The upgrade of the A14 between Milton and Ellington has been a frustrating experience as a motorist, with seemingly endless roadworks, and at times little evident progress with millions of pounds of equipment sitting idle so often. But at last the progress is becoming more evident, and while the online improvements south of Fenstanton aren’t due to be finished until December 2020, the offline section forming the Huntingdon southern bypass will be opened this year. Perhaps arising from a post on Facebook that I saw, or perhaps elsewhere, there emerged plans for cycle and running events on the nearly complete carriageway before it opens. Although I have the Great Eastern Run half-marathon tomorrow, I thought that this wasn’t an opportunity I would get again, so signed up as soon as I could. There was a 14km run, to match the A14, but bearing in mind the Great Eastern, I selected the half distance of 7km, and planned to take it easy to try not to tire my legs too much for tomorrow.
(As it happens, the Great Eastern Run was cancelled the next day, due to a police incident involving an armed response, so I could have run faster, and/or done the full 14km, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.)
We had a weekend away in Vienna for the twin purposes of me running the Vienna half-marathon and eating Wiener Schnitzel – we stayed in an apartment close to the Danube and the race start, while Mum and Dad stayed in a hotel in the centre of the city.
So, no place for me in next year’s London Marathon in the ballot – like 2018, but unlike 2018 I don’t plan to seek a charity place. I am proud of the funds I helped raise this year, and very grateful to family, friends and colleagues in their support, but I don’t want to put either myself or them in the position of asking for more money again so soon.
But I do still feel like I have unfinished business – I didn’t entirely succeed in what I aimed to do from a running point of view, particularly once my knee gave out at about mile 14 and so the second half turned into run-walk and my pace was much slower than planned.
So I’ve booked myself in for the MK Marathon on Monday 6 May after a good deal of deliberation as to where I wanted to run. It’s slightly more undulating than I would have liked, but I think the style of the course will suit me, and it’s not impractical to go and practice run on some sections over the winter. I did consider the Boston marathon (the one in Lincolnshire) as being the flattest in the country, but the course isn’t inspiring and it could be really challenging if a bit windy.
And in advance of that, Lucy and I will be spending a long weekend in Vienna at the start of April, when I’ll be running the Vienna City half marathon, fuelled by schnitzel and a slice of Sachertorte.
I completed my first marathon in the hottest London Marathon yet, with wonderful support from family and friends coming to London and many others more remotely. The crowd support was quite extraordinary. In common with almost everyone in the race, my time was slower than originally planned – in my case a knee niggle adding to the impact of the sun and warmth. Thanks to the generosity of so many, I exceeded my fundraising target. A great day for me, though tinged with sadness at the news that Matt Campbell, one of the many runners who collapsed during the run, has since died.
The long version
I’d stayed overnight in Gravesend in order to avoid a very early start from Suffolk, and so woke at 3am and couldn’t get back to sleep. I had at least gone to sleep at 9pm so still had a reasonable rest. At 4.30am I realised that, though I’d written an extensive packing list some time ago, the list was deficient in two items, viz. my bandana/buff which I’ve been using as a loose wristband for the last few weeks, and my headband. Neither is critical but it was annoying, though illustrates a danger of relying too much on packing lists. I sent Lucy a message in the hope that she could bring them with her and pass them to me in Woolwich. Getting out of bed and searching in vain for those items made going back to sleep all the more unlikely. The text message from London Marathon at 5.06am telling us it was going to be warm didn’t help, either.
I got up at 6 and left the hotel at 7, driving to Dartford, where I caught the train, mostly full of fellow marathoners; I chatted with a couple of them, one a first-timer and one who’d run it last year.
From Greenwich station it was a short walk into Greenwich Park, and up the hill of The Avenue. This was the first time I’d walked up this hill: I ran up it three times in a 10k race which is still officially my 10k PB but the true distance of which I have doubts about. On my way up the hill, a marshal said “Good luck, Stephen” – reading my name from my top. I suppose I should have expected it, but it still felt surprising the first time, and felt good.
At the top I entered the runners area. I picked up a free bottle of Lucozade Sport to drink gradually before the start, and made my first visit to the toilet. I sat down and enjoyed the beautiful morning in Greenwich Park, and had my first banana, then decided to drop off my kit bag on the luggage lorry.
Noticing that the toilet queues were now lengthening significantly, I joined one for the second visit. I found myself queuing with Mel Elliot, who had got married earlier this morning and was running the marathon with her new husband, James. She invited us to join her for a celebratory Lucozade at mile 7.
The queue moved faster than I really wanted, which left me wondering whether to join again or to move towards the start pens. I decided that I would be fine, and went to the largely empty start pens, and sat down on the kerb at the back of pen 5 and had my second banana and gradually finished the Lucozade Sport. A woman came and sat next to me and we chatted for a while till the pen was fairly full and we decided to stand up.
The 4-hour pacers were at the back of the pen, as I’d known they would be. All the advice in recent days had been to moderate ambitions due to the forecast record heat. I’d struggled to give up my dream goal too easily, and the best that my head got in its battle with my heart was to try 3 miles at goal pace and see how it went.
The race started at 10.00, and about 10.10 we started to creep forwards. Having told those visiting London and further afield that they would be able to follow me via the Garmin Livetrack system whereby my Garmin GPS watch feeds my position out via my phone, I then spent a frantic 10 minutes repeatedly trying to get an Internet connection on my phone to set it going – the crowds of runners and spectators together saturating the mobile phone networks. Eventually I managed to get a connection, and hoped that it would work well enough during the day to be of some use to those trying to meet up with me.
We finally crossed the start line just before 10.28. Despite the phased release of the runners, the thing that was immediately apparent was how busy the course was. There were periods when there was enough room, then periods when I was repeatedly slowed down behind someone before finding a way to squeeze between two slower runners or weave round them. The 4-hour pacers gradually slipped away and I decided I would be quite happy with 4:12, one of my original goals.
At the bottom of the hill around 3 miles, we turned west towards central London. A short while later I found Lucy waving a flag – at this point I couldn’t read it as it was rather furled up, but I later saw it said “Go Stephen”. She passed me my headband and buff, and I gave her my hat, which I was worried would make me hotter, though it would have prevented my head from getting sunburnt.
The crowds continued to line every metre of available space. Some areas were quieter than others, but there was nowhere that could be called quiet. In common with most other people in the race, I’d had my name printed on my top, and there were a few calls of “Go Stephen” and the like, though a significant proportion, maybe a majority, of the people of SE London pronounced it “Go Stefan” which was mildly irritating. Later on, the people in central London were all correct in their pronunciation – no Stefans there.
The water started to be provided at mile 3, after which it was approximately every mile. Original advice had been to make it clear that you don’t need to take water every mile (most people collapsing have drunk too much, not too little, and when the marathon had run out of water in a couple of earlier years, the number of people collapsing went down), but in the light of the hot weather, the emphasis in the advice had changed, and at Expo on Thursday the focus was more on not taking more than one bottle per water station, and using some of the water to cool one’s body. So I took water at every place available, drank a small bit and used the rest to cool my arms, hands, neck and top of head. Because most people were doing similarly, rather than skipping one or two water stations, they were particularly busy and slowed progress a little. I gather that later in the race, the supply ran out at some places.
Although I saw quite a few fellow runners collapsed by the side (particularly in the middle stages) receiving medical attention, I didn’t feel hot or troubled. I monitored my pace but didn’t try to push it at all, just running at what felt like a comfortable speed, and one which was around 4:12 pace for a good while. Even that slipped slightly, but I didn’t let it worry me, continuing at what felt right with the time pressure now off.
Between miles 6 and 7 we went around the Cutty Sark, a real landmark on the route, and one which spectators were advised to avoid due to over-crowding. It was busy, but from my brief perspective not really any busier than lots of other places: with the growing popularity of the event, coupled with the great weather for spectating, the numbers of people out on the course as a whole must surely have been a record.
I knew my parents were at Surrey Quays just before mile 9, but didn’t have a good grasp of where exactly, and spotting anyone in the huge crowds as one goes past at 6mph is a big challenge, so I missed them. With a map in front of me now, I can see that they would have been on the left hand side, as proved by the photo they took, but while running along I didn’t even have that in my head so was trying to watch both sides at once.
Next landmark for me was the Guide Dogs cheering station, where I expected Lucy to be as well. To be honest the cheering spot felt slightly lost in the general huge level of noise, with lots of other charity cheering spots too. The crowd in general was so loud that quite a few people had brought speakers or loudhailers to help them be heard. I briefly waved at the Guide Dogs people, thinking perhaps I’d seen Lucy with a borrowed megaphone, though I wasn’t sure – it turns out it was a total stranger who I gave a big smile to. The cheering point had apparently been moved slightly, and Lucy wasn’t there but nearby.
Shortly after, as I approached mile 12, I got a message from my brother to say he and family were at mile 12, but unfortunately I didn’t spot them, either.
Crossing Tower Bridge is the next landmark, and in a world where the word “iconic” is overused, it is perhaps justified here. Looking up at the towers outlined against the blue sky was beautiful, and the bridge was lined with roaring crowds, albeit if anything quieter than the streets in the mile approaching the bridge. The gentle hill leading up to the bridge felt easy, and the hill down on the other side even easier and made that section with the electric atmosphere even more enjoyable.
My friend Claire was on the far side somewhere, but I didn’t see her either, so that was four failures in row – very difficult to spot people in the crowd, even more so without complete precision as to their location.
Turning right along The Highway, we saw the faster (and earlier starting) runners going the other way about nine miles ahead, and soon after passed the 13.1-mile half-way mark. We’d been warned that this is much quieter than Tower Bridge, and that the combination of the realisation that there are still 13 miles to go, seeing the runners so far ahead, and the relative quietness, can be mentally challenging. I didn’t find it so – there are always going to be people behind me and in front of me, the promised quietness didn’t materialise even slightly, and though I’d slowed a bit, I was still feeling quite strong.
In 2009 I ran the Reading Half-Marathon, and my right knee gave out at about 11 miles in, and though I could walk the last two miles, it didn’t let me so much as jog a few paces. The knee hasn’t much troubled me since, but today it did start to bother me. When I got to mile 15, I found my ability to maintain the pace ended quite abruptly, in significant part due to the knee suddenly troubling me much more. I dropped to a walk for a little while, then tried a run again, and quickly settled to a routine of between 2 and 3 minutes’ run, followed by 1 minute of walking, which together produced about 8-minute kilometres. This was much slower than I’d hoped to be going, but now the important thing was to finish, and I found this was something I could maintain.
As I ran south down the Isle of Dogs peninsular, I found myself alongside a man dressed as a toilet for quite a while. The crowd all around were roaring “Go toilet!”, which is the command we use when we want the dogs to evacuate themselves. As I was contemplating whether I needed to join the queues at the toilets along the course, it wasn’t helpful to have my attention continually drawn to this, so I was glad when our paths diverged. Fortunately, my brief need to stop also evaporated and didn’t return.
Most of the runners were in ordinary running clothing, albeit a lot of us wearing our charities’ tops, but of course there are quite a few in fancy dress – many of them starting behind me. In addition to the toilet, among many others I recall passing a man carrying a tractor, a man as an X-Wing fighter, a man carrying a tumble-drier on his back (it was reassuring to go past him), and a barefoot Jesus carrying a cross, plus a group of Grenfell Tower firefighters in full kit.
Lucy had been able to give me very clear information as to where she next was, and I picked her and her flag out easily at Km 30. It was really great to see her. While my slower run/walk technique was still holding out, I was rather anxious about whether I could maintain it and whether I would finish at all. My knee was sometimes hurting towards the end of the two to three minutes, but the walk break was allowing it to recover so it didn’t bother me at all at the start of the little runs, but would that continue? In Reading in 2009, it gave out very suddenly, going almost immediately from painful to unrunnable.
As we ran towards and onto the Aspen Way dual carriageway, we had one of the very few lulls from crowds lining the route. That was soon followed by the left turn into Poplar High Street, now heading west once more towards central London, soon followed by the Mile 20 gantry and it suddenly felt like the home straight, the end was metaphorically in sight and I started to relax again. I’d heard before that a marathon is a 10k race with a 20-mile warm-up, and that seemed a very odd way of putting it, but certainly having less than 10k to go did feel a notable milestone in conjunction with the change of direction.
Crowds thronged The Highway to an even greater extent on the way back, and the “Go Stephen” calls were very motivating. I’d heard that these calls are great at the start but can be annoying by the end, but I didn’t need them early on but later they were helpful, especially when I could see the individuals calling out and thank them personally – eye contact making a definite difference.
As I neared the end of The Highway, coaches were passing along the other way, nine miles behind me, presumably mopping up the slowest runners, either requiring them to get on the coach or to move onto the pavement to complete their run as the road closures began to be lifted.
At Tower Hill, I found Claire and we exchanged a high-five – great to see another familiar face. From here, the crowds continued thick and loud for every step of the way, with even more enthusiasm for calling out support to individual runners.
My run/walk strategy was continuing to work for me. I had enough energy gradually to speed up as I progressed from mile 15 to mile 26, by running slightly faster or with longer run sections, but I kept listening to my knee to drop back to the regular brisk walks, and was content to enjoy the experience now there was no time pressure.
If I had been pushing the pace, the very crowded nature of the course would have been much more frustrating – it was busy early on, then eased off, but by now seemed even busier, with lots of people doing the same as me, run/walking. That was fine when I was ready to walk, as I checked behind me, moved to the side and broke into a walk. But when I wanted to run, it was difficult to do so without lots and lots of dodging and weaving, which adds both distance and effort. Even without that, if everyone had been going at the same pace as each other, any hope of following the dotted blue line on the road which is the 42,195-metre route is impossible unless you are very near the front of the race. This was the busiest race I’ve run by some margin: I’ve had some busy starts, but no crowded conditions 80% of the way through.
Looking back at the half-marathon PB which contributed to my pace confidence, it was done on a cool morning, on an almost deserted route, almost completely straight, without having to stop for drink or food or cooling showers. Of course, it was done without any taper, and without any race buzz or crowd support, either, so the factors split both ways.
The crowds lining the route got even busier as we went along Lower Thames Street and along The Embankment. Near Hungerford Bridge I was looking for a first aid station where Mark, Debbie, Ben and Thomas were located, with an assumption that Mum and Dad might be there too. I never saw the first-aiders but did hear a call from the crowd and turned to see the family cheering me on, which was great.
Lucy was somewhere at the end of Whitehall for her final spot, apparently opposite some music, which I looked out for, but the crowd was so loud I didn’t hear the music until I was past it. I turned to look over my shoulder for Lucy and ran into the back of the man in front of me, so refocussed my attention on the remaining kilometre.
Although I was now full of energy, relatively speaking, and the large majority of my legs would have let me run much faster, conscious of the knee I deliberately timed my walk session to take me to the “385 yards to go” bridge, so that I could be sure of running those last 385 yards without break. And then it was the magical turn onto The Mall, the finish line, and it was done: I had finished.
My finish time was 4:52:11, making me 21,131st of 40,149 finishers. Considerably slower than hoped or planned, but in the record warmth (officially 24.1°C) and with a knee injury, still something to be pleased with.
A slow walk followed, to be awarded my medal, pick up my goody bag, and then collect my kit bag from the appropriate luggage lorry. I looked for Marion, who was one of the volunteers on goody bags, but didn’t spot her and my mind was not focused for a long search.
Once I had my kit bag, I mixed my recovery drink and downed that. I could see the Guide Dogs reception up to my left at the Institute for Government, but I had to take the long way around, past all the prostrate runners, out through the exit, up the steps to the Duke of York’s statue and along Carlton House Terrace.
Lucy was arriving at the same time, and we chatted for a little while with one of the many people benefiting from a guide dog. I popped upstairs and got a little bit of food, by which time Mark, Debbie, Ben and Thomas had arrived. We had some quiet family time, interspersed with a massage and shower for me. Eventually we set off home, pausing for a photo with a guide dog.
Sore thighs, but they let me go for a 3km run on Tuesday morning. A slightly bruised second toe on my left foot, but I think the toenail will survive. A sunburnt head – maybe I should have kept that hat on after all. Cramping feet on Sunday evening which made getting to sleep difficult. Sickness due to sunstroke during Sunday night. And of course that knee. But all in all, fairly modest impacts. No blisters. Remarkably little hunger – not the raging insatiable hunger I’ve had after many shorter runs. By Monday morning, I was 2.5kg lighter than Saturday morning, so still some fluids to replace.
Thanks to the generosity of so many friends and family, I met and exceeded my fundraising target for Guide Dogs, which is fabulous – thank you.
A number of people have asked: would I do it again? Maybe, one day. A part of me would like to do it in cooler conditions, with a knee that behaved itself. I know I have it in me to get close to four hours. But it did consume a large part of my life in training, and while I really enjoyed that focus and the new opportunities, I’m not sure I want that to be the new normal. And my knee was clearly not happy. So for the moment at any rate, a return to shorter distances.
Seven weeks to go till the London Marathon, and my training plan had suggested a half-marathon race, and somehow that got turned into a short holiday to Cyprus. It was an early start on Sunday morning to get to the Cyprus half in Paphos by 7.40. I was able to use a loo in the car park, which was a good move as there were long queues down near the start. I had my second banana of the morning, topped up water, and then headed down to the harbour.
The start and finish were by the castle at the harbour, and though very familiar to me, still a great spot. The marathon runners had started at Aphrodite’s Rock at 7.30, but the start area for the rest of us was a little busy with HM, 10k and 5k runners all milling about together, but absent any instructions I headed as close as I could get to the start line, which proved a sensible move.
The temperature was unseasonably warm, being 19 when we set off – I’m not sure what it was later in the race but it reached 26 later in the day.
I wasn’t sure how fast I should run in the warmth and took it a little easy to start, and chose to adopt my run/walk strategy once again – run for a mile, then walk for about 40 seconds. I used this to set my personal bests at 10 miles and half-marathon, though on long training runs where the pace is lower, I stick to pure running. Not only does the short walk break, if adopted right from the very beginning, allow the legs to recover before they get too tired, and thus achieve a faster average pace than continuous running, it also makes drinking and eating gels or other foods much easier (even more so in races where the drink is in a cup rather than a bottle), but by being fairly regimented about the structure, it stops the temptation to walk for too long or too often.
Lucy and my parents had driven out to a roundabout on the course, which thanks to the doubling back of the route, meant that with virtually no movement they were at the 5km, 9km and 16km points, which meant for good support and also the opportunity to be refuelled twice: I deliberately timed my walk breaks to be as I passed them at 5 and 16 kilometres.
After reaching the high point, 60 metres above sea level, after 12.5km, I realised I wasn’t far off PB pace and was feeling good, so pushed myself quite hard, skipping the walk break at mile 8 as it was downhill, and having one at about mile 11½ instead of 11 and 12, and really trying to push the pace. It is amazing how a trivial upwards slope of less than 1% still feels vertiginous towards the end of a race – I’d never noticed that the coastal road past the hotels is fractionally uphill, but now I did as I fought to gain a few extra seconds.
I found I couldn’t quite make up the missing time, though, despite finishing with a 4:24/km sprint which passed a few people, with shouts of support from friends coming as I neared the line. I finished 13 seconds off my target, in 1:56:19. However, I subsequently realised that my PB was 1:56:26, not :06, and so it was a new PB by 7 seconds which is fabulous, and makes that sprint finish doubly worthwhile.
My last three halfs have all been within 7 seconds of each other, so good consistency too. A really satisfying result in the heat. I stopped to recover for a few minutes, and admired the astonishing array of trophies for the various age categories.
A great morning, and more marathon nutrition practice too. As a practice run for London, as an event in its own right, and as something to experience with family and friends, a success on all counts.
Then back to our villa with friends and family for well earned drinks, food, and a very bracing swim.
Since getting my place in May 2017 for in The Big One on 22 April 2018, I’ve deliberately run a lot more races than previously, with more in the pipeline. Those planned still to do:
In March, my first overseas race, the Cyprus Half Marathon in Paphos. In places it’s not the most thrilling of routes, truth be told, but a great start and finish, and having spent so much time in Cyprus it will be fun to run a race there as part of the London Marathon build-up, 7 weeks out.
Other possibilities: the Stowmarket half-marathon in March is very local and a possibility, 5 weeks from London. The Tarpley 10 or 20 in February is also very local. However, none of these quite fit the distances my training plan is calling for, so I’ll reserve judgement for now.
I’ve entered the London 10-mile in Richmond Park again in May 2018, having run the first one in 2017 and not done quite as well as I’d hoped. It’s only three weeks after the London Marathon, so I’m not sure whether that means I’ll be in peak form, or still gently recovering, or with a body just too focused on the endurance of the marathon distance rather than a bit more speed for 10 miles. We’ll see.
And after that – no definite plans. Perhaps the Perkins Great Eastern Half again in October. Definitely a 10k or two somewhere as that distance has been neglected with the marathon and half-marathon focus, and I think I now have more strength to succeed at 10k. And of course some more parkrun tourism, which has also suffered slightly.
Part of the legacy of the 2012 Olympics is the mountain-bike course at Hadleigh in Essex, including some rather challenging terrain for bikes.
Arising from that is the slightly confusingly named Hadleigh 2012 Legacy 10k, confusing only in the sense that one must understand that the 2012 doesn’t refer to the year of the event, a 10k run around the course.
I did this last year, and said at the time it was the hardest 10k I’ve done, and 12 months later I still agree. Somehow I was persuaded to come back for a second go. We’ve had much wetter weather recently, so I expected conditions underfoot to be tougher. They were, but only a little, as despite one’s distorted memories, the large majority of the route is on firm gravel surfaces. But the muddy bits were definitely muddier and I was restricted to an inelegant stumbling, flailing walk on them.
The route is essentially all hill (or is to the eyes and legs of someone who started all his running on the flood plain of the River Lee), with around 300 metres of ascent in its 10km – not much by some standards, but plenty for me. Some of it is very rocky too, and running up it is quite a challenge.
There are two tunnels on each of the two laps, and a 270° corner where you loop tightly around above the runners just behind you. There are zig-zags to get up hills which my Strava plot tells me peak at a 41° slope. And there is a grassy section some of which rapidly turns to mud on a sideways slope – interesting!
My hope had been to beat last year’s time, but I didn’t manage it, being about 1½ minutes slower – perhaps I set off too fast (though most of the start is downhill), perhaps the extra muddiness took its toll, perhaps it was just that it was windier than last year, or maybe despite the marathon training I’m still not quite at peak fitness yet. I think there was also a little mental challenge which I didn’t quite overcome – once I decided I definitely wasn’t going to beat last year, I perhaps was too content to walk up some of the hills that I ran up last year, though I note that the winner was almost two minutes slower than last year too, which I take some heart from.
By contrast Claire, whose idea it was originally for us to run it, knocked several minutes off her time – well done Claire! She has just crossed the finish here so is showing the agony I’d been showing a bit before, while I’ve had chance to recover.
A chilly morning (zero degrees when we set out from home) made for a slightly tricky decision on what to wear for this race, and as I stood around before the start, wearing an extra fleece and still cold, I began to doubt whether I was going to be wearing enough. The large number of women in vests and skimpy shorts (there were a few men similarly attired but we’re typically less hardy) suggested that either they were going to be even colder, or maybe I would be ok, though the several billion goosebumps in evidence didn’t set my mind at rest.
The warm-up, though delayed because of late arrivals struggling to get to the course, eventually did its job, and once the race was underway I was fine. Later, I even contemplated throwing my gloves at Lucy who’d come to cheer me on. My top layer got increasing unzipped as the race went on.
The course was three laps of Snetterton motor racing circuit plus an out-and-back along an access road, which meant six crossings of a bridge with a noticeable little climb. Even without the bridge six times, it wasn’t quite as flat as I’d been lead to expect: not hilly but enough gradient to notice. It was a beautifully sunny day, albeit with a fair breeze which increased and was noticeable everywhere on such an exposed route. A fair few supporters, and the looped route meant that I got a personal cheer eight times, which is always great.
My objective was to beat, just, my PB from last month of 1:56:26. I was weakening slightly on the third lap, but reckoned I had just enough in hand to make it; however, my Garmin recorded me doing 21.2 km so the pace calculation was fractionally out, and at the water station on the third lap I had to wait several seconds for them to pour a drink as there was none ready, which I didn’t begrudge at the time but with hindsight was a bit frustrating since the end result was that my official time was 1:56:26. Couldn’t have done it if I’d tried.
So, another medal to add to the collection, plus a bottle of water after the finish. No goody bag – they’re often a waste so probably no bad thing. The site had shower blocks which I took advantage of, and then after a quick snack we walked slowly along the access road, being passed by the tailenders, back to the car and so to the White Stag in Hingham for a late lunch.
A beautiful day for a run today, the Great Eastern Run half-marathon around the streets of Peterborough. One or two people afterwards complained that it was hot and muggy, but they obviously weren’t in the same place as me – I thought it nearly ideal running conditions: blue skies to start with though more cloud later, about 12 degrees, and the gentlest of breezes.
I recently read a Facebook post along the lines of “things I wished someone had told me before my first marathon” and one of them was the need to pee 19 times before the start. Well, I haven’t quite reached those heights, but after three visits at home, I stopped for another at the Peterborough motorway services which was full of runners with a side order of doggie people (the other group out and about this early on a Sunday morning), then got to the car park in Peterborough in good time. On arrival at the Embankment, I got in the queue for loo visit number five, then checked out the starting pens before rejoining the loo queues for visit number six. I guess it is nerves or excitement, but I can’t say I felt nervous, and while there was a general buzz of anticipation, I wasn’t unduly excited, either.
I dropped off my bag and then returned to the starting pens. I was slightly uncertain about which was which: with one labelled “1:50” and another “2:00”, where should I go if I’m aiming at 1:59? I took the former to mean “1:50-something”, and found myself at the front. With the pacers for each pen near the back, I then found myself close to the 1:40 pacer as I crossed the start line, which felt odd.
I felt reasonably well prepared for this one, having taken the running easy during the week, and rested fairly effectively yesterday, and with the weather being good and the course being fairly flat, I set off intending to run at my PB pace and see how it went.
I adopted my increasingly familiar “jeffing” approach, running a mile and then walking for forty seconds. Knowing that there were water points at 3, 6, 9 and 11 miles, I flexed things slightly to make sure the water points coincided with walk breaks, which allowed me to take on water at a walk, which is much easier. I also took on gels at 2, 5, 8 and 10 miles.
My aim for PB pace was 5:28/km for the mile-long runs, but in practice they came in at a very even 5:27 or 5:26 pace up to the half-way point, where I felt really good and pushed the pace just a fraction more, cut the walking sections down a smidgen, and found some further acceleration in the last two miles as the crowds grew thicker and noisier: I finally managed to pass the woman I’d been chasing since just before the half-way mark with just 200 metres to spare. My finish “sprint” was subdued but a definite speeding up to around 5:00/km for the last km, which saw me overtake quite a few other runners.
My final time was 1:56:26, knocking 2:40 off my PB, so I was really very pleased with that. And while I worked hard, there was a bit more in the tank on the right day, so we’ll see how I do in 6 weeks’ time at Snetterton.
I then waited at the finish for fellow runner Marion from WeightLossResources who also had also run a great time, on her fourth HM in four weeks she’d run her fastest for two years – lovely to meet her and spend a few minutes chatting.
This morning the King’s Forest Half Marathon, my first trail half. Or rather, half and a bit as it was long: the race director said 13.71 miles though I measured it a bit less.
I arrived in good time at West Stow Country Park and put the car in the overflow car park, missing a huge hole which would have got the car stuck and possibly damaged it – it may be a field, but it is a field signed as a car park, and while I wasn’t expecting ‘flat’ I wasn’t expecting such a large hole, either.
I picked up my registration pack which included a bold orange t-shirt, which will get more use for routine runs than array of darker colours I’m starting to collect. There was also a chunky chip-timing device which I strapped to my ankle. I returned to the car and pinned on my race number.
I chose to wear my hydration backpack today, as it was a warm day and there were just two water stations. There is a lot of advice about not making sudden changes to footwear, clothing, nutrition, and so on, between training and racing. Well, the hydration backpack has rapidly become something I rely on during longer runs, and despite the minor penalty of running with an extra 1.5kg on my back, I think there’s a lot to be said for sticking with what’s familiar and what works.
We assembled near the start for the pre-race briefing, given by a chap with possibly the loudest voice I’ve heard. There was good news and bad news. The bad news was that with a slight change of route to avoid knee-high nettles and brambles, he’d measured the course at 13.7 miles. (To be fair, the publicity had always made it clear that the distance was approximate.) The good news was that it was a lovely sunny day.
And so we were off promptly at 10.30am, an hour behind the marathon runners. I had expected that the fastest of the marathoners would catch me up near the end of the route (as they were doing two laps of the half-marathon course) but that didn’t happen.
We started along the River Lark, including alongside a lake, mostly firm footing with a small bit of mud and a couple of gates. Then we crossed the road and took to field-edge paths to Icklingham. I found that I was going too fast, but struggled to slow down, and once I’d done my first 40-second walk break found that I was between people on narrow trods, which made me want to avoid getting in the way by slowing down.
After the first drinks station at Icklingham, we turned north and the start of a long gentle climb across breckland. It was lovely scenery, but still I was going too fast given the ascent.
There were quite a few large puddles on the level ground at the top, and some sandy, gravely patches from time to time, but mostly the going was not too demanding.
We eventually turned into the eponymous forest, with some challenging running initially, on a hogsback of a section which descended and ascended every few metres. After the second drinks station, I ended up at the back of a procession of five along a narrow trod, which worked quite well, but I was now starting to tire.
The remainder through the forest did at least benefit from quite a lot of shade on a warm day, but it was increasingly hard work and my pace slowed. A woman who I’d caught up coming out of Icklingham, and who had then got away from me, was having problems with her knee, and we passed and re-passed each other several times, before I eventually kept ahead.
At various points, the route through the King’s Forest was in familiar places, albeit often from an unfamiliar direction. We eventually emerged to cross the road for the second time. I passed the magic 21.1km and soon there was the sound of strong applause, and I realised it was for me as I powered over the finish line.
2:08 was my second slowest half (my first attempt at Reading being 2:10 but the last 4km or so of that was walked when my knee gave way), but my position of 39th of 101 was my best relative position in a half (first time in the top 50%), and I suppose a trail HM PB (and also my longest race as it was measured slightly long).
A trail should be expected to be harder, and I should be satisfied, but I was a bit frustrated, in part because I had failed to pace myself well enough. Looking back, I probably did too much running in the last fortnight, too, plus a very cold swim on Thursday took more out of me than I’d realised, so all in all I wasn’t quite 100% at the start line.
My shortest race yet was the Stowmarket Golden Mile race on Saturday afternoon, being a mile through the main shopping street. Rightly or wrongly I did a 2km warm-up with some sprints about 50 minutes beforehand, this being the first time ever that my warm-up has been longer than the race.
The entry was 300 people, and it was a very busy start up a gentle hill before entering the main shopping area where there was some good support, then little footpaths before returning to roads to enter the park for the finish.
The best value paid-for race I’ve done: in addition to all the organisation, there was drink, food and a medal, all for £3. Thanks to the Stowmarket Striders running club for their organisational efforts including the many members volunteering to help manage this fun event.
It was rather too crowded at the start and too undulating (and warm) for a PB, but my second-best mile time so quite pleased with that.
After an emotional rollercoaster of an evening at the World Athletics Championships in London last night, today it was time for my own athletic effort, the Great Yarmouth Half Marathon.
It was a very well organised and incredibly friendly race thanks to the Great Yarmouth Road Runners – really friendly and helpful at race HQ, and really superb marshalling: lots of noisy encouragement (static and on bicycles and motorbikes), plenty of water to drink, plus cooling hosepipes and jelly babies if wanted.
Despite the name, the race doesn’t visit the town of Great Yarmouth (presumably gaining its name from the running club rather than the town), starting and finishing in Gorleston and taking mainly rural lanes to the south and west, and incorporating the grounds of Somerleyton Hall: I’ve pinched the picture – it wasn’t mine, but I tried to take in the view as I passed, as it’s so easy even on the most picturesque runs, especially when running hard or to a fixed pace, to fail to take in one’s surroundings.
It was my first half-marathon race using a run/walk technique – every mile, I walk briskly for about 35 seconds, to give my legs just a little time to recover, also giving the opportunity to drink from plastic cups while walking, and consume any gels etc. at a walk rather than run. I used the approach for a 10-mile race at the Lee Valley Velopark in the spring, and set a new PB with it, then signally failed to do so at the London 10-mile when I reverted to full-time running, and I’ve become a convert to run/walk on distances longer than 10km.
I had quite a while to chat (in short bursts) about the approach with one runner, Donna Crake, as we passed each other a total of 14 times. I think she was intrigued though perhaps not persuaded, but subsequent online discussion elsewhere seems to have caught the attention of another runner who is going to try it shortly in a long training run.
I was aiming for 2:03 which would have been my best HM time this year, and consistent with the plan to PB at Snetterton in November, but I felt good early on, and pushed the pace a little, then felt great after half-way so pushed it further to run negative splits, and finished in 1:59:06, a new PB, despite all my previous half-marathon races being fully run rather than run/walk. The beaten PB is from the Reading Half in 2010 so there is life in the old legs yet, and it was 6 minutes better than my training run half-marathons this year. Really pleased with that.
After resting for a short while and eating my post-race banana and drinking my water, I spent some time afterwards with a first-aider as I had pins and needles the length of both arms and hands, a first for me (other than when associated with migraine), but it passed in about 15 minutes with rest and gentle exercise. The first-aider was very calm and reassuring. She suggested it was most likely to be caused by keeping my arms a bit too bent while running too much of the time, and I do work them quite hard towards the end of long runs as a means of maintaining or increasing the speed when my legs start to tire.
I had my protein recovery drink, another thing that I’ve become a convert to, then returned to the race HQ (a school) where the friendly volunteers returned my bag and I had a shower and changed into clean and dry clothes – a very civilised thing to be able to do after a run, and not something I’ve previously been able to do.
Congratulations to the Great Yarmouth Road Runners on a superb morning.
Today was the day that running training for the last 17 weeks has, at least nominally, been heading towards. Although I would have been going out running anyway, I’ve been working to an Mbition training plan with today’s London 10 Mile in Richmond Park (originally advertised as the Royal Parks 10) as the objective. I successfully ran all 51 of my training runs (plus a small handful of sneaky extras) so had put in the work.
It was a longish walk from the south where we’d parked the car near the Robin Hood Gate, across the park to the event village, but a lovely one on a sunny day, with no traffic other than cyclists and a few deer. While Lucy went to investigate whether there was scope to buy an event t-shirt, I queued for the toilets, which gave me opportunity to pin on my race number and sort out my bag and other bits and pieces. The long queue moved swiftly, and after that was sorted I dropped off my bag.
There was no news from our friend Claire whose suggestion this race had been, and who has also been training for it, and so I guided Lucy to my suggested spot for her to watch the start which also allowed for an easy short walk to the 3-mile point, and then I went to my yellow pen, the second of the four pens. It was already getting busy and the 90-minute pacemaker was some distance in front of me, unreachable in the dense mass of people, and I wasn’t much in front of the 100-minute person. I wasn’t looking for a formal pacemaker but it did suggest there would be a fair few people in front of me looking to go more slowly than my 85 to 87-minute target.
The start was delayed by 15 minutes for reasons not explained, but that period did allow for a minute’s silence in memory of those killed last night, and an emphatic round of applause for the emergency services.
Eventually the first pen was underway, and after a short pause, our pen was too, getting me across the line about four minutes after the gun. It was very busy and slower than desired along the first straight, but once I’d turned the first corner and been cheered on by Lucy, it wasn’t too challenging to start to overtake people, both up the first hill and down the other side. I expected there to be some people a bit slower, but there were some very slow people who really should have been much further back in the fourth pen if that’s all they could manage at the start.
The scenery of Richmond Park is sublime and there was plenty of opportunity to enjoy it as the route wended its way to the south-east corner by Robin Hood Gate and then began its circuit of the park. I found myself running alongside a woman in pink in the second mile, and we more or less matched each other until about 7.5 miles which I think was helpful though with hindsight perhaps caused me to push a fraction too hard, though that was mostly driven by me aiming for a specific time and thus a particular pace on my Garmin.
After turning the north-east corner at Roehampton Gate, there began a slow drag of 2.7km gaining 66 metres of height and all into a stiff breeze and increasingly warm temperatures. I waved to Lucy as I passed her, she calling to me from the right-hand-side when I was expecting her on the left. This section was challenging and maybe I pushed too hard here, though once we turned the north-west corner by the Star and Garter Home, the next side was downhill or level so did give time for the legs to recover somewhat, and I did one km in 5:00 and my average speed thus far was bang on target at 5:21/km.
However, turning the south-west corner at Kingston Gate then produced another significant little hill, just 30 metres but at a gradient of up to 10%. The painful ascent was enlivened by tree surgeons sitting in a tree overhanging the road and cheering us on. Great fun but it didn’t have much impact on my legs which had had enough by the time I got to the top, and never regained their freshness. My intermittent companion in pink now pulled away from me, though initially not far. The ascent was followed by a steep descent which improved the speed but didn’t do much to help the legs – long and gradual would have been more helpful.
After a brief circuit at Robin Hood Gate to add a few metres to the route, it was back towards the event village along the outward route, which meant a gentle but persistent 1.7km uphill with another 30 metres of ascent in warm sunshine. I was determined I wasn’t going to walk, but the pace dropped dramatically to around 6:18/km, the lady in pink disappeared into the distance, and I was feeling demoralised as I was passed by dozens and dozens of people whose legs were in better shape than mine. Eventually I crested the hill and the remaining 900 metres were downhill and then level: although easier, my legs were struggling and I could still only manage 5:39 for the 16th kilometre.
As I approached the final turn into the finish straight, after a run with relatively little support, the crowds suddenly appeared and the air was thick with “Come on Stephen” (names being printed on the race numbers), which was great to hear, and plenty of hands out for high-fives, but it wasn’t really needed by now as it’s always easy to find a last smidgen of energy for the end with the finish line in sight. I passed Lucy close to the finish, and crossed the line in a chip time of 1:28:49, some 98 seconds slower than my PB which had been my primary target and 2.5 to 3 minutes slower than my dream target.
I had given it my all, and as I walked to the table with goodie bags, it was something of a drunkard’s walk, only just managing to propel myself in the right direction without falling over, and having claimed my water, protein drink, fridge magnet and packet of crisps, I had my cherished medal hung around my neck, walked out of the finish zone, and collapsed on the grass. After a short while I recovered enough to have a drink and message Lucy as to where I was. Gradually I recovered strength and after eating my crisps, drinking the water and the protein shake, I went to collect my bag while Lucy queued for some food.
The food queue was lengthy, and though the food was excellent we barely had time to eat it before we went over to the finish straight to wait for Claire who’d had time to post a Facebook message that she was at Mile 9, which we noticed six minutes later. She was a few minutes yet, and we cheered a few others across the line before she appeared, jogging cheerfully, in company with Paul Wright. As her longest run before today was 11.7km, she did very well to finish, though clearly had a few breaks as she had managed to take a lot of photos on her phone including ones at every mile.
So, it is done. I knew it was going to be hilly (by my standards, at any rate – there are plenty of hillier races) but the combination of the hills, the wind in the face on the leg heading west, and the warm temperatures, made the time target prove to be too challenging and in the last quarter I paid for having managed that target pace in the first three-quarters. However, I wasn’t that far off the objective, but nevertheless feel a little disappointed and dispirited. With an objective in 10.5 months which is 2.6 times as far, it also isn’t very motivating about my capacity to run such a long distance, either.
Clearly I need more practice on hills, and I need more long runs both to get my legs more used to distance and to start to reclaim some confidence. Would the two half-marathons I had my eye on in August and September help or hinder that, I wonder?
I started running indoors in late 2007, and after reaching 5km indoors in March 2008, started outdoor running, and entered the first Royal Parks Half Marathon in October 2008. I did two more half-marathons in Reading in 2009 and 2010, after which my running rather lost objective and focus.
In 2014, I discovered parkrun, which gave a fresh objective, and I rediscovered my enthusiasm for running. Successful weight loss in 2016, together with several running friends (mostly online so far) and a growing love of parkrun tourism further increased my love of running.
A chance visit to the London Marathon in April 2017 (in the interval of Harry Potter and Cursed Child) generated a lot of emotion, and I found myself, having vowed not even to do another half-marathon because of the strain the training had put me under, seeking a place for the 2018 London Marathon.
To my delight and surprise, I quickly gained a place running in aid of Guide Dogs. With almost 12 months to go, my enthusiasm for longer distance running started to bubble over, and I thought it might be a good time to experiment with a blog, mixing run reports, thoughts and plans. I don’t expect a wide audience, but it may be interesting to experiment with the format.
2018 and 2019 proved to be my years with the most running so far, each containing a marathon, and each containing a lot of parkruns (48 in 2019). 2018 was also the year Lucy took up running, now joining me as a parkrun tourist, and in 2019 our new American cocker spaniel, Brindley, also took up running with the enthusiasm that he throws into everything he does.
2020 is to be the year of the Boston Marathon, and parkrun in Australia, among other running exploits. Good times ahead.