On Sunday 11th October two weeks had passed since I ran the Robin Hood Marathon.
There were a few things I’d expected in the aftermath of ‘RH3’ (Robin Hood, Ran Hard, Ran Happy), and a few things that took me by surprise. I’d expected a little stiffness and soreness, though I hadn’t expected to feel as knocked about by it as I did – in terms of muscles, joints (sore right knee), psychology (I felt ready for a rest week) and appetite (I’m usually very strict with my diet and find this no effort at all, but I felt as though my willpower had lapsed). None of this happened after the two full marathon distances I ran in training. So my training had been a little wayward: out of routine, and an unwanted extra rest day shoe-horned in.
I’d also expected the post-marathon blues. Training for a marathon is obviously a significant physical commitment and time commitment but, perhaps less widely recognised, building up to any big target race is also a significant emotional commitment. When I finished my first marathon I felt lost and bereft with nothing to aim for. This time, both by chance and by design, I already had other races lined up.
One of these was the Oxford Half-Marathon. With it taking place two weeks after RH3, on a flat and fast course, and relatively close to home (Birmingham), it sounded ideal. And, to cut a long story short, it was.
This was a longstanding, unashamed PB chase, aiming to take down my 01:38:44 from the Silverstone Half-Marathon earlier in the year. My off-kilter training left me feeling a little unprepared, but I was greatly buoyed by having run a 10K PB two days beforehand.
Driving there was simple and only took around an hour. Visitors were heavily encouraged to use the park and ride, for which the car park was large and very easy to find, and there were plenty of very frequent buses. Plus lots of very excited runners, adding to the atmosphere. My phone buzzed with Twitter encouragement and good luck wishes.
Oxford is, of course, very pretty – creamy, dun stonework and lots of low-rise Georgian buildings. And, helpfully, lots of 21st century 4G. The race village was in a large park, with even more runners milling around in nervous anticipation, plus the usual tents and marquees for changing, baggage, massage and charities. There were food stalls and an open-top double-decker bus with loud music and entertainment. Even the long toilet queues moved quickly. And later, when it became apparent that lots of runners had been caught in some sort of (unrelated) holdup with train travel, the organisers even delayed the start by fifteen minutes to give them a chance to get to the race. All of which was communicated very clearly. It had a ‘big race’ feel.
I’d organised a tweet-up of fellow UKRunChat runners by the baggage tent, and this added greatly to the occasion. Meeting fellow runners is always a pleasure, and it’s a testament to the power of Twitter and the #ukrunchat community (also a great Strava community) that there are always friends at every race.
Richard, Jo, Rachel, David B, Jase and myself formed a little group, swapping stories, doing a spot of mutual following and following back, taking and tweeting photos. A very happy, upbeat little bunch. I was pleased to meet Richard (@Richard_Willcox) a fellow #teamred and Strava member who’d been at RH3 (and ran a superb 03:30) but whom I’d missed there, both before and after the race. (Richard was the 01:45:00 pacer here at Oxford, and would bring his runners in with absolute precision at 01:44:47).
With my PB hunt in mind, I carefully worked my way towards the front of the 01:30:00-01:45 area of the start (flagged areas, rather than cordoned-off pens). There was the usual race foreplay of anxiously waiting longer than usual for my Garmin to find a satellite, plus the extra fifteen minutes delay for train disruption – though this just gave more time to focus mentally (and perhaps a bit more tweeting too). Then we were off.
I was targeting a finish time of 01:35:00-01:37:00 and I knew I’d have to run hard to get this, somewhere in the region of 07:17 minute miles if the course came out at 13.3 miles as HMs often do. I had two strategies in mind, depending on how I felt: run steady and ‘drop the hammer’ around halfway, or run steady and drop the hammer around nine or ten miles.
But after a few seconds of congestion at the start, I was able to run a consistent, even and steady set of 07:05-07:10 minute miles with ease; faster than I’d expected to be. I’d never experienced a course like this before. It was just so flat. There was nothing to get in the way of a race strategy – no obstacles, no tricky bit, no hills – I was able to just run.
That feeling of running, and running strongly, is one of the greatest pleasures I’ve known. I was purring along between 07:05 and 07:10 minute miles, all systems humming and thrumming happily, steady and consistent, controlling my pace easily, backing out of any spikes in effort in order to save myself for later, embracing the sheer joy of movement.
The course took us through a short industrial/business section, then along the high street, and via residential roads out into the Oxfordshire countryside. As we ran, showered every now and then with auburn, russet leaves in the golden autumn sunshine, I made sure to take in this wonderful sensation of smooth fitness and strength, safely storing away another memory. And that was how it continued.
After seven miles, a slight downhill in the course lent itself perfectly to ‘dropping the hammer’, so I just let it happen naturally and went with it. I was surprised to clock a sub-07:00 minute mile and wondered whether I was overdoing it – this was faster than I’d intended to run – but I felt strong. Head down, in the moment, in the rhythm, in the zone, another 06:[xx] minute mile followed, accompanied by a friendly call and wave from Jo on the out leg on the other side of the road. I wondered whether I could string together a series of sub-07:00s and run out the rest of the race at that pace.
So with determination, I did.
Because that’s a side effect of marathon training: it makes a half-marathon seem short and manageable. I’m aware that this sounds hideously smug and contemptibly complacent, and I really do apologise unreservedly for it, but it’s true. Around me I could see faces contorted with grimaces of effort. I was running hard but I was running strongly. I picked off a lot of runners struggling on the return leg into Oxford itself via the parks.
By that time I was working very hard for it too – the smoothness was gone, replaced with pounding determination and gritted teeth – but, oh, what a glorious sensation of speed.
Overall, I ran the last five miles at 06:[xx] minute miles, something I’d never done in a half marathon before, particularly at the end. Some of them were by the skin of my teeth – mile nine came the closest to featuring what might be described as an incline, and I scraped in at 06:59 – but as the course twisted and turned through narrowing streets and stonework towards the finish, I allowed myself the first delicious moments of realisation that I’d run a significant negative split, and I might just be about to hit the lower 01:35:[xx] part of my goal. Maybe even 01:34:[xx].
Then, as the finish appeared in the distance and I sprinted towards it, desperately trying to keep that last 0.2 miles in the 06:[xx] range too, I was gobsmacked to see the clock on the finish line gantry…
So the chip time would be even faster.
I’d smashed by PB and my target time too; absolutely obliterated them.
But by how much? As I’ve said before, I don’t clock my overall time when I’m running, I monitor my mile splits. If I’m meticulous about my miles (and I am), the overall time will take care of itself.
But that meant I had no way of telling whether I might even break into 01:32:[xx] – or whether I needed just a second or two extra effort to do this. I ran for the line as hard as I could…
…and my jaw dropped when I saw I’d just run 01:32:43.
I’d beaten my previous PB by six whole minutes. Even taken on its own, that’s a pretty good half-marathon time. I was flabbergasted. Could that be right? Surely my Garmin had somehow dropped its signal somewhere and lost some time. But the gantry clock… My phone buzzed with an incoming text: a virtually instant message from the race results service (I’d registered my mobile number when I entered) confirming my time. Difficult to believe, especially at first.
Still dumbfounded I wandered through the finishers area, a cautious grin slowly spreading across my face. I was given water, a banana, a goody bag (containing a very useful protein and carb recovery bar, plus a cereal bar) and a race finisher’s Brooks technical t-shirt.
I did my stretches. I texted home. Still slightly stunned, I wandered back to the race village. Of course, I tweeted my time and my slightly bewildered euphoria. And of course, my phone erupted in a blizzard of congratulatory favourites and tweets. Because that’s what UKRunChat does.
I was delighted to meet up with Richard again, and also Mark, who’d been delayed on the roads and hadn’t made the morning tweetup. We shared stories – Mark had run (I think) a PB, and Richard had brought his 01:45:00 runners in at 01:44:47 – plus we were all #teamred runners, so congratulations all round to us.
After Mark headed off, Richard and I sat talking while my PB gradually sank in. And my phone ran out of battery from responding to all the congratulatory tweets.
A very happy, very successful day.
Y’know, I allowed myself a fist pump salute at the finish line for the race finish photos, on the basis that some sort of triumphant gesture seemed in order. It was pretty much the only part of the race that didn’t work out: the finish line photos caught me with arm out just before the clenched fist, so instead of powering through in triumph I look as though I’m waving an imaginary carrot.