Saturday, 28 February 2015

National Cross Country Champs

So much mud
A gun fired, signalling the start of the 2015 English National Cross-Country Championships. More than 2,000 male runners were unleashed, stampeding up one of the city's best known viewpoints.

“Oh my god, it’s like Ben Hur,” said one as the human cavalcade thundered towards them. “More like Braveheart,” said the other, when the forerunners of the brightly coloured pack crested the first hill, then disappeared sharply right into a quagmire-like descent.
Last Sunday I took part in the National Cross Country Championships for the first time. I've never thought it was worth travelling to the other end of the country for the event in previous years, but as it was being held in London this year I decided to give it a go.

The race was like no other cross country race I've ever taken part in. Just over two thousand of us lined up across the bottom of Parliament Hill in starting pens with the slope rising, dauntingly, in front of us.

It was obvious that to do well you'd need a god start off the line. I went out pretty hard, but within a couple of hundred meters I'd been quickly swamped as the course narrowed. Surprisingly there wasn't too much pushing and all of the runners were very respectful of each other. However, but the time we rounded the first bend I was probably already down to 600th place.

After two days of pretty solid rain and 7,000 runners trampling the course before us, the going was boggy to say the list. I'm not a very experienced cross country runner and it was difficult to know what lines to take. I generally tried to stick to the edges hoping to find some better ground even if it wasn't the shortest line.

Around 1km into the race it began to settle down. It was impossible to get into a rhythm with the terrain, but I started to get going and was slowly picking off a few people and working my way through the field a little bit. At the 3km mark I saw the leaders and was able to give a shout of encouragement to John from Kent who was sitting at the back of the leading pack.

I must have been running with a few other Richards as there were regular shouts of my name, but at the end of the first lap I got a special cheer from Becks, Barb and Bella who were standing on the side of the course watching.

While I might have been picking up places on the first lap the second lap was sadly a different story and the mud was sapping the energy out of my legs and the uphill sections were a particular struggle. Unfortunately I lost around 30 places on the second lap as people finishing more strongly than I was were able to pick their way past.

Thankfully the uphill sections of the course ended with about 2km to go. I got a bit of a second wind and I was able to pick up the pace. The Chewings women had moved up the course and it was good to get another a cheer as I went past.

The end of the course was a relatively steep downhill that was particularly boggy. I consciously eased back on the descent, deciding the upside would only be a few seconds, but the potential downside of a broken ankle wasn't worth the risk. A few people braver than I was over took me on the way down to the finish, but they were welcome to their places.

I've never been muddier on finishing a race. It took one shower and two baths to get clean.

I finished 570th out of 2,005 people who completed the course in 50min and 7secs

The data from my (new) watch is here.

One of the runners who finished 4mins ahead of me recorded their run:

The photo is courtesy of my aunt-in-law to be.

The quote is taken from The Daily Telegraph's review of the race.

Monday, 23 February 2015

The Gate, Vegetarian Restaurant, Islington

Last Wednesday I had dinner with two school friends Rob and Joel. Our six monthly catch ups had to be brought forward slightly this time to accommodate the impending fatherhood which is soon to bless both Rob and Joel (for the second time).

We take it in turn to pick restaurants and this time Joel nominated the The Gate vegetarian restaurant in Islington.

The menu is a little eclectic with predominantly Mediterranean but also French and Asian influences coming through. It made me a little unsure of what to order, but that could have just been my indecision....

My starter of potato chat (£6) was a level above the other two dishes I had on the night and was an early contender for one of the best things I'm likely to eat in 2015. The dish looked a picture (top left) and was a perfectly balanced blend of crispy spinach leaves and soft potatoes that were subtly spiced and have a lovely little sour tang from a tamarind dressing. Rob and Joel both had the three onion tart (£6) and were suffering food envy.

The food envy was on the other foot when the main courses arrived. Joel and I both opted for the aubergine schnitzel (£14). It was a good dish, just not as exciting as my starter. One of my favourite elements of the dish was the small side of pan fried kale which provided a lovely contrast to the aubergine and potato gratin. The schnitzel was also a bit smaller than I'd expected after the generosity of the starter.

Rob ordered the pan fried broccoli flower ravioli (£13). I didn't get to try the ravioli, but the presentation looked fantastic (similar to my chat) and apparently it tasted just as good too.

For dessert I ordered the hazelnut chocolate semi fredo with autumn fruits and nuts (£7). It had the taste of nutella which was apt tribute to Michele Ferrero, the owner of nutella, who has recently passed away.

The service was friendly, although it was sometimes a little difficult to attract their attention and if I was to go again in winter I'd request not to sit just inside the door which can be draughty. However, I'd happily go back for the chat, try the broccoli ravioli main and to find the star dessert.

You can see all of the places I've eaten at in London on a handy little map here.

The Gate Vegetarian Restaurant
370 Saint John Street
The Gate on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Alternate Valentine's Dinner, Lesoco College

Carrot and coriander soup with a Parmesan straw
Last Friday night Becks and I kept tradition alive by going to the Alternate Valentine's Dinner at Lesoco College organised by the Mayor of Lewisham. It was a special night as it will be our only engaged valentine's together and we couldn't have spent it anywhere classier (!).

The big question was, would we win a prize in the raffle again?

The presentation of the food had definitely gone up a notch compared with the previous two years we have been to the college. I thought my salmon (below) looked especially good and the dessert had a bit of flair as well. The food tasted pretty good and I thought was more consistent than last year. I enjoyed the chervil veloute with the salmon, the sauce that came with the chicken and also the yoghurt parfait for dessert.

The service was as keen and eager to please as previous years, but also a little hap hazard. Basic waiting skills follow a few simple rules that I wouldn't have thought would be too hard to teach the students, but perhaps it is harder than it looks!

Despite much anticipation we didn't win a prize in the raffle this year and the wedding will be a lot poorer without the CD of love songs that we could have won!

After a couple of years of umming and ahing Becks introduced herself to mayor Steve on the way out. I think he enjoyed the local government love in and the fact that the Alternate Valentines Dinner was watching a relationship blossom. Here's to our first married valentine's dinner next year!

Poached salmon with crushed peas, chervil veloute and pea shoots

Roasted chicken with sweet potato, giroles and baby onions

Poached berries, lemon curd, chocolate mousse and yoghurt parfait

Monday, 9 February 2015

Wokingham Half Marathon: Race Notes

Rich charging towards the finish
On Sunday I ran in the Wokingham Half Marathon after last years race was cancelled due to flooding on the course. It was my first build up race for what I hope will be a crack at the Berlin Marathon later in the year. I don't think I have enough 'race craft' so I'm keen to slot in a few more races before Berlin so that I have a bit more practise before the day.

Before the race I knew that I'd mentally psyched myself out of putting in a good performance. I'm hoping to run two half marathons this spring and I thought this first race would be a training run and the second was where I'd aim for a PB. In training recently people have been commenting on how well I've been running, but I just had no self confidence I could turn in a good performance. Becks gave me a bit of a talking to the night before, which is what I needed.

Conditions on Sunday morning were pretty much perfect being cool, sunny, still and dry. It was a little chilly on the start line, but apart from that it was ideal.

(My watch is set to record, and I generally think in, kilometres but the course had mile markers and I actually thought about the race quite a lot in miles, so the below is a bit mixed.)

Mile one
The start was possibly the most civilised race start I've ever experienced with no pushing or crowding. We lined up at the 1hr 20min marker, but there were barely any runners before us so we (a bit reluctantly) walked forward to the 1hr 15min mark as the start time approached.

Surprisingly considering the cold start and the fact I hadn't done a warm up, I felt really relaxed off the start and got into a flow quickly. I realised that I was going faster than I planned to go, but it was a slight downhill and it felt pretty easy so I went with the flow.

I completed the first km in 3min 37sec, when I was aiming for 3m 45sec even splits.

Miles two to six
At the end of the first mile Rich appeared on my shoulder and told me to get onto the group in front. It was a kick that I needed as one of the bits of race craft I wanted to practise was running with a group. Even if the group is running a bit more quickly than you want to go is it worth latching onto them?

The group was already starting to fracture slightly. I slowly made my way through three people who were being dropped and got onto the back of the 5 / 6 runners that were working together.

I free loaded at the back of the group and didn't help with any of the pace making. I wouldn't say I found it comfortable, but it was do-able to keep with them. Remembering the Marathon Talk interview with Kiwi Rod Dixon I straight lined all the corners and tried to run the minimum distance between bends. It was something the rest of the group weren't doing and it helped me to save a few meters. It was a good psychological boost and much needed respite from the pace.

A few times I dropped a couple of meters from the group, but put in a surge to stay with them. I was going to stay strong.

I had a mild stitch which I suspect came from taking an energy gel fifteen minutes before the start. I also had a low level desire for a wee.

Mile seven
As we started mile seven, a Newbury AC runner who had been hanging at the back of the group with me worked his way to the front of the group and raised the pace. He only raised the pace by 4sec / km, but it was too much for me.

As we hit the seven mile marker I cracked. Another one of the group pulled over at the side of the road. It looked like he needed to retie his shoe lace.

Miles eight to ten
As the group pulled away they ran through a couple of runners ahead of me who were beginning to fade.

I had a decision to make on whether to try and push through those runners as well or to try and join one of them and hope they weren't fading too much. I decided to latch onto a tall guy and hope for the best as I didn't have the legs to do much else.

I ran tucked up behind for a km and then he slowed slightly so I led for a km.

I then began to really struggle. It was a feeling I haven't had since the Abingdon Marathon. I started to slow and couldn't drive myself on. It was a lot worse mentally than it was physically. The thought of not running a good time after a positive start was, at that moment, crushingly depressing. I wanted to stop and walk. I was never going to run another race again.

I was still just about hanging onto the tall gentlemen that I was following. As we approached the ten mile marker the guy who had stopped to tie his shoe lace caught back up with me. As we crossed the mile marker he cheerily commented it was a 10mile PB for him. I was far from being in a similarly happy place.

Mile eleven
It was grim. I was dropped as soon as we passed the ten mile marker and I was trudging along on my own. There was no longer a prospect that I'd catch up with anyone in front who I might be able to draft.

I still hated running. I still wanted to stop and walk. The only rays of light were when I looked at my watch my pace wasn't too bad. In fact it was the pace I'd originally said I wanted to run if I was going to run an even pace for the whole race. It just felt awful.

Mile twelve
From somewhere I got a second wind. I managed to pump in a relatively quickly km, but more importantly the fog had lifted and it felt easier. I didn't gain any ground on the runners in front, but they didn't seem to be getting any further away from me either. It probably helped that the course was slightly downhill.

I wasn't able to calculate a predicted finish time, but I suspected I was still on for a reasonably good time.

Mile thirteen
It started to hurt again as I entered the final mile, but it mentally wasn't as hard as there was no point giving up this close to the finish. I slowed again and the gap to the runners in front began to widen. Four runners, who had judged the race better than I had, powered past me as they finished strongly.

I mustered a small sprint finish as I crossed the line. It was excellent to be only five seconds slower than my PB when I was expecting to run around two minutes slower. However, it's a frustrating to get so close, but not better my time!

I felt shattered and stumbled over to the kerb for a sit down to rest. It didn't take long to realise that my quads were complete shot.

Reflecting on the race there were a lot of positives to take from it. I wanted to run some more races to get a bit more race craft and try a few different things out. I certainly think I had the opportunity to do that. Things I'm going to take away:
- I'm not going to take another energy gel on the start line. I might however, have a bigger breakfast 3hrs before the race and maybe throw in some sugars

- Getting with a pace group was a good move. It was easier to run the pace when someone else was doing the hard work for you.

- However, this pace group was a bit too quick. I wouldn't join a group this far above my target pace in a marathon.

- I need to think of some strategies when the going gets mentally tough to drive myself on.

- Running the corners and thinking how to straight line the course was a good move.

- At a couple of the water stations I grabbed cups of water. I didn't drink, but just put a couple of sips in my mouth to freshen up. I was pleased that I could grab cups without spilling them even though I was running at quite a pace

I feel that I should also say that the event was really well run. Lots of friendly and helpful marshals, plenty of toilets and well organised bag drop etc.. The course was pretty good too.

The official results are here. I came 58th out of 1,673 finishers in a time of 1:18:12

The data from my watch is here.

The group that left me at the seven mile mark finished around a mile ahead. I'm not exactly sure, but I think the couple of runners who left me at the ten mile mark finished around 30 seconds ahead.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Masala Zone, Covent Garden

Grand Vegetarian Thai

Last Wednesday night Becks and I met with my sister and her husband at Masala Zone in Covent Garden for a late exchange of Christmas presents over dinner. Dishoom has taken the mantle as the most popular Indian in Covent Garden, but with queues there reaching stupid proportions and a no booking policy for small groups we gave Masala Zone a go.

Speaking to people in the office, thalis (a meal of small dishes) seemed to be the dish of choice. The last thali I had was on the rooftop of a restaurant over looking the Taj Mahal. The location, friendly service, tasty food and amazing value of India was going to take some beating.

I started by ordering a chaas which was advertised as a low fat lassi. What arrived was nothing like a low fat mango lassi that I had envisaged / hoped for. It was a relatively thin yoghurt drink with a heavy dose of cumin and coriander. It took a few sips to adjust my expectations and then I enjoyed it.

As a main course I ordered the grand vegetarian thali. You are allowed to select one curry for the thali and I chose the paneer curry.

If I'm honest the food wasn't outstanding, but it's a solid option in Covent Garden if you want reasonably priced food and quick service. I'd happily go back.

Masala Zone
48 Floral Street
Covent Garden

Masala Zone Covent Garden on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 1 February 2015

An Accidental Engagement Photo Shoot

We've been pretty decisive with all of the wedding planning, which has helped keep the process relatively painless (up to this point at least). One area that has been our downfall, however, has been deciding upon the wedding photographer.

We knew that we wanted reportage style photos, but without any personal recommendations, we had to resort to searching on the web. We were just about to book with a photographer that I'd found online, when my mum through in a curve ball by passing on the contact details of Andrew who is the son of someone she used to work with.

Andrew came along with us yesterday as we went for a second look our reception venue, One Friendly Place, and took some photos of us while we were there. We looked a bit startled in the first few photos, but had relaxed into it by the end.

With my deep love of Asia perhaps it's not surprising we ended up with an engagement photo shoot....

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Date night in Catford: Sapporo Ichiban and Kaspas Dessert Bar, Catford

Chicken gyoza
Last summer when I was coming home from an Assembly League race, the crowds spilling out of Kaspas in Catford caught my eye. Where could be so pumping on a Thursday night in Catford that there were queues out of the door?

A little bit of research and I discovered that it was a dessert bar / ice cream parlour. I joked with Becks that we should go on a date night to Catford and have a Nando's over the road before we hit up the dessert bar. Six months later and the jokes had turned into reality, it was time for date night in Catford!

I met Becks at Catford Brdige station and as we were walking towards Nando's, Sapporo Ichiban caught our eye. I had a vague memory of hearing there was a good Japanese near Catford station so we decided to go in. It wouldn't be a real South London date night without the chicken shop, but we were prepared to live on the edge....
Sushi platter
I've got mixed feelings about dinner at Sapporo Ichiban. The food was all really enjoyable and tasted fresh. The chicken gyoza came served steaming hot. The freshly rolled soft shell crab, asparagus tempura and tofu sushi rolls all came with fillings that had obviously been cooked to order. The salmon and avocado rolls were good too.

However, the service really let the place down. All of the staff were very friendly, but it was hard to attract their attention. Front of house seemed to be be organised chaos and at the end of the night we got the wrong bill because the person who took our order had written the wrong table number down. The kitchen didn't seem much better with our sushi rolls taking nearly an hour to arrive. I was still hungry when we finished, but didn't dare order any more as I wouldn't have been able to stand the wait.

I don't think their problems are anything an experienced restaurant manager couldn't fix very quickly, they just need to find one. I'd happily go back for the food, but it could be a frustrating experience service wise.

The bill came to a very reasonable £28 including drinks. Being very British we still gave a small tip, although I don't know why.

Inside Kaspas!
And then it was onto Kaspas! The place is bling with sparkly lights, pink high back chairs, a pink metallic wallpaper type arrangement and a Disney movie being projected onto the wall! The crowd was an eclectic mix of families with young kids, teenagers and couples on dates.

I went for the M&M waffle with vanilla ice cream on the side. The waffles were lighter and less greasy compared to some that you get, but didn't have a lot of flavour. I was quite surprised that the ice cream was of the soft serve variety as they also advertise their wide range of gelato.

I also ordered an extra scoop of lemon sorbet which came served in a separate glass. The sorbet had a very sharp taste of lemon and helped cut through the richness of the waffle. I enjoyed the sorbet and it made me think that their range of gelati might be pretty good.

The bill came to under £14 for two waffles, the lemon sorbet and a tea. Again great value.

M&M waffle
Date night in Catford. It certainly was an experience!

Sapporo Ichiban
13 Catford Broadway

Sapporo Ichiban on Urbanspoon

97 Rushney Green