I’ve been conscious recently that ‘race review’ is probably a bad title for these posts, because I’m not really doing much reviewing of the race itself – more reflecting on my own race and what went well and what went badly. As such, I’ll start with a few thoughts on the GNR 2022. It was a very different atmosphere at the start with all the reflection and observance of the national mourning period, but once we were underway – down to South Shields on the traditional route for the first time in three years – it felt like it had never been away. I did miss the Red Arrows, but I’m sure they’ll be back next year when – hopefully – we can finally have a totally normal GNR again.
My training had mostly gone well. I missed a few weeks early in the plan, as I realised I had started training again too soon after the Edinburgh Marathon and needed a bit more time to recover, but I had really pulled it back over the last six weeks or so – I did all my long runs and developed a good speedwork routine by getting some initial miles done in my new pair of speed shoes, joining the local social run group on Fridays (their easy pace is a fairly good lick for me!) and attempting some faster parkrun times. I also started medication for my ankylosing spondylitis, which was working really well and meant that my lower back, hips, glutes and sciatic nerves didn’t seem to be stiff and sore anymore. Best of all, I found a new and promising fuelling strategy that didn’t make me feel sick (Clif Shot Blokz instead of gels). Unfortunately my strength training routine did suffer as I was so busy with travelling and other things over the summer, and it became really difficult to find that half hour to fit it in.
It was really only the last week of the taper that I started to become nervous about possible niggles that might affect the race. My back pain had been a little bit twingy on some of my long runs during training, but not to the extent that it was affecting my running – it was just a bit of background annoyance that I could ignore. However, I really felt it properly seize up just after I sprinted for the line at Pendle parkrun, eight days before GNR day. I was worried, but it returned to its vague background level for my six-miler along the canal the following morning, so I assumed it would be fine for the race.
That afternoon, I got in the car to drive back from Lancashire to Newcastle. A few hours later, I climbed out of the driver’s seat to find myself with killer runner’s knee out of absolutely nowhere! No idea whether it was the sprint at Pendle parkrun, the dodgy camber along the Leeds-Liverpool Canal towpath or just straining a bit too hard to keep the clutch in the right place during the drive, but I’ve never had it just appear like that before! Panic stations that evening, but as usual with runner’s knee for me, I found during my next few days of short runs that it didn’t actually hurt during running – just when I sat down and stiffened up. However, my back pain was noticeable all week, probably because my form was thrown out by unconsciously compensating for my knee. I did a lot of extra strength training and massage gun work during the week, focusing on my knee and back – and I found that race pace was comfortable and unproblematic on my short runs – but while the knee pain had dissipated by Friday, the back pain clearly wasn’t going away. I just had to hope that it would remain a background-level pain and wouldn’t cause any stiffening during the weekend.
I deliberately took my last shakeout run (en route to parkrun volunteering) very slowly. However, I found that I was stiff and slow during the walk around the Jesmond Dene course and back home – and even more stiff and slow on the walk from home to the GNR start area the following morning. It wasn’t promising, but I always see races through, so I set off in the hope that I would at least be able to stay steady.
The first couple of miles were fine. I started off a bit fast, but settled into my pace by the second mile, and if I’d been able to keep going like that it would have been a great day. However, by mile three everything between mid-back and mid-thigh had seized up into one giant inflexible piece, which was causing a lot of other issues further down, especially with my feet. I had no choice but to switch to a run-walk strategy to mitigate the pain. I was determined to keep running sometimes, as I hadn’t mentally managed to do that during the second half of the Edinburgh Marathon, but the race for me between miles three and twelve was about a 2:1 walk-run ratio. I couldn’t walk briskly either, and I had a lot of concerned comments during my walk periods, as I must have looked really strange trying to walk in my seized-up state. Running was an awkward shufflejog, but at least there were a few other people doing that too.
Following this strategy, I was able to stay steady-ish (if extremely slow) – and I did manage to shufflejog the whole last mile along the seafront – but I was in a lot of pain and went to a lot of dark places during the many hours it took me to complete the course. I was seriously questioning if I should continue with running, and to be honest I am still having those thoughts three days later. It just felt so fruitless. I had trained for this race and yet I might as well have not trained at all – I would have been no slower, and possibly faster as I wouldn’t have aggravated my back pain in the last few weeks of the plan. I had desperately wanted to get close to my PB again, and I ended up well over an hour outside it. I had two A races this year – both of which were really important to me – and my medical issues ruined both of them.
Mentally, I was looking forward to the post-GNR period as I had decided a long time ago that it would be my last race of 2022 – I wanted a good long rest in the autumn before starting marathon training again in the new year – but I’ve just felt horrible this week. I don’t feel like I properly ended my season, my medal and t-shirt don’t feel earned, and I desperately want another chance to get the result I feel I should have had – but I just don’t think it would be sensible, mentally or physically, to sign up for another race this year.
I’m also really quite worried about next year’s goal races – spring marathon and then GNR again. It was mostly the back pain that did me in at Edinburgh this year, but there were a lot of other issues with that race – injuries during training, nausea caused by fuelling – that contributed to the wheels coming off. At the GNR, it was the spondylitis alone. I can do everything I can to try and mitigate it, but I can never guarantee that I won’t suffer from it on the day of a race. I suppose I’ll always have that worry now, and a lot of it really is down to luck.
Three things I can do and will continue to do to try and mitigate the spondylitis:
- Keep taking the medication, as it does work 95% of the time
- Prioritise my strength training, which means not booking as much travel as I have this year (travelling is the number one cause of training interference for me)
- Lose weight (as when I was at my target weight I barely suffered with this issue at all) – it’s a slow process but I am determined
Three things to take away from this race and training block:
- Spring marathon needs to be early May at the latest as I need time to recover in between training blocks – Edinburgh and GNR were too close together for proper recovery
- I will continue running with the social group as it’s both great speed training and a good source of motivation due to the friendly people there
- No sprint finishes at parkrun in the fortnight before the race! (I just really wanted that Pendle PB…)
I’m in the Pyrenees this week, where there are no such things as flat roads. Walking and running on the hills is hard with my back issues, and I think I would have been able to enjoy the trip more if I hadn’t gone straight after the GNR. As such, not going on travels straight after a race is probably a good lesson to learn as well. Nevertheless, it is a calm and beautiful place for reflecting on things.
I’m not quitting running just yet. Apart from anything else, it’s only twelve days until my ‘comma day’ – the thousandth day of my daily run streak – and I want to continue post-1,000 as it’s another good source of motivation. But there are a few things I need to think about this winter, and a few changes I need to make.