‘My First Top Ten Finish’
‘The One with the Competitive Spirit’
‘The One with the Sting in the Tail’)
Sunday 15 November 2015
This was one of my biggest races of the year. For a number of reasons. Firstly, Rockingham Motor Speedway, where the race was held, was billed as very flat and very fast. There was a choice between a ten mile race and a 10k, and I had targeted a tilt at a massive 10k PB. Plus, this was my last race of the ‘season’ and I wanted to go out on a high. And, of course, this was the venue for the official UKRunChat end-of-year tweetup.
A few themes for this race popped up consistently. Competitive spirit was one. As I’ve said, I was targeting a 10k PB, and these PBs really do matter to me. I’m extremely competitive with myself and highly self-critical. Although it probably doesn’t show from some of my self-congratulatory race reports, I’m rarely satisfied with the times I run. I almost always feel I could or should have run faster/further/better.
(This isn’t a bad thing, by the way. If I was satisfied with my times then I’d stop pushing to improve. Plus, I love running under pressure; it’s always so much more fun than runs which don’t matter –the satisfaction of meeting and beating the challenge is so much greater.)
Anyway, this time it wasn’t just me pushing for a PB. There were fellow UKRunChat runners who had also been targeting PBs at Rockingham since the summer. In particular I’d been following the progress of Joanna, Shell and Katie. Months of training, hard work and high hopes made this a big weekend for everyone. I wanted the three of them to get their PBs as much as I wanted one for myself. Which made it all the more galling that Joanna and Katie had hit injuries along the way. Not that they let it stop them. Again, competitive spirit.
The spirit of comradeship and camaraderie among runners was another theme. With so many UKRunChat runners heading to this race there was a lot of Twitter chatter beforehand.
And finally, wind was a theme (the weather, not me). An unwelcome theme. Of which more later.
Training had gone very well indeed, right up to the point where it didn’t go very well indeed. Throughout the summer and autumn I’d been taking my 10k times down in training, to the point where I’d run a 42:26. Could I even go sub-41?
I did some quick calculations: sub-42 requires 06:45 minute mile pace, and sub-41 requires 06:35 minute mile pace. My pace at the Great Birmingham Run gave me a great deal of encouragement that holding 06:35 minute miles might be possible. Even at nine miles in, I was 06:45 minute miling comfortably. Surely 06:35 wouldn’t be too much of a stretch? My midweek 10k training runs were also giving clues that it was possible. If I could do 42:26 with hills in training, imagine what I could do on the flat at Rockingham…
So I needed to try.
I found a local track. Well, I say “track”, it was actually just an oval gravel path that might once have been a running track. But it was almost flat, and apart from the numerous dog-walkers who – despite the acres of wide-open playing fields – simply had to walk their dogs on this track while I was running on it, it served the purpose.
I had one good run on this, in 41:33. Just by running on the flat I’d walloped my PB down another minute. The following week a storm codenamed ‘Abigail’ arrived and knocked me sideways – almost literally, in fact, with gusting winds over forty miles-per-hour and horizontal rain. That week I forlornly plodded round in a woeful 44:11. This, plus one or two things outside running, knocked me into a tailspin – which is very, very unlike me.
I was also guarding against the possibility of overtraining, having at that point gone twenty-one weeks without a rest week. But I was displaying none of the symptoms, so I caught up on some sleep, bounced back a bit, ran a 42:16 10k on my usual hilly training route on the Thursday, and on Sunday headed to Rockingham.
All the while watching the weather forecasts, waiting for the wind to die down.
Being honest, the UKRunChat tweetup was as much of a draw as the prospect of a 10k PB itself.
As you’ll have gathered from the amount of times I’ve mentioned it in these blog posts, saying too much about this wonderful online running community would be difficult. In addition to many other benefits I’ve made a huge amount of friends, and was met by hearty hugs, handshakes, backslaps, smiles and the warmest of greetings from all of them when I arrived.
I was there early, hoping to watch some of the duathlon that was taking place before the 10k and 10 mile runs. But the ferocious wind meant that this had been cancelled, so I spent the time with the team at the UKRunChat stand in the pit garages – Joe (co-founder), Jeff, Matt, Nicola, Shell, Sherie, Pippa, Katie, Jenni, and Mark from Fitness Rewards. Others gradually arrived, including Joanna and running buddy Jodie, my good running buddy David (we’ve done lots of races together now), the lovely Amy and sister Lucy, Carlos and Abby (whom I’d met at the Great Birmingham Run), Steve Mac (a fellow Brummie), Josh (who was pacing Shell in her PB attempt), Janet, and Jase (whom I’d met at the Oxford Half-Marathon). Most of us were in our purple ‘One Team’ kit.
The Race, and Racing
I love pre-race atmosphere. I love the tension building as the start approaches, and with so many friends and so much at stake, this was better than most.
Plus, there was a lovely feel to this race. Small but organised. A dedicated team of directors/organisers. Everyone pulling together (that theme for the weekend again). Amanda and Jason from SBR Events had done a great job, and both gave a pre-race briefing via megaphone to the crowd of runners assembled in the pit garages, before leading us out onto the track.
A few days beforehand, as part of the race details for the day, they’d emailed a list of all the 10k participants. There were only 212 runners for the 10k so there was a chance, just a chance, that if I ran hard and hit my potential, I could finish in quite a high position. Maybe even top twenty-five, if the field wasn’t loaded with super-fast club runners. Could this be the first race which I run for position, rather than time?
Amanda led the 10k field out onto the race track for the start. David and I are of a similar pace (he’s a little faster than me) and we lined up together. Instead of the usual ‘big race’ hassle of getting as far forward in the masses in the starting pen as possible, here there was no pen. We were free to choose our position. Just as Mohican Runner describes in his race reports, we had to ‘eye up’ the other runners to try to judge where we fitted best. Which felt a competitive thing to do. We were not far off the front. I felt a surge of excitement. Top twenty a possibility?…
There was a short wait for the start. I peeled back to run a few warm-up jogs. I spotted Katie and went to say hello. Then resumed my position.
Then there was a countdown.
Then we were off.
And into the unknown, waiting for how hard the wind would hit when we turned into it. David went out faster than me and I was happy to let him and quite a few others go, trying to pace myself. The wind was bad but we quickly turned out of it, so I was able to gradually up the pace. With a tailwind, my first mile was 06:13 – too fast, too fast.
In the second mile we got our first real taste of the wind, though we took a lot of it as a side-wind. There were a couple of small inclines as we wound through the infield of the race course, and I was able to start making moves on other runners. I gradually caught up with and passed David. This was the second race in a row where I’d passed him, and the second race in a row where it was a flattering illusion – he was jetlagged, having only stepped off a plane after a long flight the previous evening.
I passed other runners too, and had plenty of pace on the flat. At the end of mile two we made more infield turns into the wind. Harder going now. I hit the end of the second mile in 06:37; a tad slow.
By mile three I was definitely racing other runners for position. And I was being raced too. There was an edge. This was competitive. And, oh, the thrill!
Just as I described at the end of the Great Birmingham Run, when I passed people they fought back for their position, passing me again, making me run harder. There weren’t many runners ahead of me – a handful, maybe ten or fifteen. Some were clearly super-fast club runners and had sped off into the distance, but there was a small cluster of maybe five of us running clear and alone, strung out along the track over a couple of hundred yards or so. It was like being in a Mohican Runner blog post. A proper race!
(Look, I know I’m nowhere near that sort of territory really. I know that a 41 or 42 minute 10k is nowhere near fast enough for that end of the field. But let me have this. I was living a dream.)
There was a chap in a black t-shirt with whom I began leapfrogging position. I had the speed on the flat; he had it on the slight inclines and into the wind. Twenty yards or so ahead of him was a chap in an orange vest, and I watched as his gait turned from smooth to slightly flailing. Was he struggling? Could I pass the chap in black and take the guy in the orange vest at the end?
I ran strategically and sat on the shoulder (not literally) of the chap in black, hoping to apply a bit of pressure and psych him out while waiting for my opportunity to pass. When we hit the flat my speed came back and I did pass him a couple of times, though each time he came back at me after a while and re-took the position. Damn it.
Then I was being raced from behind too. A guy in a lime green vest passed me a couple of times on the inclines and into the wind. But again, I had it on the flat, re-took my position and pulled away. He sat on my shoulder – I could hear his feet and his breathing – doing to me what I’d tried to do to the guy in black. Pressure! But I was grinning like a maniac because it was just so much damn fun.
Then we hit the wind full in the face.
Having gone out via the main straight and infield, we returned towards the pit complex around the outer speedway loop of the track. This was into the wind – by which I mean straight into the wind, head first. It stood us all up, dropping us the wrong side of seven-minute miling. We all started to struggle. The chap in black pulled away from me quite easily. So now the racing was for my own position with the chap in green.
That drag into the pit complex into the wind was gruesome and nauseating while trying to hold pace and position. Mile three passed in an abominably slow 07:01 but at least it was the same for everyone.
Finally we passed through the pits, turned out of the wind and began our second lap, once again getting the wind as a tailwind as we’d had at the start. I was able to shift up a gear again and pull away, and this time it seemed to be for good.
The advantage of running two laps of a course was that on the second lap I knew what was coming, and could prepare for it physically and mentally. By now it was more about consolidating my position, making sure I wasn’t caught from behind, and continuing to push in case any of the runners ahead of me burned out and I could pick them off.
By now we were passing through the ten mile runners, who were out on the course. I passed Jeff, Sherie and Jenni while getting in miles four and five at 06:34 and 06:45 respectively. Still too slow.
Mile six returned us to the pits in the phenomenal headwind again. Another slow, gruesome, nauseating mile pushing as hard as my legs and guts would allow in 07:00. And then, with a gruelling dash to the finish, it was over.
Ever the obsessed, I checked my Garmin as soon as I was over the line. I knew this wasn’t going to be a sub-42 PB but I was still disappointed by the pedestrian 42:25 I’d just run. I estimated I’d finished somewhere around fifteenth position though, which was pretty good.
The chap in green finished just behind me, and we had a long friendly chat, congratulating each other on our races and comparing plans for next year. I saw David come in while we were talking, and went to find him in the garage complex. After chatting, we then ventured back out to cheer in the other 10k runners, and cheer on the ten-milers. Jodie and Joanna came through in PB times, and we tried (unsuccessfully) to sort out some ice from the post-race physio/massage team for Joanna’s injured ankle. Shell got her PB, paced by Josh, though Katie had a DNF with a fall and injury, which was a huge shame.
I saw Amy and Lucy when they had both finished. They asked whether I had my result, so I gave them the time from my Garmin. “No, your result,” Amy said. “From the timing people. David’s just been and got his and he finished thirteenth.” And indeed, there he was, walking back holding a little slip of paper.
Hang on a minute.
If David finished thirteenth and I was a few places ahead of him (remember this is a flattering illusion, he was jetlagged)… could I have finished in the… top ten?
I think the fastest I moved all afternoon was down to the guys huddled under a gazebo in the freezing wind, surrounded by IT equipment. I keyed in my race number on a little receipt-printer machine and it gave me a slip of paper that said I’d finished ninth.
I was stunned. This was more than I’d ever dreamed of. Not only a top ten finish but actually inside the top ten. Suddenly the disappointment of the slow time I’d just run melted away.
I wandered back to the garage, stunned and bewildered and delighted and, oh, everything. A top ten finish. In a complete lack of graciousness and humility – hubris too, as we shall see – I think I must have told just about everyone.
After the races had finished some folk left quite quickly; I stayed for a while. Amanda and Jason from SBR Events did presentations for the overall winner and the age category winners. My ninth place also got me second in age category. I was one place away – just one place – from being presented with a medal and having a handshake photo with the race organisers.
Myself and Steve Mac talked for a while longer with the UKRunChat team, which included a chat about the Unilite head torches on display (a big thanks and thumbs-up to Joe, by the way). And then the time came to leave.
I tweeted a picture of my slip of paper with my ninth place on it, and the UKRunChat community reacted in full force – I had all the love on Twitter for that, believe me.
Driving away and saying goodbye was an odd feeling. Especially to something that I’d been building up to for months.
And that was that. Season done.
The Sting in the Tail
Except it wasn’t, quite.
By the time I’d driven home I’d missed lots of Twitter chat about the day. I gradually caught up. Somebody had tweeted a link to the provisional race results online. Well, I already had my race result, and I’d already told and tweeted the world about it. But if you’re anything like me (and if you’re a runner then I suspect you are) I couldn’t resist heading online for another delicious peek at the number nine.
So I was somewhat surprised to find that I was now down as officially finishing eleventh.
Not ninth. Can you imagine the crushing disappointment? (If you’re a runner then I suspect you can.) And the slow, dawning realisation that what had seemed too good to be true really had been?
Still pretty good, but… there it is. Not top ten. Not good enough. So I clung to my little slip of paper that still said I’d finished ninth, and clung also to the comfort blanket that, hey, they’re only provisional results. But when the official race results came through, including my race finishers certificate, I’d actually finished thirteenth.
So that was that. Hubris. My top ten finish that wasn’t.
“Ah,” you say, “but thirteenth is still a good position.”
No it isn’t.
Well, maybe it is. But not when at one point I’d finished ninth. And I’m a bit competitive with myself.
However, I did have a fantastic day. Meeting so many lovely friends from UKRunChat was really very special. That evening, the chap in green, Scott, found me and followed me on Strava – another example of the comradeship and camaraderie among runners. And I enjoyed racing, and being raced, unimaginably. I simply loved that this really had become the first race where my result was expressed in terms of my finishing position rather than time.
And the disappointment? It’s motivation now. I’m coming back faster. I’ll be attacking winter training. I found a weakness that I need to fix: being dropped on the inclines and into the wind. I’m not going to let that happen again.
And if I wasn’t running the New York Marathon on the same day, I’d be back at Rockingham in 2016 too. The course really was fast and flat (the inclines I’ve mentioned were very small and insignificant) and the atmosphere was great.
So: lovely friends, fast and flat, excitement and motivation – it turned out to be a great end-of-season blast.