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Wandering the World

Stories and tips from around the world.

Hillingdon 20

After running this race last year, I thought: "never again". Hilly by name, hilly by nature, and 20 miles of it was just more than I felt was needed. However, after deciding to do GU36 one more time, it turned out this would be the perfect training run for it. So that "never again" became "one more time". At least with it being Hillingdon I didn’t have far to go, so wouldn’t need to be up obscenely early.

We had breakfast, and then headed out at 08:00 to park-up near Ruislip Lido ready for the walk to the Hillingdon Athletics club. There, we collected our number, and got ourselves ready for the ordeal ahead. We headed around to an industrial estate part way up the hill, but it felt like I needed one more visit to the loo so ran from there back to Ruislip Lido, to then run back and join the back of the race that was about to start - getting just enough time to wish Carmen luck. At 09:00 we were off. Thankfully it wasn’t raining unlike last year. I think there were more people this year too.

I was determined that this year I would run the entirety of the first two laps without walking. This year I’m sure I’m slower than last year, and sure enough the first lap was slower than my first lap last year; but with the slower pace it meant I was coping with the hills better. Would this tactic pay off? I wouldn’t really know for sure until at least the second half of my final lap.

On my first lap the memories of the route came flooding back. This year the loos on Pinn Way weren’t there, only the ones at the second water station were. If all went to plan though, this year I wouldn’t need them anyway. I didn’t bother with either water station on the first lap either, and just focused on getting around. I’d forgotten about the staggered fences before the bridge near Eastcote, and had to slow down to get through them whilst there were still quite a few runners around me.

When I reached Joel Street I knew what was ahead of me this time, and took my time on the ascent. I even remembered the bush I’d hit my head on last year, and this year was paying more attention to avoid a repeat of that. As I got closer to the top of Joel Street I started to doubt whether or not I could finish one lap without walking. I pushed on though, and overtook a few more people on the shorter ascent that followed. Once that was over, it’s about a mile down hill, and the recovery from that made me forget about the climbs so far, and my legs were feeling good once more. This soon changed my mood from the hills, and I started to feel that I could do that again, and complete a second lap without walking later.

It wasn’t long after this I remembered that this was where I’d eventually get to see runners that are on an earlier part of the lap, and vice-versa. When I reached Park Avenue I was determined to get to the top, but at the same time wasn’t looking too far ahead so I wouldn’t be able to see how much was left. I was just dealing with the part of hill I was climbing now. I passed the sign that said 5 miles, and noticed a sign a little further ahead saying 10 miles; I started thinking ahead to the next lap already.

Once I reached the top of the hill, that was the first lap done. A few minutes later I checked my watch. 40 minutes. Okay, so another 3 laps, I’m looking at 160 minutes. I thought to myself. If I’d checked the distance I would have thought about the distance remaining not being a simple multiplication of what I’d done. I was of course already a little way into mile 5.

On this lap I grabbed a cup of water as I ran past the first water station, pinched the top to avoid spilling too much, and then took a quick sip. I emptied the rest, and then dropped it into the recycling bag as I passed rather than throwing it into the road. I was going slow enough that it wasn’t exactly a problem to do that. My first lap had been slower than last year, but from now on the majority of my miles would be quicker than the year before.

This time when I reached Fore Street, I could see the oncoming lead cyclist, and a pack of about 5 runners following behind. The race leaders were already well on their way towards finishing their second lap. I think briefly this encouraged me to run faster, thinking of how far behind it made me feel. In reality, I was 6.5 miles in and they would have been somewhere just over 9 miles in. After a few minutes I thought nothing more of it and concentrated on keeping moving.

I got further along Joel Street before it felt hard, distracted by the three police bikes that were speeding past in the opposite direction. Towards the top though, I could really feel it, and dropped my pace when I turned left for the final part of the hill. I didn’t want to walk, and refused to do so, and this got me past the hill and before long it felt easy again, and after a few minutes of this my legs felt like they could go on and on now.

I started to wonder, could I do three laps without walking? It’s been a while since I’ve even done a half marathon without walking, and getting close to that would at least be nice. I was back on Fore Street now, in the opposite direction, with someone in front of me who had run the Cyprus Marathon about two weeks ago. I thought of how it would have been nice to have done a half there this month, and before I knew it the second lap was almost over. That’s when I got lapped by the fastest of the runners.

At the top of the hill, it was a relief to be onto the third lap, but my legs had felt that hill more this time. I was unsure if I could run another full lap, or if this would be the one I would walk on. I was determined to get to Joel Street first though, as if I wanted to beat last year’s time I needed to make sure that if I was going to walk, it would only be on the up hill sections.

I kept my eyes out for Carmen on Fore Street again, no sign of her yet, and that was motivation to keep pushing on, just in case I could see her during the next lap. This time the alleyway leading towards one of the busier roads in Eastcote had a pedestrian walking through. Fortunately I had time to dodge them as I’d taken the corner wide anyway, and the marshals on that turn were too busy with one sitting on the others knee so hadn’t seen the pedestrian to warn us or them.

I was starting to feel like I wasn’t going to make it up the hill a third time, and sure enough when I reached there it felt so much harder going up. My calves were feeling tight as well, and the head wind wasn’t helping matters. I decided that after having run the first 12 miles, it would be okay to walk for a bit, as long as it wasn’t for too long.

Once the biggest of the ascents were out the way, I did run for most of the remaining climbs so that when I got to the downhill stretch that lasts for the best part of a mile, it felt good to be doing it. I was starting to pick up speed again, and a runner in front of me called out to her family as they’d almost missed her. At that point a small dog came running out of nowhere to chase after it’s human. I tried to slow down as quickly as I could, but still had to try and leap to one side to avoid it. Fortunately I managed to avoid the dog without any injury to it or myself. She apologised to me as we came up to the second water station location, but I told her it was okay - it’s not like anyone could predict what an excited dog was going to do next.

I next walked when I reached the corner before Park Avenue. I kept going for as long as I could, and didn’t start walking until I reached the 10 mile sign, having now done about 15 miles myself. At the top of the hill I was happy to finally be starting the final lap. This time I calculated how much time I could afford to spend on this lap whilst being able to beat last year’s time. It was going to be close.

Again, I kept running until I reached Joel Street, but this time I walked up more of it. It was feeling so much harder, and so far I’d had three jelly babies for fuel, but couldn’t really stomach any more. I was definitely lapping people who were on their third lap this time, but may have done so for a few on the third lap as well. When I got to the top of Joel Street I knew I’d got about 2.5 miles to go, and I was looking at finishing somewhere very close to last year’s time.

I ran less of the hill off Joel Street than the previous lap as well, but got going again as soon as I could. This time though, there was a point where a marshal had stopped a car from turning whilst runners were crossing, but the car hesitated and then decided not to wait and went around the marshal and came close to hitting a few of us. I’d sped up briefly to get out of the way, and fortunately managed to keep on going. It wasn’t the marshal’s fault that had happened, it was just an impatient local. The marshals had been doing a great job, with so many of them cheering us on, and some even commenting on how well runners were doing on such a challenging course.

I’d suggested to Carmen she might do the race today somewhere between 3hr10 and 3hr15, so about 50 minutes per lap. I figured if I was doing laps in just under 40 minutes then if I was to catch up with her it would be at the very end of this lap, at best. Again, I didn’t see her on the down hill on Fore Street, so was pushing on. I set in my mind the goal of not walking again until the corner before Park Avenue, and this seemed to work. I walked briefly, and then after rounding the corner I got going again.

This last time going up the hill was hard work and I walked the majority of it this time. I’d crossed to the other side to remind myself that I’d be turning right this time, and thought that psychologically that might help me to get running again. The marshal at the top said it was 500 metres to go, and at first I thought that wasn’t far, and then remembered half a kilometre is a reasonable distance, and I wouldn’t be wanting to go too quickly now.

I walked briefly for part of it, and the got going again, and kept on running until I reached the down hill. I could see the sign ahead that was pointing towards the Athletics Club, so I wasn’t going to stop now. I pushed on, and then crossed the finish line in 02:33:53 in position 76 out of 247 finishers. Maybe it was far from my fastest 20 miles, but it was a hilly one, and more importantly, I’d done it - I’d beaten last years time by about 4 minutes.

At the finish they hand you a chunky medal, a bottle of water, and a leaflet for yoga. When Carmen, sent me her live location I could see she was almost on Joel Street, and I knew it’d be for the last lap. I figured that meant she was at most 20 minutes away. At a slow walking pace, I figured that meant I could walk to the roundabout on Park Avenue just in time to photograph her running. On my way there I’d thought how next year it’d be nice to complete 3 laps without walking, but it wasn’t until much later I questioned my sanity in already thinking of doing this race again. The marshals here are incredibly supportive though…

A female runner crossing a finish line

I saw Carmen much sooner than I was expecting, and she was running up the hill at a decent pace. I checked my watch and realised that she was doing better than she thought she would be. I ran with her for a bit, and we walked to the top of the hill before running the remainder to the finish. She did incredible, beating her previous time by about ten minutes, and also setting herself a new 20 mile PB as well. On a hilly course! It was amazing to see.

A male and female runner standing with their medals

Whether we do this race again next year remains to be seen, but I've got a feeling it's likely…

Tags: 20mile race running sports

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© David G. Paul