The 2016 Shrewsbury Half-Marathon was the first ever race to be organised by UKRunChat, and as well as the race itself there was a UKRunChat weekend away based around it too.
So that Friday I packed my bags and headed north to the youth hostel accommodation.
Having left home a little (a lot) later than originally intended, I decided to avoid Friday evening rush hour on the motorways and go cross-country instead. A typical townie, I checked the basics of where I was headed and let the sat-nav do the rest.
Of course, in the name of taking me on the quickest route, it had me wincing in disbelief at the tiny country lanes it sent me along. There’ll be more on this theme later in the weekend, but for now it took me up various winding, steep ascents out of Much Wenlock and onto the heights and beauty of the Long Mynd. I simply had to stop to take some photos. It was stunning.
From here I made my way to the hostel – meeting and recognising Nicola driving the other way to pick up another of our party – and a very unique set of surroundings for the weekend…
A few of us had already arrived (as well as Howard and Nicola there were David, Helen, Jen and Sofia, with Roger and Jason arriving later), and meeting up with everyone was lovely. The hostel was lovely too, but being an old building it was like stepping back in time: tall ceilings, creaking floors and doors, old Bakelite light switches, old clocks, stained-glass windows, very few plug sockets, no television, no mobile signal and no wi-fi. I was struck by a sense of just how much like an Agatha Christie novel it was: a small group of friends meet up in an old house for the weekend, no contact with the outside world… the lights fail and then a dead body is found…
Actually, I made up those last two bits, the lights didn’t fail once and (as far as I know) none of us found any dead bodies. Though with the goings-on at the local pub next door, it’s difficult to be sure…
You see, after a lovely dinner (home-made soup with fresh vegetables, sausage casserole and the kind of cake and berries dessert I would never dream of allowing myself normally, especially on race weekend) we headed out to the set of The Wicker Man.
Actually, it wasn’t the set of The Wicker Man at all, but the local pub. Though it might as well have been. This was the weekend preceding the summer solstice, and they were having a festival.
A ‘sin-eating’ festival.
Lots of locals dressed up and burning an effigy stuffed with paper notelets of people’s sins, apparently. Cleansing them for the year ahead. The festival was spread over the whole weekend and they didn’t do the actual burning that night, though there was some extremely dubious ‘music’ going on in a marquee that I could only really describe as heavy metal drone – all the usual guitars, bass, drums and gravel-voiced shouty vocals etc. but no actual music; they just switched them on and made a long droning noise. For three hours.
(I’m making light of this but it actually seemed to be a nice event. There were lots of families there and lots of children, most of whom were staying in a campsite a few hundred yards up the road. It seemed to be quite a big deal locally and there was a lovely, friendly atmosphere.)
The pub also had that crowning feature that sits newly atop Maslow’s modern hierarchy of basic survival needs: free wi-fi. And as a bunch of Twitter addicts, believe me, we made full use of it.
After a while we returned to the hostel, and though there was some talk of writing down our own sins to be burned the next night, I actually fell into a conversation about nutrition, protein supplements and the low-carb high-fat (LCHF) debate. I’ve been sceptical of LCHF for a long time but unexpectedly it became a theme of the weekend for me. I’ll blog about this separately because there’s a lot to get through; suffice to say I may have been persuaded to try aspects of it…
On Saturday morning Howard and Nicola provided the navigation and led our little group on a walk up to the Long Mynd. The weather was somewhat uncooperative, which was a shame because I knew from the previous evening how spectacularly beautiful the scenery was. Still, despite the drizzle the walk was lovely. It was also a very good way of staying active without over-exerting ourselves before tomorrow’s race.
After the walk we returned to the hostel, for a pleasant, unhurried couple of hours. Steve arrived and joined our little group, and we all sat around talking and listening to the sound of the tractors in the field hauling away the dead bodies from last night’s ceremony sacrifices.
(Sorry, I got carried away again, there weren’t any dead bodies. Honestly, there weren’t. I really believe that.)
The afternoon’s activities were to be a series of talks from Nuffield Health, one of the corporate partners and sponsors of the race. So after a couple of hours we headed off to the county showground, where the race was to start the next day, and where the talks were being held.
On which subject…
Getting to the Showground
It wasn’t my fault.
Honestly, it really wasn’t.
In my defence, I never claimed to know the way to the showground. I claimed to have the postcode and a sat-nav, which was true.
“Right, we’ll all follow you then, Dave.”
Which is why we ended up as a convoy of cars bouncing along miles of ever-narrowing, mud-ridden, single-track, rutted lanes at fifteen miles-per-hour, as my sat-nav extracted every ounce of excruciatingly embarrassing revenge for every time I’ve ever ignored it in the past or may do in the future.
Also not my fault was the fact that the roads through the town centre were being closed because of a local carnival, which turned out to be about the only route to the showground. Had we not taken so long to get there we would just have sneaked through before the road closures. As it was, we were turned away from the route we needed at a roundabout by a marshal putting up ‘road closed’ signs.
And on top of this, what was also not my fault was the minor (major) traffic incident we caused by going back and re-taking this turn. It wasn’t my idea to try heading off down there anyway while the guy with the signs helpfully disappeared for a moment, just in case we could actually get through.
The problem was that it led to a tiny mini-roundabout which was effectively a dead-end since the only other exit from it, apart from a little car park, was also blocked off. We executed a tight 360-degree turn back on ourselves and saw the chaos we’d caused, as all the other traffic had followed us and had to try to turn back on themselves too.
Goodness only knows how the articulated lorry got out of there.
Not my fault, okay?
We were therefore a little late to the talks, and we’d lost one of the convoy along the way (Sofia, Helen and Jen enjoyed an afternoon at the carnival instead), but were guided into the main building among UKRunChat and Nuffield Health flags. Joe was there, and Matt was leading the event. There were more UKRunChat folk, including the lifetime running legend that is Bill Andrews, Douglas with whom I’ve tweeted lots, and Melissa, a Buffalo gal (particular resonance if you’re a Miami Dolphins fan like me) with whom I’ve also tweeted lots and has set herself a challenge to run 5k in every London borough this summer.
There were useful talks from physiotherapists and other specialists, but the one that jumped out at me was from a nutritionist who raised a couple of points about LCHF – that theme of the weekend again – and answered one of my questions extremely helpfully. Thought-provoking (again, I’ll blog separately about this).
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
From the talks we headed back to the hostel, returning with lots more of us staying over this time. You’d think I’d have learned, but no, off we went again, bouncing down the narrow, single-lane rutted tracks, with my sat-nav chuckling in malicious electronic glee…
After dinner at the hostel we headed off to the local pub again for more talking, chatting and laughing. Oh, and burning of sins. Plus more lovely wi-fi.
But with the race tomorrow, most of us were back at the hostel around 22:00 to prep our race kit and get an early night.
(Unfortunately, this did mean that we missed ‘Sex Swing’ – no, not another ceremony, much though this may have sounded more appealing than sin-burning; this was actually the name of the next band in the marquee.)
The showground was ideal for the race start and finish, and everything seemed to be well organised. Parking was quick and easy, there was plenty of room for everyone, the pre-race atmosphere was good, and there was lots of space to stretch and warm up. The UKRunChat team members were already in their marshalling posts or manning the baggage area when we arrived, and as well as those of us from the hostel there were lots more UKRunChat runners to meet too.
Those of us racing huddled round outside the main building, where there were more pre-race (and later, post-race) photos and selfies than I think I’ve ever been part of before (there’s just a tiny selection of these above). I felt extremely proud to be wearing my UKRunChat tee and representing this fabulously supportive and helpful community at its first ever event.
Sub-90 is my half-marathon target for this year, but although I believe in thinking positively, training hadn’t gone as well as I’d hoped. I’d found the transition from long, slow marathon training to intense, faster running for half-marathon more difficult than I expected. I expected to finish around 01:30-01:32 so I put myself at the front of the pen for 01:30 finishers. I thought this was sensible and conservative but there weren’t very many ahead of me. Interestingly, there were only a couple of runners in the sub-01:15 pen.
The opening stage of the race took us round the showground and out onto the approach road. Target pace for a sub-90 was 06:45 minute-miling and I was determined to try to stick to this as long as I could, even though training suggested I’d be running more pedestrian 06:55s. But we went out fast at 06:15 pace and I must have had something like a hundred or more people come piling past me. This was disconcerting but I stuck to my own pace, knowing that almost every single one of them had made the classic mistake of going out too quickly. Even so, I was too fast myself at 06:35s a mile or so into the town centre, and still they came piling past me.
I kept pushing hard but took what the terrain gave me, allowing myself to drop pace on the hills in the first few miles – which were steep when they came. Especially the one around mile four, which was extremely steep and extremely tough. Each time we topped these I let my speed come back gradually and naturally, rather than putting the pedal to the floor as others were doing.
As an approach, it paid off. From the ascent at mile four through to somewhere around mile seven or eight I ran with a chap from Chase Harriers. During the hilly miles he ran hard and was dragging me along to keep up with him, though I was pleased to be able to keep up a conversation (albeit brief, out-of-breath and staccato statements) at 06:45 minute-miling. But once we settled into the long, gradual incline out into the countryside from miles seven thru ten I was able to put in a long burn, and though I tried to drag him along I eventually left him and a lot of others behind.
Another feature of the early miles was spotting some of our UKRunChat runners coming the other way on the out-and-back parts of the route. Douglas and Sofia spotted me, with a high-five from both, and Jen spotted me too.
Around mile ten the long incline drag finally plateaued out and I dug deep for a fast final stint. During club runs recently I’ve experimented with running up on tippy-toes for a full forefoot strike. It feels amazing – springy and fast – though at the moment I’m still acclimatising to it and can only stay up there for five or six miles or so. I’d saved it for these last few miles as my ‘secret weapon’ but when I tried to use it my calves were simply too tired.
The last couple of miles were a long, gradual downhill. I was able to pick up speed and pass quite a lot of other runners. We eventually re-entered the showground with about three quarters of a mile to go. Underfoot were gravel/rubble paths which slowed me a little, but I was fatiguing anyway. I could see from my Garmin that I was on for a good time, although I was going to miss sub-90. The chase was on to take down my 01:32:15 PB and possibly even go sub-91.
I gave it my all and threw everything into that dash to the finish. Form went out of the window and my green cap nearly went flying off as I fought for 01:30:[xx]. In the end I didn’t make it; I ran 01:31:02 by my Garmin and doubled up after the finish line trying not to vomit. But effort like this is what makes it fun, and is just how it should be.
My official time eventually gave me a second back at 01:31:01 – agonisingly close to sub-91 – but still a PB by over a minute. And I finished in 56th position out of 1300 or more runners – pretty good (and so much for all those runners who’d passed me at the start).
And that was with the hills. The tantalising conclusion is that on a flat course I might have actually run sub-90.
All this made me first UKRunChat home, though with Steve not racing (using the day as a training run for an ultra) and David running injured (ankle sprain) this was somewhat by default. I was welcomed in by Jenna, Sherie, and Howard and Nicola at the finish; friendly faces very welcome to see.
There then followed a happy hour or more of congratulations and cheers as the rest of us came in, compared our races, and took a bunch more photos. There were still more first-time hellos with Becci, and most of us ended up hanging around until the very last finisher came in, with UKRunChat’s Matt as tail-runner.
Even Joe stopped to chat and congratulate me, which I thought was a great touch given how incredibly busy his day was.
For Joe, for UKRunChat and for myself, this was a most successful day. It had been extremely well organised throughout, even down to the free race photos – yes, free race photos – delivered within a few hours. It was a race put on by runners, for runners. In addition, the weekend away had been fantastic; I’d thoroughly recommend everyone to come along to the next one.
On top of this, Shrewsbury was a lovely town and reminded me very much of Oxford, where I ran a half-marathon PB last autumn. And just as in that race, the Shrewsbury Half-Marathon instantly went down as one of my favourites.
I’ll be back next year. Maybe see you there?