My last half marathon was on 23 June 2002 on a very flat course along Blackpool sea front. They don’t come much flatter than that, and so it was no surprise to me when I shaved off 2 minutes from my previous best and finished in 1:50:56. It was my last race of any distance, as it was shortly after that I was diagnosed with a damaged hip and told not to run.
The longest I have run in anger since overturning the diagnosis is an 11k at Kielder when I ran the first leg of the Run/Bike/Run in October. I completed this in just under an hour and needed a day in bed afterwards!
As part of my marathon training, I thought it would be a great idea to slot a half marathon into the middle: it would test my fitness and allow me to see if I was on target for my 3hr 45min aspirational full marathon. I should add here that I have run at least four marathons when I was younger and the best I did was 4hr 17mins so it really is a big jump to under 4 hours. That said, I had not been training with the highly acclaimed Tyne Bridge Harriers back then. Interval training has built up my speed and confidence and I have supplemented my running with lots of gym work, mainly upper body and core.
The problem is, to run a 3hr 45 min marathon, all of the race time predictors tell me that I need to achieve a 1:46:55 half. Based on previous results, this is a bit of an ask! I run in Group 4 of the harriers and some of them often stop to point and laugh as I lumber along the Quayside trying to catch them. 1hr 46min seems a bit of an ask after 11 years of sitting on the couch, drinking Guinness and throwing peanuts up very high in the air and catching them in my mouth. (I could have been a contender if I hadn’t decided to start this running malarkey.)
But!!!! I have been running well in short races, setting a new 5k PB and running up to 19 miles for my long run. The trouble is that this is a very recent PB, and 5k is a very long way from a half – still, in for a penny in for a pound.
The half I chose was the Northumberland Festival Half Marathon. This proved to be a mistake. I should have guessed as it was in Northumberland, but it was going to be a hilly bugger according to the race elevation profile, and so it proved. Looking at the entry list I could see that lots of mountaineers had signed up, along with quite a few mountain goats and twelve sherpas.
I wisely readjusted my target and settled on 1hr 51.
However, secretly, I did think I could nick this, as I have been training well in the gym and apart from some soreness on the soles of my feet, have been relatively injury free.
I will skip the story of the journey to the start in the snow and the wait for the buses and head straight for the start line.
I lined up near the back of a pack of around 500 runners. This always seems to happen to me, but I don’t worry, as I am a very slow starter anyway and like to build. (I like to think this is why I am not very good at short distances.)
The gun went off and we were away. It took 35 seconds to get to the timing chip pad and I set the Garmin as I crossed: Here we go!
I secretly had 1:45 in my head and heart and so was aiming for 8min miles. I was a little concerned though, as I had run at 8min miles earlier in the week for 6 miles, and while I had not struggled, it had not been easy. Plus, this course was SO hilly!
The first mile saw me boxed in as we were running along a narrow fenced-in cart road, and I missed my 8mins and posted 8:34. The road was full of puddles and I leapt these, as I was keen not to run with wet feet. Some jolly joker was muttering “soft shites” under his breath as others leapt over the puddles and he splodged in a manly way through them. I passed him later, and to my satisfaction noted he was squelching. Plank!
Things took a turn for the better in miles 2 and 3 as we hit the main road. It was relatively flat until mile three, but then started to climb like the Andes (I kid you not) until about mile 8. This is where things took a turn for the better again and I began to make up ground. As I am a slow starter, it is rare for me to be passed in races over 10k. The same happened in this race. I don’t think anyone passed me from about mile 4 onwards and I steadily began to reel in lots and lots of runners in. As I also particularly like running up hills, it was a double whammy.
With the exception of mile 5 I posted good times up to mile 8, all of which were uphill
Amazingly, I had targeted 8 min miles and here I was hammering out really good times AND running uphill. I was a little worried that I might burn out, but I also felt incredibly strong and so just ploughed on, all the time concentrating on leaning in to the hill and maintaining a good stride turnover (average 184 per min). What was also satisfying was passing fellow club members who are in the group above me (no names: you know who you are and should be ashamed that an old ginger/grey dwarf/hobbit beat you. Shame on you for eating all of the pies).
I did try to take a drink at the first drinks station. I nearly drowned. I tipped the cup too far and it went down my throat and up my nose. Spluttering, I cursed the idiot who decided that handing plastic cups out was a good idea – loon. The next time I took a drink I grabbed a bottle and had much more success. The problem was though, that because I was running so hard I could not drink effectively. The marathon will be easier because I will be running more slowly, but I decided not to take any more water on board for this one.
The next two miles were downhill. I mean really downhill. Four miles of climbing condensed into two miles of descent. I am not good at running downhill and always lose ground to other runners. Only one way to find out if I can run a good time: go for it. I leaned with the hill, dropped my arms slightly and went for it.
Running seven minute miles downhill when you are a small (but perfectly formed) ginger bloke of advancing years is not a particularly nice experience. But I did manage to stay on my feet, pass loads of other runners and learnt a thing or two. I glanced at my watch (I wear a Garmin 410 for pace but have a Timex on the other paw for time – it saves scrolling). The Timex said 1:16:12 for ten miles. I nearly did trip up then: I had been aiming for 1:20 and knew I was going well but wow! I have never run so fast. Never!
The last three miles on the elevation map are a little deceiving, as it seems to show a nice steady run to the finish. This was not the case: there were lots of small hills to navigate and by this time any downhill sections hurt like mad. I still felt strong, though, and so carried on posting sub-8min miles
However, disaster struck with about half a mile to go. A sharp pain in the outside of my left knee took my breath away. It didn’t last, in fact I didn’t miss a stride, but it hurt, it hurt a lot. Then, perhaps 20 yards later, there it was again, then three more times. This was bad news. All of a sudden I also got a searing pain in my right foot: a small stone had found its way under my big toe. No time to stop now – I carried on. The knee held up and I managed to get to the finish line, which some joker had decided to place right at the top of another hill. Ha, ha thanks for that, buddy. Do you know anything about plastic cups?
I glanced at the time as I crossed the line and was pleased with the result. But the time for celebrations was not now: now was the time for gulping air and limping. I dropped to the floor to take the stone out of my shoe. It wasn’t a stone. It had been a blister about as big a 50p piece, which had burst, it was that which I had felt. Hey ho, blisters are an occupational hazard. Luckily I had brought a change of clothing as I was one very cold, wet mess. Once in dry clothes I began to feel better, picked up my T shirt, shouted encouragement to a few fellow runners and then went off to catch the bus.
Yup that’s it, it’s all over. The Sunderland Marathon is the next big one in seven weeks, but, injuries permitting, I am going to try and beat my PB at the 5k Newcastle Park Run on Saturday 13 April and then taper. I will be aiming for … sub 21 minutes – there, I have said it. Doh!
My published chip time for the half marathon was 1:40:13 and I finished in position 188 of 529 and 21st of 53 males aged 45-49.
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