Early Morning Madrid

I’m just about to fly out of Madrid Barajas airport after spending slightly less than 20 hours in Spain. Arriving late last night, and staying in a hotel on the edge of town close to the office where I’ve been booked with meetings today, the only way I was going to get to see the sights of Spain’s capital was to set my alarm for 6am, put on my running shoes and run out for a loop.

I’ve never been here before but a quick look on Google Maps shows that I was situated quite a way from any of Madrid’s central attractions. A bit of research shows that there are plenty of decent places to run, but these were mostly spread out and I wanted to loop around the whole city.

Coming here in the middle of an Alpine winter, leaving the hotel at 6.15am in 9C temperature felt pretty nice.

Navigating Madrid in the early hours is easy – it’s mostly long, straight avenues that run N/S or E/W so I was able to link my run from the hotel, down to Parque del Retiro. It was still pitch black by this point though so there wasn’t much to see.

Parque del Retiro
This park is right in the centre of Madrid and is well worth a visit whether you’re running or otherwise. It belonged to the Spanish monarchy until the 19th century when it became a public park.

From here I followed Calle de Atocha northwest up to Plaza Mayor, a grand town square but at 7am it was pretty deserted and unlit. Carrying on through I finally reached the Palacio Real just as the sun was coming up, and I was finally able to snap a photo!

Palacio Real in central Madrid – about the only tourist attraction I was able to see in the daylight

I had originally hoped to head west to the Rio Manzanares where 10s of KMs of pedestrianised routes make for good running. Further northwest also is the Casa de Campo which is another very popular spot for runners, but I had meetings to get to and not enough time to extend my route, so had to head back.

Strava Run

Casa de Campo
This is the largest park in Madrid, on the west bank of the Manzanares and is a former royal hunting estate.

Casa de Campo – Madrid’s largest park

The park covers 700 hectares so you can imagine it’s quite a haven for runners, but is also quite busy with tourists and locals alike since there’s also a zoo, amusement park and aquarium.

Getting back takes longer than heading out – the huge empty avenues that I was able to cross easily in the early hours where clogged with morning rush hour commuter traffic, meaning frequent stops at the crossing lights. As I got back to the hotel the sun was just getting up and I was treated to this view from the hotel room window.

View of the northern skyline of Madrid from my hotel window

Frankfurt Airport Stopover

On my way back from Mexico City, my stopover in Frankfurt was going to be around 7 hours – from 2pm until my flight to Lyon around 9. Since I would have cleared customs and be in the Schengen zone for my next flight, and would have access to the Lufthansa business lounge (and showers) I toyed with the idea of quitting the airport and going for a run.

A bit of preparation – I made sure to pack my running gear in my hand baggage. Once in the Schengen terminal I found the lounge, and checked with the staff there that I would definitely be able to leave the airport and come back in. My boarding pass was on my phone, so I didn’t need to take anything else with me apart from the key to the locker in the business lounge. I took my driving licence just in case I ended up needing it for ID (I didn’t).

Lots of fast moving traffic while leaving the airport

Lots of fast moving traffic while leaving the airport

Frankfurt airport is surrounded by hundreds of hectares of forest – I’d seen it countless times when flying in and out of the airport and thought that it would be a good place to run if I got the chance. A lot of the Googling I’d done recommended leaving the airport on a hotel transfer bus and starting from their, but instead I simply ran out of the arrivals lounge in the vague direction of Frankfurt.

There are a few marked cycle paths which lead out of the airport, and along some of the main roads and I was able to follow these until they crossed a motorway and ended up in the main forest itself.

Soon you start to leave the noise of the traffic behind and get to the start of the forest - some helpful cycle routes aid navigation

Soon you start to leave the noise of the traffic behind and get to the start of the forest – some helpful cycle routes aid navigation

It was mid autumn and cold, but it was dry and crisp and the forest floor was a carpet of rustling brown leaves. I expected to see more runners but it was mainly just the odd cyclist. The forest paths all mainly run N-S/E-W in a grid pattern, so navigating towards Frankfurt wasn’t too difficult.

The forest floor was a carpet of leaves

The forest floor was a carpet of leaves

 

I didn't see or hear any signs of wild boar in the woods but it looked like perfect habitat for them.

I didn’t see or hear any signs of wild boar in the woods but it looked like perfect habitat for them.

Eventually I reached the river Main, west of Frankfurt and could see the high rise office blocks in the distance. There was quite a pleasant path running along it and assumed it would take me most of the way into Frankfurt, about 5-6km east. However I was starting to feel a niggle in my ankle that had flared up after my last marathon in Amsterdam, and the light was fading so I decided to turn back.

Finding my way back in the airport was much harder than finding my way out. They’re not really built for pedestrian access and I couldn’t find my exact same way back, so ended up entering the airport grounds quite a long way from where I wanted to be. All the signs to the terminal I needed where aimed at cars and didn’t necessarily show me the right way there. In the fading light it felt a little unsettling running round an enormous airport, mostly devoid of people, but eventually I found my way back. I’d definitely recommend the transfer bus to anyone trying it again.

I got a few strange looks going back through security covered in sweat in just running shorts and top, but was back in time for a shower, something to eat and some relaxation before my flight.

 

The view along the river Main

The view along the river Main

 

Strava Details

High Altitude – Mexico City

The legendary pollution in Mexico City makes for a great sunset

The legendary pollution in Mexico City makes for a great sunset

I’ve spent the last 3 years living at 1200m altitude in the French Alps, and anecdotally I’ve always felt that training at this level has always helped me when I’ve spent time running at lower elevations. On my regular trips to various European cities, running at near to sea level, on paved roads with little change in gradient has always felt very easy and I think that is thanks to the mountain training.

Last week I was in Mexico City on a business trip. It was the first time I had ever been there, but I knew that it was famously quite high, and also polluted. It is also infamous for congested, traffic snarled streets and lack of green space so I wasn’t exactly holding out great hope for fun training runs.

 

Visiting the pyramids outside Mexico City on my day off.

Visiting the pyramids outside Mexico City on my day off.

 

I arrived on Saturday night after an all-day flight from Europe, so had an early night and met my colleagues on Sunday morning to find out they had arranged a tour of the pyramids at Teotihuacan. This was a great way to acclimatise and get used to the jet lag – but meant I didn’t get to run.

The Lungs of Mexico City

My hotel overlooked the Bosque de Chapultepec – the largest park in Mexico City, and one of the largest city parks in the Western hemisphere. Each Sunday the roads that run through the park are closed to motorised traffic and the area, already a haven for runners, is completely taken over by cyclists, rollerbladers and runners.

 

Bosque de Chapultepec as seen from our office roof - a great oasis of tranquility in the bustling megalopolis of the DF

Bosque de Chapultepec as seen from our office roof – a great oasis of tranquility in the bustling megalopolis of the DF

I had to wait until the Monday evening after our first day’s meetings to go for a run – and since I only had 30 minutes I thought I would run a brisk pace rather than do the steady 10km I had planned – after just a few minutes I could really feel my lungs burning with the altitude and pollution – I was genuinely shocked at the effort it took to maintain a decent pace, since I’m used to being able to run more quickly on the flat pavement of the city. Unfortunately I’d left my HRM back at home so I couldn’t see how hard I was working but I felt like I was in the red most of the time and actually felt very dizzy at the end of the 8km.

The park is gated and closes around dusk, so unfortunately I couldn’t get into the main section and had to run around the small outskirts, which wasn’t the most inspiring, and hugged some of the main roads which were clogged with rush-hour traffic. I made a note to get up early and go for a morning run later in the week.

Chapultepec Circuit

The castle in the middle of Bosque de Chapultepec

The castle in the middle of Bosque de Chapultepec

Later in the week I ran a circuit of the park (at a more leisurely pace) and found it to be a fantastic place – full of runners, well signposted and lots of quiet trails. In the centre is the Castillo de Chapultepec, once an imperial residence but now a museum. During the cool mornings the park is full of runners, and there are plenty of places to explore with some well marked paths and trails.

The park is gated and so you can only access in a few places, and there was quite a visible police presence throughout, so even though Mexico City isn’t one of the safest place in the world, this felt like a part of town where you could run in relative safety.

 

 

Totem Canadiense

Totem Canadiense

Monument to los Ninos Heros - six boy cadets who died defending the castle from the US army in 1847

Monument to los Ninos Heros – six boy cadets who died defending the castle from the US army in 1847

Race Report: TCS Amsterdam Marathon 2014

Chasing the elusive 3hr marathon

Although I live in the mountains and spend most of my time running up and down trails, I surprised myself in March 2013 by running the Paris Marathon in 3:08. Being a spring marathon, my training was heavily interrupted by the Alpine snows, and I spent as much time on skis as I did getting quality runs in, so I figured if I picked the right race, had a whole summer to train and put some quality mileage in, I would have the potential for a sub-3hr time in me, while I’m still the right side of 40!

The start of the 2014 TCS Amsterdam Marathon in the Olympic Stadium

Training

My first choice was Berlin, but I was unable to get a place, so I plumped for the TCS Amsterdam Marathon on 19th October. The idea being that a fast, flat course at the end of autumn would mean that I could spend the entire summer getting some proper training in.

I based my training loosely on Hal Higdon’s Advanced 1 Marathon plan. The idea being that the early part of the week would be fairly straight forward, with a quality Tuesday run sandwiched by a couple of easy sessions, followed by some intense speed work, hill repeats or tempo run on a Thursday. Friday would be the only rest day, ready for a decent pace run on the Saturday, and the long, slow run on a Sunday.

I found that I quickly adapted to this – 6 days a week is more than I was used to but I managed to start ramping up the volume, peaking at around 90km per week, leading into a 3 week taper for the marathon. I definitely felt faster (and may pace times validate that) after putting in the Thursday speed sessions.

My training volume on Strava over the last year. I struggled with an ankle injury in the summer but managed to get a decent block of mileage in from July onwards

My training volume on Strava over the last year. I struggled with an ankle injury in the summer but managed to get a decent block of mileage in from July onwards

Getting There

I had a good taper and started my carb load as normal, then flew out to Amsterdam on the Friday. Unfortunately a minor emergency at home meant my wife couldn’t come with me, but it meant that I didn’t feel the need to tire myself out being a tourist in Amsterdam, I could just rest and eat in the apartment. My apartment was next door to one of the best areas in the city for running (Vondelpark) and so I spent Saturday morning going for a shakeout run.

I picked up my bib number and race t-shirt from the Expo and headed back to rest and eat. Everything seemed good

Race Post-Mortem

The combination of excitement/anticipation, being fully rested and full of carbs always makes sleeping difficult the night before a marathon, but managed to get some decent sleep. Getting to the start was easy as the city had laid on regular trams going in one direction – to the Olympic Stadium where the event started and finished.

This was the third big city marathon I’ve done (after London and Paris) and was definitely much lower key. Despite 12,000 runners (as opposed to 35,000-40,000 in the others), it was large enough to be a big event, but small enough not to be utterly daunting.

The stadium start gave a good atmosphere with a sizeable crowd giving an enthusiastic sendoff as we all left according to our start pens. Unfortunately, the streets immediately out of the stadium were quite narrow and the initial couple of KMs were quite slow and below my target pace of 4:15min/KM. This meant when I got free I felt the need to speed up to make up time and was soon putting in KMs in 3:59-4:07 range, a bit too fast to be sustainable. This would come and bite me in the arse towards the end.


All was reasonably good until around KM 30. I became aware of how warm it actually was, and quite humid and pretty soon I could see the 3hr pacing group with their white helium balloon slowly disappearing into the distance with no hope of me catching up. The last few KMs I started to get cramps in my inner thighs and pinging twinges in my calves – something I aways experience in marathons and thought I might have banished by finally increasing my training volume.

Reflections

I was very disappointed to hobble in at 3:07:23, although this was a new PB by almost a minute, so I can take some solace in that. However considering the level of extra training effort I added, it represents a substantially diminishing return.

Since I still have plenty of miles in the legs I’ve decided to be pragmatic and go for one last shot at sub 3 hours. The Turin Marathon takes place in the middle of November, so if I can maintain my form, get another 20 miler in and a bit of speed work, I will try again but this time try to keep my pace under control and see if it helps.

Atlanta

I just spent the week in Atlanta on business, and with the an 86km ultra marathon just over a week away, I had to make sure that I found the opportunity to run. I’m tapering down so the distance wasn’t going to be large, and actually not having access to trails might actually have been beneficial to sharpen me up.

4 Wheels Good, 2 Legs Bad

The big problem with Atlanta, and indeed most big American cities between the coasts, is that it’s not really built with the idea that humans might want to travel around it on foot. With a grid system of 6 lane roads, and a number of major interstate highways travelling through the city, my initial run to get my bearings was a bit of a disaster. Stopping at crosswalks every 15 seconds, and running the jay-walking gauntlet.

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A common sight while running in downtown Atlanta

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Centennial Olympic Park in downtown ATL. About the only place to run in the city centre, but too small to be much use.

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More Atlanta downtown

After a quick search on Google Maps I found a large park to the northeast, that could be accessed by running up W Peachtree – it was, it worked, and I got to Piedmont Park, which was an oasis of tranquility. The only other problem was the heat and humidity.

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Piedmont Park

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Sunny Southern Spain

This week I was lucky enough to be in the beautiful Spanish city of Seville for work. It was a busy programme and we spent most of our days in doors, but we got to see the sights at night and enjoy Spanish food and drink.

On the first morning I managed to sneak in a run along the Guadalquivir river which was a great way of getting my bearings, and seeing the city before it got too hot and croweded. I hoped to get out again but I was just unable to get up early enough in the mornings!

The palace in the Plaza Espana – amazing at dawn.

More of the amazing gardens in the Plaza Espana

View from the river

Desperately Seeking Tarmac – A Few Thoughts on City Running

Now we’re getting into the end of February, the trails around me have been under a thick blanket of snow for a good three months now and as such my weekly distances have dropped off dramatically. I’m putting in some lung-busting efforts running along the snowshoe hiking trails, often in deep powder, but the pace is slow and its not perfect training for my next goal, which is the Paris Marathon just over 6 weeks away.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel on business to a few cities lately though and take the opportunity to run on flat, sea-level pavement to put some quality KMs under my belt. I thought I’d share a few experiences.

London
I lived here for a decade so know it well. There are huge numbers of green spaces to run in, including the Royal Parks, Hampstead Heath etc, but nothing beats an early morning run along the river. There are few pedestrians and not much traffic around before 7.30am, and you get some stunning views as the sun comes up.

The London skyline from Waterloo bridge. The London Eye on the left, Big Ben in the middle.

My hotel was somewhere in Kensington and I got a little lost heading towards the river, but once on the Thames its great to run along the embankment to the north, and then along the southern pedestrianised Thames Path.

This was supposed to be a rest week but I had such fun running in the (relative) warmth, and it felt so quick that I ran a bit further than needed.

Budapest
I’ve been to this beautiful city a few times this winter, and although its desperately cold at times, its a great place to run. On Margaret Island, an island sitting in the Danube, there is a 5.5km springy purpose-built running track that circles the entire island. Its great to run on, doesn’t get (very) iced up, and is easy on the knees because there is some shock absorption built in.

One of the many beautiful views of Budapest, from Margaret Island in the Danube.

 This place seems to be the Central Park of Budapest, and it wasn’t clear if there was a ‘direction etiquette’ but anti-clockwise worked for me! Despite the cold there were still quite a few runners out there, although my Hungarian colleagues tell me it is absolutely heaving in the summer.

 

Paris
The City of Light is where I’ll be running a proper marathon in April, my first road marathon for about 4 years and I’m keen to see if I can turn in a decent time. Since I’d done a fairly hard run the day before in London, I took it easy here. Bitterly cold winds and snow flurries put a dent in the view, but it was still quite an experience running under the Eiffel Tower.

The Eiffel Tower on a bitterly cold, snowy morning.

As beautiful as Paris is, I was actually quite disappointed with the run along the Seine. I started at Issy-les-Moulineux, in the south-west and ran up towards the Eiffel Tower. However, most of the run seemed to consist of picking my way through a cement factory, bus depots passing nightclub boats moored up. The run on the other side was an exercise in dodging traffic.

Since I only had chance to do 10km, I had to keep the route simple. Next time I’ll look for somewhere a bit more inspiring to pass through.

London Run

I’m in London for the week and went out this morning for a run around Hampstead Heath and then down into our Soho office.

The weather has been terrible lately with no discernible summer in the UK. However I was treated to a great view of the city from the top of Parliament Hill, before heading back down into town.

Early morning London skyline from Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath