My Worse Race

The dilemma of what to do when you get in trouble mid-race – whether it’s injury, exhaustion or ‘other’ – and the thoughts that go through a runner’s head. John@RunBarca recounts his worse race…

My first race in Spain and I’m bent over double at the side of the road in pain. I’ve hit the stop button on my Garmin and dozens of runners are streaming past me about 9 miles (15km) into a half marathon. I’m done. It’s the second time in the race I’ve pulled over and started to walk back towards the start line, GPS watch turned off. But this time it really is over: I feel dizzy, faint and in pain. I’d trained hard, was in good shape, and the race conditions were good. So how did I get to this point? To answer that, we have to roll back the clock a few days… weeks… months… etc… etc…

Sick
Not feeling 100%? What do you do?
Blessing in Disguise?

23 June 2016 was a significant date for me. It was the day on which a chain of events began that would see me completely changing my life, leaving London, my old job and friends, and winding up living and working in Spain as a running trainer. Some in the UK have called the 23 June 2016 ‘Independence Day’ but for me it was the date that would eventually lead to me becoming part of what has been termed the ‘Brexodus’. For this was the day the UK voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. This was particularly bad news for me as, at the time, I was working as a lawyer for the UK government meaning that, almost overnight, my job was affected by – and ultimately became – Brexit.

To cut a long story short, the turmoil in the UK made me think about what I wanted to do with my life, what my priorities were, and how and why I had got to where I had thus far. No longer content to sit in an office for hours on end, I began to take my hobby – distance running – more seriously and started taking coaching courses with England Athletics. My job made me acutely aware that UK nationals were likely to lose the rights that they enjoyed as EU citizens – including the right to live and work in other member states – once the UK left the EU and so I began to make plans to move abroad.

I eventually settled on Barcelona and what an amazing city this is. The culture, the architecture, the climate, the beach and, of course, the thriving running scene make Barcelona a fantastic place to live. Having left the UK to escape from the results of a populist referendum, the timing of my move (I arrived in Barcelona at the beginning of October 2017) was somewhat ironic with the city dealing with the fallout from Catalunya’s own vote, but that’s another story…

But enough with politics; let’s talk running! One of the first things on my agenda as a new arrival in Barcelona was to look up the local race calendar. I was delighted to see that there was a half marathon in nearby Castelldefels only two weeks after moving to my new city. I was already race fit, having run a half marathon just before I left London, so I signed up eagerly.

My preparation undone in one lunchtime

As the race date grew closer, so did my confidence. I was loving my new running city, regularly hitting the beachfront and getting in some hill work at Montjuic. I was getting fitter and was a little lighter than in my previous race too. All was going well, and then…

Race Number
Well prepared – I even had a cool race number!

The Friday before the race my housemate suggested we try the menu del dia at a restaurant he’d walked past earlier that day. Fine, I said. The restaurant was pleasant enough and the food tasted good – particularly the prawn and escargot (that’s snails to the uninitiated) salad I had for starters. This was the first time I’d eaten snails. Let’s just say that I probably won’t be eating them again in a hurry… Because by mid afternoon I was throwing up, sweating, and spending an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom. There was no mistaking it: I had food poisoning two days out from race day.

Not wanting to give up the race for dead, I started popping the pills immediately and by the time I went to bed later that night, things were no longer desperate. I was, however, still sweating a lot – and I woke up on Saturday morning wet with the kind of cold sweat you only get when you’re feeling rough as old boots. Still, I thought to myself, better than yesterday!

I always find it funny how the mind operates in the days before a race. If you are anything like me, you’ll have experienced moments of quiet – sometimes even supreme – confidence followed almost immediately by waves of self-doubt about how the race will go. Any little ache or niggling pain suddenly becomes a subject to obsess over. Then you tell yourself that you’re in shape and start thinking back to that training run you did last week when you felt strong and quick and running felt effortless and start to believe again that you’ll put in a good performance. Well, my mind was firmly in this kind of flip-flop mode of thinking, fluctuating between definitely not going ahead with the race (you know, on account of the food poisoning and all) to feeling like I could brush of my illness on account of my fitness (and it was true, I was pretty damn fit at this point).

Race day rolls around and I’ve decided to run. I wake up in a sweat but, again, it’s nowhere near as bad as the day before. I’ve been drinking plenty of water on account of the dehydration that accompanies this kind of illness but I’m not so worried about being dehydrated. I’m much more concerned with my achy limbs and throbbing joints that were acting as a constant reminder that I was still recovering from a pretty rough bout of food poisoning. But by this point, I’m in the zone and the positive voices in my head have managed to drown out the negative ones. By the time I was warming up at the start line in Castelldefels, I had convinced myself I was going to have a good race.

Disaster in Castelldefels

And things really did feel like they were going alright for about the first three miles (5km). I’d maintained a steady but not fast pace from the off and had settled down into a relaxed rhythm. I kept my breathing deep and steady and the aching in my legs that I had felt earlier that morning was gone. Yeah, this race was going to be fine! And then it hit me. Around the four mile (6.5km) mark I felt all the energy start to drain out of me. You hear a lot of runners talking about hitting ‘The Wall’ – a feeling of deep fatigue experienced when the body depletes all its glycogen stores – around the 20 mile point in a marathon. Well I’d hit The Wall with 9 miles (15km) left in a half marathon. I knew that this was not gonna be fun from here on in.

How did I know? Well, believe it or not, this was not the first time I’d done a race recovering from food poisoning. A few years before, I’d got sick a couple of days before the Gran Canaria Half Marathon (I suppose I’m just unlucky!). I’d blocked the memories of this race from my mind but suddenly they all came flooding back. This kind of psychology is familiar to most runners. Even experienced marathon veterans tend to forget how bad the last few miles of a full marathon feel. It’s a bit like getting kicked in the balls, a retch-inducing whiff of dog dirt hitting your nostrils or (I imagine) going through childbirth. You remember it being bad – really bad – but until you experience it once again, you can’t truly grasp how absolutely awful it is. I was in this kind of place mentally.

How I Felt...
How I felt…

Worse was that the course was a double loop starting and finishing at the Canal Olímpic de Catalunya – where the rowing events had been held during the 1992 Barcelona games – and the half marathon was running at the same time as 10k race. As I reached halfway – feeling by this point like I wanted to collapse – I had to fight soooooo hard not to jack the race in there and then as I was right back where I started. It would have been really – temptingly, conveniently – easy to stop at this point, pick up my bag, jump on a train and head home. These sort of thoughts were made all the more tempting by seeing runners in the 10k field cross their finish line, some with arms in the air, some with smiles on their faces, others grimacing – but all of them had finished. And this was what I most envied them for: they could stop running.

I didn’t stop at the halfway point. I kept running. About a mile further on I regretted this decision deeply. A short (and not particularly steep) incline completely broke me. It was only a few metres uphill but the way I was feeling it might as well have been Tibidabo. I was acutely aware that with every pace I ran on that second loop of the course, I was going further and further away from the start line. Every step I took was a step I would have to retrace when I inevitably – and it really did feel inevitable after that tiny hill – had to give up and walk back. These kind of thoughts got the better of me and I stopped running. Looking down at my watch, it read 7.36 miles. I pressed the stop button and started to stagger dejectedly back towards the start line.

But something made me turn around and start running again. There’s a strong chance that national pride could have come into play. This was my first race in Spain and I’d chosen to wear a Union Jack running vest that I tend to wheel out for international races. There were plenty of proud Spaniards and – given the heightened politics in the region – Catalunyans displaying colours of their own and, as I traipsed past them at the side of the road, I somehow felt I was letting the side down. Ridiculous, I know, but I really do think that if I was wearing a plain running top, I’d have kept on walking in the opposite direction.

So, I’m running again and feeling no better. By this point, I’d worked out that despite consciously trying to keep my water intake up even when I was feeling ill, I was horribly dehydrated. I’m not usually one for taking on lots of fluid during a race but on this occasion I was downing two bottles of water at every refreshment station I passed. I must have drunk three or four litres along the route. This was helping, but I was still feeling weak and faint. By the time I hit mile nine, I’m thinking that carrying on is just stupid, that I could do myself some serious damage and that I didn’t have to prove anything to anybody. I’d also started to get stomach cramps that were making me want to bend at the waist and my running form was all over the place. So I pulled up, hit stop on my watch again, put my hands on my knees and stood there staring down at the pavement.

“Don’t come back without the medal!”

I stayed like this for about a minute. I started to hobble back in the opposite direction to the rest of the field once again. The runners streaming past me couldn’t know it, but an internal struggle was going on inside my head. “Good decision,” one voice was saying. But another voice was telling me that this was a failure, this was giving up. I must have done about three or four 180 degree turns in the space of a minute as I flip-flopped between listening to the tough guy telling me not to quit and the sensible voice telling me that they’re be other races, that I should listen to my body and stop. The tough guy voice ended up winning out, and for the rest of the race it kept up a constant refrain: “Don’t come back without the medal!”

This became something of a mantra for me for the rest of this race. I decided that, even if I had to walk (and walk I did!), I was going to cross the finish line. It was a disappointing day all in all but I’m happy to report that I did eventually cross the finish line. Those last four miles were horrible but the mantra did its trick. My official time came in at 1:46:21 – nowhere near what I had been training and hoping for before I got sick – but it felt like a massive accomplishment considering how I felt.

Post Race
The face says it all. Turns out running while recovering from food poisoning is a BAD IDEA…
The Punchline

So, I’d done it! My mantra had worked and, though exhausted, as I caught my breath and enjoyed the pure, unadulterated pleasure of not having to run any more, my thoughts began to turn to the medal which I had vowed not to come back without. As I milled along with other tired finishers, getting corralled through the finishing area by the marshals, I was handed various drinks, nourishments and leaflets by the race volunteers.

Before I knew it, I had been funnelled out of the finishing area and was back in the open amongst the general public, surrounded by other runners being hugged and congratulated by friends and family. Where were the usual volunteers presenting finishers with their medals? As I looked around at the other runners, none of whom had medals of their own, the realisation slowly dawned on me: there were no race medals. Constantly telling myself not to come back without “the medal” had got me through the race, but in a final ironic twist, I would come back without a medal regardless.

Oh, well… Rummaging through the race goodie bag I had been given after I had crossed the finish line, I found that all I had to show for my efforts was a couple of small bananas, an orange, a bottle of powerade, a packet of sliced chicken and a bag of nuts. Better than nothing; but the real reward was knowing that I had dug deep into my reserves of willpower and made it to the end. And there was always next year (snails firmly off the menu).

Nuts!
No medal, only nuts

Race Review Double Header: Marrakech and Barcelona Half Marathons

Early-season races are a great motivational tool to keep your training focused during those long winter months. Late January and early February saw Marrakech and Barcelona host two large international half marathons two weeks apart and John@RunBarca was on the start line for both of them. Here’s his review of each event.

Semi Marathon International de Marrakech – Sunday 28th January 2018

The Marrakech Marathon and Half Marathon have long been fixtures on the international running circuit. Established in 1987, the Marrakech Marathon can fairly be described as North Africa’s most prestigious road race and routinely attracts elite competitors from the continent’s north and east as well as further afield. This year, the 29th edition of the event (there was no race in 1998, 2000 or 2001) saw around 8,000 entrants take part, the vast majority of whom opted for the 13.1 mile / 21 km distance.

  • Surface type: road / tarmac
  • Course type: flat, fast
  • Approx. temperature: 5-10°C
  • Cost: €50 (€70 for the full marathon) with substantial discounts for Moroccan nationals and residents
  • Amenities: regular water stations along the route (with fruit and wet sponges too)
Marrakech course
Race route for the Marrakech Half Marathon 2018

This was the third time I’d entered this race having run the half marathons in 2013 and 2015. Arriving in Marrakech the Thursday before the race, I had plenty of time to reacquaint myself with what is undoubtedly a fantastic city before the race. Thick fog had meant that my flight to Morocco had been delayed by about 90 minutes as our plane had to circle Marrakech Airport waiting for the fog to lift.

While the fog cleared long enough for the plane to land, it still hung around to make the usually bright and sunny city a little cold and overcast on Thursday and Friday. Although January is winter time in Marrakech and the nights and early mornings are pretty chilly, the sun is still fierce from about midday onwards with temperatures reaching up past  20°C at their peak and sunblock recommended. But today was cold… Not to be perturbed, I went for a short, relaxed run, tucked into some tasty – and carb-heavy – Morrocan cuisine (read couscous, bread and tajine) and took in the sights around Marrakech’s bustling Jamaa el Fna square and the spectacular Koutoubia mosque.

Jamaa el Fna
Jamaa el Fna in the drizzle

Jamaa el Fna represents the heart of Marrakech’s old medina district and offers visual and culinary treats for foreigners and locals alike. Acrobats and snake charmers wow the spectators, while hawkers whistle and call out from their juice stands inviting passersby to try their freshly squeezed (and super-sweet) orange juice. Night time sees the square transformed into a giant open-air eatery as portable stalls, kitchens, tables benches suddenly appear and the hawkers shift into overdrive, trying desperately to get customers into their – and not their rivals’ – stalls. The food is generally fresh, healthy, tasty and good value (even if the surroundings can be a bit rough and ready) and above all perfect for carb-loading. So far, so good.

Juice Stands
Probably the best orange juice you’ll taste in your life

I’d booked in to stay in a friendly riad in the middle of the narrow souks (covered market-style streets lined with shops and stalls selling everything from spices, argon oil and leather goods to decorative lamps, furniture and other pieces of objet d’art) and after a pleasant evening of wandering around and generally kicking back, I turn in for a good night’s sleep.

The next day, my friend and fellow runner flies in from London. We decide to pick up our race bibs from the race village out in the new town about a mile or so away from Jmaa el Fna. While the pick-up was pretty hassle-free, the outdoor expo centre was lacking much – if anything –  to occupy the average runner. In the event, a large collection of speakers was absolutely blasting out some non-descript Europop at an ear-splitting volume so sticking around was not really an option anyway. We beat a swift retreat with our race pack of chip-timed bib (more on that later!), info packs and nifty race t-shirts.

All-in-all, the race is pretty good value. The entry fee is €50 for foreign residents with heavy discounts for Moroccan nationals (around €10) and foreigners resident in Morocco (€35). Meanwhile, the full marathon entry fee is €70 with similar discounts for nationals and residents.  Food, accommodation and flights (Vueling and Ryanair both fly into Marrakech) are also relatively cheap making Marrakech a good option for those looking for an early-season race in a warm(ish) climate but not wanting to break the bank.

Race day rolls around. An early night and a pasta dinner the night before left us feeling well prepared for the 8:30 a.m. start. The start line was located just outside the old city walls past the 5 Star Mamounia Hotel. And while we – and undoubtedly many of the other runners waiting for the starting pistol – were well-prepared, unfortunately the race organisers appeared to have been less so.

Pre-Race Marrakech
Race Ready in my Riad

What were the issues? Let’s run through them. First up, the facilities at the start were a little lacking. I don’t recall seeing any toilets at the start. Now, while this wasn’t really a problem for many male runners who were quite happy to answer the call of nature amongst the bushes and palm trees in a large piece of scrub-land next to the start, women runners or those who needed something stronger than a quick pee were not so lucky. I didn’t have any stuff to leave at the start, but I don’t remember seeing a bag drop (apologies to the organisers if there was one and I missed it!).

Second, the start line could (and probably should) have been much better organised. There were no starting pens organised by expected finish time which is pretty unusual for a race of this size. Now, I have run other races without start pens where the organisers have, informally, tried to corral the faster runners in front of the slower ones – for example by calling runners towards the start line over a tannoy according to their predicted times or through use of signage. None of that here. The result was a pretty (over)crowded and chaotic start line and the first mile or so of the race spent trying to dodge and run around much, much slower runners who had found themselves at the front of the field. Dangerous? Potentially. Annoying? Most definitely!

Third, what with the crush of people at the start and a number of familiar inflatable arches crossing the road up ahead of us – any of which could have been the actual start – it was difficult to work out when exactly we had crossed the start line. There was no clear marking and the type of timing strip on the ground that usually marks the official start was sadly absent. Nor was there the chip timer ‘beep’ you sometimes get when crossing a timing marker. Such was the confusion, I ended up starting my watch about 20 seconds after I’d crossed what I later learned to be the start line. In the event, this was the least of the race’s timekeeping worries…

On the course itself, after the initial melee caused by the chaotic start, the race was actually pretty pleasant. Although the temperature at the 8:30 a.m. start was a rather chilly 3°C, the temperature soon picked up to around 9°C or 10°C as the sun rose higher in the sky. For me, this is perfect running temperature. Outside the narrow, winding souks of the medina, the ‘other’ more modern part of Marrakech through which the race plotted its course is essentially a city of wide, French-designed boulevards. This meant there was loads of space to run without danger of stepping on any toes or a risk of tripping up.

The course is also nice and flat and so, with good running conditions and near perfect temperature, plenty of runners look to this race as a potential personal best. Part of the route took runners under the shadows of the ancient city walls while a glance up at the horizon offered breathtaking views of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. All in all, plenty to look at along the way. And the crowds, while not exactly thronging, were encouraging and I particularly liked a row of local school children cheering on what I think was one of their teachers as he ran. Offering their hands to runners as they cruised past, I couldn’t resist going in for a set of hand slaps to give me a little energy boost.

Marrakech City Walls
The race takes runners in the shadow of Marrakech’s ancient city walls

In terms of facilities out on route, regular water stations kept runners hydrated and handed out wet sponges and oranges too. However, even here, the organisers could have done a little better. Oranges were handed out whole rather than chopped up. Ever tried peeling an orange while running? It doesn’t take much forethought to realise this could be a little difficult. I didn’t even bother trying. Similarly, water bottles were handed out with bottle tops intact. Again, not a massive problem for the average runner; however, disabled runners such as my Marrakech running buddy found it really tricky to crack the bottle tops while on the move. Once again, a little bit of forethought here could have helped a lot. Finally, while I have never felt the need to urinate during a race, I have heard complaints from other runners about a lack of toilet stalls along the route.

However, all of these issues pale in comparison next to two major problems that beset the race event. The first BIG problem was marshalling for the marathon distance. Now, out of the 8,000 runners the event attracts each year, the vast majority enter the half marathon leaving the marathon field fairly sparse. This year, the marathon started half an hour before the half marathon at 8:00 a.m and there were points along the course where the marathoners and half marathoners were running along the same stretch of road. I heard of some major marshalling issues from a number of people in the marathon field who, through lack of marshals or signalling, took a wrong turn and ended up on the half marathon course. A couple of marathoners ended up clocking 30 miles (48km) plus as a result. I’ve also heard stories of marathoners having to dodge traffic later on in the race as certain junctions were not fully closed. For an event of this size, these kind of marshalling issues are simply unacceptable. Thankfully, neither of these problems impacted upon the half marathon but even still… not good.

Marrakech from above
Marrakech makes for great winter sun

The second BIG problem, however, affected both races. I mentioned before that it was not immediately clear which of the inflatable arches represented the start line. While the finish line was clearly marked, it ended up not mattering a great deal. A few days after the race, the link to the results went up on the website. Checking for my official time, I found I was not listed at all. Checking for my friend’s result, his listed time was about 10 minutes out from what he had clocked on his watch. Furthermore, he was listed under a completely different race number. I eventually found my own race number in the women’s half marathon results list next to a different runner’s name but with a time that, again, bore no relation to the time I had clocked. It was clear that something had gone very, very wrong.

The event’s Facebook page quickly became littered with complaints about the results. Eventually, the organisers put out a post and a link to what they claimed to be corrected results. Upon following the link, however, it was clear that the only times listed were the race gun times (which are accurate only for the elite runners queued up at the very front of the field at the starting pistol); runners’ actual, chip-calculated times were missing. Racetimer, the website hosting the results page, displayed the following message at the top of the page, distancing themselves from the debacle:

“Racetimer did not time Marrakech Marathon this year. As a courtesy to the organizer we are displaying the results here for your convenience. Please contact marathonmarrakech@gmail.com if you have any questions about the results.”

Again, messing up an event of this size is simply not acceptable and participants were clearly unhappy. One comment on the Facebook page seemed to sum up the ire:

May I ask the organisers of the event a direct question? Did the timing chip system actually work on the day? I could not really see or work out where the start or finish of the race was nor could I see any electronic recording using our dossier electronic chips. (Except at the 10km mark). Now i see the results are available on the website but with everyone’s names missing, plus there are no accurate chip times. I can only believe that everything fell apart on the day and that nothing worked…

In all, this could have been a nice race with a good course but the organisation was utterly horrendous. To not even record our times or names properly is exceptionally poor. Many of us travelled from countries far and wide. Myself included (Belgium). I expected far better. A pity. I hope you take on board some of these critiques to improve what could be a good race in the future.

A few concluding remarks. This was the third time I had done this race so it’s fair to say that I was / am a fan. I like the flat course, the usual good running conditions and nice temperature, the fact that you walk to the start line easily. I like the wide streets, the good race atmosphere and the views along the route. I like the city and the people of Marrakech too. I like the fact that the race plainly attracts a good mix of local and international runners. The finishing medals handed out have always been nicely designed (this year was no exception) and the race t-shirts pretty good too. Also, this is the first year that there has been any issue with the timing chips. That said, it’s a pretty important thing to go wrong and so far the organisers have not issued any apology or explanation. In addition, while the start line has always been a bit of a melee in the past, it was particularly bad this year and the marshalling problems need addressing.

Marrakech Medal
Not a bad little medal

I, for one, hope that the organisers take the criticism on board, follow the example of other similar sized races and introduce proper starting pens and get more marshals out along the course for next year. And of course ensure that the timing cock-up is not repeated. Would I enter the race again? On balance, yes – although another race like this year and I’m afraid the answer would have to be no.

eDreams Mitja Marató (Half Marathon) de Barcelona – Sunday 11th February 2018

Two weeks after Marrakech and it was time for another half marathon, this time on home turf – the Mitja Marató de Barcelona. While I have always enjoyed travelling to another city, another country or even another continent for a race (combining my inherent wanderlust with my love for running), I must admit that it was really nice to be able to forget about the stress and hassle that sometimes comes with entering a race away from home. Without having to think about booking a hotel near the start line, navigating unfamiliar streets and transport networks, and without having any flights or trains to catch, I was looking forward to giving this race my all. I was in shape, well-rested and feeling positive. And, hell, I could even walk to the start line! Perfect.

Barcelona Runner
Running towards the Parc de la Ciutadella

Held every year since 1991, over 17,000 people registered to run last year’s Barcelona half marathon, according to the race organisers. So, we’re talking about a seriously popular race here. And with good reason; a flat, fast course with plenty of long straights mean that many runners sign up to target a personal best. In fact, Florence Kiplagat’s winning times here in 2014 (1:05:12) and 2015 (1:05:09) were both women’s world records at the time – although the current world record holder, Joyciline Jepkosgei, clocked her world record of 1:04:52 in Prague in April 2017.

Indeed, when compared side-by-side, the Mitja Marató de Barcelona’s profile is pretty similar to that of the Marrakech half marathon. Let’s take a look at the stats:

  • Surface type: road / tarmac
  • Course type: flat, fast
  • Approx. temperature: 3-9°C
  • Cost: €25 to €32.50 (depending on date of registration)
  • Amenities: regular refreshment stations along the route offering water and powerade energy drinks
Barcelona Course
eDreams Mitja Marato de Barcelona course map

Coming so quickly after the Marrakech half marathon, it is difficult for me to view the Mitja without comparing it to my Moroccan trip.

So what were the differences? Well, for starters, the race was a fair bit cheaper than Marrakech (speaking as a foreigner not benefiting from the cheap prices for Moroccans). My registration cost around €27 including admin fees compared to €50 for Marrakech. While €50 is not extortionate – and there are definitely more expensive races around – given some of the marshalling and chip-timing issues I described above and general organisational problems, it does make you wonder where some of the money went.

The expo too – held on the top floor of the Arenas shopping complex near to Plaça Espanya – had much more to keep registrants interested than its Moroccan counterpart. There were stands from the race sponsors such as running shoe-maker Saucony, plenty of information about the race was on offer, and there were a healthy number of participants milling around chatting and taking photographs of nearby Montjuic and the Font Magica from Arenas’ roof terrace. The race pack pick up was swift; the pack itself containing the familiar chip-timed bib number and race t-shirt (a really nice, lightweight, black, breathable Saucony top) together with informational flyers.

Barcelona Race T-Shirt
High-quality lightweight shirt from Saucony

The race’s start line was in between two of Barcelona’s central landmarks: the Arc de Triomf and Parc de la Ciutadella. There were the usual bag drops and portaloos which were absent from the start line in Marrakech – although I must confess that because the start line was a short walk / jog from my apartment, I had no need for either. More importantly, the Mitja’s start was organised into segregated starting pens with marshals making sure people were in the correct pens according to colour-coded race bibs which corresponded to predicted finish times. This made a world of difference as there was plenty of room to do last minute warm-ups and keep moving inside the pens themselves – in stark contrast to the overcrowded and chaotic start in Marrakech.

While the first mile or so was still pretty busy – and there were undoubtedly people who had put themselves too far towards the front of the field by predicting fancifully quick finish times – it was much less stressful than the race two weeks previously. Outside of the close, claustrophobic Gothic quarter, Barcelona is a city of wide, tree-lined avenues and – as in Marrakech – the Mitja’s route stuck to roomy main roads closed-off especially for the race. Despite the 8:45 a.m. start, the crowds were good from the off and there was plenty of enthusiam from well-wishers cheering from behind the temporary railings lining the route. For this race, I had chosen to fly the flag of my native UK – by wearing a Union Jack racing vest – and was pleased to spot from time to time a few fellow Brits in the crowd waving Union Jacks of their own as they shouted out encouragement.

Barcelona Race Prep
Flying the flag in Barcelona

The course itself, after kicking off just south of Arc de Triomf, skirted around the edge of Parc de la Ciutadella and wound its way south westwards along the wide Passeig d’Isabel II past the Columbus Monument before taking a right turn up the slightly inclining Avinguda del Paral·lel (apparently so-named because it is the only street in Barcelona that runs parallel to the Equator – who knew!?). I say there was an incline but believe me when I say this was no Montjuic or Tibidabo: the course climbed about 30 metres over the course of a couple of kilometres so nothing drastic. Indeed, the course overall was pretty flat with minimal bits of up and down along the route.

Barcelona Half Course Profile
Flat as a pancake: the Barcelona Mitja Marato’s course profile

As the field started to thin out when the course swung northeast along Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, the crowds, conversely, started to thicken. And by the time the course once again swept down past Triomf around the 7km (4.5 mile) mark, the crowds were thicker and more enthusiastic still, waiving flags, homemade banners and signs. The level of support was another big difference between the Mitja and the race in Marrakech; Barcelona is something of a running city and it showed in the sheer numbers of supporters cheering on the competitors, taking photographs and generally just admiring the spectacle.

From here on the course headed out east towards Sant Marti and Poblenou before making a turn back southwest parallel to the beach. I had earmarked this race for a sub-90 minute half marathon and was feeling comfortable, clocking steady and even splits. There were plenty of regular water stations offering both bottles of water and cups of Powerade energy drink and I was carrying with me a couple of energy gels too. They say never do anything new on the day of the race. I should have heeded this advice as the new cola-flavoured gel I was carrying was truly disgusting but it seemed to do the job! Feeling strong and fit, I tried to focus on maintaining good running form – running tall and keeping up a high cadence (i.e. step-count per minute) – into the latter part of the race.

Disaster almost struck, however, when I realised that I had miscalculated my splits with just over a mile to go (note to self: check and double-check what your per mile / km pace needs to be to hit your goal time). I had to throw in a 6:36 minute mile (4:05 minute per km) on mile 13 and sprint for the line in the home straight to make up for my shocking maths! Looking down at my GPS watch after I crossed the finish line, I found I had hit the stop button on exactly 1:30:00:00, to the exact hundredth of a second – pretty unbelievable when you think about it! Technically I had missed my sub-90 minute target by a hundredth of a second… but on checking my official chip time later that day, I found I had clocked a 1:29:55. I had probably started my GPS slightly early before crossing the start lane and stopped it too late after crossing the finish; whatever the reason, I was glad of the extra few seconds and my sub 1:30:00 half marathon.

Barcelona Post Race
Obligatory ‘bite the medal’ shot

This last point – the provision of an accurate chip time – is an obvious big plus in the Barcelona half marathon’s list of pros and cons compared to Marrakech. Indeed, it really is a fundamental. The fact that many runners use their official times as qualifying times for other, over-subscribed races where only runners with valid official times are guaranteed a starting place makes the timing debacle in Marrakech even worse. Naturally, I’m pleased there was no such trouble in Barcelona!

Head-to-Head: Marrakech Half v Barcelona Half

Those who have read the whole of this review probably won’t be surprised that the clear winner in this particular half marathon head-to-head is the Mitja de Barcelona. However, the truth is that the two are actually pretty similar races on paper. They are both flat, largely urban races run along wide, roomy, tarmac roads at warmish temperatures for the time of year. They’re also both great early season race options for giving your winter training a bit of focus and they’re great candidates for a PB effort given their course profile.

The big difference between the two – you may have gathered! – is that Barcelona blows Marrakech out of the water when it comes to organisation. This is disappointing because the Marrakech race has a lot going for it and could be an awesome event given a little bit more effort on the part of the organisers. Marrakech is a great city that brims with history and vibrant culture, the race offers spectacular views of the Atlas Mountains and ancient city walls and is generally a fun event to do, not least because competitors get to say that they have finished a race in Africa! But the two big gripes of a chaotic start line and a complete failure (this year, at least) of the timing systems are major let-downs. So Barcelona wins this time and Marrakech is left to contemplate would could have been…!

Check out our photos and let us know what you think in the comments below!

 

 

Montjuic Magic!

  • Run type: hilly, paved loop
  • Location: Montjuic, southwest Barcelona
  • Distance: medium (5.5 miles / 9km approx)
  • Starting point: Parc de Bombers de Montjuïc (Montjuic Fire Station)

 

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Castell de Montjuic sits on top of the 180m high Montjuic hill

We’re back with the third instalment of Run Barca’s guide to the best running routes in Barcelona. First up, we hit the beach. Next we took a trip up to Gaudi’s Park Güell.

This time, we’ll be taking in the spectacular views of Barcelona’s thriving port from atop of Montjuic. As well as climbing nearly 180 metres on the way to the summit, we’ll be running around the walls of an 18th Century castle, past a restored Art Deco hotel, and skirting past Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium as we wind our way up (and then back down) though Montjuic’s wooded hillsides.

This run might well be our favourite route in all of Barcelona, but one thing it’s not is easy. The course elevation starts off at close to sea level but by the time you reach Castell de Montjuic at the top of the hill, you’ll have hit the 600ft (180m) mark after 3.5km (2.2 miles) of pretty relentless climbing. But as every runner will tell you, the most challenging runs are often the most rewarding and this particular route is no exception. We’re sure you’ll come to love it just as much as us!

Montjuic Loop
Montjuic Route Map

Montjuic

Montjuic is said to mean, literally, “Jewish Mountain” – and indeed the remains of a medieval Hebrew cemetery have been found on the hill – although others suggest that its name derives from the Latin mons jovicus meaning “Hill of Jove”. Either way, there’s plenty of history in this here hill. Located to the southwest of Barcelona, Montjuic enjoys commanding views of both the harbour and city, and for that reason it has been a strategically important site for centuries.

While the current fort – Castell de Montjuic – which sits at the hill’s peak was built in the late 18th Century, a number of earlier fortified settlements pre-date it. Captured by the British during the Spanish War of Succession in 1705 and by the French during the Napoleonic Wars, the castle was held by both the Republicans and Nationalists during the ebb and flow of the Spanish Civil War and was the site of Catalan nationalist leader Lluís Companys’ execution in 1940 on General Franco’s orders.

Today you can visit the castle for €5 and enjoy 360º views of Barcelona from the viewing platform inside the grounds.

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Almost there…! Runners approaching Castell de Montjuic

But enough history… Let’s get on with this run.

The Route

Our starting point for this run is the Fire Station at the bottom of Montjuic’s eastern side, nearest the harbour, just a short hop along from the Maritime Museum and the Columbus Monument. Turning off of Passeig de Montjuic, you’re going to take a left up the pedestrianised Passatges de les Bateries, whose name pays homage to the many gun emplacements littering the hillside. From the get go, you’ll be running up hill, albeit only gently at this stage, and before long the pedestrianised road turns to a set of gravelled paths through the charming Jardines de Mossen Costa i Llobera – a landscaped garden specialising in cacti of all shapes and sizes. Luckily, the neatly kept walkways are wide enough not to run the risk of running into something sharp and prickly so fear not…

 

Montjuic Start
Turn left up the hill and head into the Jardines de Mossen Costa i Llobera

Keep running up hill and bear right (avoid going up any steps, however, as there are step-free routes through the park) until you hit the exit at the garden’s southwest side where you’ll meet a road named the Carretera de Miramar, one of the main routes by car up Montjuic. Here you’ll turn back upon yourself to your right, continuing to run up hill on the pavement at the side of the road.

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Prickly Feat: Large collections of cacti at the Jardines de Mossen Costa i Llobera

At the top you’ll see a tunnel: here you should bear right before the road disappears through the tunnel. You’ll run past the Restaurant Martinez on your right and into the plaza in which the Hotel Miramar is set.

At this point your legs will get some brief respite from climbing as the ground levels out as you cross the square in front of the Miramar. To your right you have a great vantage point from which to survey the harbour. The plaza serves as the destination for the cable car which runs to and from Barceloneta beach. While it’s possible to catch a cable car to the top of Montjuic, this is actually a totally separate system to the one that stops here. There’s no way to catch a cable car from the beach all the way to the top – and there’s a fair distance between the two cable car systems.

To your left is the restored 5 Star Hotel Miramar which preserves the facade of the 1929 palace which was built on Montjuic as part of the International Exposition of the same year. The hotel combines the historic facade with some pretty nifty modern architecture. It’s also a great location to sit and have a coffee in style while enjoying the views over the city. But that’s for another day – we’ve got more climbing to do…!

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Flat Chance: enjoy some brief respite from the climb as the ground levels out in front of the  Hotel Miramar

Run around the perimeter of the square and turn left as the gradient picks up again into a gentle incline. To your right, you’ll have views overlooking the Poble-Sec district to the north. Keep running along the paved area and after a few metres you’ll get see a road coming uphill towards you. Cross over at the crossing and follow the Avinguda Miramar as the gradient picks up again. While we’ve included plenty of maps in this blog post, the golden rule is: if in doubt, choose the path that heads uphill…

At the top of the Avinguda Miramar you’ll reach the Montjuic Municipal Swimming Pool, another of the sites built for the 1929 International Exposition, but probably better known for hosting the Olympic diving and water polo in 1992. Surrounded by rows and rows of seating, the pool is now a little rundown from its Olympic heyday, but you can pay to swim here for the bargain price of €6.50 for the day and pretend you’re going for Olympic glory as you paddle around gently (or is that just me?). ‘Amazing’ is an overused word, but the views from the pool are out of this world and amazing certainly fits the bill in this case. For the meantime, however, you’ll have to take our word for it because, from the road along which you’ll be running, the views are fenced off.

Avinguda Miramar

Once you’ve passed the Municipal Pool on your right, you’ll see the Funicular Railway up ahead which ferries passengers up from the Paral·lel Metro Station and links to the second of Montjuic’s two cable car systems. By this point, you’ll be almost half way up the hill and you’ll have hit the 80m (262ft) mark. Your heart should also be pumping pretty hard by now and the lactate will be starting to build up in your legs but, like we said earlier, if it was easy it wouldn’t be as much fun, right?

Before you get to the Funicular Railway, turn left and up the hill, passing underneath the cable cars as they cruise on up towards the summit. You might want to tell yourself that, while riding the cable car might be a hell of a lot easier, you’re at least saving yourself a few euros and getting yourself a great workout to boot.

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The easy way up: cable car from the Funicular Railway to the castle

From here, just keep climbing. The incline gets a little steeper as the road winds around to the right and the final push to the castle underneath the cable car lines is probably the steepest part of the climb. They’re are a few different paths you could take to the top but just keeping going upwards and you’ll hit the castle one way or another. And when you do, you’ll have climbed to about 180m (600ft approx.) as the course profile we clocked shows:

Montjuic profile
Our Monjuic Loop course profile

At the top, you’re rewarded with some fantastic views down over Barcelona’s busy shipping port. From way up high, the multi-coloured shipping containers look a bit like Lego bricks as they shine in the sun. Run past the main entrance to the castle on your right and you’ll see a few large gun emplacements. A few steps lead down to a gravel path that skirts along between the castle’s perimeter and Montjuic’s steep south-eastern side. Turn to your right and head along the trail that runs in the shadow of the castle’s walls. Keep heading along the path going straight on until it widens up into a more open area that meets the road and hit the tarmac again.

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Trail round the perimeter of Castell de Montjuic

Keep following the road down hill bearing to your left. Most of the hard work has been done by this stage and your legs, heart and lungs can take it easy as you wind your way back down the mountain. We say ‘most’ of the hard work because eventually you reach a junction where you’ll need to turn right and head back up hill for a few minutes. Take the road that runs alongside the Olympic Stadium to your left as the route starts to run back down hill again and then take a right at the next junction onto Avinguda de l’Estadi.

Olympic

Hook a left down onto Passeig de Santa Madrona and then take your first right onto Passeig de l’Exposicio. Keep following the road as it hugs the side of Montjuic and eventually you’ll arrive back at the fire station where you started. You’ll have 5.5 miles (almost 9km) on the clock and you’ll have had a great workout. All in all, we clocked the total elevation gain at a cool 237 metres (777 feet), the vast majority of that recorded in the first half of the course. And much like the graffiti daubed on the side of one of the old gun batteries, we think that after all that climbing you’ll have good reason to feel ‘PROUD’ of yourselves:

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Reach the top without stopping and you can justifiably feel proud

Check out the rest of our snaps and let us know what you think of the route by leaving us a reply below.

Need help with your training? Book a training session with Run Barca.

 

Need for Speed: Sharpen up your Pace with Interval Training

Ever feel like your running is stagnating? In the past, as long as you put in the training miles, your personal bests used to tumble regularly. Now, despite your best efforts, your times have levelled-off and you’re simply not seeing the steady improvements you used to. You’re training just as hard as before, sticking to your tried and tested formula, but somehow you’re just not getting any better.

What’s going on? The most likely answer is best summed up in the words of Peter Coe, father and coach of former 800m, 1500m and 1 mile world record holder Sebastian Coe, who said:

Runners who train the same, stay the same.”

– Peter Coe

In training for distance running, no truer words have been uttered. Chances are, by sticking to your same old training regimen, you’ve reached what is known as a training plateau. When you first take up running, your body can experience some pretty profound physiological changes as it struggles to deal with the extra load that your new hobby is putting on it. In a relatively short time, you notice that your times improve dramatically, your endurance increases, those extra pounds you’ve been carrying for a while disappear, helping you to fly along even faster. Your legs tone up and get stronger too. All great news!

But soon that steep improvement starts to flatten out. This is your body getting used to the increased demands being placed upon it. It’s your body’s way of saying ‘no problem, we got this’. A key concept of running training, however, is that of progressive overload. In order to avoid a plateau, you need to keeping piling extra pressure on your body (albeit incrementally) so it can never say ‘no problem, I’m used to this’. If you don’t keep adding pressure – in a controlled way – you’ll plateau. Simple.

So what should you do? Well, plateauing is a sure sign that you should change up your training programme and give your body a bit more to chew on. Now, every training plan, when stripped to basics, will incorporate three elements: frequency (how often you run), intensity (how hard you run), and duration (how long you run for). You can change your training plan by upping the ante in any one of these areas.

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Increasing the intensity of your workouts by incorporating interval training

This article in particular focuses on increasing intensity (the others are pretty much self-explanatory – either run more often or run further!). One great way of adding intensity to a training programme is through including one day of interval training per week into your training instead of one of your ‘regular’ runs.

The premise is simple: split up your runs into periods where you are running at a hard pace followed by a period of recovery during which you jog slowly or even walk. Other than that, there are no single hard and fast rules – but we’ll walk you through three suggested basic interval sessions.

Benefits of Interval Training

First, though, why should you do intervals? Well, here are just a few of the benefits:

Increased Pace – The most obvious benefit is that they make you run faster. It’s a bit of a truism but if you want to run faster, you have to run faster. The faster-than-normal bursts of speed integral to interval training get your legs used to turning over faster, your heart pumping at a higher rate, and overall they acclimatise your body to running at a higher pace. By putting in sets of faster than race pace repeats, come race day your body will be equipped to handle your target pace because it has been used to running at a higher pace.

Improved Running Form and Economy – Studies show that the most efficient runners run with a higher than average cadence (i.e. the number of steps taken per minute) and an often-cited target cadence is 180 steps per minute or more. Running at a faster than usual pace will naturally increase your cadence – although it will also increase your stride length, which can cause problems if you tend towards over-striding and heel-striking. But making a conscious effort to focus on stride frequency rather than stride length as you run faster can help you become a more efficient runner.

Increased fat-burning – Working out for 30 minutes of high intensity activity interspersed with periods of rest or low intensity exercise have been shown to burn more calories than 30 minutes of moderate exercise. Not only do intense intervals with a high training stimulus beat running at a slower, more comfortable pace when it comes to fat burning, but the extra effort you put in during the harder-paced intervals mean that your muscles require a lot more energy post-workout in order to recover. This is known as the ‘after-burn effect’ in which your body continues burning calories after you have finished running.

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Build interval training into your routine to sharpen up and stay ahead of the pack
Three Interval Workouts to Try

Here we suggest three broad interval workouts to try and build into your routine. As a general rule, if you’re training for / trying to improve your 5k time, you will be looking at running shorter, quicker intervals. Conversely, if you’re in marathon or half marathon training mode, then the longer but slower type interval sessions are for you. If you’re trying to beat your 10k personal best, then try the one in the middle.

Back in the day before GPS watches, the ideal place to run intervals was on a 400m track because of the ease of measuring and timing your intervals. In the age of Garmin and Strava, however, finding a local running track is no longer necessary. Try to pick somewhere relatively flat where you can run uninterrupted by traffic and other inconveniences (in Barcelona, the beachfront is probably your best bet).

Short and quick 400m repeats 

Try building one interval session into your training per week over a period of 4 weeks where, after a gentle warm up, you run quarter miles (400m or a single lap of a standard track) repeats at your 5k pace or slightly quicker. In between your fast quarter miles, run the same distance at a gentle jog as recovery. If you are new to intervals, start off with between 4 and 6 sets in the first week, adding two additional sets per week until by the end of 4 weeks you’re running 10 to 12 sets.

With interval training, the goal is to aim for consistency. Try to hit your target pace on each interval. If you find yourself slowing towards the end of your sets, this is probably a sign that you were pushing too hard in the early stages, causing you to run out of puff later on. Ideally, you should be hitting more or less the same splits with each interval (aim for all your splits to be within, say, 5 seconds of each other). If not, adjust for your next session.

Half Mile Tempo Intervals

A great option if you’re training for a 10k. After your warm up, try running 6 to 10 intervals of a half mile (800m approx. or two laps of the track) at your 10k pace or quicker. For a recovery period, try a half mile light jog in between but if you feel fit and strong, you could taper this back to a quarter mile or less.

Again, because you are aiming for consistent splits, it is better to err on the side of caution when it comes to the recovery period – especially when first picking up interval training – because you really don’t want to blow out two sets before you reach your target number of sets.

One Mile Repeats

As the name suggests, you’ll be running whole mile (1600m or 4 laps of the track) intervals here. For your interval pacing, you can either try using your 10K pace or, alternatively, knock around 30 seconds off your half marathon race pace. Aim to do 4 to 6 mile repeats. As with all interval training, the goal is to keep your times consistent so aim to keep each hard-paced mile within no more than five seconds of the others.

For recovery time, start off by halving your goal time for the mile intervals (so, for example, if you’re running 7 minute miles, this would be 3 minutes 30 seconds of recovery). As you get used to running intervals and you find you can hit your mile target splits evenly and consistently, you could taper back the recovery time to 2 minutes. Alternatively (or additionally), you could try dropping your mile target pace by 15 seconds.

Interval training in pictures

We’d emphasise that the above suggested workouts are just that – suggestions – and that interval training comes in all shapes and sizes and can be adapted to suit the individual runner’s needs, fitness or training goal. However you formulate your workout, though, the golden rule is to achieve consistency in your splits. Take a look at this example of what a good, even sets of splits looks like (this is a 15 x 200m interval workout with warm down).

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Solid, even 200m splits at 5 min mile pace with 10 min mile pace recovery

Notice, too, the effect on heart-rate and how it tracks the intervals almost exactly:

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Heart-rate during 200m interval training

Compare a similar length workout run by the same runner at an even pace:

Steady pace heartrate
Heart-rate during even-paced workout

So give intervals a go. And remember, don’t rest on your laurels – once you find you can handle a training regime with ease, that’s a sign that you are going to need to change it up or you’ll be back on the plateau…

Tell us what you think in the comments below!

Need help with your training? Book a training session with Run Barca.

Get your hill training in by taking a trip to Park Güell

 

  • Run type: hilly, mixed surface (paved and gravel) out and back
  • Location: Park Güell / Gracia
  • Distance: short (less than 4 miles / 6.5km)
  • Starting point: Avinguda Diagonal near Verdeguer Metro

Last up in Run Barca’s guide to the best running routes the city has to offer, we hit the beachfront for a medium distance, flat-as-a-pancake dash along the Passeig Maritim. This time we have something a little different – a course guaranteed to get your calves burning as we climb about 135m (442 feet) in less than 2 miles on our way up to Gaudi’s spectacular modernist public space, Park Güell.

Park Guell zoom out
Full Route Map

Speedwork in Disguise

Park Guell Elevation
Check out the very healthy elevation profile we clocked

 

The Route

So let’s get going! The starting point for this run is a stretch of semi-parkland that runs between the Passeig de Sant Joan, just north of Avinguda Diagonal near Verdeguer Metro station.

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Starting Point

 

Keep going until you reach the top of the stretch of semi-parkland, cross the road at the top, head left briefly and then take the first right onto the Carrer del Torrent de les Flors. This is a long, steadily inclining road which stretches up past the centre of Gracia to the west, criss-crossed by relatively quiet streets (again, take care), until it reaches the busy main road Travessera de Dalt to the north.

Dalt

 

 

Crossover and turn left along Dalt before taking the first right onto Av. del Santuari de Sant Josep de la Muntanya. The real climb up to Park Güell kicks off here as the road curves up steeply. You’ll go past a hospital on your right and a walled park and the grandiosely-named Church of the Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados en Sant José de la Montaña on your left.

 

 

 

Winding streets

Keep following the road upwards as it winds left, right, and left again, climbing steeply up the hillside through residential streets. As long as you keep going upwards, you can’t take a wrong turn until eventually you will reach Av. del Coll del Portell. Here you will see Park Güell’s wall on your right. At the top, you’ll run out of road but carry on running onto the gravel path on the right-hand side and keep bearing right and you’ll enter the Park on its north side.

 

Here you have two choices. EITHER you can chill out for a while, catch your breath, and check out the sights around Gaudi’s magnificent municipal space (we’d recommend checking out a sunset and seeing Barcelona bathed in orange and pink light from high above the city). OR you can push on through. Either way, by this stage you will have got less than 2 miles (3km) on the clock but the climb alone will be enough to have got your heart pumping and your legs burning. If you choose to push on, take a left from the place where you entered the park and run up a slight incline past a large pastel-yellow villa named ‘Salve’.

 

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Salve, Park Güell

By now, you’ve done all the hard work and all you have to do is wind your way down through the stylist park, running over its idyllic elevated walkways, marvelling at Gaudi’s organically-inspired creations as you go. You’ll emerge at the park’s southernmost entrance. Take your second left once you’re through the gate downhill onto Carrer de Larrard. Here you run down a straight road until you’re back at Travessera de Dalt. Cross over the road, turn right and follow Dalt until you arrive at the top of Carrer del Torrent de les Flors on the left after a couple of metres and make your way back to where you started.

 

Park Guell
Slalom your way down through the park over Gaudi’s elevated walkways

All in all, we clocked this route at 3.8 miles or just over 6km. It’s by no means a long run but the steep hill climb is invaluable. Adding a climb like this to your weekly routine will reap you real training benefits: namely, increased speed and endurance when on the flat. Climbing hills also builds leg strength by developing the muscles in your thighs, calves and glutes (we’re talking seriously strong buttocks here!) and burns more calories per mile than the same distance done on the flat. Even the run back downhill, while feeling relatively easy, works the lower abs and your quads (although you should take smaller steps to reduce impact when running downhill and be careful not to heel strike).

Alternative Routes

While our suggested route takes the most direct course up Carrer del Torrent de les Flors, you may wish instead to run up through the pleasant centre of Gracia, turning right and left through its grid-like streets before you reach Travessera de Dalt. This will serve to break up the first part of the climb as the streets which run east to west are relatively flat so you’ll only be running uphill when heading north. Once you reach Dalt, you can pick up the rest of the suggested route.

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Church in Placa de la Virreina, Gràcia: Parròquia de Sant Joan Baptista de Gràcia

Hill Sprints

For those of you who can’t get enough of hill training, you’ll notice plenty of great spots to do a few repeat hill sprints along the way to Park Güell (or even in the park itself). Undoubtedly one of the best exercises you can do to build leg strength and speed, try picking a decent length stretch of hill, as steep as you can manage, for a set of hill sprints. Run 6 to 8 reps of 10 seconds each, sprinting as fast as you can up hill, and walking back down slowly (try and leave at least 60 seconds between sprints). Again, throw some hill repeats into your routine and you’ll be amazed at how your pace begins to improve as the weeks go by.

And if you’re putting in the hard work whilst surrounded by the magical Park Güell, looking down over one of the most beautiful and culturally rich cities in the world, then it can’t be that bad, can it?

Need help with your training? Book a training session with Run Barca.

Check out some of our snaps taken along the route and tell us what you think in the comments:

Powering your run: some science to chew on

Runner

Training for distance running. It’s all about long, slow runs and clocking up the weekly mileage – the more the better, right?

Well, not quite. True, while a healthy weekly mileage tally may form the base of your training regime when preparing for a marathon or half marathon, it’s important to build upon the solid foundations of those long miles with some more intensive sessions – strides, intervals, fartleks, set repeats or other exercises that broadly fall under the banner of ‘speed work’. This is particularly so if you are preparing for a 5k or 10k.

But if even if you are training for a half marathon, marathon or beyond, there are good reasons why you will want to build speed work into your weekly training – and these reasons are grounded in physiology and the way your body is powered.

Energy systems used in running: Aerobic, Lactate and ATP-CP systems

Energy is stored in the body in various forms of carbohydrates, fats, proteins and creatine phosphate. Meanwhile, adenosine triphospate – or ATP – is the body’s usable form of energy. The body utilises three different energy systems to turn that stored energy into usable ATP to power our muscles whilst running.

Understanding which of these three energy systems the body is primarily using during your runs will help you to train in a way that targets and improves those specific systems.

So what are the three energy systems?

Aerobic

The first and most important for distance running is the aerobic system. This system uses carbohydrates, fats, or proteins to produce energy and requires there to be enough oxygen available for the working muscles (hence the name). Energy production is slower but more efficient than the other two systems and is utilised in longer term, lower intensity activity. So that long, slow Sunday morning run you do every week? That’s being powered primarily by your aerobic system.

Lactate/anaerobic system

Next there is the lactate or anaerobic system. Unlike the aerobic system, the lactate/anaerobic system doesn’t require oxygen to produce energy. Instead, the body uses stored glucose to produce ATP to power your muscles in conditions when adequate oxygen isn’t available for aerobic metabolism. The anaerobic system is used during short-term periods of intense exercise and can power you for 1 to 3 minutes max. Your kick at the end of a 5k when you’re sprinting for the line? You’re primarily using your anaerobic system right there.

ATP-CP system

Finally, there is the ATP-CP system. This is the quickest form of energy production but can only supply enough energy for a short burst of intense activity like a 5 second sprint.  It’s used when the body experiences a sudden increase in energy demand – for example, when you’re starting up your run or when you’re training explosive hill repeats. This system relies on the availability of creatine phosphate which depletes quickly. Once the body’s limited stores of creatine phosphate are used up, the body must call on either the aerobic or anaerobic/lactate energy systems to sustain continued activity.

Take a look at the diagram below and you’ll see that the three energy systems are not mutually exclusive, but are inter-dependent. As a rule, however, your longer low-intensity runs will be relying more heavily on the aerobic systems whilst your more intense sessions like sprints, intervals and set repeats are going to be predominantly working the lactate/anaerobic or ATP-CP systems.

 

Energy systems

Smarter training – the fartlek

So, having had a quick crash course in energy systems and metabolism, what does this mean for how we should train? Should we just keep aiming for a high weekly mileage or can we cut some of those long miles and train smarter?

There is probably no wrong or right answer but an interesting case study in training habits can be found by looking at Seb Coe and Steve Ovett’s respective training regimes. Both were elite middle distance runners – and fierce rivals – but they trained in very different ways. At his peak, Ovett was reportedly running an incredible 140 miles per week. Coe, meanwhile, was barely clocking 40, preferring to focus on intense speed work. While it is impossible to say which approach produces the best results, one thing is clear: if you don’t have the time to put in the high mileage weeks, you can get more bang for your buck by running fewer but more intense miles. And if you want to train in a way that hits all three of your body’s energy systems, then look no further than the fartlek.

Fartlek is a Swedish term that literally means “speed play”. It was developed by Gösta Holmér who experimented with the idea of playing with speed when training Swedish athletes to try and break the dominance of rival Finnish distance runners in the 1930s.

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Fartlek training can improve your pace substantially

In short, a fartlek session consists simply of periods of fast running and sprints mixed in with periods of slower running and jogging. Starting with this basic principle, fartleks  can be adapted and tailored for a variety of training needs, running abilities, and fitness levels. And the best thing, by constantly mixing up your pace, going from sprints to jogs to hard paces, you’ll be hitting each of your aerobic, lactate and ATP-CP systems during the same session.

Next time you go out on your regular running route, instead of running at a steady even pace, try alternating between a jog, a fast run and a sprint across the duration of the run. You can use regular landmarks – say, lamp-posts or trees, park benches, whatever you want. Try and keep up the pattern for as long as possible but if you start to feel the pace a little you can always throw in an extra bit of jogging  – maybe jog for two street lamps’ distance instead of one or follow a jog-run-jog-sprint-jog pattern.

Replacing a regular short to medium length (3 to 5 miles) run once per week will help you avoid a training plateau, tune up your speed / race kick and get you much fitter per total minutes spent running than a standard comfortable paced run. And the more you do fartleks, the more you’ll notice your pace getting quicker as your body gets used to running at higher intensity levels.

But don’t just take my word for it – give it a go yourself and tell us what you think!

Need help with your training? Book a training session with Run Barca.

Barcelona: is this the best running city in the world?

Barcelona is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, with visitors flocking to the Catalan capital to experience the city’s unique cultural, artistic and architectural heritage. Throw in great tapas, a lively night-life, the glorious city beach, perfect climate, and probably the best domestic team in world football and it’s not hard to see why an incredible 18 million international visitors were estimated to have made the trip to Barcelona in 2016 alone.

Barcelona, however, is also a running enthusiast’s dream with a mixture of terrains and run-types for the distance runner to get their teeth into and plenty of spectacular sights and scenery to take in along the way.

Over the course of the next few weeks, this blog will be tracking some of the city’s ‘must runs’ with suggested routes, maps, photographs and sights to look out for. So what are you waiting for? Get out there!

W Hotel to Poblenou Skate Park and back

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Beachfront and W Hotel
  • Run type: flat, paved, out-and-back
  • Location: beachfront
  • Distance: medium (5 miles / 8km)
  • Starting point: W Hotel

To kick things off, we’ll start with a middle distance route along Barcelona’s iconic waterfront – probably the most popular spot for the city’s many runners. We clocked this run at pretty much 5 miles (or just over 8km) dead and the route is almost completely flat so this is a great run for people wanting to keep their mileage ticking over midweek. In addition, because of its flat trajectory and lack of roads to cross / other interruptions, it’s a perfect route for running those intervals, strides or fartleks to hone your speed.

W to Poblenou

The starting point we chose is the striking W Hotel (known locally as the Vela or ‘Sail’ Hotel) located at the far end of the Passeig Maritim – although you could pick any spot along the route as your start and finish point. From the W Hotel, you will run in a north-easterly direction up along the coast, passing a host of beachfront bars and cafes (remember these for your post-run refreshments!).

After about a mile-and-a-half, you’ll go over a small hump-backed bridge and pass the Barcelona Casino on your left and the Port Olimpic marina on your right. After the marina you can either go down a ramp to the right and run tight to the beach or take a slightly more elevated route to the left – your choice but either way it’s virtually impossible to take a wrong turn: just keep following the path. Handily, there are plenty of water fountains along the way to keep you hydrated.

After about 2.5 miles, you reach the skate park at Poblenou which is a natural turning point to loop round and head back the way you came until you’re back at the W. Next stop: one of those beachfront cafe bars we mentioned earlier for your well-earned reward…

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Turning point at Poblenou

As any schoolkid will tell you, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. That being so, this route makes a great dawn run as you can watch the sun coming up out to sea as you run along the east-facing shoreline. Check out the photos we snapped along the course and tell us what you think!

Need help with your training? Book a training session with Run Barca.

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Dawn runner on the Marina wall
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Early morning at Poblenou
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Morning Workout
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Poblenou Skate Park