Author Archives: Josh S

Müggelsee Half Marathon 2020

Date: 18.10.2020 Time: 1:16:23 Distance: 21.1km

In the middle of September I raced the Müggelturm half marathon and received a free entry into their sister race, the Müggelsee half marathon for winning my age group. Andy, who beat me in the final sprint in Müggelturm, also won an entry into Müggelsee – so the stage was set for a rematch. 

To give a little context; Andy is a good friend and member of the same training group. So we’d known this rematch was coming and been joking about it for quite some time. I had been saying my only goal was to beat Andy for several weeks before this race, but also knew he was in good shape (slightly better than me in fact). So I knew that I would have to race a smart race, as well as a fast race, to win. 

The Müggelsee course is beautiful; it’s one lap of the lake, though forest on the south side and a small town to the north side of the lake. The autumnal setting made for a really picturesque race – one that I’ll certainly be doing again.

Right from the start there was a leading pack that stuck together for the majority of the race. The first 15km of the race were pretty uneventful aside from the interruption of the tunnel under the river. This involved ~30 quite steep stairs down, a short run under the river and the back up the other side, really breaking up our stride. 

In general though this was 15km of perfect running. The weather was overcast and cold – almost perfect racing weather. The pace was super consistent and we got to watch the distance tick by in quiet enjoyment.

Andy and I both raced cleverly while in the group. There was a decent wind from the south, meaning that tucking in behind the other guys in the leading pack was a significant advantage. 

Andy is known for his super strong finish – the last 400m of Müggelturm were sub 3min/km pace! So I knew I couldn’t let it come down to the final sprint; but I also knew that if I pushed the pace from the start I would burn out and not be able to stay with him beyond 15km. 

So, I faced a fine balancing act – waiting until just the right moment before I pushed the pace, dropping Andy and building up a big enough gap so that he couldn’t outsprint me. 

Amazingly this happened pretty much perfectly. At around the 16km point I decided to make my move. You can clearly see the moment I pushed the pace in my HR graph.

Gradually I could hear the other guys went from ‘on my shoulder’ to ‘behind me’ and eventually they fell further behind and I felt a gap build. When Andy shouted “Go Josh!” I understood that the gap had grown and the rest of the group has decided they didn’t have the legs to challenge for the win.

There was not as much of a gap as I wanted though. With about 3.5km to go the lead bike slowed down for a moment and I asked how far it was to the guys behind.

“How far back are the other guys? 100m? 200m?”

“Um… about 50m, maybe 30m.”

Oh. I had built up a lot less of a gap than I was hoping for.

So I knew it was going to come right down to the final moments. Had I worked Andy hard enough to dampen his sprint so I’d be able to hold him off? Or had I overcooked it and he’d come past me in the final straight, just as he did last month?

It came right down to the wire.

I was pretty confident that Andy would have dropped the other two guys, and I really thought he would come past me any moment for the whole final 2km. But – though luck or skill I’m not sure – the gap was just big enough.

The final 30m took us up a ramp after a 90o turn. Going into this Andy was still just a second or two behind me so I gave it absolutely everything I had on the ramp. I spent the minutes after finishing lying on the floor taking a well earnt rest.

The official results have us as 3 seconds apart, but it felt a lot closer.

Focusing on just my own running, the big takeaway here was that I managed to race a smart race for the first time in a while. I pushed at just the right time and by just the right amount to get the best time and position I could have. It’s been quite a while since I got a race as ‘right’ as this. 

Side note; I’m pretty sure that we actually ran about 200m too far. In the first half of the race the lead bike stopped to talk to another marshal, leaving us to find our own way. We lost the course markings for a while, but found our way back with a bit of local knowledge (the others seemed to know the direction to head in). Comparing our gps route to course map it’s clear we missed a right turn and had to run a little extra to make it back on course. Additionally, the route was measured to the pavement, rather than the road. At points we couldn’t really run on the pavement, and it certainly wasn’t practical to try running at racing speed down some of the residential pavements, so we ended up on the road, further confusing the course distance / actual distance run. At the end all of us had recorded around 21.3km.

Innsbruck Alpine Trailrun Festival K65

Date: 12.09.2020 Time: 7:10:22 Distance: 61.2km

After a fun Night Trail race on Thursday it was time for my main event on Saturday. The K65 was actually 61km, due to a route change that came as a result of the Covid-19 adjustments. But either way it was still a huge day out in the mountains, and the longest race I’ve ever done. 

I explicitly had one aim for the day, “to find the line between being pleased with my performance, but not hit the wall like I have in past ultras”. In practice this meant running fast enough to feel I’d worked really hard, but not so hard I found myself 20km from the finish lying on the ground asleep / crying / unable to move (all of which have actually happened to me in the past). 

I always find it a little frustrating when the mandatory kit list for trail races contains a load of stuff that I don’t own or feel I’ll need. This was no different. For example we needed to carry a headlamp, despite the race starting at 09:30am. If I hadn’t been able to borrow a tiny headlamp from Caro, I would have had to carry my chestlamp (adding an 165g of unnecessary weight) or buy a small one, which I had no intention to use. 

Waterproof trousers were also a requirement; despite a clear blue sky all day long! Since there was no option to borrow gear from race organisers this all adds to the cost of trail racing, making it prohibitively expensive for many runners. 

But anyway, aside from my griping about the kit list the day was awesome. It was a gorgeous sunny day. A little hot, but there were plenty of mountain streams and taps to cool off in. 

I decided to start with Caro, in an attempt to stop myself setting out too fast – which has always been my issue when I’ve previously tried ultras. Pleasingly this tactic worked. We ran together for a few Km, and then I gradually worked my way a little further ahead. 

The route had three major climbs & an infinity of great views. Initially we went south out of the city and then up a mountain to the south-west. Then we descended back to city level and crossed the valley. At the 25km point we began the biggest climb, up the mountains to the north of the city and then back down to the river in the east. Finally we climbed a mountain south-east of the city before descending to finish back where we started. 

We actually made a nice, neat circle around the city. 

The first 20km were pretty uneventful, and by the time we got to river level at 25km I made my first friend of the race. We had a great chat until about halfway up the second hill and I got distracted by the awesome setup at the 30km aid station.

I even had an alcohol-free beer at 30km.

Feeling refreshed I set off to continue the climb, with a new set of friends. At this point a small group had formed, including Pieter who I had met just before going into the 30km aid station. 

At that point we settled into a good rhythm. The mountains gave us awesome views, great company and a sense of true freedom. It was interesting to chat to the other runners and I spent a good long while with Pieter, discussing whatever came to our (slightly oxygen depleted) minds. I always find that running with someone helps the distance pass in the most enjoyable way, and races are a great opportunity to meet people who I’d never otherwise get a chance to talk to.

Just one of the great views.

It’s worth mentioning just how beautiful the area around Innsbruck is. The city sits in a valley and you get awesome views of the place once you get up into the mountains and look back down. It also helped give some perspective on the race. When you looked across the valley from the 30km point you could see almost the whole route.

At some point I met Tim. We’d been leapfrogging each other for some time. Occasionally I would find some energy and speed up, only to slow down once I remembered there was a long way to go and he’d catch me again.

Tim was certainly noticeable in his bright orange top.

I should have listened to his advice when Tim suggested that I’d be better off running a consistent pace (something I always aim to do in road marathon, but for some reason had neglected to do here). He seemed much more comfortable than me whenever he caught me, as he inevitably did each time I pushed forwards.

After the fourth or fifth time Tim had caught me I finally heeded his words and tried to simply stick with him. We hit the base of the final climb together (or rather Tim was towing me along in his wake by then). And we struggled up it, mostly in silent pain. 

Midway up the climb I forgot Tim’s advice and tagged along with another friendly face, a Polish guy I’d run next to around the 20km point. We had a good chat and I was given a good opportunity to practice my German, given that he didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Polish.

Smile? Grimace? At least the scenery was nice and the trees gave me some shade.

By the time I rounded the top of this climb I was reduced to a very painful fast walk, regardless of the fact it was a essentially flat terrain. Mainly I was motivated by the thought of what Tim would say if he caught me up again. I could just imagine the friendly laugh he would give me, saying something like ” Oh it’s you again. I wondered when you’d slow down”.

The final 10km were exceptionally painful, but I managed to keep a slow run going the whole way. The final 5km of a race has never felt so long.

Somehow I managed to fall over just about 1km from where I’d fallen in the night trail on Thursday. Much less blood this time, but a bigger sense of embarrassment as I feel right in front of a family out for their casual Saturday walk.

Coming towards the finish I did manage a slightly less slow run than the last 5km. I hobbled across the line as an undignified and unimpressive as I’ve ever been, but I achieved a really pleasing result nonetheless. Somehow I managed to find the line between being pleased with my performance, but not hit the wall like I have in past ultras. 

I can only remember one race that has had me in the same level of pain in immediate aftermath. After the London Marathon 2017 I lay on the pavement, head resting on the curb, and felt a sense of whole body pain I hoped never to have to re-experience. Unfortunately the feeling came for me again in the shadow of the Innsbruck K65. 

Laid on the concrete bleachers I experienced an all-consuming pain that lasted for the full two hours until Caro crossed the line and I was able to distract myself by congratulating her and shuffling home. In pain, but proud. 

Innsbruck Alpine Night Trail

Date: 10.09.2020 Time: 34:07 Distance: 6.6km

The Innsbruck Alpine Trailrun Festival is an event that Caro has done several times in the past, but I hadn’t yet done. Amazingly the races were not only going ahead despite Covid-19, but they were still accepting entry. I decided on the 65km event on Saturday, plus the 7km Night Trail event on Thursday evening. 

Being a nighttime race, it was an event where I’d be using my trusty Decathlon chestlamp – I always prefer a chestlamp to a headlamp. Our route started on the edge of the city, went up and then down a single hill, in a circular route. The route was supposedly well marked, although I struggled at times. I felt like it was probably well marked in daytime, but harder to navigate by torchlight. 

Because the Covid-19 rules in Austria allowed for groups of up to 150 people starting races together, and there were around 200 participants, we had been split randomly into two waves, and I was in the second. Each wave would run separately, but compete as one race. 

The start line was also the finish line, so my start group had to wait until all of the runners in the first group had finished before we were able to start. In the end this was nice for both groups, since the second wave clapped & cheered for the finishers in the first wave, and we were able to see what kind of times we could expect. I made a note of the first finisher coming though in 33:43. Given that it was only a 6.6k route this prepared me for a hard hill.

The start line was managed in the “form three lines & keep your distance” manner that events seem to have settled on at the moment. Thomas and I managed to get near the front, but not the first row, so we were able to stay in the mix, without the pressure of being right at the front. 

In a literal cloud of smoke we were off. The organisers had chosen to fire up the smoke machine, which made for cool pictures, but wasn’t great for seeing or breathing. Immediately two guys set off at an absolute sprint. Thankfully this made my choices easy, if either of them could hold that pace I didn’t stand a chance, but if they’d set off too fast they were going to slow down a lot once we hit the hill. 

To be fair the smoke machines made for some very cool photos.

As it happens I caught one guy before we’d even hit the base of the hill. 700m into the race he’d slowed to a more responsible speed and I overtook. At the 1km mark we started climbing and pretty soon afterwards I caught the other guy.

The hill was tough to say the least. I’ve raced on bigger hills, but this was a unique experience for me. When the hills are bigger and the race is longer it is always worth slowing down on the hill and saving energy. This race was only 6.6k, and since I was expecting the descent to be too technical for me to be able to really push my speed I was left with just 3.3k of fast running, followed by 3.3k of trying not to fall over. So I had no option but to power up the hill as fast as I could, which was seriously hard work. Thankfully I was only forced into a walk for the very steepest section. 

At one point I couldn’t find the route, so had to stop and wait for the second placed runner who knew the way to catch up and ask him the way. It lost me a good 20seconds which was super frustrating! It was also probably the first time I’ve ever totally stopped during a race, which was a surreal experience. 

But, by the time I got to the top of the hill and the halfway point I knew I had used 22mins going uphill, so was targeting just 11mins to get home. The descent was steep and and visibility was poor in the dark. It was going to be fun terrifying.

Actually the descent was equal parts amazing fun and absolutely terrifying. It was awesome to see the trees whipping past, hear the occasional cheer form a supporter hidden in the shadows and charge, recklessly fast, down the hill. But I was really pushing my limits and at several points got lucky to avoid slamming into trees.

Alas, just a second before I was going to burst out the trees and onto the road at the base of the climb I pushed my luck too far and hit the ground. I have absolutely no recollection of what made me fall, but it certainly hurt. Instead of appearing from the trees as a majestic, graceful athlete I appeared as a muddy wreck, tumbling along the ground. 

Oh well. It might not be graceful but I still had a shot at a good position. So I picked myself up and pushed for the final 1km. Coming into the stadium I saw I would be over the 34min mark and, unsure what time positions two and three had achieved in the previous wave, I sprinted for the line. 

After crossing the line I hobbled to the medical tent, cleaned my leg up and before I knew it the announcer was shouting about Caro being involved in an awesome sprint finish in the women’s race. 

I just made it back to the finish line in time to see Caro squeeze past the leading woman and win her wave. She wasn’t expecting to win and had no idea what times the women in the other wave had done. This made for a tense wait for the pair of us until the prize ceremony. 

It was close to say the least. I had come 3rd, missing out on 2nd by less than a second. Caro had also come  3rd, beating 4th by just a few seconds. Clearly her track sprints have been paying off. 

Caro receiving her hard earned trophy

There were several factors that made this race so enjoyable. Firstly, the fact it was run in the dark made for a really fun element.

Second, the two waves aspect meant I got to both spectate, and race, in the same event. Watching the headlamps of the first wave make their way up & down the hill fuelled the anticipation for our own run.

Also, because it wasn’t a race type I’ve ever done before (the closest thing I’ve done is cross country, but this was just one huge hill, rather than the undulating courses you get in the UK), I was able to experience the joy of the unknown and discover something new.

Finally, the weather was warm and dry, so we were able to hang around before and after in just our race gear without getting cold.

The matching plaques that Caro & I won are now hanging on the wall next to each other as a memory of one of the most fun races I’ve ever done. 

Müggelturm Half Marathon 2020

Date: 06.09.2020 Time: 1:21:41 Distance: 21.1km

The vast majority of races around the world have been postponed, or outright cancelled. Conveniently for me, one of these postponed races was the Müggelturm Half, which was due to happen in spring, but got pushed back to later in the year. 

I hadn’t entered until the day before but got myself down to race HQ, paid my €30 (a lot for a half marathon, but that’s what you get for entering so late), and secured my starting number. 

On the day it was almost perfect weather, if a little warm for running. But it was a sunny and crisp morning. Given that the race HQ was a lakefront bar I was eagerly anticipating my post run beer & veggie burger before we’d even warmed up. 

One of the changes that had been made due to COVID-19 was the introduction of a socially distanced start line. This actually worked pretty well, with people following the rules and wearing their masks properly. Everyone stayed a good distance from each other and wore their masks until after the start. We were organized into three lines, with each runner starting 1.5m behind the next. Thankfully I was able to get a spot just a few rows back for the start line, putting me in a good position to see the race unfold, while staying in the mix. 

After an enthusiastic rendition of a German folk song (which was not the strangest start line* I’ve experienced but it was certainly up there) we were off. It only took 500m before a front group of four was established. 

The group was; myself, Andy and two others who we didn’t know; one strong runner in the half marathon (who we later found was a cool guy called Matthias) and a younger lad racing the 10k. I later discovered the young 10k runner was the German national U16 cross country champion. He left us for dust at the 5k point. 

That left three of us, and given we couldn’t see anyone behind us we were pretty confident that the podium was sorted, but in what order? 

The course was a two lap affair, mostly off road, with the first lap taking a slight detour to go up the Müggelturm hill. But the three of us stuck together for the first lap, all seemingly in control and even finding the breath to chat and crack a few jokes. But around the 13k mark Matthias began to push the pace. 

Slowly but surely the pace increased and Andy began to fall back. Just a meter or two at first but by 16k the gap was ~100m and it looked sure that he’d come in 3rd. I was quietly confident that I would be able to push the pace in the last few Kms and pip the win, if only by a small margin. 

And this was exactly how things played out for the next 3km. Andy was out of sight, out of mind, and I sped up just enough to mean that Matthias fell off the pace. The win looked like it was in the bag. What I didn’t account for was Andy’s ability to kick out a seriously strong sprint finish when he really wants to. 

I was aware that I had slowed down a little, only by about 5sec/km, but a quick glance over my shoulder showed that I did not have the comfortable gap I’d hoped for. Andy was bearing down on me fast. In the final two Km I felt like a buffalo being chased by a lion. I certainly sounded like a buffalo.

In the final 400m Andy came storming past me and I had no way of responding. All I could do was watch while he powered away from me, running 3min/km and finishing a good 10 seconds ahead of me in the end.

Look closely and you can see me doing my best impression of a buffalo.

After the race I did get my hands on the beer & veggie burger that I was hoping for. It tasted all the more delicious in the sunshine, overlooking the lake, with Andy & Dan (who finished with a strong 1:28). 

In the end I won a free entry into the sister race, the Müggelsee half in mid-October, for taking 1st in my age category. Andy will also be there and it’ll be time for a rematch… 

*my strangest start line experience was probably the Etna Ultra Trail, where they had the local priest / pastor / unspecified religious leader come and sprinkle us with holy water before the start.

BSR virtual marathon relay

Date: 20.06.2020 Time: 33:37 (2:41 team) Distance: 8.44km (marathon)

In lieu of any real races this spring & summer the local running group in Berlin set up a ‘Marathon as a Team Relay’ race. The idea was that in teams of 3, 4 or 5 you’d run a marathon distance between you over the weekend. 

The team was composed of Andy, Dan, Dan, Thomas and myself. Dan #2 wasn’t actually back in Berlin at the time, so he did his leg earlier in the morning elsewhere. But the four of us who were present decided Tempelhof Airport was the best place to get a flat, uninterrupted course. I have always loved running at Tempelhof (an old airport that has been repurposed as a park), since you can still run along the runways and airplane taxi areas. 

Of course we still found a way for Dan #2 to join us…

We had found a neat course that went along the north runway and around the top half of the park, which was almost exactly 4.22km. Thomas started, running a solo lap. I then joined in for his second lap, and when Thomas was done, Andy joined for my second lap. I then finished and Dan joined Andy for his final lap. Dan finished with a solo lap, but all of us ran together for the final 200m. 

The only major problem we faced was the wind. There was a fairly strong wind giving a lovely boost when running along the runway, but resulting in a strong headwind when coming back along the edge of the park. 

Thomas’ first lap was a great start, hitting 16:15 for 4.22k. I then joined him and we managed a 16:20 lap. The Andy & I did our lap in 15:15, then Andy & Dan hit 15:20. Dan managed 16:00 on his solo lap. Overall it was a really strong performance from everyone.

The tactic of these ‘overlapped’ loops worked well because we were able to get the most out of each runner. I was able to push Thomas when I felt fresh & he was digging deep, then Andy did the same for me when he was fresh and I was tired.

Great to see Dan giving it his all!

In terms of my own running I am a lot less fit than I was a few months ago. When the spring race season got wiped out I decided to reset and aim for something in the autumn. On top of that I am still trying to regain the fitness I lost during my two weeks of quarantine. I was amazed at how much fitness I lost when I couldn’t leave the flat for two weeks.

My own performance aside, it was great to see the progress Dan has made in the last few months. Dan was entered into the London Marathon, and has deferred his entry to 2021. He was aiming for sub3 in London this year, but after an impressive training block recently he’s already in 2:50 shape. If he can keep building over the next 9 months he’s got a good shot at 2:45.

Will he do it?

Josh S Kiel marathon
Kiel Marathon 2020

Date: 22.02.2020 Time: 2:36:25

A race on the northern coast of Germany in February was always going to be at risk of bad weather scuppering a fast time or PB attempt. Despite six good weeks of training leading into this there was nothing I could do about high wind and heavy rain on the day. My preparations for this event went well; I was in good shape, had a successful taper (although maybe I could have run a little more in the last few days) and felt confident that I could give it my all in pursuit of a PB.  

The Kiel marathon is hardly a big event. There were only a few hundred competitors in the marathon (plus runners in the half marathon and 10k events). That worked very well on the day. I was able to arrive just an hour before the start to collect my number and use the toilet without a queue. Caro was even able to walk with me right up to the start line to take my jacket at the last minute. It was all very relaxed and well organised. Only the wind and rain dampened the mood. 

Ever the optimist I set out hoping that the weather would improve, or the course would be protected from the wind, or that the wind would be a direct tailwind going north and headwind going south, so would lose and gain in equal amounts. In the end the blustery conditions meant I lost more than I gained in the wind, and the rain made for a slippery road surface. 

There’s not too much to say about the two and a half hours I was actually running for. I was just a few seconds off my target pace on the first & seconds laps, but midway through the third lap it became clear that I would not be getting a PB. At that point I gave it all I had, accepting I would struggle to hold sub 4 min/km. It was really tough to run into the wind at points. 

Running entirely alone for a whole marathon was a new experience for me. Right from the start I was on my own, which made for a lonely few hours in the rain. The one thing this race was missing was a few more guys around my speed to run with and motivate each other. Maybe next year I can find a friend or two to run together. Anyone fancy a trip to Kiel in February 2021? 

In the lead up to Kiel I was a little worried about the fact it’s a lapped course. In the past I’ve found that things can get a bit messy when a thin course is being shared by runners of different speeds. In the end it wasn’t a problem though, there was plenty of space and I had a bike in front of me doing a good job of asking runners to keep to the right.

It was interesting to see how few people were wearing Nike’s Vaporfly shoes. Out of the ~2,000 runners across 10k, half marathon and marathon events I only saw two or three people wearing them. Given how prolific they’ve been recently it was refreshing to not see them on the start line. Having said that I will probably get a pair at some point…

There was a stall selling tea, cake, pasta, hot wine and soup after the race; which Caro & I looked at enviously on account of not having brought any cash with us. The medal ceremony was lighthearted and fun – the 3L glass of Erdinger Alkoholfrei was a nice prize which I ended up sharing with some of the volunteers. 

Having had a few days to reflect, I can see that I set off too fast. If I’d started slower I probably could have finished nearer 2:30, but I don’t think I would do it differently given another shot. Even though the chance of the weather improving during the race was very slim, there was still a chance that the wind would die down. So, in a theoretical world where I had chosen to ease off the pace and the weather did improve I would be kicking myself now for not taking the risk.

This is a race I’d recommend for sure, and I might even come back next year. The four lap, flat course with few corners was not particularly interesting, but it has the potential to be very fast. The efficient organisation made for a smooth race day experience.