Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Gear Review: Yurbuds Inspire Pro

Ok, I'm going to get this out the way early. I have big ears. There, I said it.

Anyone who has met me will already be aware of this fact but most of you reading this won't. Unlike being tall (or short, for that matter), there aren't really any upsides to having big ears, not that I've found in my 38 years on this planet. Improved hearing you might say? My wife would disagree!

There are some downsides to having big ears though. They are prone to getting sun-burnt, they fill up with all manner of detritus on windy days and worst of all, they aren't very good for holding earphones!

I enjoy running with music or listening to podcasts, particularly on my longer runs. I have tried all sorts of earphones over the years, from cheap to expensive, regular ones and dedicated sports ones. None stay in my mahoosive ears (even with the bigger rubber bits) and after a time, usually not very long in most cases, they break. The cables will often get damaged from the repeated movements or they will suffer from the moisture due to rain and dare I say it, sweat. Yes, I've got big ears and I'm sweaty. What a catch!

I had heard about Yurbuds even before they launched in the UK. Their claims regarding 'Never falling out' were immediately appealing to someone 'blessed' with larger than average lug-holes. Combine this with their resistance to moisture and my interest was peaked!

The social team at Yurbuds (@yurbudsUK) were doing a lot of promotion for their products around the London Marathon. I contacted them in the hope they would allow me to trial and review some of their fancy bud's. The team were great and after some communications, my brand new shiny Inspire Pro's arrived in the post.

My initial impressions were really positive. The buds were well packaged and came with a carry-case, cable clip and two sets of rubber ear pieces. The buds themselves included in an in-line mic and full iPod/iPhone controls. I particularly liked the slightly shorter cord, which would mean less chance of it getting tangled when wearing my iPhone in an arm band. Perfect for those long runs and run-commutes. Although the design of the 'inner ear' part looks slightly unusual, the instructions were really clear and the buds slipped in nicely. They were a good fit for my ears, felt very secure and didn't hurt, like some have done in the past. The real test though, was going to be out on the road.

I should that Yurbuds come in all sizes, from small to large. They also come in a variety of colours. Check out the link to their website (above). Uk readers can also check them out on the Sweatshop website.

I decided to use my buds on a run home from work. This would be the perfect test, allowing me to test the sound quality against the ability to still hear other commuters and car noise. Plus the first half a mile is downhill, so it would really test their ability to remain in my ears, as I pounded down the road at full tilt. Throw in a bit of rain and we've got the perfect test conditions!


I have to say that despite the claims that they don't fall out, decades of wearing in-ear earphones has conditioned me to expect them to fall out........ but they didn't. Once in, they didn't need adjusting or replacing. They just stayed put. Amazing! The sound quality was a huge improvement on the standard iPhone earphones, allowing me to pick up more detail on podcasts and delivering a clearer, fuller and more bassy sound when listening to music.

The Inspire Pro's are great for general use but they really come into their own for use whilst exercising. With a lifetime guarantee and at a competitive price point, these buds come highly recommended.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Race review - Milton Keynes Marathon 2013

Pros: Good start area and stadium finish, well marshalled and supported, good hydration points, nice medal, good timing information

Cons: Poor info on parking and road closures, undulating and twisty route, poor goody bag

It is probably fair to say the one's opinion of a particular race is likely to be influenced by how well (or poorly!) they performed on the day. So, in the interests of fairness, I should declare that I had a shocker on Monday. If you haven't read about my marathon build up, you can do so here.

I mentioned the lack of info relating to places to park (and road closures) on the day. Even those who had pre-booked the VIP parking ran into road closures. For those (like me) who hadn't booked the VIP parking, some information in the pre-race pack on places to park in the vicinity (something like we received prior to the MK Half) would have been useful. An hour from the race start, you don't really want to be in gridlocked traffic, then find your planned route involved (un-advertised) road closures, then have to dump your car in an industrial estate and hope you don't get clamped!

Once parked up, the stadium was easy to find. There was plenty of space for runners and their supporters to congregate and I am sure the shelter would have been very welcome had the weather not been so good. I wasn't sure why the organisers had done away with portaloos. There seemed to be plenty of room for them in the car park and they would have helped with the (seemingly inevitable) toilet queues!

I had arranged to meet Rodrigo Freeman (@BrazilianGunner) who had popped down to offer some support to me and some of his team mates. Rod has been very supportive and has offered me some great advice through Twitter, so it was a real pleasure to finally meet him.

Rodrigo and I in Stadium MK, before the start
The race start was very close to the stadium and easy to find. The race announcers could have done with a better PA system. I was just over halfway back and couldn't hear a word of what was being said. I felt that having only 2 categories of start pens would lead to a slow start to the race and this, along with quite a narrow first few hundred metres did mean a slow start for most. Having more incremental pens (based on predicted times) might have helped.

The atmosphere at the start was very positive and the support in the early stages of the race was also good. The course was billed as being scenic and to be honest, I am struggling to come to a conclusion about it. There were some relatively pretty parts, such as the section around Willen Lake. Some parts were a bit soulless, like the early sections round the near deserted commercial centre. A lot of it went though housing estates or were run on the Red Routes and a lot of it was just a bit anonymous. This is not meant to be a criticism of the route (or Milton Keynes as a whole!) it's simply just my observation. There were some benefits to the route. Such as the fairly consistent support and the guy on about 7 miles misting us with his hose pipe!

I had seen Dwight Williams (@dwighty_boy) earlier in the race and I caught him on about 10 miles (I think). Again, I hadn't met Dwight before, so it was good to meet him and run with him for a bit. He was in the middle of about 4 back to back marathons, so was taking it a bit easier on the day.

Everyone knew it was going to be hot on the day. I had decided beforehand to stick to my plan of running a sub 3:30 marathon. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have probably adjusted my race goals to factor in the heat. Even early on, runners were aiming for the shade offered by the trees and office buildings. I had lost a minute or so in the first few miles, due to the slow start (and an early loo stop!) I wasn't particularly concerned about this and expected to be able to 'chip away' at this deficit over the course of the race, as I had done in Brighton last year. The undulating nature of the course, combined with some tight turns meant was I was struggling to keep the pace consistent. I managed to hold the pace and went through half way on 1:46, just one minute down on my plan. By this stage, I knew that sub 3:30 wasn't going to happen though. I had stuck to my pacing plan but it had taken far too much out of me. I should have still been feeling relatively fresh as this stage but the heat, along with the issues I referred to in my previous blog were starting to tell.

The undulations and tight turns increased in the second half of the race and included more underpasses and quite a few steep bridges going over the canal. There were also quite a few longer pulls, which were not steep but some of them were quite long. When you hear from the support that "it's all flat from here" the last thing you want to see is more hills! The timing of these, so late in the race made it feel particularly tough. I managed to hold pace until about 15 miles but I had started to slow. I thought, if I can just hold onto 8:30 m/m pace, then I would still be on for a huge PB. By 18 miles though I was struggling to hold onto 8:30 pace and it was all I could do to hold onto 9:00m/m.

I had some experience of running in such hot conditions. My first marathon (VLM in 2011) was similarly hot. On that day, leg cramps had started at about 17 miles and completely consumed my legs, to the point where I could barely control them (think John Cleese in the Ministry of Silly Walks!) I had since learnt a lot about hydration but the cramps I feared eventually hit at 20 miles. They were not as severe as London but I knew a run/walk strategy was all I could do to stop them getting worse. It is amazing how quickly things can change during a marathon. In the space of a few miles I'd had to revise my target from sub 3:30, to getting a PB (3:44:49), to just finishing the race and not getting a DNF!

I was starting to see runners drop out, collapsed in the shade or weaving around in various states of delirium. This is probably a good time to praise the marshalls and first aiders. Everyone that I saw that had got into trouble was quickly seen to. It did serve to put my own 'bad race' into perspective though.

The run/walk strategy allowed my legs to recover a bit. I managed to muster some energy and control over the cramps that allowed me to run the final section, which took you into the stadium. Seeing my Sister, her family and my Nan and Granddad gave me a huge boost and looking at the picture (above) I look a lot better than I felt at that stage. It was probably just the pure, unadulterated relief of having finished!

I enjoyed the stadium finish and it provided a positive end to a fairly torrid day. The race organisers processed us through the finish area efficiently, we were presented with a very nice medal and the stadium provided us with some welcome shelter from the sun. A quick note on the goody bag. I thought it was pretty poor, given the entry fee. A Mars Bar and a banana were welcome, as was the water. Given Gatorade were the official drink, it would have been nice (and good for recovery) to have a bottle at the end. As for the t-shirt, I defy anyone to tell me that they use cotton race t-shirts for anything other than gardening or lounging around the house in! Even much cheaper races (of £10 or £15) give you a technical tee. At least they can be used for running in and what's more, it's a way for the organisers to promote their event at other races etc.

In the end, I came in just a shade over 3:56 and having reflected on things I'm not too disappointed.  It is also interesting how different your perception of the race can differ from the reality. For instance, on 32k I was 508th male. Given that it was in the last 10k where I really struggled, I would have expected to have lost a lot of places. It certainly felt like a lot of people were coming past me! In fact, I only lost 13 (male) places, finishing as 521st male. Given I was in 585th position at 10k, I actually made up ground on other runners over the course of the race. It is perhaps an indication of how most people struggled on the day.

You learn something from every marathon and, for me, the big lesson I take away from this experience is to have a proper taper and revise my race plan if it is a hot day. As someone mentioned yesterday, no marathon is a waste and just to finish is an achievement that less than 1% of the population will experience.

I am interested to hear how you got on and whether my impressions of the race match your own. Please feel free to leave your comments below.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Milton Keynes Marathon 2013 - An honest appraisal of my training

I will be writing a separate blog to review the Milton Keynes Marathon and my experience on the day. First though, I wanted to look back on how I prepared and trained for the race.

One of the reasons for choosing the Milton Keynes Marathon, was the timing. Because it is one of the later Spring marathons, I thought that starting my training at the end of January would make things a bit easier. Little did I know.....

Everyone in the UK knows what a long winter we've had and the combination of the cold and the snow/ice but primarily for me, the strong winds, have made it particularly tough going. I can honestly say that training for this marathon has been, by far, the toughest training block I have completed for any race.

One of the elements I wanted to build into this training block was the inclusion of more 'race paced' efforts, both as a part of my shorter runs and during my longer runs. I also wanted to add one more run per week (taking me from 4 to 5) with a view to adding more miles. I had trained on a '2 week hard, 1 week easy' cycle, which served me well for Brighton (in 2012), so I decided to stick to this.

I had already built a good base, largely thanks to the Strava #basemileblast challenge. I started well, adding a 4 mile recovery run on a Monday morning as my 5th session. I also built my long runs well from 12 to 18 miles, over the course of the first 5 weeks and was coping well with the marathon paced sections. During this phase, I also ran the Belvoir Challenge, which although not fast was good for endurance and provided some good hill training.

I had planned to run the MK Half Marathon but managed to get the date wrong, so had to drop a 20 miler which I had planned for the same day. I decided (at the last minute) to run the MK Half hard and despite strong winds and blizzards, managed to get a PB (1:35:56). Looking back, this was probably my best session of the whole 14 week training block.

Around this time, the wind really started picking up, making any faster sessions or long runs really quite unpleasant. One of my key sessions during training is a long tempo run of 2 x 6 miles (inc 5 min recovery). In the past, this has been a good barometer of my fitness. I remember running this session at the end of quite a tough training week and tired legs, combined by the wind, meant that I wasn't able to hold the pace in the second half. It was a big dent to my confidence. As my Sunday long runs increased in length, I was finding it increasingly difficult to get up on a Monday morning for my recovery run. I decided that the rest was of more benefit that a slow 4 miler, so I dropped the session.

About 4 weeks out from race day, I realised that I had made another mistake with dates (I really must learn to read a calendar!). Because the MK Marathon was on a Monday, I thought I had one more week of training than I did. If I stuck to the plan, it would mean me having to run a 24 mile run (inc last 5 at MP) just 2 weeks out from the race. I had no choice but to drop the session. My last long run would now be 3 weeks out, a 23 miler (with a planned last 5 at MP). Other than the tempo session I mentioned above, this was the other real low point of my training. Again the wind took its toll on me, so much so, I even had to walk parts of the last few miles. Again, I felt it was another key session that I hadn't 'nailed' and I was really beginning to feel that I hadn't done enough.

Having felt really sluggish during my last taper, I had already decided I would reduce the volume but try to keep a bit more intensity (through some MP efforts and some easier intervals). I also decided (at the last minute) to run my last long-ish run at race pace. This was no doubt a last ditch attempt to try and squeeze a bit more out of the last few weeks of training. I managed to hold the pace (8:00m/m) for those 12 miles but it felt tougher than it should have done. Although I felt better than during previous tapers, it was clear that, one week out from race day, my legs didn't feel a fresh as they should. The final nail in the coffin, was running a faster than tempo paced parkrun just 2 days before race day (I know!).

Setting the conditions aside for a moment, I think missing 2 long runs (of 20 and 24 miles), combined with a taper that was too intense meant that I was not set up as well as I could be for race day. I always tend to get to a stage in training where 'I just want to get the training done' but this seemed to happen much earlier in this training cycle. I became very frustrated, particularly with my longer runs and quite bored of some of the sessions and routes. This tells me, it is time to freshen things up.

Listening to Marathon Talk recently, Tom and Martin spoke about assessing your training and making a list of 5 things that went well and 5 things that you could improve upon. Here are mine:

5 things that went well:

1) I was able to up my training volume and stay injury free
2) I stuck to my stretching/physio exercises and improved my flexibility and strength
3) I got a half marathon PB
4) It got me through my 4th marathon (3rd under 4hrs)
5) I met some great people along the way

5 things to improve on:

1) I need to pay more attention to dates!
2) I perhaps need to reassess my race day goals if training doesn't go to plan
3) I need to trust in the taper!
4) I need to freshen up my training
5) I need to take nutrition more seriously