Friday, 27 May 2016

Tripping in Leiden

Another DRC foreign expedition commenced at 4.30am on Saturday morning, as Stuart, Anne, Jamie, my wife Jo and I gathered before making our way to Edinburgh airport.  We met David and his sister Rachel going through security, with the Andersons having made their way out separately on Friday evening.

Amsterdam was our initial destination, before a 15 minute train journey to the city of Leiden.  My inner child made himself apparent when I saw that there was an “upstairs” on the train!  And he continued his juvenile sniggering when I saw that our ticket said that a one euro “toeslag” was included in the price!

Our experience of the train was better than Rhona, Andy and Robbie, whose journey on the Friday evening was subject to lengthy delays after someone decided to throw themselves onto the tracks.  I know that you’re probably not thinking particularly clearly if things have got so bad that suicide seems like your only option, but my view is that that is a pretty inconsiderate way to go about it – gruesome for the train driver, and inconvenient for the commuters and emergency services who have to deal with the aftermath.  Although I suppose there is no nice way to find a corpse.

After checking in before 11am, we went off for a bit of an explore.  Leiden is very pretty indeed, and quite compact, so easy to get around.  Saturday sees a large and impressive market take over the centre of town, lining the streets by the main canal.  The focus is on quality produce (think “artisan” cheese and bread, fresh fish, flowers, etc) rather than crappy knock-off replica football shirts or threeforapoundthreeforapound sports socks.  This is reflected in the names of the bridges – the buttermilk bridge (the rather singsong “karnemelk brug”), the flour bridge, the fish bridge, etc.  The flour bridge has a roof to stop the flour getting wet in the rain.  

We stopped for lunch in the shadow of the large city hall, before heading down to collect our numbers.  There was some amusement that my number for the marathon declared me vak (“wave”) AW, while Stuart and Jamie were vak B.  It looked like I’d been assigned an elite start on the basis that I’d declared myself as having a race licence on the Dutch registration site – thinking that that was probably the same as saying that I had a Scottish Athletics membership.  Oops!  I was back in with “the Plebs” for the 5k though.

The small tented village had a demonstration of bikes that were powered by an elliptical skier mechanism.  It didn’t seem particularly natural, but was being sold as having a low-impact on joints.  As opposed to a regular bike?!

(photo: Stuart)

We then took a trip through some winding side streets to the town’s castle (or “burcht”).  Being Holland (Leiden is in Holland, as well as in the Netherlands), the locals had to build a hill to which they could retreat in the case of flood or attack, and eventually got round to putting a circular brick wall on top.  There wasn’t much to it, but you got a decent view from the top of the ramparts.  If it had been in Scotland, you’d probably have been charged a tenner entry and felt ripped off, but since it was free it was a pleasant way to spend 20 minutes. 

Following an Italian dinner, we made our way to the 5k, which was due to kick off at 10.30pm.  The main action here was between Andy and son Robbie.  Robbie was targeting a PB, and was also keen to beat his Dad.  Andy was (rightly, in my view) not going to go down without a fight – the passing of the torch from one generation going to have to be earned/deserved rather than gifted.  David also seemed to be up for giving it a proper crack.  For the rest of us who had entered (Stuart, Anne and me), it was to be treated as a gentle warm up, and a fun way to see the sights by street/moonlight.

If I hadn’t been taking that relaxed approach I might have been a little concerned by the allocation of the pens and the folk that were standing alongside me – vak B was not terribly close to the front.  I decided it would be good to be forced to go slowly, but that sentiment didn’t last long.  After a mile we were passing people who had stopped to walk, and were barely moving ourselves.  There was also a lot of jostling as people fought to recover their position – I was worried that someone might stamp down on my Achilles, or that I’d trip over a kerb through being unsighted.  Stuart and I therefore darted for gaps of clear water where we could find them, and gradually picked our way forward.

David was first home, with Andy winning his battle with Robbie.  All were beaten by a streaker who tried to race the winner over the line.  The guy on the mic at the finish made to interview Robbie, but “got the eyes” on account of disappointment at a missed PB, and quickly thought better of it.     


Having had a surprisingly good night’s sleep (I even managed another hour of shut eye after breakfast), we left the hotel on Sunday morning to light drizzle and no wind.  Perfect!

There was time for a bit of dicking around on the podium, and a few other snaps before we again made our way to the pens.  
Not a taste of what was to come


Now if there is one thing that lets this race down it is the start, and specifically the way they operate the pens.  Allocation seems to be pretty random, and does not accurately reflect the people likely to be running fastest.  This is most obviously exemplified by the fact that David and Rhona (both looking to do a fast half) were in vak C, behind a pen containing the 4 hour and 4:15 marathon pacers.

Anyway, I didn’t really have cause to complain about it because I waived my spot in the elite pen in favour of a spot with Stuart and Jamie towards the front of the A pen.  But there was still a lot of variety in there – including folk who had been allocated slower pens, but were not terribly rule compliant.  Spotting a Carnethy vest made me chuckle – they get everywhere!

By the time the gun fired the drizzle had stopped and I tried to stop the doubts creeping into my head that it was starting to feel quite muggy.  That thought took fold hold however when Stuart removed his cap little more than a mile and a half in, and tossed it to the pavement.  Not just me then.

I settled into a pretty decent rhythm for the first few miles, ticking along at something like 3 hour pace. We quickly made our way out of Leiden and into the surrounding countryside.  The pattern was then set of stretches of reasonably non-descript and very straight cycle paths alongside fields and drainage ditches, broken up by the occasional village or hamlet.  There was precious little shade from the increasing sun.  The entertainment in the villages was a bit of a treat though.  There was a bit of a competition on to see which village could provide the best support, and the locals were really getting behind it.  The Proclaimers “500 miles” made me grin early on, and there was a terrific 20 piece brass band playing a lush high tempo “Only Fools Rush In” by Elvis.  Plus, the fact that we all had our names on our numbers meant that you regularly found people cheering your name and whooping for you.  All great fun.  If you didn’t have to run a marathon that you were patently not fit for!

At around 7 miles we came to a temporary pontoon bridge that the Dutch military had erected over a canal for the race, and had then lined the banks with their trucks and armoured vehicles.  This was the split point, with the half runners heading left coming off the bridge, with the marathoners turning right.  I noted that David still hadn’t passed me, which shows just how much he had been held back at the start.

On the approach to the bridge, a guy running alongside me had said something in Dutch.  I said “sorry – Engels”, and he then translated, “this weather!”  I agreed – it was becoming very warm – and then watched enviously as he turned left to an earlier finish.

I could still just about see Stuart at the far end of the longer straights, and my watch confirmed that I was still on track, but (to paraphrase Mary) the troops were becoming mutinous.  I struck a pretty poor bargain with myself that I would carry on to half way, aiming to do it in around 90 minutes, and then see what happened.  But everyone concerned knew full well what would happen.  Which represents an indecently early point at which to throw in the towel.

I got to half way at 1:31, but almost immediately started walking.  Having passed by the first few aid stations without stopping for anything, I was now going to town on them.  Shots of energy drink were washed down by chasers of water.  Wet sponges were rung out on my head, neck and in the insides of my wrists.

I got into an ultra-esque routine of walking for 0.1 of a mile, and then trying to force myself to run the next 1.9. 

I noted that dark clouds were starting to brew on the horizon, and hoped that they would arrive shortly with bounteous precipitation.

Unfortunately they arrived all too soon, driven along on a wind that had sprung up out of nothing and would become a constant and tenacious opponent for the 10 miles back towards Leiden.

There were moments of levity though. At Oude-Ade it seemed like the whole village was dressed as priests or nuns, welcoming us to Heaven.  I was fervently blessed by a bishop bearing a thurible (Nick’s word of the week).  But on leaving, the punchline became clear – a sign pronouncing 10k still to run, and telling us we were about to enter Hell.

On re-entering Leiden, I knew that the finish could not be terribly far away, but there were a number of street parties to pass.  I’d been fantasising about a cold beer for some time, so it was cruel to see it at such close quarters (mixed with the smell of barbecuing meat), only for it to be out of reach.

Eventually it was over.  I quickly threw down two free cups of Amstel, and immediately started to feel more human, despite a new PW.

It turned out that everyone was pretty disappointed with their runs, and there was general agreement about the challenging weather conditions.  We retreated to the pub to lick our respective wounds.

One surprising observation, from Jamie, was that Dutch ducks sound different to British ducks – they appear to have an accent!


The rest of Sunday was a good laugh, and gradually descended into a fog of alcohol.  Jo and I stayed out much later than was wise, eventually getting back to the hotel after 2am.  We’d fallen into a slightly surreal mix of company (after the more sensible members of the club had departed for their beds) which included a team of young hockey players, and the Dutch franchise holder for Boots the Chemist.  Mr Boots generously bought rounds and rounds of drinks, while I tried to counsel the lovelorn Lawrence, an 18 year old who was convinced that kissing the object of his affections in front of his older cooler first XI friend meant that he had irrevocably claimed her as his own.  She didn’t seem to agree though…

Monday morning was sore.  So we waited until mid-afternoon to get up, and eventually went out for a wander.  We took a very pleasant boat trip around the canals – effectively a private tour, as we were the only ones (bar Dan, our skipper and guide) on a 40 seater.  The boat had a roof that could be raised and lowered on hydraulic pillars, and it needed to very low indeed to get under some of the bridges.  At several points we had to crouch in the aisle between the seats and duck.  Jo’s squeals revealed that she didn’t think we were going to make it.

There was lots more interesting stuff to see – possibly not a huge shock, since Leiden is a very old city.  We passed the site of Rembrandt’s birth place, the university buildings that Einstein lectured in, the site where in 1807 a ship loaded with 37,000 tons of gunpowder went up in a massive explosion, the canal where a Spanish siege (which led to the death by starvation of one third of the population) was finally relieved in 1574, and more.

Monday evening saw us visited by Jo’s friend Michelle, who took a train up from Delft to see us.  And it was great to catch up with her and enjoy a nice meal.

Tuesday was effectively another full day, as our flight was not until 21:50.  We met up with Stuart, Anne, David and Rachel for a tour around the Hortus Botanicus, the oldest botanical garden in the Netherlands.  Apparently this was the site where the first Dutch tulip (originally a Turkish mountain flower) was propagated.  A huge early contributor to the gardens was a German physician named Philipp Franz von Siebold, who spent many years exploring and collecting samples from Japan.  Expelled from Japan in 1829 on charges of espionage, he was only able to return in 1859, whereupon “he promptly looked up his Japanese wife and daughter”.  Now that’s devotion for you!

Having enjoyed the boat trip the day before, we decided to join the rest of the Dunbars for a second voyage, before spending the rest of the day wandering around trying to avoid the cold weather.

Blankets ahoy!

The trip home was pretty uneventful, and so ended another tremendous Dutch trip.  Despite never having been to the Netherlands before 2014, it is now one of my favourite places to visit for a city break.  Interesting sights, friendly locals, and a really nice vibe.  Just a shame that all of my runs there have failed to live up to the same standard. 

Spot the difference - one is worth 8.4 times as much

Thursday, 12 May 2016

HBT, JMW, and E2NB

Here’s our Graham with a quick reminder.  Or rather a round-up, since I’ve not told you about it previously.

I’ve done three races since I last blogged, and they’ve all gone about as well as can be expected.  The headline message from a reasonably solid month’s training is that I am no longer injured (my legs feel ok), but I am certainly not fit.  The extra weight gained is taking a while to shift, the lungs still feel underinflated like a pair of old balloons, and what pace I had has all but disappeared.




First up race-wise was the Hunter’s Bog Trot on 16 April.  I’d put it on the club championship list in the hope that a short hill race in the centre of Edinburgh might encourage a few folk to try something a little bit different from their norm.  Dr Neil (ahead of his successful Fling debut) was the only other taker.  Never mind.  In fairness, it is not an easy race, with a couple of nasty climbs up the back of Salisbury Crags, and an ascent of the Radical Road.  Laughably, I had hoped I might be able to run, albeit very slowly, up the Radical Road if I paced myself.  No danger!  A young lad kindly tried to encourage me by saying, “you can do it”, to which I replied, “thanks, but I don’t think I can kiddo”.  Still, I got round in the end, and with no harm done.

Since that went so well, I decided to sign up at the last minute for something a little further – the inaugural John Muir Way Ultra from Port Seton to Foxlake at Dunbar, on 23 April.  A mere 50k.  Conventional wisdom would suggest that that was a really stupid idea for someone coming back from injury.  And conventional wisdom would be 100% correct.  However, it was so close to home, covered trails that I really like, and I could see that so many friends were already signed up.  I couldn’t stand the idea of missing out on the party.

Not long for this group...

Although I took my camera, I’m afraid that I didn’t take any pictures.  My backpack doesn’t have any front pockets, and there was too much inertia to overcome to take it off my back for anything other than food.  Talking of food, I took plenty.  I could easily have been mistaken for Yogi, running from the park ranger carrying a couple of picnic baskets.

At Archerfield

My mental approach was a little flaky.  I deliberately put no pressure on myself, deciding that anything under four and a half hours would be fine.  But I made the mistake of breaking the race into two, focusing too much on trying to run the whole of the first half to North Berwick.  The problem with that was that, once that goal was achieved, I somewhat threw in the towel and allowed myself too much slack on the second half.  I was rather guilty of that at last year’s Jedburgh 38 and GO33 as well.  The second half saw an awful lot of walking, including on what seemed like quite an unnecessary and very muddy loop around the Balgonie Estate, during which a sharp hail shower interrupted an otherwise sunny day.  Towards the end I was rewarding myself with a minute of walking for every 5 minutes run.  And that was an attempt to keep the walking to a minimum – if I hadn’t imposed time limits, it could have been more.  But again, it got done in the end, without injury, and I came in ahead of my target.  Decent training if nothing else.

I was a little more nervous about the Edinburgh to North Berwick Race on 7 May.  Not least because the forecast was for a stiff headwind from the North East (i.e. in the perfect wrong direction).  I’ve done it three times before with varying degrees of success.  My fears of a PW were far greater than my hopes for a PB.  To avoid a PW I set myself a target of 7:30 per mile.  But that pace had felt like quite hard work on (shorter) recent training runs.  I’d had a minor breakthrough with a 7 miler at (only just) sub-7 pace in the middle of the week before, but had had to “bust my hump” to do it.

I made a very conscious effort to wave goodbye to people I might normally try to hang onto at the start, and settled into what felt like the best comfortable pace I could manage.  

If I close my eyes it might soon be over
(Photo: Gordon Donnachie)

So I was surprised when I reached the first checkpoint at 5 miles in a shade over 35 minutes.  And even more surprised when my pace improved slightly, and I got to 10 miles in under 70 minutes.  The benefit of a conservative approach was that I found myself steadily moving through the field instead of being passed.  That did wonders for my mood, although I felt sorry for Porty’s Roly and Falkirk’s Brian when I passed them not long after Seton Sands – both admitted afterwards to having an (unusual) off day.

My decent pace couldn’t hold out for ever though, on account of a combination of my fitness and the weather conditions.  The right turn not long after the entrance to Luffness Golf Club brought the full force of the wind to bear, with the worst of the incline also kicking in.  After 15 miles I felt bullied by the wind – like it had been digging me in the ribs for the best part of an hour and three quarters, and so I swallowed my pride and handed over my lunch money.

Dr Neil - purveyor of jelly babies and taker of photos

(Photo: Gordon Donnachie)

Job eventually done though, and I avoided a PW by around 9 minutes.  In fact, I was only 5 or 6 minutes slower than last year when I was in much better shape.  I’d definitely have taken that before the start, and am very happy to focus on the positives. 

A tough shift was made much more bearable by excellent support along the route from a large number of cheery faces.

One of the best things about the last month has been the increasing length of the days, which has allowed for a greater variety of runs in more interesting surroundings, and often in glorious evening sunshine.  It makes a huge difference not to have to plod around the same town route under streetlights – putting a metaphorical (if not literal) spring in my step.

Coming soon is the club trip to Leiden in the Netherlands on the weekend of 21/22 May.  I have already pretty much written off the marathon as a good fast training run, and so am not going to bother tapering for it.  I’d rather keep trying to rack up the miles, and try to continue the recovery to full fitness.  That is not to say that I am not excited about the trip though.  Last year’s trip to Karlsruhe was great fun, and we are repeating the same “out on Saturday morning, back on Tuesday afternoon/evening” formula that worked so well then.  A number of us have also signed up to run the 5k at 10.30pm on the Saturday night, which has been described as a bit of a festival of light, with everyone encouraged to wear headtorches and reflective gear.  It should be quite a nice warm up, and allow us to get an early look at some of the sights.

In summary – there are reasons to be cheerful!