Nearly a month had passed since the Manchester Marathon but all the indicators in the weeks in between suggested that it was taking a while to fully recover from the exertions in that race. I focused more on cycling than running through April, plenty of time on Zwift and a couple of club rides with Witham Wheelers. This was mostly because the sciatica issue in the left hamstring took around 10 days to fully disappear and then the less severe issue with the aching left hip took the best part of the month to subside to next to nothing. Coupled with a couple of runs where I got the weird quad ‘cramps’ that I’ve been afflicted with for years now, I don’t think I did any real speed work at all – save for one brick 5K run following a club ride where I bizarrely ran my fastest ever for the oft run loop (Averaging 5:53 per mile), despite having felt thoroughly exhausted for much of the week beforehand.
I went into the Sleaford Half Marathon with the knowledge that I had managed to finish second there in 2018 in very warm conditions in a pretty quick time. With much better conditions forecast and hopeful that I had more or less recovered from Manchester, I was cautiously optimistic that I could run a half decent time. The pre-race build up was wholly unspectacular, a mile and a half around the rugby pitches which were notable only for feeling a lack of zip and a bit of a snotty nose.
As I lined up for the 9:45 start, there was a bit of nervous chatter on the start line as one runner, who is best described as a novice who perhaps shouldn’t have been up on the start line itself, began happily asking everyone around them what time they thought they would run. I said I wouldn’t mine running around 1:16 but I was tired from Manchester. This prompted a guy in some form of Nike Vaporflys to state that he too had run Manchester, had gotten a PB of around 2:36 and was looking to run a 1:13 PB today at Sleaford. It turned out that was Wayne Lathwell of Lincoln Wellington AC, who when the starting horn was fired, looked true to his word and set off at a pace that was certainly unattainable, let alone unsustainable for me.
With Wayne off into the distance and indeed heading to a 1:13:11 PB which secured a comfortable victory, within half a mile I found myself in joint second place with a runner I recognised having competed against numerous times before – Stephen Dickens of Rushcliffe AC. I had a quick glance around and found that we already had a sizeable gap over the nearest runners, perhaps as much as twenty seconds. I knew then that, barring disaster, second or third position was on the cards.
The first mile was spot on what I’d hoped for at 5:40. Half a mile or so late, feeling comfortable and, to be honest, a little bored in the race already, I began chatting to Stephen – something I very rarely do in races. I commented on his trainers, recognising them to be the Nike Vaporfly 4%s, and asked how he felt they performed. He explained that he was still getting used to them. He’d run a 5K in them the week before and said they felt quick but odd.
A little while later as later as we climbed the biggest ascent of the race (A bridge heading over the A17) it became clear that Stephen had got used to his Vaporflys as he began to slowly, but inexorably, disappear into the distance. Powerless to go with him, I resigned myself to a long lonely run to the finish. There was no-one behind me as far as the eye could see so all I had to motivate me to keep the effort going was the prospect of a quick time and a good age grade at an event that was a round of the club’s Grand Prix Series.
The remainder of the race was, frankly, dull. I ran the opening 5K in 17:45, slowed slightly to 17:56 through the second 5K and slowed a little more to 18:10 for the third 5K. I was struggling a little bit on three counts: 1. I felt still a little jaded from Manchester. 2. The winds, although not strong, were troubling in an area on the edge of the Fens. 3. My stomach was cramping alarmingly, perhaps the result of a short return to to experimenting with taking on beetroot juice before a race (I’d also tried this at Retford).
Happy at 9.5 miles that I wasn’t going to be caught by anyone, I opted to dive through a hedgerow and have an emergency pit stop on an edge of a field. I think I only lost 25 seconds or so, returning to the race vowing to never take on beetroot juice before the start of the race again. Feeling more comfortable I ran the final 5K in 18:15 (Sub 18 removing the pit-stop) crossing the finish line third in 1:16:22.
At the time I was pretty disappointed with this – it was around the same time (If you remove time taken by the side of the road) as in 2018 but conditions then were far worse. I think in tip top shape with good weather this is as quick a half marathon course as anywhere in the region and it’s a bit of a mystery why so relatively few runners take part in the race. I got to chat to Stephen at the end of the race who had set a new PB of 1:15:30 and he reckoned that the Vaporflys were worth at least a minute over the half marathon. Given that Wayne too had flown (Albeit I don’t think he was rocking the all singing and dancing model) and I’d seen also Vince at Manchester and elsewhere, plus Jonny Palmer of Bourne/GRC break 2:40 at London a week earlier, both do wondrous things in these shoes, I pretty much decided then that it was time for me to join the arms race and look to get a pair of carbon shod shoes.
Content that I was the winner of the non-Vaporfly race by two and a half minutes, I hung around for the presentation, a touch disappointed that third place wasn’t rewarded quite as well as they had been in 2018. A quick photo with the incredible Tony Johnson, who won his age category with his highest ever age grade a week after going sub-3 at London, and it was time to head home, where bizarrely I opted to totally exhaust myself by doing a 35 minute full gas TT on Zwift, which left me wondering afterwards whether I could have pushed just a bit harder a few hours earlier…
Despite Manchester from Grantham being comparable distance to Grantham to London I’d decided fairly early that I wasn’t going to travel on the morning of the race to Manchester from home. I balked at the idea of paying large amounts of money for a hotel room so opted, for the first time, to use the family caravan to stay close to the race and then stay up in the Manchester area with the family for a few days as the race was taking place during the Easter holidays.
We were staying at a Caravan and Motorhome Club site in Bury, which is in the outskirts of the Greater Manchester district and, crucially, on the tram network that I planned to use to get to and from the race. We left for Bury on the Saturday morning and was immediately grateful for Richard at Grantham Leisure Ltd who was able to immediately identify a terrible sounding (but actually relatively harmless) issue with our tow bar that hit us when setting off on our journey that was remedied with some sand paper and brake cleaner that he very kindly let us keep at no cost.
That drama out of the way the journey to Bury was straightforward enough. The site was pleasant enough, set in Burrs Country Park with constant reminders of the area’s industrial past, including a steam train running on a line just behind our caravan, which bought great boyish pleasure! Once set up and lunch eaten most of the afternoon was spent relaxing as much as possible.
My pre marathon meal of choice is pizza, which isn’t so easy to cook in the caravan so was relying on takeaway. After googling for Bury’s finest pizza establishments I settled on my first ever Domino’s Pizza. I was impressed with the app and collection procedure; less impressed with the actual quality of the pizza and that they are still texting me six months later in the feint hope I may actually use Domino’s Bury while living in Grantham. I washed the pizza down with a small glass of white wine – the habits of caravan lifestyle proved too hard to resist.
The rest of the evening was spent playing the usual parlour games we play with the kids in the caravan before heading to bed at around 10pm. The beauty of staying in the caravan was that, so long as the weather was not biblically bad, I was almost assured a good night’s sleep in a familiar bed – something that I rarely get when staying in a hotel room.
I woke at around 5am and let the legs slowly come to life as I made the short walk to the site’s washroom facilities. I was sure I’d be the only one who’d hatched the same accommodation plan for Manchester but there were at least two or three others who clearly had the same intentions. After a breakfast of 5 small cereal bars washed down with a large mug of black coffee I got the wife to drive me the couple of miles or so to the main tram stop in Bury. The plan was for her to return back to the caravan for a bit before getting a later tram with the kids to watch the race at various points alongthe course.
Again for some reason I was sure that I would be the only one racing at Manchester who would consider getting a tram from Bury but as it turned out there were already many runners on the platform waiting for the first tram to depart at around 7am. They were mostly from local clubs, mostly far too enthusiastic for six something in the morning, but at least the platforms were not as busy as they are when trying to get to the start of London at Blackheath.
The tram journey took around 45 minutes, including a change in the heart of Manchester when I met Jack Dodwell of GRC, who was racing, and his father, who had driven them from Grantham that morning. Once off the second tram it was a few minute’s walk before we came to the boulevard of Portaloos where I stumbled upon quite a few of the other GRC contingency who were taking part in the race. It was then on to drop off the bag at baggage near the finish line. By now the time was around 8:30 and not too long left before the 9am start. There was time for a quick photo with around half the GRC runners before I made my way to the start.
On one of the last unofficial toilet stops I happened to bump into Vince Riviere who I’d first met at the Leeds Abbey Dash. He’d gone on to have quite a winter with a string of great races including a brilliant low 2:37 at the Valencia Marathon. We wished each other well and I dreamed of whether it would be my day to break 2:40 for the first time. Working my way through the crowds of runners starting from slower pens, I finally got to the front pen with around ten minutes to spare. I found somewhere where you could lighten the load in relative privacy (albeit with a load of other runners doing the same thing) one last time before making my way to the start line. I looked up to the skies and blessed the weather gods for providing pretty much perfect conditions – cloudy skies, a light easterly breeze and temperatures maxing out at around 11C. I could conjour up plenty of excuses for a poor performance, the weather couldn’t be one of them!
As the final countdown began and the pre-race nerves around me became almost unbearable it was with great relief that the starting horn was sounded dead on time at 9am. Despite the large numbers running we were able to run unrestricted from the off and some around me clearly were going off way too fast, almost totally out of breath in the opening couple of minutes. Despite swathes of runners coming past me I stuck as closely as I could to the game plan of max 150 bpm for the opening mile, 155 bpm for mile two, 160 bpm for mile three and a maximum of 165 bpm to twenty miles.
This deliberately easy start meant I felt like I was chomping at the bit, which was potentially a good sign as sometimes the opening miles can feel quite laboured. The opening mile was 6:34 which I hoped would be by far the slowest mile of the race. Mile 2 was 6:15 and I went through mile 3 in 6:09, which coincided with the course completing its mini loop east before heading southwest towards Stretford, Sale and Altrincham before heading back to the start via Urmston.
The fourth mile was the first where I allowed myself the luxury of getting to 165 bpm and I was pleased to clock a 6:01, which was right at the top end of what I thought I might be able to hit after all the weeks of training at marathon heart rate. Better was to come in mile five when I ran a 5:58 (the fastest of the race) before I ran 6:05 for mile 6. Thereafter the splits to mile 20 were very consistent with only nine seconds covering the quickest (6:00 – mile 13) and the slowest (6:09 – mile 12). The difference in these two miles could be explained in that we climbed the biggest ‘hill’ of the race (no more than a bridge over a railway) in mile 12 at Altrincham and came down in mile 13.
Given the consistency of mile splits you may be forgiven for thinking it was plain sailing. Alas this was not the case. All was well until around that bridge at 12 miles. I’d already seen my family out once on the course at around eight miles and taken the first of three gels (SIS that I was using in a race for the first time). Without warning I felt a sharp pain in my left hamstring. At first I thought it was cramp but the pain disappeared as soon as it came. Anxious I wasn’t in the mood for high fiving the Altrincham football club mascot as I passed the family for the third and final time before the finish. Indeed the family were worried I might punch him as he generally got in runners’ way – I was very restrained under the circumstances!
I got through the convoluted Altrincham loop – complete with odd run through what looks like the back of a Boots car park without drama and was hoping that the pain in the hamstring was a one off as I passed through halfway in just outside eighty minutes. However at the next left turn where crowds were perhaps at there biggest, I felt a sharper, longer more sustained pain in my left hamstring. This forced me briefly to a slow jog and, assuming it was cramp, I was already wondering whether it would be a good time to consider dropping out of the race.
Mercifully almost as quick as the pain came on it disappeared entirely. This led me to make some quick assumptions that it wasn’t cramp, wasn’t a muscle pull or tear and was almost certainly some kind of sciatica similar to what had struck my calf muscle at the Retford Half Marathon. Considering I had slowed for a period mile 14 wasn’t nearly as disastrous as I feared clocking, 6:07. The mind has a neat way of blocking out painful episodes from the memory bank so I can’t recall how often I suffered a repeat of the sciatica pains, but I estimate I had a couple more in mile 15, then perhaps two or three more up to around mile 18. They must have been still troubling me at mile 17 as there was a photo of me uploaded to Facebook shouting at fellow GRC runner and spectator at the race due to injury Dean Riggall that I was suffering from Sciatica.
The follow up bursts of discomfort weren’t as severe as the blast of pain that had forced me to slow, indeed they barely caused me to slow at all, they served more to not have me push on quite as much as I perhaps could have, the heart rate veering closer to 160 bpm than 165. One other precautionary tactic was that on all the remaining ninety degree corners, of which there were plenty on this course that uses a lot of residential streets, I made sure I took a very wide, cautious line through the corner, using plenty of road and trying not to force any sharp turns. This may have added a few extra meters per turn but I sensed it would perhaps help minimise any further distress to the leg.
By mile eighteen nearly four miles had passed since the bad pain and I was gaining a little more confidence that I was able to make it at least to the finish. The mile splits were still good, hovering just over six minutes a mile. It was around here I made an adjustment on my Garmin’s race pacer to allow for the distance creep that had built in compared to the official distance markers. The news was positive, I was on course to run just outside 2:40 – a PB was on the cards and if I could muster something special perhaps, just perhaps a sub 2:40 was possible.
The twenty mile marker is a key moment in any marathon, it’s where a race begins if you abide to the famous maxim a marathon is a twenty mile steady run with a 10K race at the end. It’s where at many marathons the crowds are at their deepest and most enthusiastic. At Manchester it coincides with where the race becomes, for a mile or two, its most rural and most sparse in terms of support. For some this is a bit of an issue, to be honest it doesn’t really bother me too much, I quite enjoyed being able to focus on the task in hand of getting to the finish as quick as possible.
Reasonably content that the dodgy leg wasn’t going to get any worse I guzzled down the third and final gel (A double espresso one, which I felt certainly gave a good buzz) and put the gas down at 20 miles as per the best case scenario race strategy. This simply meant I abandoned the 165 bpm max limit and attempted to run as at high a BPM as the body will allow me.
Most times I find this unattainable, today was one of those rare races where I was able to increase the HR to between 166-169 bpm. Because the body is by now pretty fatigued the reality was that I wasn’t getting any quicker, but crucially I was able to more or less maintain the same pace I’d run the previous seventeen miles at. Three consecutive 6:06 miles saw me pass a lot of runners, many of whom were beginning to see the wheels well and truly fall off.
Mile 23 saw a little blip in the pace as it dropped to 6:14, but this mile contained a quite noticeable climb for part of the mile. Having had no repeat of the sciatica since around mile 18 I’d by now all but forgotten the injury and was giving it everything I could, concentrating on picking off runners and trying to keep my predicted finish time as quick as possible.
Mile 24 was pleasing at 6:03, with mile 25 much the same – another 6:06. The final mile is a bit marmite – some love the ability to see the finish line from nearly a mile away, I found it a bit annoying as it never seemed to get any closer. It became more annoying as I had a runner in front of me who saw fit to have a couple of his friends recording him from a bicycle that was sheltering him from the wind. As I passed him his friends urged him to stick to me and kick past at the finish. This made me doubly determined to ensure it didn’t happen!
More annoying still was a giant screen that showed the finish line that from a distance looked just like it was the finish until you realised there was another slight right turn and around a third of a mile to the finish. This produced a protracted and painful attempt at a sprint finish as I made my way to the finish line. I crossed the line tired, but happy in 2:40:47.
I was delighted to break my PB by nearly a minute and set a new club record; a little frustrated that without the sciatica issues there was every chance I could have broken that 2:40 barrier. I must have recovered quite quick as I was soon having a good old chat with the winner of the women’s race, who had set a big new PB. Then collecting my bag a few minutes later I bumped in again with Vince, who had clocked another sub 2:40 time despite suffering a fall and inflicting damage to his Vaporfly 4%s. I looked longingly at his shoes wondering what I may have achieved if I were wearing those rather than my tried and trusted Hoka Cliftons….
With the race done, medal collected, and repatriated with the family, it was just a case of getting the tram back to the Caravan site, treating it as a badge of honour of sorts that I was at the station at the same time as Steve Way, who had collected a considerable number of fans asking his opinion of the race.
Once back at the Caravan I wasted no time in fulfilling a promise I’d declared on Facebook that I would be back cooking chicken on the barbecue and drinking sparkling wine by 2pm. By 10pm and some drinks later and plenty of hours sitting in a caravan, the hamstring sciatica had turned into a full on case of a locked hip so painful that I almost had to ask to be picked up in the car when I couldn’t get back from the toilet block to the caravan!
The next couple of days were spent recovering and enjoying Manchester. I managed a fairly short exploratory run on the Wednesday morning before heading back home – seemingly with no lasting damage done to the left leg.
Having run it twice now (Once in the infamous short course days) I would certainly recommend Manchester as a great alternative marathon to London – it’s flatter, has less crowd support (Which is a perverse positive) and coming early in April is more likely to have cooler conditions. I enjoyed the pre-race caravan experience so much I have decided to do something similar if I take part in the 2020 London Marathon.
The second of two planned half marathons before the Manchester Marathon and the last race before the 26.2 mile jaunt around the streets of Greater Manchester. The intention for this race was to run it as a 90-95% effort – harder certainly than at the Leicestershire Half Marathon which was run at marathon HR, but not absolutely flat out bearing in mind the need to continue marathon training immediately after the race and mindful that there had been no taper before the Retford Race.
There certainly was no taper, indeed the weekend before saw the biggest weekend of training of the year – the Saturday had me up and running at 6:20am to run 21 miles, including the hilly Newton’s Fraction Half Marathon course, completing that just in time to take part in Belton House parkrun, which I managed to complete in 17:54 before running 2 1/3 tough miles to run 26.4 miles in 2:55:46. Then the next day I ran a half marathon training run in just under the 90 minutes, including a 5:58 final mile to ensure I just ducked under that time barrier. The rest of the week was fairly easy running except two days later I had a 10 mile run with 7 miles at marathon pace, which I found hard going and included a weird spell of tightness in the left hip and glute which soon eased off but, in hindsight, was an indicator of some trouble that lay ahead.
In stark contrast to the year before, winter 2019 training had been relatively mild and dry – the odd bit of short lived snow and the odd cold morning, but nothing too harsh. Arguably the worst weather of the winter / spring actually came on the morning of the Retford Half Marathon, I woke early with the temperatures hovering around freezing and snow threatening. Indeed in surrounding counties snow had apparently fallen and settled, making driving treacherous. Thankfully as I drove up the A1 to Retford the rain occasionally turned to sleet but no snow fell. There had though been an awful lot of rain, which I found when I took on an easy two mile warm up that saw me having to skirt around some very large puddles. Very strong winds were also predicted, although I was mercifully spared these (a moderate to stiff breeze) until an hour or so after I finished.
Arriving extremely early (Over two hours before the 10am start) to ensure that I could utilise the car park right next to the start line and not have to use one some way away, I had plenty of time to kill, so spent plenty of time chatting to a few GRC members, visiting the toilet numerous times and generally killing time. At last the time came to race, I made the very short trip from the sports hall of the school to the start line and waited for the off.
It’s a bit of a weird start at Retford. You run away from the main road for only a matter of 50 meters or so before doing a big U-turn around a roundabout, doubling back on yourself and passing the start / finish line before heading out of the main entrance and taking a left turn to skirt around the edge of Retford town centre. With the tarmac slick it was a little nerve wracking getting around the corner without slipping, but I was safely around and quite soon into my running.
The field was a fairly good quality and I had quite a nice group to run with for the opening miles (the first mile made easier by a tailwind) before it thinned out considerably. The first couple of miles were solid – 5:44 and 5:46. I then had the first twinges of something amiss going on with the left leg. I felt a sharp pain radiate down from the middle of the hamstring down into the calf muscle. It didn’t last long and didn’t particularly slow me but it was unnerving. It happened again a few minutes later and proceeded to do so every few minutes or so for the entirety of the race. I was pretty sure it was a sciatica like issue so tried my best to ignore it and focus on the running.
Mile 3 slowed a touch to 5:48 and I went through 5K in just under 18 minutes. We were running along the old Great North Road, which was pretty straight, just about a neutral side wind and pretty flat aside from a bridge over the mainline railway. The weather took a turn for the worse with cold rain beginning to fall. I persisted wearing the sunglasses as I do tend to suffer with streaming eyes on cold, breezy, mornings, but I did get the odd comment here and there from spectators questioning whether they were needed.
More troubling was that the cold rain and wind with temperatures only around 3°C was that I was beginning to get cold. The upper half wasn’t too bad as I had opted to run with a thermal headband, thermal base layer and short sleeved club top. I was wearing my usual Skins compression cycling length shorts (Bought specifically for such weather after suffering badly at the Newton’s Fraction in 2017) and thick calf compression guards, but this wasn’t enough for the quads especially to start icing up.
Miles 4 and 5 remained consistent – 5:51 and 5:49. Up to now we had been running on good quality A roads. Indeed what I took from the race afterwards was how high grade the roads were and what good value the race was at £18 to have such roads mostly closed to traffic. The sixth mile saw us literally take a turn for worse – a sharp left into a narrow country lane just before we reached Toworth. As they had warned us before the start the heavy overnight rainfall had left a section of the course flooded and it was here where we were faced with a stretch of around 100 meters around a corner where we were faced with the choice of either running through ankle deep water or risk ankles and limbs on the grass verge beside the road.
The runner ahead of me opted for the grass. Seeing him struggle I opted for the flooded road after just a few strides myself on the grass. This proved to be quicker as I caught him and soon past him, but it did leave me with soaking wet trainers. The sixth mile was a touch slower at 5:53, the undulating seventh mile was a fraction slower again at 5:54. This part of the course had us back on an A road and featured a dead turn at seven miles where we would head back and past runners coming in the opposite direction for mile 8. It was here at some point I spotted the rapidly improving GRC runner Ian Williams who was running his first half marathon in a couple of years and looking to significantly improve on his 85 minute debut. I did some mental maths and reckoned he was on for something around five minutes faster, which is what we had estimated beforehand.
Going through the 8 mile marker in 5:50 the ninth mile was mostly downhill and was a touch quicker at 5:48. Having enjoyed a mile of watching runners head in the opposite direction I was now running alone, with pretty much no-one as far as the eye could see in front of me and no-one directly behind either. By now I was not feeling great. The cold, wet conditions, the cold my daughter had passed on to me and probably the mileage in the week before was beginning to take its toll – mentally perhaps more than physically.
Mile 10 had us briefly back on the old Great North road before heading right onto the Old London Road. This proved to be a tough old slog. There was a steepish ascent up and over a railway bridge which was followed by a very gentle climb that went on for the best part of two miles. Not being able to push on the pace slowed a touch – 5:58 for mile 10 and 6:08 for mile 11 before the twelfth mile saw me rally slightly with a 5:52, thanks wholly to the last third of a mile being significantly downhill and aided considerably by the westerly wind blowing directly on my back.
This wind and the descent was so much of a help I the pace was under 5:30 for the a fair chunk of the final mile, before it took a hit with the little steep rise I had rehearsed during my warm up. Just as in my warm up we had to run on the pavement here as the busy A road had not been closed to traffic. This wouldn’t have been an issue were it not for a number of pedestrians and their dogs going for a leisurely stroll, most oblivious to the race taking pace, making for some hairy dodging as I tried to maintain the pace to the finish line.
With a 5:44 final mile I sprinted as best I could back to the Academy and the finish line, clocking 1:16:56. Although I would have liked to have gone a bit quicker I was content with this considering how cold, wet, and somewhat miserable I was during the race, with the added hindrance of the leg pains shooting from hamstring to calf. Half marathons in the middle of marathon training are often curious affairs. They can often prove to be the fastest of the year thanks to the mileage volume in the legs or the hardest, sometimes the slowest, thanks to the mileage volume in the legs.
Straight after the finish I headed back to the Academy entrance to see Ian come home in 1:20:41, I hung around a bit longer to see Tony, Holly, Joss and Sam finish before I opted to retire to the gymnasium to warm up and prepare for a warm down. Thanks to some efficient production of results on a notice board I found out I had finished sixteenth, and I had come second in the V40 category, again things I should be pretty pleased with really.
The warm down however turned into something of a disaster! Feeling the left calf tighten, I stopped to perform a hamstring stretch which saw the whole leg tighten enormously with pains shooting down the leg. I then proceeded to hobble the remainder of the mile in over nine minutes before making it back to the car. Thankfully after a lot of massage in the next few days I was able to start running on the Wednesday, although I only ran once more on the Friday – this being more due to working crazy hours for the Australian Grand Prix!
The second race of 2019 was the first of two planned half marathons I’d booked ahead of the Manchester Marathon. They were both rounds of the GRC GP Series, but this race I had always earmarked as the one where I would run the vast majority at my planned marathon heart rate. Therefore I went into the race with low expectations on time and finishing position. Those were even lower in the days leading up to the race when, after a month of solid training, I was struck down with a short flu like illness the weekend before which had me not running for the best part of five days and on my return feeling distinctly sub-par to the extent that I bailed on the Thursday night club run at seven miles when running at 8:12 pace proved too challenging.
I’d not run the first edition of the Leicestershire Half Marathon. I’d heard mixed reviews regarding the course (and the wind especially) but was willing to give it a try. Taking place at Prestwold Hall near Loughborough, the race makes full use of the racing / test circuit on the grounds that ensures traffic-free roads for much of the race. Thankfully to break the monotony the race does break free from the grounds to run on regular roads (And a farmers’ track!) for the middle third of the race before returning to the grounds for the final third. As I’ve run most of the Formula One circuits many times in my previous lifetime as an F1 jet-setter I am well used to running on wide open circuits which to some are pretty boring, but for me will always be something of a thrill – even if this circuit has little in the way of heritage.
Having arrived over two hours before the start and having made myself familiar with the start, I performed a wholly unremarkable two mile warm up on part of the circuit. Conditions were set fair for the race, sunny and pleasant for racing at around 8C. Only a breeze, stiff in places, would hinder progress although, it should be said, it was nothing compared to what I had faced at Oundle a few weeks earlier. After the calamity of the Nike Free’s laces coming undone in that 10K race I was back in my trusted Hoka Cliftons, albeit in a new pair of Clifton 4s that I had only run in a couple of times before and, if all went, well would be reserved as a race pair rather than doubling up for training runs.
I lined up a couple of rows back from the start, keen not to get swept up in the melee from the gun. Having heard that the favourite for the race had run 66 minutes a week earlier in Spain I knew this wasn’t ever going to be a race I was in contention of winning but my mind was purely set on seeing how quick I could go with the restriction of running at my marathon heart rate limits.
The start, outside Prestwold Hall itself, is a curious affair on fairly deep gravel, with a couple of tight turns before heading on a tree lined road that takes you out to the main entrance. I think I was probably just inside the top twenty at this point, spending more time checking the heart rate on the watch than who was around me. We briefly left the grounds and ran on a closed public road for a few hundred meters before returning to the grounds alongside the disused air strip that had been turned into our car park for the race.
The opening mile was pleasing at 6:04 considering I’d been able to keep the HR well below my limits and it had featured a short climb. I felt a little stiff but with certainly none of the ill effects of being unwell the weekend before. The second mile saw a 5:56 and the heart rate creep up to the maximum of 165 bpm. With my old Garmin watches I’d always turned off the HR alerts as I found them intensely annoying beeping constantly the moment you exceed the limit until you returned to normality. The 935 (and I imagine many of the other similar more recent models) does it a little differently in that it appears to give 20-30 seconds grace when a HR limit is exceeded before beeping and vibrating once with a warning showing you what your heart rate currently is before returning to the usual screen and only beeping again 30 seconds or so later if the HR is still high. This for me was quite tolerable and beneficial in that I didn’t have to be spending quite so much time staring at my watch checking I hadn’t veered into the red.
From miles 3-11 it was a case of running as close to but trying not to exceed 165 bpm. It felt quite weird that I was paying no attention to who I was racing around me. If I caught someone but the alarm went off I slowed until the HR recovered and I resumed racing. Without even realising it I had passed quite a few runners but had no real idea where I was in the race as the field was pretty spread out. I enjoyed the route on the racing circuit, even if the route was a little convoluted at times. As we were changing direction fairly frequently we weren’t exposed to the headwind for too long a period, which helped keep the pace fairly consistent. Miles two to five were 5:56, 5:54, 5:55, and 5:57.
The fifth mile was partly along the aforementioned farmers’ track. Rough and uneven it was thankfully dry and compact – it would have been really tricky had it been wet and muddy. We left the grounds for the run down to Wymeswold and then up to Hoton and back to Prestwold. This was enjoyable enough, mile six (6:03) was one of the slowest of the race as it featured a climb and I was forced to slow when the HR crept up. With that inconvenience out of the way it was back to pleasingly swift sub six miles – 5:56, 5:55, and 5:58 for miles six through to nine. At around eight miles we were back at Prestold Hall being taken once again on a magical mystery tour of the multi faceted venue, passing an HGV driving school, and a solar panel farm frequented by sheltering sheep before returning to the race track we had run on earlier in the race.
Mile 10 at 6:10 was the slowest of the race, purely because most of the mile had been run into the headwind. I was helped here a touch by catching another runner who I was able to shelter behind before pulling clear as best I could when we turned a corner and was free from the headwind. Mile 11 was back to sub six with a 5:55, then 5:50 for mile 12 as I caught and passed another runner.
The final mile I decided to abandon the HR limits and run as hard as I could. The reasoning twofold – firstly to simulate the final 10K of a marathon where I also abandon HR limits and secondly because my watch had me coming in just outside 78 minutes and I decided sub 78 sounded a whole lot nicer. With the extra few beats of power available I powered to a 5:40 final mile and a 5:06 final burst to the finish line (Which was hard work on the gravel!). The finishing time: 1:17:44. Finishing position – no idea!
Aside from a smarting big left toe (Which all but seized up when I got home – turned out to be a problem with the shin) the run had gone far better than expected, and with all but the final mile at marathon HR was most encouraging for Manchester in six or seven weeks time. I sensed that I felt pretty comfortable for the entire race and that something at that pace was potentially feasible for the full 26.2 miles.
With the marathon in mind I went on an extended 5 mile warm down to make it 20 miles for the day. I ran some of the course again catching up with some of the GRC contingency who were taking part and still running. I felt comfortable right until the final half mile when I felt compelled to take on one of the peanut butter gels they handed out at the finish and, as I tried to prise the peanut butter from the roof of my mouth for several minutes after, soon realised why peanut butter gels hasn’t really caught on as a concept.
With the warm down done I headed back to race venue to see the last of the GRC runners in. It was there I was informed that I had wound up finishing eighth overall and first V40 runner! I genuinely had no idea I had placed so highly and was pretty chuffed with myself, especially as I hadn’t focused on the race element at all.
I had missed the prize giving, or maybe it didn’t happen. The prize was a little underwhelming – free entry to the 10K race taking place at the same venue in October. I’m half tempted – some really didn’t like the course at all but I enjoyed it and would consider racing there again. As for here and now though it was back to the training and looking ahead to the next race.
Up until early December 2018 I was very much under the impression that I would be taking part in the 2019 London Marathon, courtesy of the championship place I earned with my 2017 qualifying time. I was going through the process of entering and making double checks when it dawned on me that the same weekend as London featured the F1 Azerbaijan Formula One Grand Prix, which meant I would be working and there would be no London Marathon for me in 2019. Alternatives were looking thin on the ground, thankfully Manchester on Sunday April 7th was a date free in the diary and so, at great cost, it was entered.
The downside to running Manchester, aside from not being able to run London, was that being three weeks earlier than London it meant that my usual Christmas and New Year wind down on running which stretched to late January was not going to be a thing in 2019 – which was a pity as I was crying out for a good rest after the Keyworth Turkey Trot! The week following the Trot I was running a marathon in training (2:56 – for no real reason other than I could) in the fen lands of Langrick and Coningsby, the day after finishing first at Boston parkrun. I did at least have a quiet week of running the week before Christmas, doing quite a bit on Zwift instead. Christmas Day I had off before running 17 miles on Boxing Day.
The post Christmas family visits cut the mileage – Minehead parkrun saw me pull off a surprising first place given I was outside the top five at halfway – it also saw a bout of the killer leg cramps which I’ve barely suffered all year, they did again the following day before a pleasant enough last run of the year in Stroud (After an abductor scare) which had me knocking out some sub 6 miles for fun. And so the first week of January, where I’d normally be running at most 11 miles in one go, had me running 20 miles (with a 17:35 parkrun in the middle) on the first Saturday, in addition to loads of Zwift in a 56 mile opening week.
The following weekend was the Oundle New Year 10K, which was to be my first race of the year and the opening race of the 2019 Grantham Running Club Grand Prix Series. I was the 2018 Champion and so wanted to defend my crown with a good start to the year. It was the first time the Oundle 10K had been hosted but a 20 mile race there the previous March had been well received and I was optimistic of a good event. What I wasn’t doing though was treating it a priority event – I’d run 10 miles the day before including Belton House parkrun at marathon pace. The legs felt okay, I did though have ongoing issues with my left big toe, which would be troublesome for much of the opening quarter of the year (And still continues to be a nuisance).
I think I was the first competitor to arrive in Oundle, although a few others soon followed. Mindful that I was in marathon training I planned to run a longer warm up than usual. As the race was a two lap affair I opted to run a lap of the course, which would give me a chance to see what was on offer. The positives was that it was the type of course I enjoy – mildly undulating with just a couple of short, relatively stiff ascents followed by long slightly downhill stretches. The immediately obvious spanner in the works was that for around a mile we were to have a full on, near gale force headwind on a totally exposed country road, which was also slightly uphill. The real bummer was that as the course was triangular in shape, at no point did we enjoy the full effect of the wind on our backs – at best it was a rear crosswind. The wind was also strengthening all the time, it would be significantly more blowy come the opening lap of the race and even worse on the second!
The start of the race at least was fairly kind, slightly downhill for the opening half mile before a rise and a left turn into the headwind. I soon settled in fourth place – the leader and one other runner pulled out quite a gap, I soon closed in on the third placed runner with club mate Ian Williams a few seconds behind me in fifth. The opening mile was clocked at 5:43, things slowed dramatically as we hit the headwind. Sitting in the third placed runner’s slipstream, I felt the pace slow, I moved ahead and picked the effort up a touch. Feeling the full force of the wind I was unable to pull clear. To try and shake the guy from my slipstream I drifted slowly from one side of the road to the other. Somewhat surprisingly he didn’t follow me but stuck resolutely to the inside of the road. Still unable to pull clear and aware that I was wasting energy, I then slowed up and went back into his slipstream, hoping he would help take the pace.
I later found out (Because he sought me down on Facebook and messaged me!) that he was a bit irked by my tactics. I had no qualms in doing what I did. Quick times had already long gone out of the window. We were fighting for third place and I was using standard tactics to try and get him to help with the work and to minimise my exposure to the wind.
Anyway, after sitting in and taking a breather in his slipstream for a short while, I sensed again that he was slowing the pace (which is all quite legitimate, or it may just have been getting a greater than usual benefit from tucking in behind someone). I also had club mate Ian closing and so I decided to put in a real surge to pull ahead and clear of both Ian and the fourth placed runner, so they couldn’t benefit from my draft. My tactic worked, although the exuberant acceleration probably didn’t help in the long term. We had a couple more minutes of running into the wind, where I was able to eke out a few more seconds.
Mercifully after an interminably long time we turned left and dropped downhill with a crosswind to neither aid nor hinder us. This quicker section saw the mile two split come in at a semi-reasonable 6:06 – the reality was that it had been much slower for much of the mile. The third mile (5:42) was a more standard affair as we headed back into Oundle and turned left again back towards the start. I pulled a few more seconds clear of Ian who had moved into fourth place and was beginning to close in on the second placed runner who looked like he was beginning to labour as we passed halfway.
I was running fairly strongly but had an issue with the right Nike Free I was wearing in that the laces were coming undone! By 6K they were near completely untied and although the shoe wasn’t going to come off it was moving around a lot and was not particularly comfortable, especially with the laces slapping against my legs. I did though at this point pass the second placed runner – a mobile phone being held in his hands gave a clue that this was a fairly novice runner with plenty of talent but lacking in race experience. The fourth mile saw the best of any help from the wind and being slightly downhill was the quickest of the race in 5:33.
Mile five was arguably one of the hardest I have ever raced! Back into the headwind at the top of the triangle, trying to pull clear of the two runners behind me, the wind was relentless and I think the strongest I have ever faced in a race. Giving it absolutely everything (more effort than running 5:30 pace) at one point it slowed us to slower than seven minute miles. There was nothing that could be done except dig in and work to the corner where I knew there would be respite.
Once at the corner I knew I couldn’t finish with my trainer undone in its current state without a risk of injury. While running I took off my gloves and tucked them into my shorts, choosing to come to a stop at the bottom of the hill where I could come off the road and onto a path. The stop to retie the laces was quite quick considering it came while I was second in a race and the rapidly beating heart rate with adrenaline coursing through the body. Ian came past me and offered me encouragement as he went by, thinking that I had an injury rather than a mechanical mishap.
Refreshed after the impromptu stop and feeling much happier with a trainer firmly attached to my foot, I recommenced running and very quickly closed down the three seconds or so to Ian. As we approached a bit of an uphill drag I wasted no time passing him and attempting to break clear. This I did, but he never dropped back more than a handful of seconds. This was the first time since I suffered stitch in the Summer Solstice 10K a few years back that I had come under pressure from a fellow GRC runner in a race. On the one hand it was great because I want the depth of the club to grow, on the other I was keen to still beat Ian and also to retain second place!
This I just about managed to do. Having run 6:27 in the mostly wind affected fifth mile, I picked up the pace to 5:46 for the sixth mile and 5:16 for the closing few hundred yards. The time of 36:42 was my slowest since the 2015 Langtoft 10K- which I didn’t race properly having paced others to halfway. I felt as though it was a bit of a rusty January opener but knew the time was not indicative of the form I was in. It was when I looked at the results and saw that the winner John Uff clocked 35:13 yet had run a full two minutes quicker at the Telford 10K in December that the true effect of the wind was apparent and that Ian Williams’ 36:48 PB was a sign of a runner who could, and would, run much quicker in 2019.
With GRC second and third (the first double podium finish for the club) and Joaquim ‘Flash’ Jeronimo eleventh it was a double trophy to collect as winners of the team prize as well as second overall (I couldn’t claim the V40 prize too, alas). We missed most the prize giving as we had just gone on a cool down, luckily we were there to collect the team prize.
With the trophies handed out and marathon training in mind I went and did another three miles cool down to bring the mileage for the week up to 66. This time I ran a clockwise lap of the course we had raced on. My conclusion, having been blown along the windy section at sub 7 minute miles with almost literally no effort was that it would have been a much quicker race had we been able to run it the other way round!
A weird race this – I should have been delighted with second. I didn’t run badly, yet the result seems a little underwhelming, perhaps the slow time (Which didn’t help my GP Series), perhaps the mechanical with the shoe. Perhaps it was just a fairly low-key race in early January and nothing to get overly excited about. I will remember the race more for the wind than anything else – I hope it will never be that windy in a race again!