Monday, 12 January 2009

The highs and the lows

I have had an extremely hectic last three days on the sporting front - happily most of it was positive, but seemingly as ever in sport, there were some frustrating moments too. Apologies that once again this is quite a long posting.

Saturday afternoon was football. I had a match at 2pm, the first game the team had played since early December because of a combination of bad weather, Christmas and lack of fixtures. That meant everyone in the club wanted a game, so predictably everyone turned up. As a result I had to make do with a place on the bench for the first 45 mins, but I was pleased to get the whole second half, since having been told I wouln't be starting the game I wasn't expecting to get more than about half an hour. We were all a bit rusty and I didn't play especially well but we escaped with a draw, a good result on the day against a decent team.

In a way I suppose only playing half the game was a blessing in disguise because I had planned to enter the 10k HSBC Winter Walking League event at Ronaldsway on Sunday morning. I still felt pretty fresh after the football so I was confident that I would be able to produce a walk that would accurately replicate my level of fitness and my walking ability (or lack of it!)

When I got down to Ronaldsway, it was obvious that conditions were going to be difficult. There was a very strong wind, which although gusting sideways across the majority of the course, was actually right in your face around the back of the Industrial Estate next to the Post Office building. At least the early morning rain had stopped, and although I would have preferred the rain rather than the wind, I just had to get on with it.

I'd never entered any of the winter walking league events before but I felt that it could be a good way of improving my technique and getting some more training mileage in my legs. I wasn't even sure of the course when I lined up on the start line, but there was a great turnout considering the weather (about 50 entrants) so the message was simple - just follow the crowd.

In a nutshell, the course is as follows: the start is by the Strix building opposite the Ronaldsway playing fields. Everyone then walks down the road, with Strix on their left, and round the loop at the bottom of the dip past the Post Office place before coming back up the road, past the start line (on the opposite side of the cones) and all the way to the sharp bend by the main road at the front of the Airport, before U-turning and heading back across the start line. 1 lap is 1k so the whole course (10k) is 6 miles for those of you like me who deal in the latter measurement.

The first half-lap was a nightmare akin to the TT Access Road on Parish day, with everyone jammed into one side of the road, but by the bottom of the dip things had thinned out a little. The headwind was terrible on the lower section of the lap but at least it was at everyone's back as we turned towards the main straight.

I started quickly to try and get clear of the main bunch and get into a rhythm. I often find that my shins are very tight and painful for the first 15 or 20 minutes of walking, and this happened on Sunday as well. I kept going at the same pace and eventually walked it off but it's something I could do without...maybe just a leisurely couple of hundred metres warm-up beforehand will do the trick in the future.

Not being sure of what pace I could manage, I thought beforehand that I would be happy with between 65 and 67 minutes for the distance (which very roughly equates to about 5.5mph.) I thought this was realistic based on my times for the Parish, 7 Stations and End to End, which are the only timed walks I've ever taken part in. Plus I wanted to try and get close to the personal best time for the winter league set by a friend of mine in an earlier round!

By half-distance on lap 5 I realised I was going quicker than my target speed, and just focused on trying to keep going at that pace of about 1 lap every 6 and a half minutes. I had already been lapped by race leader Michael George and was not too far off being lapped by 2nd placed Chris Cale. George was apparently on a mission but was hotly pursued by the chasing pack of Parish regulars Cale, Mark Hempsall, Andy Green and Marie Jackson until she stopped after 5k having set the fastest time for that distance.

I had maintained the same position in the race from laps 1-6 and then managed to get past someone on lap 7, but the positions around me remained unchanged until the end - despite at one stage being close to two guys in front, I fell away long before the end and had a pretty isolated last 3 laps. I crossed the line in 62 mins 49 secs, 9th position 'on the road' (albeit only by virtue of a few people stopping after 5k,) but nevertheless an absolutely dream performance. Following calculation of the handicap I actually finished 30th out of 32. Note to self: must do better!!

Michael George posted the fastest time on the day whilst Chris Cale had a very strong 2nd half of the race to come home a deserved 2nd (without the handicap.) The rapid Andy Green took 3rd, and Mark Hempsall was sadly disqualified...I'm not quite sure why, but probably a result of the dreaded 'straight leg rule' upon which I'd like to add a few words in a moment. But the race is won outright on handicap to give everyone a fair crack of the whip, so congratulations to Alan Pilling who produced a fine steady walk to take the honours. Dave Mackey claimed the 5k win and it was great to see so many juniors on the course, no doubt the conditions were more difficult for them than anyone.

Getting pulled up by the judges for not having a straight leg as you place your foot on the ground is the ultimate walker's nightmare. In the winter league everyone is under scrutiny, but it is great that the organisers are able to arrange for the judges and marshals to supervise the race, because without them there would be no winter league at all.

Having not taken walking very seriously until last year, I hadn't even heard of the straight leg rule until it came up very controversially in the End to End. I was also warned about it myself in that event when descending towards the finish in Peel - as you're going downhill it can be hard to establish the correct contact with the ground, especially when you know you are moments from finishing the race.

It was mentioned to me again on Sunday. In my enthusiasm in the early stages, I was not extending the leg properly so that the knee of the grounded leg was not fully straightened. I had to tone things down and concentrate hard, particularly on the little downhill incline after the straight.

It's very frustrating trying to learn how to go fast whilst staying within the rules, and it is certainly a fine line. In my case the best analogy I can think of is that when I am walking what feels like a quick marching pace, the technique is perfectly fine, but whenever I try to get any sideways movement of the hips (what I think most people would identify as a classic racewalking style as opposed to my 'marching' analogy) I get pinged for bent knees.

The problem is entirely of my own making and something that I have got to sort out myself, because if the knee is not straight then you are not walking properly, simple as that. I'll keep trying though because I find it a lot more comfortable and a lot less stressful on the hamstrings and calves to have a nice fluid style rather than striding out like a soldier on parade as I feel I am doing at the moment!

I won't be walking again until at least Thursday, following a killer circuit training session at football tonight (leg 3 of the extended sporting weekend) so I'll perhaps post again on Friday. Have a good week.

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