What do you think of when you think of Milton Keynes?
You don’t even have to answer this question because I already know the answer. You’re thinking of one word. Beginning with ‘r’.
I wasn’t expecting… this:
This is Willen Lake, where Milton Keynes ParkRun is held. And it’s really rather beautiful.
It’s also where, on Saturday 16 January 2016, a small group of UKRunChat friends, including myself, met up for ParkRun and a social afterwards…
Back in November last year, Joanna and I put together the idea of a tweetup at her local ParkRun in Milton Keynes. Being relatively central, it’s a good location. We had local runners from MK: twins Joanna and Jodie (not actually twins), twins Kev and Neil (also not actually twins but, honestly, they’ll thank me for saying that, it’ll be fine 😁) and the lovely Sarah. And we also had runners from further afield: Adam would travel from Hertford, husband and wife Carlos and Abby would travel from Northampton, and I was travelling from Birmingham.
So we made the arrangements and agreed a date, and Joanna tweeted some preview photos over Christmas.
For me, having something in the calendar to look forward to is important. We were partway through the ‘offseason’ between autumn 2015 races and spring 2016 races. And while the lull in races is a good opportunity to rest, refocus and train, it can be anti-climactic.
Also Christmas and New Year can be bittersweet, an up-and-down time. Sometimes in life you’re drawn to the sea, so to speak, and the trouble is trying to swim back to the shore when the tide takes you so far out. And the view is so wonderful, but your ship already sailed. But there’s always hope. Always. You need to decide what you want and put your all into achieving it. A tweetup and PB shot seemed a good start.
So, fittingly, the waters of Willen Lake were the perfect welcome: the sunrise reflected in the sheen of the surface; peach and orange luminescent candescence; a flaming, swirling cascade of colour and a dance upon the water; offset by the crystalline ice-white casing of frost on a frozen, still morning.
Peaking for ParkRun/Christmas Running
I’d just started a block of training that would take me to a rest week at Christmas. But with a 5k PB attempt now due in the middle of January, there was no way I could take a week off. Which meant running over Christmas.
Ah, Christmas running. A bit like holiday running; a divisive topic. But while I have done holiday running before, I have never run at Christmas. I’ve always felt that Christmas is a special time of year where we’ve all earned a break and a rest; that one chance in the year to relax guilt-free, and eat, drink and be merry. In previous years I’d seen so many runners proudly tweeting that they’d run over Christmas – sometimes even on Christmas Day itself – that I couldn’t quite shake an uncharitable suspicion that they’d run not because of a love of running, but so that they could tell everyone about it.
This year though, something felt different. I just didn’t feel right not running. I just didn’t feel like me. I ended up running on Boxing Day (and yes, now I’m telling you about it – hypocrite that I am). The following week I clocked up nearly forty miles – a pretty heavy week for me.
I could (should?) have done some track sessions to start peaking for the 5k, but – and I’m probably showing myself up as several sorts of silly sod – I didn’t fancy another stop-start session. I already run intervals and hill reps: stop-start bursts of pace mixed with recovery periods. Adding another similar session just felt too… well, similar. And the intervals and hill reps were too beneficial to drop.
I decided to concentrate on the 06:25 minute miles I’d need for a sub-20 5k. I knew I could run one of these; I’ve done it many times. However, I wasn’t convinced I could run two in a row, let alone three. For a flat, uninterrupted blast at this, I opted for a treadmill run because of some terrible weather over Christmas.
I love treadmills, but even so it felt like a cop-out. So I upped the distance of the session from 5k to 10k, and calculated the speed I’d need to go sub-20 at 5k and sub-40 at 10k. This worked out at 15.5kph which, given that I max out the treadmill at its top speed of 18.0kph during my interval sessions, sounded fairly pedestrian.
Wait a minute, I hear you say. You run your intervals… on a treadmill? On the ‘dreadmill’?
Well, yes – I do. And for the record, I loathe the term ‘dreadmill’. There are huge benefits to running on a treadmill; one of which is that the pace is very consistent. The other major benefit is that you can’t drop the pace – you have to keep up with its pace. I would guess that even running flat-out in a dedicated speed session, most runners would subconsciously slow when tiring. But the body is always capable of more than we think it is, and on a treadmill there’s no damn choice but to keep pushing.
At first, I was struck by just how similar to the principles of a track workout it was – flat and fast, with no interruptions; just pace, pace, pace. Encouragingly, I went through 5k in 19:33. So technically, this was my first ever sub-20 5k, though I don’t count artificial sessions like these as PBs. The other point was that, yes, I went through 5k in 19:33, but I did so absolutely wrecked and broken. I’d underestimated just how hard running 15.5kph for extended periods would be. As soon as I hit 5k, I had to drop the pace to 14.0kph – humiliatingly having to hit that horrible ‘slow down’ button. I went through 10k in 40:40 – also technically a PB (and also one which I won’t count) but unable to hold sub-40 pace.
I intended to repeat it, but the next part of my plan was to start running some actual ParkRuns, in prep for Milton Keynes. My local ParkRun is at Cannon Hill Park in Birmingham. This was ideal because I knew from the course profile on Strava that Cannon Hill has slightly more elevation than MK.
As I was to find over the next three weeks, there’s nothing like a 5k blast to hone all-out speed. And there’s nothing like ParkRun for a 5k blast. That first week I ran 20:03 – a three-second PB and agonisingly close to sub-20 but still not quite there. With an 06:11 first mile and 06:24 second mile, I got two consecutive sub-06:25s. The third mile was pretty close too, at 06:31, but I still couldn’t quite get there.
In running we have to think positively. Positive thoughts, belief and confidence flow into our running and make us better. Negative thoughts diminish performance. So I had to believe I would get that elusive sub-20 even though I couldn’t see how I was going to eke any more performance out of myself.
And therein lies the value of a 5k blast at ParkRun: it just seems to build speed. The next week I ran the first mile in 06:02. Nice and fast, and a nine second improvement. I got the second mile in 06:20 – another sub-06:25 and again faster than last week. That third and last mile was where I felt much stronger, able to push much more, and I went all out. And there it was: 06:22, a third consecutive sub-06:25.
I went through in 19:40, and finally the monkey was off my back. I’d done it. I tweeted an update and a smiling post-ParkRun photo to UKRunChat, and my phone lit up with congratulatory notifications for the rest of the weekend.
But the week leading up to MK I came down with a headache which I knew from awful experience was the precursor of a migraine. It dogged me for the rest of the week, at work, at home, in training, and in my sleep. I was very, very lucky that it held off and didn’t turn into a full-blown migraine. Also my hill reps that week were wiped out by snow. So as the trip to MK drew near, I really didn’t feel well-prepared at all.
Friends (The One With All the Running)
And so to the day itself.
Firstly, I felt better. The headache had just about passed.
Secondly, there’s something deliciously exciting about going ‘on the road’, even if it’s only ninety minutes down the M40 to Milton Keynes. Maybe it’s because of the world that running (and UKRunChat) has opened up for me. I now have friends up and down the country – and beyond – and here I was setting off to meet up and go running.
Having set off in the dark I drove into the daybreak, watching the world open up before me as the sky changed almost imperceptibly from black to dark blue. As I left the motorway, trees emerged out of the darkness, branches silhouetted and backlit by the sky. And when the beautiful clear winter’s morning finally spilled itself over the countryside, I was struck by just how pretty a location it is in which Milton Keynes sits.
I arrived at Willen Lake early. (Yes, there were a few roundabouts on that last stretch, but I feel desperately unfair mentioning this.) I wandered down to the waterside area, which was clean and paved around a cluster of buildings – pub, Premier Inn, gym – imagining just how popular the outdoor seating would be in summer. As it was, it sat still and quiet, frozen and motionless under sheets of hard frost. I continued walking round, finding a circular pagoda park and also the café which Joanna had tweeted a picture of. Here there were a few other runners braving the cold, either checking out the facilities like me, or doing an early warm-up. One of these was Adam, and we walked and talked our way back to the car park.
By now others were arriving, and the cold was briefly banished with warm greetings and welcoming hugs. We clustered in a little group for a while, before UKRunChat hoodies and other outer layers were removed ready to run. Then we made our way round to the start.
We gathered at an intersection in the path surrounded by trees. I was only in my shorts and a single layer long-sleeve top because I overheat quickly when running, particularly at sub-20 pace. But the icy cold really was intense.
I was able to get some warm-up bursts of running done, going up and down through the gears, while other people either did their own or went through some stretching. Between us there was a mix of people going for times, like myself, or for the social aspect of a friendly run together, as Adam and Sarah were. This was Carlos and Abby’s first ParkRun, which made it all the more special to be sharing it with them.
As we neared the nine o’clock start time, I made my way toward the front of the pack, along with Kev and Neil. Kev kindly explained the route to me. I could see that the path from the start would be quite narrow, making it all the more important not to get caught in the pack, especially when seconds count in a sub-20 chase.
There were the usual safety announcements by megaphone, then a countdown, and then we were off. I’d been right, that path was very narrow. Despite being almost at the front of the pack I was still held up. To work my way around, I tried coming off the path onto the grass, hoping that being frozen solid would make it as hard and responsive as the concrete path. Not so, and I found myself bogging down. I had to work doubly hard to get round people back onto the path. It was worth it though – by the first turn I was up to sixth position, had hit some speed and had room to run.
But I was working hard against the effects of the migraine and the poor hill reps session – though I was aware not to allow negative thoughts like these to linger. My hands felt like blocks of ice too.
With my breathing ragged and strained, and all my focus on pace, we left the ground-level path and were running on a footbridge over a busy road, sparkling with large patches of icy-white frost. I managed to get the first mile in 06:09 – slower than the previous week at Cannon Hill, but still on for a sub-20. But I knew the ‘zig-zags’ were coming.
Anybody who’s ever heard about Milton Keynes ParkRun will know of the infamous zig-zags – steep switchbacks in the path. I was expecting an incline. What I got was a hill; a wooded hill. With nasty, near-180 degree hairpin switchbacks in the narrowing path.
Negotiating these vicious turns took effort, and even more concentration not to clatter into other runners. I was losing precious seconds on each one. This is where I should have been able to draw on my hill reps, but the effects of the week wiped some of this out. I let other runners pass, but after we’d crested the top I regrouped.
From there – as Sarah had told us to expect – we were back out into the open for a long downhill stretch to the lake, laid out before us. Joanna had told us that Milton Keynes had been voted one of the most scenic ParkRuns, and it was easy to see why.
The downhill lent itself perfectly to a full-on, flat-out tilt, yet there were still large patches of ice and frost to avoid. As the path curved round I was able to spread out wide onto the grass, up and around the ice, almost using it like banking on a motor-racing circuit. Also, the organisers of the ParkRun had done a superb job of placing marshals in the worst-affected areas, calling out ice warnings.
Rounding the perimeter of the lake, the path took us into a series of concrete dips and rises. These were, I think, large sluices or weirs or gates – I didn’t really see, as at this point the necessity of keeping up the pace to gain back time lost on the zig-zags meant I was at maximum effort.
I completed mile two in 06:24, relieved to have just dipped under 06:25 but worried at the drop-off in pace. I couldn’t let that happen again.
By this point I was running on my own, and had only my own form to focus on – plus trying to keep a few people in sight ahead of me so I knew which way to turn on the paths. These are the hazards of running at the front that people don’t tell you about!
It was hard work at this point – maybe even the hardest of all as I kept burning the motor against the cold and my lack of conditioning – but I was holding 06:15 minute-mile pace and kept it going.
Explaining where speed like this comes from is difficult. Obviously it comes from all the training – which I work hard enough at. But I haven’t always had speed; certainly not like this. It’s a relatively recent thing. I train specifically for it, which has paid off. But my legs don’t feel as though they’re moving any faster; I’m putting the same amount of effort in (i.e. as much as I can muster). I’m breathing hard, I’m concentrating on form. It’s just that, somehow, it moves me along faster.
The exhilaration is incredible – a racing thing; a pacing thing; a flat-out, full-on chasing thing. I put ice in my heart to numb the pain of the ice in my hands, and the rush of adrenaline was matched only by the rush of the wind past my ears. The path around the lake was bringing us in towards the finish, and I had just enough burn in the motor to get there. I thought I could hear footsteps behind me and kicked hard to the finish. My Garmin showed 19:37 – a three-second PB. And the text message from ParkRun told me I’d finished in tenth position, which was very pleasing.
Really, I’d wanted something into the 19:20s, so I was a little disappointed. But it was better than the 19:40 I ran at Cannon Hill, so I can’t complain. Especially on the back of being laid low all week with a migraine, and the interrupted training. I suppose.
After catching my breath, I began walking back down from the finish to cheer everyone else in. Kev and Neil came through, and although I didn’t spot Abby I got a high-five with Carlos. Joanna and Jodie came through, and then I worked my way back round the course to cheer Adam and Sarah in before re-joining our little group. After nearly burning myself out, I felt ready to run it all again!
And that was the run part of the morning done.
(There’s a little postscript to this, and it’s one of the few disadvantages of pushing the pace. Joanna found a video of that particular ParkRun on YouTube – somebody had filmed it that day on a GoPro. There are sections I barely remember: running past a canal, under a bridge, and other places. When my concentration is all on pace, form, breathing and position, missing some of the surroundings does happen.)
The second part of the morning was the social afterwards, something we were all looking forward to as much as the run itself.
Fresh-faced and glowing from various triumphs – Kev had run an outright PB, and Joanna had run the course PB she’d wanted – we converged on the little café/coffee shop. Jodie had to leave early unfortunately, but the rest of us queued and did battle with the ethical dilemma of healthy post-run snack (banana for me) versus cake (of which there was plenty). Plus tea, of course.
The café/coffee shop was warm and busy, and noisy with the hubbub of ParkRunners excitedly catching up with each other and sharing their runs. Everywhere people huddled either clamouring away or uploading to Strava and updating social media. It was nice.
We took over a corner of the room – a little cluster of red and purple UKRunChat hoodies – and spent the next ninety minutes or more talking, laughing, swapping stories and catching up with each other. I spent a lot of time talking with Adam, which was a pleasure.
There were group photos, and the run director of ParkRun came over to say hello, as did other runners. Everyone was extremely friendly and, oh, it was a happy little Saturday morning talking and laughing, with sunlight streaming in through the windows. For some, it might seem strange how well we all knew each other and got on, despite this being the first time some of us had met. But that’s the power of social media in the hands of good people: actually, we all knew each other well, since we share so much of ourselves – and our running – online.
And that was the theme for the day, really. Friends. A central perk of being a runner, and part of UKRunChat. And here we were, sat on a sofa in a coffee shop. Really quite fitting.
And there you go. From humble beginnings this was so lovely that it turned out to be one of my ‘A’ races of the year. And, being ParkRun, it wasn’t even a ‘race’.
So, I’ll ask again – what do you think of when you think of Milton Keynes?
From now on, I won’t think of roundabouts.
I’ll think of friends.