Royal Parks Half 2019

Last Sunday I took part in the Royal Parks Half, which is a lovely run through Hyde Park and the central parts of London.  Despite a quagmire of a staging area, the rain held off for the race itself, and the family came down to support Lewis, Dre and myself.


Believe it or not, this is the *before* photo.

Finish time was 2:01:07, missing my target of 1:55, but still a PB and 2 seconds faster than when I first ran a half marathon in 2013.  I was a little disappointed not to have improved, particularly because I’d followed a hard training plan for 16 weeks, obsessively planned the day, negative splits and all.  But I know there are plenty of ways to improve on that for a future race (yes, we’re already thinking about the next one!)

I followed the intermediate training plan from the Royal Parks Half team.  This was easy to fit into my routine, with a long run at weekends, and a couple of faster sessions during the week.

Looking back at the runs, the plan was great, but one of the main reasons my time didn’t improve was strength training and stretching.  That manifested in the last few km, when I ran out of steam and started to get a cramping feeling at the top of my calf and in my hamstrings.  I had to stop at the 20km to stretch it briefly.

On the plan, strength training was pencilled in for the off days, and other than one brief session of running drills after a midweek run, I didn’t do these.  I should have realised that this was a missing element as my times weren’t really improving along the way, and the drill session did hurt in new places.  That should have been a sign that key muscle groups were being neglected.  I had a good post-run stretching routine, but again, a couple of areas were missing.  I’ve always neglected warmups too, thinking that a brisk walk and a calf stretch would suffice.

With all that in mind, a 5km run the night before to get the blood flowing was probably a little much.  A sports massage is another thing that would possibly have helped, if I’d had the time last week.

Running form:
Gait is probably the most common aspect of running that seems to require a bit more homework.  I can see from some of the photos that I appear to be overstriding, so I’m not getting the most efficiency out of each stride.

E.g. my leg is fair too straight for heel contact, and is staying that way throughout.  Other motions in the cycle, such as lifting my heel and knees, are not high enough – again, something I should have realised from the drills!  Fortunately, there are loads of guides out there for adjusting, which I’ll be studying closely.

The negative (splits)  and the positives:
Planning for a 1:55 finish, I’d aimed to run faster in the second half, aka negative splits.  That means starting at a pace of 5:32/km and gradually increasing pace to 5:22 by the last 5km.  That’s about 1% negative, and I managed that in the first half, spot on at 5km (27:40) and 10km (55:04), so I was very pleased about that.  However the form problems noted above probably mean that I’d burned out with that push, so in the end the second half was more like 3% negative, counteracting any good time built in the first half!

I don’t know how much of a placebo running gels are, but having trained with and without them I played safe and used 4, more or less every 5km.  Possibly one more gel towards the end with a bit of caffeine might have helped, who knows?

Oh and the music was great – I realised after my test run that it was going to be hard to get “perfect” songs for a particular beat, so didn’t worry too much.  I did work out that quiet, classical soundtracks which have been fine on long training runs are no match for a noisy crowd!

All in all, a great experience, especially as over £1000 was raised for Child Bereavement UK.  I’ve got a benchmark for improvement, and will make sure there isn’t such a long gap before the next race.

Cheering from the sidelines: the new space race


Like many science geeks I was disappointed when the Space Shuttle programme ended with no obvious replacement.  This video compilation from 2011 was very moving, but left me with the feeling that we’d kind of given up on space exploration, quite teary, I can tell you.

Foruntately as with many aspects of life, there are often a whole set of events going on that don’t make the news headlines.  On further reading I was pleased to find that the space programme is actually more robust and forward looking than it was when the Shuttle was flying.  This is mainly due to NASA putting out commercial contracts for resupplying the International Space Station, and competitions for the development of new technologies.

That’s led to some new companies such as SpaceX and Sierra Nevada gaining on the older aerospace companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, who’ve had a monopoly until now.  That monopoly and the connection with political funding is part of the problem, but getting stuff to space is hard in itself.

NASA Budget as percentage of Federal Budget

NASA Budget, from Tim Urban’s article (click to read) “How (and Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars”

I came across some excellent articles by Tim Urban of on SpaceX and Elon Musk, which help to explain why the Apollo and Space Shuttle programmes didn’t usher in the prosperous space age that was promised.  They’re a great (long) read, but in short, Apollo was motivated by a political goal: a hugely expensive effort that could not be sustained long term.  Despite fantastic achievements, it didn’t lay the foundations for the next step in human exploration.  The Space Shuttle was a compromise between military, commercial and scientific requirements, but bound by political and industrial interests, expensive, never truly reusable nor safe.

Questioning constraints

SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, who recognised that the cost of getting to space was a  fundamental barrier to exploration.  He totted up the costs of manufacturing, fuel and other technology, and asked “why is it that we’re not reusing these rockets?”.  Fortunately Musk had plenty of money from his previous internet ventures, so started designing a brand-new rocket system that could be mass-produced, using modern materials and manufacturing techniques.

The simple analogy is that of a modern aircraft – a long metal tube that we refuel and service and send back up in the air, thousands of times a year.  So why not build the rocket for reusability, so you can land, refuel and launch again?  Starting from scratch, without a legacy industrial complex and political supporters to satisfy, you can identify what’s needed for that to happen and work towards that goal: an engine you can restart, cheap fuel that can easily be handled.  There are also advantages to using 9 engines per rocket, such as mass-manufacturing on a production line, and resiliency.  An early mission saw an engine fail during launch, but the flight continued on the remaining eight.

Falcon 9 booster landing profile by ZLSA design.

Falcon 9 booster landing profile by ZLSA design.

Landing a booster is a tricky problem, but the engineering approach brought a solution.  Parachutes were quickly dismissed after the first few launches – even if they brought the booster back safely, same as the Space Shuttle boosters, recovery from sea was going to be difficult, and refurbishment of a water-damaged engine adds more technical challenges.  Instead, the booster was considered as a reverse pendulum, same as a Segway.  A bottom-heavy tube which can tilt the engine to reorient itself, along with gridfins and thrusters to steer, the problem becomes one of controlling the falling booster towards a designated point.  You can now test individual elements of this, eventually trying them out on live missions, effectively getting the customer to pay for your development .

He also brought development practices common to the software industry, which Tim Urban writes about (see above).  E.g. What’s the minimal product we need to get to the next step?  What can we change to improve efficiency, accuracy?  SpaceX also have some amazing, lesser known players like Gwynne Shotwell, Hans Koenigsmann and Tom Mueller.  Those three are experts in dealing with the business, the assurance and the engine design, but they also effectively communicate their role towards the company’s mission, as well as evangelise about the mission itself.

Space as personal inspiration

The December 2015 launch and landing was the culmination of this development: to send a rocket up, deliver a satellite, and then land the booster back on a pad.  I watched it live, and it was much more exciting than any sporting event.

Piggers going all the way this year!

The Oatmeal: Piggers

Your chosen sporting team can win the European Championship, the Ashes or the Superbowl one year, but that’s it, there’s nothing more than that but to do the same again the following season.  There are moments of excitement, to be sure, and more often than not there’s disappointement, but there’s no end goal, no progress.  That’s partly why I got fed up with sport as a teenager, it was an abstract, transitory sense of achievement that I’d just gained by choosing a particular team to support.

But when I saw that rocket land back on the pad, it hit me that it could not be undone.  It wasn’t going to just be “great, let’s tune in next week and see if they land another or it blows up spectacularly.”  It represented a massive step in reusable technologies, to reduce the cost of sending stuff up and exploring space.  We subsequently saw them continue to perfect the landings, both on land and on sea.  There were mistakes and accidents, but they learned from those and continued to refine the rocket.

I’ve watched most of the launches since then, sometimes out of a sense of habit, much the same as turning up for an unimportant game on a drizzly November tuesday evening.  More often though, it’s because there’s something new, a milestone like landing on a barge or reusing a booster – once, twice, three times.  Or minor changes such as moving from Aluminium to Titanium gridfins.  There were new sights as well, spectacular camera footage from the booster itself and from the ground, some tense moments during landings.  For example the gridfin upgrade came after a spectacular hot reentry where we could see part of the gridfins melting as the booster came back.  Another spiralled out of control, only to “land” in the sea, sitting awkwardly off Port Canaveral.

Above all, the Falcon Heavy inaugural launch was incredible, if you haven’t seen it, this short video by Jonathan Nolan will give you a hint:

“I had the privilege of being down with Elon in launch control for the Falcon Heavy launch, and there was an incredible spirit there on the day,” Nolan told the audience. “It felt extraordinary, thinking about all the people that had contributed to putting this together, and the spirit of it. And something that I haven’t felt in an awfully long time. We tried to distill that essence down.”
“The only way I know how to express it: we cut a trailer,” he said. “It’s not a trailer for a movie. It’s not a trailer for a TV show. What we’re hoping this is is the trailer for one part of the next chapter of the human story.”

That sensibility is what inspired me in 2015, and why I want to write more about what’s happening with this mission to make humanity a space-faring civilisation.  More importantly, I think there are many aspects, particular those involving humans, that are not getting the attention they deserve from fans nor academics.  I hope to highlight and expand on these in future posts.

All in the stride



Running nerd resumes!  

After a couple of years hiatus, an injury in 2015, and half heartedly keeping up the running bug, I signed up for the Royal Parks Half Marathon again.  Less than 3 weeks to go now, and I’ve been following a great training plan, aiming for a sub 2:00 time.  

I did my longest run (21km) a couple of weeks back and am now tapering down.  I think I’ve got the nutrition, hydration and most of the preparation fine, but stride cadence is not something I’ve paid much attention to.  Instead I’ve aimed to hit a target pace and/or stay in a particular training zone for Heart Rate.

A few weeks ago my GPS watch was playing up, so I used the runkeeper app, which recorded cadence, or how many steps per minute.  Over that distance, I hit an average of 145 strides per minute, ok for an endurance run at 6:13min/km, but I’ll need to bump that pace up if I’m going to beat my target time on the day.  From what I’ve read, it looks like I should be aiming for more like 160-170.  And that could mean being more consistent about the music I’m listening to on the way.

I did a randomish playlist for my previous RPH, but I do remember many songs being off beat and probably not helping with stride.  With this in the back of my mind, took note of several songs that really picked up the pace and lifted my spirits on Sunday’s 17km run.  I was aiming for an easy, slow run, but managed a decent 6:06/km.  Afterwards I started to work out what BPM these booster songs were, and whether I could identify a good beat to run to.

As an experiment I’ve put a few songs into Spotify playlists: Sub-140 bpm140-150 bpm, 150-160 bpm and 160+bpm.  (You’re welcome to try them out too).  I used a tap bpm counter app to work them out and rejected a few favourites because they weren’t consistent enough, or the perceived beat was too slow.

I’ll be trying these out later tonight, only a 6.5km steady run, but I can see what difference these make.

If you read this far, please consider donating to my Fundraiser page.  I’m running for the amazing Child Bereavement UK, hepling rebuild lives, when a child dies, or a child grieves.