Well it was that time again and like the last three Easter Monday’s I was participating in 49Th The World Coal Carrying Championships in Gawthorpe West Yorkshire. Preparation for the race started some weeks back and as is with these things did not get off to the best of starts. With a large part of 2011 being spent involved with a lot of rehabilitation work my foundation training was not at its best. To add insult to injury three weeks prior to competing in my first half marathon I pulled up with issues around the back of my knee which meant next to no training done before the half marathon and then over a week to recover from the excessive soreness before coal sack training could commence far later than I’d intended.
For this years event we completely revamped my training with a “boom or bust” approach. If it worked I would reach the two goals I’d set after last years race. If it didn’t I would either loose time or not complete the course at all. The pressure weighed heavily. What was in my favour this year compared tot he previous two years was the number of races I’d managed to get in in 2011 which helped dramatically improve my cardiovascular fitness and awareness of how far I could push myself. A great confidence booster.
What I will say is that I completely changed my supplement intake and the main change was switching my protein powder to a product called Phase 3 by Pro Athletic Supplementation. And lets be honest here, after 25 years of using protein powders this product is head and shoulders above anything I’ve ever used. No gas, no bloat, tastes great, mixes well and did what I wanted it to do. In tandem with the new training regime I increased my overall body weight by 6.6lbs (3kg) during the final three weeks of preparation. No mean feat considering my job and on two occasions I was even asked/accused of using drugs the changes were so visible. The product comes highly, highly recommended with a fantastic customer service who made every effort to correct a couple of issues which cropped up and were extremely generous in one instance by supplying me with an addition free item in an order. Go with quality over quantity and when you do order please free to mention where you heard about their products.
Another product I started to experiment with this year was Xendurance a magnesium based supplement which helps on a number of fronts. The makers do say that the longer you take the product the greater its effects. I will be completely honest here and say that during the short time I was using it, roughly 3 weeks, I did notice small reductions in lactic acid and accumulated blood volume within the muscles when training which helped me to run more smoothly for longer. Nothing worse than your legs over pumping with blood and throwing your whole mechanics out when your trying to squeeze the last bits out of a set. Bad mechanics equal bad habits and injury. Looking forward to using this supplement throughout the rest of year and pushing the makers claims to its limits. I’m in a unique position of doing numerous races at very different intensities and distances so this will help to put the cat amongst the pigeons as they say and give me very detailed feedback on its effectiveness especially in the shorter sprint events as a lot of people that I see using this product seem to be more involved with the longer distance events of marathons, triathlons and Ironman events. So with the rest of my race season fixed around doing a number of events in the UK Spartan Race calendar it’ll be a great test of the product.
The final addition I’d like to introduce readers to is the POWERbreathe Inspiratory muscle trainer a training device that has a number of uses. For me personally I’m a lousy breather when I run always sucking in air from the chest upwards. The POWERbreathe helps you to training and strengthen the muscles we use to breath which help not only with training but you will find that in everyday life the better your breathing the more overall energy and vigor you have. A very worthwhile training tool and one I found of benefit in this years coal race because I could feel my breathing was a lot deeper and I wasn’t constantly hyperventilating because of bad breathing mechanics. Again this device will be at the cornerstone of my training for my Spartan races because of the way the body is tested not only over various distances but by the simple fact that your body is twisted and turned in all manner of ways which make breathing very difficult.
Right back to the nitty gritty of the day. Talk about nerves. The plan was to have an early breakfast and follow that up with a carbohydrate and protein shake to sip on as need be. Not a chance. Never experienced stomach butterflies like I did all the way to the starting line. There was no way anything was going down because I knew it would be coming straight back up. I was scheduled to run in the first of the men’s races so had plenty of time to pick up my race t-shirt, number and try to settle down a little as we watched the kids races unfold.
Then came the women’s race. Wow they sure do go for it with the winner being nearly a minute ahead of second place.
Next up was my race. Even as I walked down to the starting line and went through some warm ups I was a bag of nerves. Why was I here? What the hell do I think I’m playing at? I’m going to get trounced. I was a mess mentally. Can’t say I’ve ever felt so weak and pathetic on a race starting line as I did then.
I vowed I wasn’t ever going to put myself through this again. I was just going to do this race, come up with some rubbish of why my placing was so poor and never return. I felt awful.
The coal truck pulled up and we went and collected our coal sacks off the back. Oh boy this got worse then. The sack was too heavy on one side and the coal had collected into one solid mass. No amount of jumping up and down like a lunatic would break it up. And to top it off there was no give in the sacks themselves. They were brand new which left the edges quite sharp and made gripping very difficult. There was no way the sack was going to sit anywhere near on my shoulders like the sack I’d used for training. Misery set in even further.
Ready, steady GO!!!!! and we were off. Surprise surprise I set off faster than I expected, the cloud of doom and gloom started to lift as I realised I wasn’t seeing a sea of feet surge past me. 50 meters in and I was still there. 100 meters in and shock, horror I was hanging onto third place. Wonders would never cease. We hit the top of the fist climb and I’d dropped to fourth yet I was going at a better pace than last year and I knew it. As we hit the first flat section by the bakery I attempted to speed up to catch third place but it wasn’t happening. I had to dig in and see if I could grind out the distance between us as the race went on. As we rounded the bend off Owl lane issues with the sack started to show their ugly head. I was struggling to hold it high. My palms felt like there was glass cutting into them. My body position was being pushed over and this was squashing my diaphragm making breathing shallower. And I was blowing hard but I was still holding onto fourth place. The very nature of the event leaves you completely blind to what’s going on behind you. Your bent over looking no more than a few feet in front of you and there’s a dirty great sack on your back stopping you from looking backwards to see what’s coming. Once your out there your on your own. As I hit the bus stop I could start to feel the strength draining from my legs and hips, spectators cheering you on you try to dig in ever deeper. Then I heard one guy shout out encouragement and I had 20 yards on the next guy behind me. I hit the bend by the nursery and onto that last murderous climb determined to hang onto fourth and gain some ground on the final flat section with my kick. As I crested the brow of the hill the pain was immense. 20 rep squats had never left me feeling this messed up. My legs were solid with blood and shot. Breathing so deep and hard I thought I was going to pull something. And not to mention the spittle and snot pouring out of me as I gaped open mouthed trying to suck in as much oxygen as humanly possible. Just a few more yards and I can kick. The very nature of the course in its own right is perfect because as you hit hell on top of the last climb there stand large numbers of spectators clapping wildly and screaming encouragement. This spurs any and all the runners on. But where was my kick, it wasn’t happening I was going to be left high and dry as the rest of the field rushed past. Still onward I went, one painful footstep after another. Legs mashed, hips, glutes smashed and screaming in agony. I could feel cramp wanting to set in around the muscles of the knee. I was in hell, coal race hell. Then I saw the familiar section by the Boot and Shoe I knew the family were only a few more yards up the road I had to dig in and try to force a bit more out of legs that did not want to go on. There was no way was I going to suffer the humiliation of getting passed as I went passed family and friends and into the final 50 meters. Onward, got to keep going got to keep moving, where the hell are the other runs? I could hear them being encouraged by the frantic crowd baying for the runners to push themselves to depths of effort they never knew existed. Then I saw the hay bales by the finish line, just a few my strides and I could dump my sack at the foot of the maypole. The pain would be over.
Fourth I’d done it. I’d reached the first goal. Exhausted I stumbled up and away from the finish bumping into another runner as he came in to dump his sack. Within a few seconds I started to dry heave, bent over and taking self satisfaction that I’d done what I’d been told to do all along. “Run as hard as you can till you know when you cross the finishing line you couldn’t run another step further”. legs struggling to keep me upright you look around and its like a battlefield. Bodies everywhere in pain. All going through they’re own self inflicted hell yet there is a sense of camaraderie through this hell and there are handshakes and words of encouragement and congratulation to each other.
Whether you finished in first or last you can hold your head high knowing you’ve been through hell and back doing quite possibly the hardest, shortest distance race this country has to offer all in the name of tradition and having a right good laugh whilst your at it because lets face it its not fun but its a dam good laugh afterwards.
As mentioned above the first goal was reached with a top five position in my heat and joy of joys the second goal also with placing 7th overall. Not bad for a race just five and a half minutes earlier I’d not wanted to do.
Huge thanks to the Gawthorpe committee who painstakingly organise this event every year. The students of Huddersfield University who come and help with the stewarding and all the other volunteers who give their time so freely and a special thanks to all the spectators who brave all kinds of weather each year to scream encouragement to each and every runner know matter what position they finish.
Special thanks as always to Paul Joseph of New Spartan Gym in Watford for helping in putting together the training plan.
Next year the race celebrates its 50th anniversary and its been said that they’ll be a new addition to the format with a veterans race. I for one can’t wait.
Steven A Barlow, Co founder www.spartan-warriors.co.uk and founder of Spartan Runners “because we don’t just run” © 2012