Life in the Fast Lane

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Sarah Pemberton in the Southern Cross Country Championships 2016. Photo credit: Lars Menken

Diana Valk talks to two of our fastest Serpies, Sarah Pemberton and Glenn Hughes, about training, motiviation and their goals for 2016.

On a recent cool, damp February day I found myself standing on a muddy hill below Alexandra Palace watching the final Met League cross country race of the season. Judging by the faces of the competitors the course was grueling. The mud was several inches deep in places and there was a steep, nasty hill that clearly took its toll on some.  Despite the conditions, Sarah Pemberton and Glenn Hughes, two of our fastest Serpies, finished their races with impressive times (22:50/6K and 27:57/8K, respectively) and placed in the top seven for the season.

Since joining Serpentine Running Club Sarah (member since 2012) and Glenn (member since 2013) have been fixtures on the podiums of many races. Sarah’s personal bests include an 18:07 5k, a 37:06 10k, and a 2:58:21 time in the 2014 London Marathon. Glenn’s best times include a 14:36 track 5000 meter and 30:52 road 10k. A week after the Met League race I had the opportunity to sit down with them for an interview.

Slower beginnings

Watching them fly by me at Alexandra Palace I couldn’t help but think they had always been leaders of the pack, but they set me straight on this subject by recounting memories from their early years of running. Coming from a family of runners, Sarah often participated in races with her parents. She said “My dad always goes on about a 5k that we did together… I was so slow that they had run out of the t-shirts at the end.” Glenn had a similar experience, “One of my first National Races was the New Zealand Road Running Champs for high school and I think there were not that many in the race…maybe 130 or something…I finished about 110th.”

So, what changed that caused their running to improve so greatly? Both Sarah and Glenn point to a shift in their mental approach to running. Sarah vividly remembers a race at school in which she started at the back, chatting with friends, “I could see some of the girls at the front going off and… my competitiveness just kicked in and I thought I’m going to see if I can chase them.” Glenn also saw a change in his performance after he started properly training. Prior to that he had run the races, but given little thought to structured sessions. One day a fellow cross-country runner invited him to go along on a training run. “What the hell is a training run?” he wondered. After that they ended up running together almost everyday.

Training

Now running 90-100 kilometres a week, it is hard to believe that there was a time when Glenn did not know what a training run was. He trains six or seven days week, alternating easy and hard sessions. His intense training days include a Tuesday interval session, a Thursday steady 20k run, and a tempo run or a race on Saturday.

Sarah’s important training days include the Serpentine Tuesday track session at Paddington, a threshold session (running at your maximum aerobic steady state) with a group of runners on Thursday, and a race or hill training on Saturday. All these hard sessions are a way “to train yourself to push yourself,” as Glenn says. Sarah says it prepares her to continue “pushing when it really hurts,” which comes in handy when you’re tackling a particularly difficult race with strong competition.

Glenn Hughes in action at the Southern Cross Country Championships 2016. Photo credit: Lars Menken

Strengths

If you read the last issue of Serpentimes then you are aware that Glenn is a hill fanatic. Course elevation increases that would make many runners cringe are an attraction for Glenn and when I ask what his favorite races are he replies, “Anything that goes uphill for an extended period of time.” Though from a relatively flat area of New Zealand, Glenn says hill running just came naturally to him. One of his most exciting experiences was taking part in the 2014 World Mountain Running Championships at Casette di Massa in Italy. After 11.7 kilometers of uphill running through the marble quarries of the area, Glenn not only finished 38th in a field of 155, but also had a stunning view of the Apuan Alps.

One of Sarah’s strengths has to be her ability to run almost any distance on practically any surface. She has raced anything from 1500m to the marathon and has run not only cross country races, but also road races, track competitions, and even obstacle course events like Tough Guy, which she described as “really fun! (sort of) and quite surreal.” With track season coming up I asked Sarah what she gets out of track that she does not get from other races. She says it is the intensity, “There’s not really any chance to ease into the race – you have to run hard from the beginning and try and hold on until the end!”

Motivation

Running six days a week and racing almost every weekend takes some serious devotion and I ask Glenn and Sarah what drives them to keep going. They reveal motivations that most runners, regardless of speed, can relate to. Glenn says, “It’s a way to travel. It’s a way to meet people…It’s a good way to take your mind off of other things that are going on, work, or relationships or things like that.” Sarah agrees and adds, “It becomes a very integral part of your life. Goals, like coming a certain place in a race, help you with harder training… but I think longer term it’s just part of my life.”

They both feel that running clubs, like Serpentine, are additional motivators. One of the reasons Sarah joined Serpentine was because of the wide variety of training session offered. She says, “There is just so much on and it’s just a very active club in terms of people organising training. If I had to do all my training by myself I just wouldn’t do it.” Clubs also act as motivation because every member is a potential friend, training partner, or inspiration. Glenn explains, “There are other people that keep you going as well. So there are people like Andy Greenleaf, who set up our Tuesday night session. He’s always there and he definitely motivates you to get out there.”

Advice

I could not interview two of our fastest runners without asking for a little speed advice. For those wanting to pick up the pace Sarah recommends consistency in training. “Plan what runs you’re going to do each week and keep doing them week in and week out. Obviously you want to be flexible if you’re ill or injured…but I think you need to keep plugging away at it each week.”

Glenn echoes her sentiment and adds “Try and tag on to some more experienced people” as a way to push yourself and get used to running at a slightly faster pace.

Sarah also promotes the Serpentine track sessions. “Anyone can do track. You don’t have to be a certain speed to come along to the track sessions.”

2016 Goals

Now that the cross country season is over I ask Glenn and Sarah what their racing calendar is looking like for the rest of the year. Glenn is taking a well-deserved break after the cross country, but aims to partake in some off-road races this summer. Sarah’s schedule is packed, with the London Marathon centre stage in April where she aims to improve on her 2014 time. After the marathon she will focus on the club grand-prix track races, the Green Belt Relay, Welsh Castles Relay, Sri Chinmoy races at Battersea, trail races in September, and then she will be ready for cross country again in October. Whew!

Diana Valk has been a card carrying Serpie since she moved to London from the U.S. three years ago. When she is not running she is thinking about archaeology, forensic anthropology, or her next knitting project.