly felt them. ‘Poling’ upwards I chatted to a lady from Leicester about her trips to the Beacons as a child and her running adventures.  We got to the top, passed the tourists and off she went. I spent a few minutes thumbling with the poles and made a mental note to put them away just before I summit next time. I was now stuck in a narrow single file track, occasionally having the space to overtake. The views were beautiful. Ridgeway everywhere. Looking down on the gauge we really were being spoilt up high as we traversed the Craig Fan Ddu towards Corn Du.
Arriving at Corn Du it was getting busy with tourists, and the heat was getting intense. A picture of the Welsh flag and a sharp hairpin turn, it was time to go back down from Corn DuBwlch Duwynt. Now this was fun. Loads of people walking up, and me, free running down. I was smiling. I was humming and bumbling tunes out as I skipped and jumped all the little breaks in the path,  weaving my way through the crowds and thanking the occasional cheer and supporter. I say it was fun, within a minute, I could feel the burn in the quads, and the pain of the impact in each ankle. I soon wished it to be over. I was overtaken by this dude who was flying down! When we reached the bottom and checkpoint 3 I commented so. He laughed, said the uphill were the problem. I stocked up on water, had some crisps and sweets, joked with the volunteers and headed off again,  with a toilet stop in the public toilets I was good to go.
The route briefly followed the road before we turned back in on the paths and it was time to head up towards Corn Du again. We started off heading up, then briefly back down before the climb started properly and the poles came back out. I passed the down hill sprinter and joked that I’d see him on the next downhill (I did!) And up I went. This time I was huffing and puffing. Sweating like a bitch and I could feel the ache in my arms from using the poles. I was drinking a lot to combat the exhaustion and heat. The top looked and age away, and then I noticed the runners doing another sharp hair pin, we weren’t going completely to the top this time,  as it was yet again time to descend. I took a moment to enjoy the views again and started  chating to a guy from Wrexham doing his first ultra. We ran together and we’re soon in a little group of runners descending down Llyn Cwm Llwch. Most of them got ahead of me on the down hills. I was finding this tough and coming to the conclusion that I’m not that strong on the downs. I could feel my body fighting the gravity and I must have been afraid to relax into the ‘fall’ , the uneven terrain was a fear for  me. We carried on along Cwm Llwch, getting closer and closer to ground level.
As we reached the village of Modrydd there would be a stretch along public roads. Narrow roads. This was undulating and I could see many runners walking the little inclines. I kept telling myself I’d go so far then walk also, but I kept moving the goalposts, deciding that I was fairly strong on this type of road and I’d keep going, racing, putting some distance between me and those who were stronger on the down hills. Rounding the turn at Three Rivers Ride, it was another steep incline to a car park (start of another public path), there was a runner sitting at the bottom changing his socks, he laughed as I looked up and said “fuck that” and started walking.  At the top, Checkpoint 4. This was a biggy, checkpoint 5 was 15kms away, with only a emergency water at the top of Pen Y Fan.  I filled the bladder and bottles, ate some stuff and moved on. I made some videos to share on Instagram to occupy my mind as I looked up at the biggest climb of the race, Pen Y Fan loomed in the distance. I looked at my watch, I’d been running for 4hrs and 20mins at this point. I was curious how long it would take to walk.
I was huffing and puffing away, occasionally chatting to other runners and hikers as I powered up. I thought we’d reached the top at one point and had a little run, but to my annoyance we were barely half way, ahead of me it was even steeper than before. I Pen Y Fan Halfwaydipped into the babybel stash, I needed a salty pickme up. I was also conscious now that I was out of electrolytes. For some reason I didn’t bring any additional ones with me. I don’t know why. I no longer had the tasty escape from just plain old water. I wanted coke. Checkpoint 5 was a long way away. Nearing the top I had to scramble. Hands and knees over big rocky steps. I was there.
At the top of Pen Y Fan, the views were spectacular. I first sat and chatted to two hikers as I caught my breadth. Then I wandered around the top taking some pictures. Unexpectedly I could hear my name being called. What the…. It was Camilla! We hugged and laughed and enjoyed the views together before setting off down the Beacons Way away gain towards Fan Y Big. I was running and enjoying and I felt bad,  I’d forgotten to say good by to Camilla,  I looked back up and waved, she didn’t see me. I carried on, more down hill, but, in my mind, the last down hill, or so I thought. Before Fan Y Big, we turned off the main paths, we were going to go up again. I felt cheated. I accepted I’d misinterpreted the instructions at registration,  running up to Corn Du three times did not mean only 3 hills to run. Stupid me. Oh well, up again I went up Craig Cwareli.
I passed two guys having a break and would see them again at the top when I decided to walk for a bit. We shared some chat about poles and equipment and I fell in line behind them as we ran the rocky ridgeway. It was tough underfoot, then the guy in front rolled his ankle and and yelled in pain. We stopped. He was alright, annoyed more than anything. I carried on out front. Then it was my turn and I did the same.  We decided to walk through it, and enjoy the views.
Terrain
Eventually the path was good enough to run again, heading along Flordd  Las. It was soft and muddy. It was good. I felt stronger on this down hill than all the rest. I think it was the knowledge that the final Checkpoint and the coke I craved was just a few miles away. I could see runners all ahead, like individual targets to chase down and pass. And I did. One by run I sought them out and caught them. Until I got some serious cramp on the inside of my right quad. Normally in races, and earlier in this one, when I get cramp I power through. But this one was worse than I’ve felt before. I had to stop.  A runner passed me and offered help to stretch have me, I told him it would be OK and I hobbled on behind him. I then felt so bad when he slipped in the mud and fell in front of me. It was funny to watch but I sensed it hurt and he was annoyed.  He refused my assistance too and we carried on.
We crossed through some fields and painful climbed over some stye before the oasis of Checkpoint 5 presented itself. It was busy. We were all grabbing at the coke and sweets. Spirits were high and a lot of thanks to the volunteers were given. I checked, we had 6 kms to go,  down hill and along the river.  I text my parents, eta somewhere between 30-40 min.  Onwards for the last time.
As we headed to Pencelli,  where we’d pick up the Taff Trail back to the finish (start) I passed along and chatted to more runners. We were all on the high of knowing it was the final stretch. Along the river I picked some more targets and chased them down. A few would stop to walk and I felt like doing the same.  It had been 7 hours. I was fatigued and my mind was ready to give up. I kept fighting the urge to walk.  I was on race mode again, unnecessarily not wanting to lose a position in the final standings.  Pointless, but that competitiveness kept me going. Up ahead another runner and a little incline as the path split, we were being directed off the path. I had the idea I’d stop st the top and have that walk. Only,  I asked how long left a land I was told 300m.  This changed my mind.  There would be no stopping now!
The final stretch have winded down some farm roads. Plenty of supporters were out clapping and cheering. I clapped and thanked them all, rounding the bend through the car park entrance and to the finish line. I put on my pose, cheeks puffed, arms out and waddled across the line. Past my father and sister and cameras, passed the medals. Then they all called me back. I was in my own world.
I spent some time with my family who’d set up camp with their picnic of food. I went in and ate loads of crisp sweets and chocolate, chatter to runners I’d passed along the final stretch. Talked about the Ballache that was the third climb. Smiled and congratulated each othe. I also spent time getting pictures with my sister and enjoying hearing about her run.  I was conscious Camilla could be finishing anytime soon, but it was time to leave. I went to the toilet,  grabbed an Icecream, and there she was! I’d just missed her cross the line, I felt bad again!
We had a chat, then we left, she would be hanging around for Dorota who was up on the ridgeway, somewhere before Checkpoint 5.
The journey home was peaceful, I was so tired, but had had such have and around amazing time. I’d learnt around maxing lot, and now my sttention would switch to the next race (the Helsinki Marathon in two weeks) and the summer of ultras that lay ahead.