Picking up the pace, ekiden style
This newsletter was first published on Patreon on 22 November 2021
Ekiden influencer: me in my fancy Asics kit. Photograph: Marietta d'Erlanger
On Friday I had a little fun thing to do - run a quick 10K for my leg of the Asics Worldwide Virtual Ekiden. It’s basically a road relay race (for those who haven’t read The Way of the Runner), but in this case, a virtual one - so you run your bit and upload the GPS file to a fancy app and once all six runners in your team have done the same it gives you your team time for a full marathon.
It was just a bit of fun, of course, nothing serious. Plus I was asked to be an ambassador for the event by Asics. I guess there are not that many people outside Japan who know much about ekiden, so they asked me. I got sent some nice fancy Asics kit, and had to post about it on Instagram with the hashtag #ad. I didn’t really mind doing it - the ekiden is a brilliant event and I’m always happy to promote it - I was really hoping they’d stick it in the Tokyo Olympics.
I won’t go into my full promotional spiel about it here - just read the book - but it always catches me by surprise, every time I do an ekiden, how much the pressure of running for a team ratchets up the intensity.
I’d sold it to my fellow ekiden team members as a light-hearted bit of fun. Just record a bit of your tempo run, or something, I’d suggested. It was no big deal. I like to push the pace and run a bit quicker once or twice a week, so I’d just record one of those runs and take that as my leg of the relay.
But, I also set our team a goal - to beat my best marathon time of 2 hours 50 minutes. It was an arbitrary target plucked out of the air, partly because I felt like it would be nice to see those numbers 2:4x next to my name, even if it wasn’t for a solo marathon. I hadn’t spent much time calculating how realistic it was, but by the time we got to the last two legs - a 10K for me, and a 7.2km leg for my friend Nick - we were bang on target for sub 2:50 - just. So suddenly the pressure was on us not to mess it up.
Whenever I want to run fast I head to Devon’s relative flatlands: Torbay. Nick decided to come with me. We’d help pace each other through the first part, we decided. If we could both maintain four minutes per km for our runs, we’d make the sub-2:50 target.
On the way there, though, we both felt the tension, as though we were heading to a race. I’d run my 50-mile race only six days before, but otherwise I’d been taking it easy for a few days in preparation - a sort of mini taper.
We had two options for the route. One was to simply do laps around Paignton Green. It’s a pan-flat 1-mile loop with manageable traffic. But of course, doing six 1-mile laps could get a bit tedious. The second option felt more appealing, which was to run along the promenades and coast road for 5km and then turn back. Sure, it was a bit hilly, but it felt more palatable for some reason. So we decided to do that.
After a short warm up and some strides, we lined up at one end of Paignton Green and started off running, side by side, hitting a strong pace. We’d been going less that 30 seconds when I said: “Let’s do laps of the green.”
Nick, being an easy-going chap, simply nodded that this last-ditch change of plan was fine with him.
The thing is … before we started, the thought of how interesting the route was, how it would feel to do laps versus a longer stretch of coast road where you actually sensed you were going somewhere, mattered. But as soon as we started, I knew it was irrelevant. Straight away, I was back in 10K race mode, a state where all that mattered was the movement, the flatness of the route, the obstacles to be negotiated. We weren’t here for the sightseeing.
I love this about fast running - how you become almost tunnel visioned, with everything around filtered out into a blur of irrelevance. Everything narrows down to the precise action of maintaining that groove, that fast pace. On my 50-mile run the week before, it was wonderful to take in the surroundings, but here it was like I’d been dropped into a fast flowing river and I was just trying to stay afloat. It wouldn’t matter if we were passing the Gardens of Babylon or the Taj Mahal - my eyes were fixed ahead.
Maybe I’m being overdramatic, but there was certainly some small sense of this, and I dug right into it, because, once I’m there, I enjoy being in that place of absolute focus on running.
The first km went by in 3:48. Too quick, I realised, and eased back a little. That was a bit of a relief, as it felt fast. The next two were bang on target, 3:58 and then 3:57. I smiled like a Bond villain - the plan was going like clockwork. But then the next one, which didn’t feel any easier, was 4:03. I decided the measured running was done; I had to start pushing. The next km was 3:50. Nice. I was enjoying the whir now, finding my mojo. But as Nick started to drop off the pace, I began to worry I might have to make up more time, that the planned 4 mins per km might not be enough. So I kept pushing.
Although things were starting to burn, I was loving it. Skirting around the bends, jumping into the road to dodge around some slow-moving pedestrians. I loved the feeling of being at full flight, of being on a mission. The controlled first few kilometres meant I still had some juice in the tank. 3:52, 3:51 … I kept knocking them out rhythmically … ending on a 3:35 and with a final time of 38 mins 38 secs.
Of course, it’s all relative, and to someone capable of running much faster, my story reads like a lot of fuss about nothing. But for me this was fast running, and I loved it. Afterwards, my first thought wasn’t: I am never doing that again - as it usually is after an ultra, or even a marathon. No, my first thought was: I should do this more often.
[I know, I know, that doesn’t fit with my current plans, but hey ho … there you go.]
So the bit-of-fun ekiden, as usual, turned out to be more serious and intense than planned. The team dynamic is one I rarely experience in running these days, and it definitely changes things up.
In the end we beat our target, running 2 hrs 48 mins for a marathon between us. And at the time of writing, with almost all the teams across the world finished their races, we currently lie 77th out of almost 6,000 teams. Which, I won’t deny, feels quite satisfying.