Race Report – Robin Hood Half Marathon aka Project Sub 1:16:47

The big day came; weeks and months of training came to this. After four years of trying to better my old half marathon PB of 1:16:47, today was do or die, sh*t or bust, all or nothing, hero or zero… The first thing to check, once it became light enough to see outside with a 6am wake up call, was what the weather was looking like. Blissfully wind free was the answer, my number one concern after the last two Robin Hood Half Marathon’s have been spoilt, more so in 2012, by strong winds. The forecast though was for unseasonably warm and sunny conditions, but I wasn’t overly concerned about that – it was all about the wind, or lack of it.

The early wake up and depart for Nottingham was necessitated following my 2013 experience when I’d aimed to arrive at 8:15 (a good 75 minutes before the start of the race), but got stuck in horrendous traffic and had to all but abandon the car with the wife and kids to make it to the start in time. So I and Scott, my travel companion and competitor in the accompanying marathon, aimed to be there at 7:45. The plan worked a treat, the car park easy to get into, which wasn’t the case just 30 minutes later when the queues of traffic began to form.

With 1 3/4 hours to play with before the off, it was a relaxed build up to the race – a walk around the race village, a chat to fellow club mates and a 1 1/2 mile warm up which was unspectacular but did at least see the sciatica related pain in the right leg subside during the run to a point where I figured it wouldn’t interfere with the race. Still, I did one last long Piraformis stretch on completing the run, which I’d like to think made the difference between a nagging ache during the warm up and no aches at all in the the race.

This relaxed build up bit me a bit as I’d not made my pre race trip to the Portaloo and it was now less than 20 minutes to the start. A look at the queues for the aforementioned offices of convenience struck me with fear – they were enormous!  I made a quick scan for what liked the shortest and proceeded to fret increasingly with each passing minute as the queue diminished frustratingly slowly. I finally made it into my cubicle with less than five minutes to the start. I did what I had to do, leaving myself just three minutes to find the start and the first wave of runners where I should have been standing, waiting for the gun to fire.

A frantic run ensued, dodging runners, spectators, bollards, dogs and pushchairs. The starting gun went just as I made it to the opening for the back of the first wave of runners. Without stopping I was suddenly crossing the start line and beginning the race, losing around 15 seconds had I lined up at the front where I’d arguably should have been.

The plan before the race, as practised at the club handicap 10k earlier in the month, was to run with the HR averaging around 172bpm with the intention of running at, or around, 5:40 per mile. This was an ambitious plan which, if successful, would see me finish in under 1:15. All I wanted was to break 1:16:47, the plan being the old trick of go out hard, try and build up a time buffer and hang on as best as possible as you died a slow death in the final miles. I hate racing this way, always preferring to start a little slower and finish strongly, but I felt it was now or never to try this alternate strategy of going out hard from the gun and sustaining pace as long as possible.

Starting a little further back than planned slowed me initially but it wasn’t long before I was into my running and at the pace and HR I’d planned. I passed the first mile in 5:39, the average 169bpm, spot on what I’d hoped for and quite a relief given that a few minutes earlier I thought I was going to miss the start completely.

The Opening Mile
The Opening Mile

It turned out I wasn’t the only one with pre-race dramas. Fellow Kenilworth Runners Connor Carson caught me just after the mile and we exchanged pleasantries as best you can when running almost, but not quite, flat out. It turned out he nearly missed the start too, stuck in pre-race traffic. We ran together through to 3 miles which I was very happy with, I knew that he was hoping to run sub 1:15, although I wasn’t totally sure what form he was in. I went through the second mile in 5:39 (HR average 172), the third mile 5:37 (173 HR average). The conditions at that point were perfect, the roads flat, running well, feeling great. Then, just after three miles, Connor stopped, heading into the awaiting Portaloo. Clearly his pre-race dramas had meant the lack of time to complete the simplest human act had now ruined his race. I felt bad for him but had no time to dwell – 5k was completed in 17:37 and if I kept this up the PB was on.

By the fourth mile the field was well spread out and it was harder to find pocket of runners to run with. I slowed a touch to 5:44 but the HR average was steady at 172 so all I could do was just keep running as best as possible. The fifth mile is a little odd as it takes runners through the large headquarters of Boots the Chemists. It’s sparsely populated by spectators save for the security guards monitoring the property and a few race officials. There was little to entertain but it was interesting to pass a number of traffic speed signs – the ones that flash up your speed, normally as you drive past. For me and the group of 2-3 runners it read 11 mph. This was simultaneously pleasing and disturbing at the same time. 11 mph is usually around the top speed on a half decent gym treadmill. I’ve not been to a gym for several years, but that sort of speed was reserved for the top end efforts that I could usually only sustain for a minute or two. Now I was planning to keep that sort of speed up for 13.1 miles. It seemed a big ask, too big, so I tried to forget that nuance and worked on the slightly more comfortable target of 5:40 per mile, or by now, just faster than 5:50 per mile (The pace required to beat 1:16:47). The fifth mile was the slowest to that point – 5:46, but the final part, when we left the Boots complex, saw the steepest climb on the course, albeit only a crossing over a bridge above a railway line.

Mile six was bad patch as, I’m regularly told by Brendan Foster on any televised distance race, everyone goes through. It was on the run towards the University that I began to flag. Out came the emergency gel, quickly consumed, and it was then I had a little saviour in the form of Coventry Godiva runner Scott Hazell, who passed me, but I was able to cling onto as we headed up the most significant climb on the course, up and literally through Nottingham University campus. It was over the top of the hill and back down the other side where we passed firstly through 10k – 35:36, somewhat scarily just one second slower than I ran the Summer Solstice in June – and then half way – which was around 37:50.

The trip through the campus is scenic but a little tough going as it mostly on dry gravel. Feeling like I was leaving my bad spell I clung onto Scott and ran alongside. We began to talk briefly, when Scott mentioned he was running the marathon and not the half. This took me by surprise – running this fast for 26.2 miles! He was hoping to run about 2:34, so when we spoke we were just outside his target. I decided the best thing to do, with other runners few and far between, to try and stick with him as best as possible, which I managed to do until the half and full marathon courses went their separate ways at around 11 1/2 miles.

At 7 miles that was some way in the future. After mile 6, the slowest of my race (5:54), the feeling that I had rallied was borne out in the mile splits – mile 7, through the campus, was 5:45, mile 8, back on the roads and not the pavement as we had done on University Boulevard in previous years, was 5:43 and mile 9 was 5:51 – but it did feature the last hill of the race, a longish drag up before plunging down to a roundabout and a trip back towards the city centre. It was here I appreciated the quietness of the totally closed roads in contrast to how they’ve been when I’ve visited frequently in previous months.

The tenth mile saw us briefly retread some of the roads we took in the opening miles of the race and it suddenly became evident that I was feeling much worse than fifty odd minutes ago. The legs were heavy, I began to feel shivery, with goose bumps appearing which I took to be a sign of dehydration. The warmth of the day which I’d done my best to ignore now became impossible to forget and it became not just a physical battle but a mental one – pushing body and mind to keep going when it wanted to slow and stop. This was Rotterdam revisited, but time running 30 seconds a mile quicker and closer to maximal pace and ability.

Despite the suffering it was clear I was still running well, 5:42 for the tenth mile, with 57:50 or so on the watch, I had come very close to matching my 10 mile PB. I was now really using the crowd to keep me going, finding it harder to maintain form in the occasional quiet pockets, trying my best to cling onto Mr Hazell. With some relief I passed 5:46 for mile 11 and it was more encouraging that the distance on my Garmin was more or less tallying with the mile markers on course – it had been spot on for the opening miles, lost its way a touch through half way but was now only around 0.1 mile too generous. This I meant I knew that the 5:43 on the average wouldn’t necessarily mean a big PB, but I was confident at least I could get one.

When we split with the marathon runners and onto the footpath beside the River Trent, initially I had the toughest bad spell of the race. A mile and three quarters suddenly seemed too far away. Fortunately the knowledge that I knew this stretch reasonably well from running a five mile race here a couple of months ago – albeit in the opposite direction – helped. Moreover I was catching a runner who was around 30 seconds up the road. I caught him at 12 miles, which was a 5:52 effort. Knowing I had just one mile to run definitely rejuvenated me – doubly so when we turned 180 degrees and ran back on the road towards the finish. We even had tree cover for part of the mile which helped mitigate the effects of the sun.

We turned left on to the grass and finishing chute a little earlier than anticipated and I began a long painful sprint for home. This section was longer than the past two years and it seemed to go on a long time. I didn’t look at my watch at the time but I went ran the thirteenth mile in 5:40 and I was running faster than that as I turned left 90 degrees and towards the finish line. I heard the PA announce my name to the crowd and there was a generous round of applause from the spectators. As I spotted the finish clock and saw it read 1:15:30 I knew the PB was mine and a sub 1:16 was on. I sprinted for all I was worth but at the same time breaking into something of an anguished smile.

I think I passed the finish line at around 1:15:50. I was made up. Then I stopped my watch and looked at the time – 1:15:31 – even better! I’d forgotten it had taken me a little time to cross the start line. I collected my finish medal and bag and happily took the finishing foil – usually a waste in warm conditions, but still feeling shivery, very welcome. I stopped for a moment’s reflection then left the finishing area and found a grassy bank to collapse and slowly recover. Around 15 minutes later I was recovered enough to take a small recovery jog.

I hung around to see my club mates at Kenilworth Runners and Grantham Running Club finish, culminating with travel partner Scott coming home in a new PB over the marathon. I had enjoyed standing at 25 1/2 miles cheering home the runners in the closing stages. It wasn’t long though before we were heading home. That evening came the official results and the great news that my official time was a couple of seconds quicker than I’d though – 1:15:29. That gave me a new age graded PR of 81.09% which topped a highly successful day.

Robin Hood Half Splits
Robin Hood Half Splits
Race Analysis
Race Analysis