Chris Ashford Reflects on his Running Achievements in 2017
In this blog, coached athlete Chris Ashford reflects on his season where he finally completed the Comrades Marathon – you can't say you have until you do 'up' and 'down' on back to back years ! – Placed highly in the British ultra marathon championships, represented England in the Masters Marathon Championships (and broke the coveted 2:30 mark) and then the week later backed it up with a marathon win at the inaugural Birmingham Marathon. In April we said he would be one to watch and he certainly didn't disappoint us!
To say that Chris had a successful season is an understatement. However, he did also have some minor set backs on the way and he actually ended up learning so much more about himself through those difficulties. Over to Chris to reflect on what was a very successful season...
Chris Ashford Birmingham Marathon Inaugural Winner 2017
What went well:
Consistent training with minimal injury
Exploring new opportunities for improvement in both nutrition and psychology
Training fast with the club and at ParkRun to develop speed
Use of cross training (both strength / swim / cycle) to keep training but not just run more
Using run commute to add extra mileage - stealth training!
What could have been better:
More effective rest - too much sacrifice of sleep for training
Greater use of advice from nutritionist and psychologist earlier in the season
Less self analysis of each and every session - look to overall trend
2017 was the year that I transitioned from triathlete to marathon runner. 2016 was running focused, completing my first Comrades Ultra Marathon (90 kms), and achieving 02:30:25 at Frankfurt Marathon.
Coach Phil and I discussed my 2017 season "A" goals at the start of the year and two targets were established:
1) Sub 02:30:00 at the Marathon distance - Improving on a PB of 02:30:25 in 2016
2) Sub 06:30:00 at Comrades "Up" run - Having achieved 06:41:39 in 2016 on the "Down" run
New Season, New Plan
January started the year with a focus on strength training. Big lifts and compound movements was a change from "run more = run faster". This meant no long slow runs in the cold and wet, but instead trying to increase strength to build a capacity for greater mileage in the summer. I raced Cross Country to train at threshold pace and compete against others. These races were a real motivator and a fantastic gauge of performance.
All Plans Must be Dynamic – Injury
I had planned Boston Marathon in April to be be my "A" race, but this changed to a "B" race when Manchester Marathon was announced as the selection race for the England Athletics Marathon Age Group Championships. Unfortunately in March I managed to injure my toe and lost four weeks of run training. I increased my swimming and cycling volume to compensate, but I knew that I was losing run fitness in a key phase. I raced Manchester on 90% fitness and achieved a 2:31, significantly faster than I thought possible, and qualified for the team! After a fine balance between training and recovery, I then flew out to Boston only two weeks later and managed 2:33:45, 87th and 1st Brit home. Although I didn't achieve my A goal in the spring it did give me a clear target for an autumn marathon and the end of season.
Post race rehydration at Manchester Marathon
Comrades Marathon – All the way up!
After April and the marathon's set aside, it was now about running long, really long. Morning and evening work commutes added additional volume - only 4km each way, as well as running to and from BRAT sessions to increase volume further. I also decided to complete my first non road ultra - Malvern Hills Ultra 45miler, as well as the 100k National Championships two weeks later. With the Malvern Hills all on trail and paths it was quite a change to road marathons, but a good experience, despite getting lost on 3 occasions. This contrasted with the 100k National Championships which was 4x25km's out and back where I was reduced to walking by the end of the race. Never has 3km felt seemed so far... Either way, both of these races were great training for Comrades.
I completed Comrades in 06:17:05, improving my time by 20 minutes and coming 40th overall. This then brought a mid-season break, including enforced down time after getting the flu while travelling to Dubai. 12 hours a day in bed wasn't really the planned activity for my holidays...
Pre Comrades Marathon 2017
The English Marathon Age Group Championships
I knew I needed to gain some speed (if you can call it that) for the Chester Marathon. I started back with the BRAT track sessions in June, as well as the interval sessions on a Wednesday. Encouraged to work hard by other runners was effective training, and with "doing the double" of Saturday ParkRun and BRAT Hill Intervals to really fatigue the legs, as well as a long run on Sunday as part of a fast marathon training group I had a good balance of sessions each week.
I also looked beyond just training more effectively and explored improvements in nutrition and sports psychology opportunities. I began working with Helen Money for nutrition, and Mark Bellamy for sports psychology, both part of the Tri Training Harder team. Both offered fresh perspectives. Helen quickly identified that despite eating fairly healthily (apparently cake was OK in moderation) I was significantly under fuelled for training. I was given manageable advice on how to increase calorie intake, as well as effective recovery meals. Although small changes, I had more energy stores for training on a weekly basis and a tailored nutrition plan for Chester marathon. With Mark I was able to get advice on confidence when racing and how to use key queues when things are going well and also when not so well.
The privilege of wearing an England Vest in Chester and to go 2:29:01
October was Chester marathon and the final A race of the season. Long runs and fast runs became the focus, coupled with a new approach to nutrition and psychology meant I was primed for Chester. Racing with Dan Robinson (fellow BRAT) as well as a number of other runners targeting <2:30 I was in the best place to accomplish my goal. The race started well, and running in a tight group the mileage ticked along. When it started to get tough, having the support of the crowd enabled me to keep working hard, focusing on the time and dedicated training and when the finish was in sight, listening to the support from my family. I crossed the line in 2:29:01 - mission accomplished. It might only have been a number, but going <2:30 was a target I had been working towards for the whole year. When I actually beat it by nearly a minute I couldn't believe it. The hard work had all been worthwhile!
Birmingham International Marathon
The last "race" of the season would be Birmingham International Marathon. I had never planned on racing it, but as the first Birmingham Marathon I knew I wanted to take part. Dan Robinson and I planned on pacing Karl Welborn (Tipton Harriers and former BRAT) to his own goal of <2:30, but when he started to struggle and I was feeling good, I just kept moving on. I overtook the 3rd place runner at 15 miles encouraged by the support of the BRAT's on the course, and eventually passed the 2nd place runner at 19 miles. I was told "your closing in on the leader" at 21 miles, but could actually see him at mile 23. When I actually passed him at mile 25 it was all about running as hard as possible and hoping that he wasn't going to kick to the finish. With not a single person in front of me, I crossed the finish line, raised my arms and heard the commentator say "this wasn't the athlete we were expecting..." they weren't the only ones! This was my first ever marathon win, and to do it at my home marathon in its inaugural year, and only 7 days after running sub 2:30 was the biggest surprise of all and the best possible end to the season.
Birmingham Marathon Champion 2017
Now, some down time. I'm writing this from the airport lounge waiting for a flight, and can't believe what I have accomplished this year. It has been a great season, and could hardly have gone any better. I'm looking forward to some time off, and more chance for reflection before deciding what 2018 has in store.
Thanks for all the support for those who have contributed to my successes this season including
from Tri Training Harder, as well as all those BRAT's who I have run with, swam with and cycled with throughout the year. Finally to my family who have put up with me moaning about injuries, turning up tired, eating them out of house and home when invited for dinner, and being dragged around the country to watch me run for about 2 minutes before disappearing into the distance. I couldn't have done it without you.