I wish I could say I was confident about this race. Over the winter I’ve gone from 4 runs a week to 5 or 6 runs most weeks. My long runs have felt better as a result, and my mid-week tempo session when I’d typically do 8.5 miles has gone down to a 6:30/mi average. It sounds not too bad, yet anything can happen on race day. As a friend I often travel with was quick to point out - 8.5 miles is quite a way off 13.1 miles.
We were forecast strong winds and rain, yet this changed so often in the lead up. So many things could go wrong as they have done time and time again when I’ve run this distance; though the last two times I’ve been lucky and have gotten my PB down to 88:53. Sometimes it’s just a case of getting out there, running, and seeing what happens. If all felt right, then my goals would be as follows:
- Gold: Sub-87
- Silver: Sub-89
- Bronze: Sub-90
I’ve managed a sub-90 twice now, so figured as a worst-case-scenario it’d be nice to do that again; but it would however been even nicer if I could push to get sub-89 or sub-87 as that would put me in a good place for the Greater Manchester Marathon in a month. Back in January though I’d told the aforementioned friend that my training was on target for a sub-85. If only that could be possible now.
On the morning of the race I looked at the weather forecast one last time, and found that there was rain and 45 mph winds. Not the ideal racing conditions; but I was in London, and as reluctant as I was about it, I might as well get out there and run. First I had the usual breakfast of crunchy nut cornflakes, a cup of tea, and a couple of biscuits and started walking the 1.6 miles to the train station. To start with it wasn’t too bad walking around in a t-shirt, but when the wind arrived the temperature dropped with it.
I took the overground from Finchley Road & Frognal to Hackney Wick and somehow found Victoria Park fairly easily. I guess it helps that it’s big, and I knew the rough direction. For this race, the numbers were not sent out - the collection was nice and quick though: I literally walked straight up, said my name, got my number, and walked off again. The next hour was a cold wait though, so I tried to use a tree to keep out of the wind. Oddly, no matter what side of the tree I was on - I was still being caught by the wind. Even wearing my compression top under my race t-shirt didn’t help to keep me warm. The sooner the race would start, the better.
For the start of this one I wasn’t too sure where to place myself. In local races I usually stand fairly close to the front - in the first few rows. This being London, I figured most runners would be faster than me so I made no effort to find the right spot. I just stayed towards the back. I found my position soon changed as the race started. I overtook a fair few to start with, including one who I’d heard say he’d be overtaking most of them in front of him. Wow, what arrogance - did he know all the runners in front of him?
Eventually I caught up with who I believed to be the first lady (as in the first female runner - not FLOTUS Trump). From what I could see of the runners in front of me - if she wasn’t first, then she wasn’t anything further back than second (she did actually finish first female). She was however going around the same pace as what felt comfortable, so I stayed just behind.
The route went alongside the cricket practice nets, and turned right to then begin what would become a very familiar section of course around the outside path of the park. After passing the water station for the first time we were told we’d pass it another six times before turning off to the finish. Six more times. That’s a lot of laps - more than I like to do as I find laps tend to become mentally challenging. Each subsequent lap I’d know what was coming - and if that was strong winds, then chances are I’d find them there each time. Sure enough, that long stretch was the bit that was most exposed to the strong winds, though I tried my best to maintain pace. I even had to hold on to my cap.
Of course it couldn’t last forever, and this eventually reached a U-turn which then felt instantly easier. It passed by someone playing a kettle drum on the inside of the park. Over the course of the next six laps he’d play songs such as Bob Marley’s “Two Little Birds”, and Abba's "Dancing Queen". My brain didn’t register what the rest were as I think it spent a fair bit of this race turned off.
This long straight eventually passes the same cricket area, so I now knew what I’d be facing for the remainder of the race. In my head I tried to tick off how many more times I needed to pass the water station - as I was getting closer I’d be thinking “almost five, keep going”. I also tried to distract myself by thinking of what models I’m painting at the minute, and seeing if I could think of any cool ideas. It’d worked in training, but here in a racing situation I couldn’t distract myself - I was staying focussed on what was around me. It wasn’t long before I started to lap some of the half marathon runners for the first time - before having reach the water station for the second time. From now on I needed to pay more attention.
During this second lap I noticed that I was still running alongside, sometimes in front, and sometimes behind the female runner I’d caught up with earlier (according to the results her name was Harriet, so will use that from now on). It looked like she was used to running this distance at this sort of pace. I think we were unconsciously taking it in turns to use the other to be shielded from the wind like you’d see at the front of a cycle race.
I’d started to settle into a pace which meant I was getting around 6:30 per mile, and I felt okay about that. I figured if I can get to 8.5 miles in training at that pace, I can do the same now.
As I reached the water station for the third time I saw either the 5K runners or the 10K runners starting off. This would mean for the next few laps it would be far more crowded. I wasn’t wrong either - for the next two laps I found it difficult to find space at times. Sometimes I’d be able to run onto the edge of the grass; but sometimes there was nowhere to go and I’d have to slow down until there was an opening in the crowd. Frustrating as it was, I saw Harriet had the same problem.
When six miles came and went, it made me happy that I was half way. I felt like I was starting feel the first signs of tiring and wondered how much longer I could hold the pace for before needing to slow down. I should really have started to think about fuel or water; but for the entire race I didn’t bother with either. I didn’t want to slow down so there were Jelly Babies going unused in my shorts pocket.
There were times when running into the wind was tough, and to convince myself to hold on to the pace (or at least not to slow too much) I convinced myself that the sooner I finished the race the sooner I could see a friend. We’d planned to meet up at some point after the race - so it could be hours away; but when you’re looking for a reason to keep working hard it doesn’t have to be rational.
I think by mile 10 it was starting to become more of a mental battle - yet still I continued running either behind or in front of Harriet. I thought it a shame it wasn’t my friend as we’ve said before it’d be good to race together; though I also thought if it had been her then she’d have been much farther ahead of me anyway. I think it could have been a really good race for her.
After passing the water station of the sixth time I noticed that Harriet had dropped behind me and this time wasn’t overtaking again a few minutes later like she had been so many times before. I have to say: even though I don’t know her and have no idea who she is, I did wonder if the weaving through runners had slowed her down. It was certainly slowing me down and there was now a little over 2 miles left to go.
I was actually feeling like I could do this. It felt like unless something was to go catastrophically wrong now, I was going to get a new personal best. I think this motivated me to keep on going too, even though my legs were starting to feel heavy as I weaved through more runners. When I passed the water station for the seventh and final time I felt like the wind was finally too much for me. I felt beaten and ready to walk. I didn’t though - I kept on going.
The cones eventually signalled the turning point (the half marathon gets far more signs than the 10K and 5K) and even after turning off that long straight it seemed like the wind was still after me. In fact, it felt stronger. I was certainly slowing down, though I’d got just 0.7 miles to go (or thereabouts).
As I rounded the lake I was contemplating a walking recovery, but I knew I’d be disappointed in myself if I did. So I kept on going, but slowed down a little. For the first time in the entire race, a couple of runners overtook me, and then Harriet did also. I was pleased she’d not run into problems after all. I think it gets like that in long races - you hope the runners around you do well.
The finish was in sight, and I knew I should really make a sprint for the finish. My legs weren’t keen, and I didn’t want to force them. I knew I’d got more miles to do in my legs before the day was done, and didn’t want to jeopardise that.
After finishing, Harriet shook my hand and told me I’d run well and in return I told her I’d barely kept up. I collected my medal, a bottle of water, and my backpack, and then made my way to the train station as I logged on to the RunThrough website to check my time. I’d finished 35th out of 708 finishers with a time of 84:42, and was 6th in my category.
I couldn’t believe it - that was a PB by 4 minutes and 11. I’d somehow proven to my friend that my estimate back in January wasn’t too far off, despite the wind. Other than the last mile it hadn't really been that bad either, despite the lack of fuelling and water. It’d beaten my “Gold” goal too - it was like my half marathon curse was finally over.
The next race would be the Greater Manchester Marathon; for the fourth time. Now my thoughts had changed from a sub-3:05 goal to perhaps trying for sub-3:00. Would it be possible? My next half-marathon goal would be to see if it was repeatable before attempting anything faster. It still seems impossible I did what I did - I need to know it wasn't a fluke before targetting sub-84.
I had planned to either run the 9 miles back to the hotel, or to take the train and then run the remaining 1.6 miles. After that race I decided I should take the train, and have the shorter cool down. I think in the long run that was the best decision. At least now I could relax.