Returning to the scene of my best ever race (I finished second in 2016), the 2017 Newton’s Fraction Half Marathon was an eagerly anticipated affair. Looking at the entry list beforehand I knew the chances of going one better or even equaling my performance were slim as the 2016 winner Adam Holland was back to defend his title, as was 2015 victor Ian Bailey. Still, on occasion, I allowed myself to dream what if they didn’t turn up? what if they had a bad race? Could I possibly win?!
Pre race training was a mixed bag. Beset by a succession of colds and a lingering chest infection that may or may not have been caused or aggravated or prolonged by possible over training, there was a nagging knowing that I went into the race just a touch below 100%. The long runs had been really good, many interspersed with a mid run parkrun, the longest being 24 miles. The marathon paced runs had been reasonable, but they and many of the bike rides I went on felt as though there wasn’t much more to give beyond the Zone 3 HR limits these efforts entailed. Running up hills and cycling up them at any great effort felt particularly arduous.
At least I wasn’t going into the race injured, even if I did try my best slipping on an icy bridge while on an early morning run earlier in the week. The right hip was a bit bruised and sore but didn’t appear to affect my running. I enjoyed something of an easy week, resting up completely the day before the race.
Race day dawned cloudy but the fear was that the weather would take a turn for the worse some time around the planned start time of 10:30am. I enjoyed the luxury of living within a warm up from the race HQ, warming up at home and jogging the two miles to the start. That jog felt easy enough but the heart rate was really high – nerves perhaps. I took that as a positive, proof that I was up for this race. Still dry, if breezy, it felt fairly warm. I opted to jettison the tights, going for shorts, long socks, long sleeved top and gloves combo.
Then, around 45 minutes before the start, the rain began to fall. Icy cold rain. Buckets of it. Relentlessly, driven in by a cold stiff wind. People did their best to seek shelter. It all got quite crowded, so I popped over to the leisure center where I could finish getting changed in the comfort of not that many people being around. I made a last minute decision to add a hat to the apparel. Unfortunately I chose not to put on the tights, a decision I think I came to regret.
Ten minutes before the start and there was no eagerness from anyone to head to the start line, the same with five minutes to go. I opted to run around the track and seek shelter in the grandstand, an option that soon became quite popular. The start time came and went, no sign of the starter, runners making their way in dribs and drabs to the grandstand. As I stood shivering with the rain showing no sign of abating, any pre-race nerves were replaced with apathy, a distinct lack of desire to subject myself to a freezing cold soaking. The only solace was that it appeared that no-one else seemed that determined to race, as no-one volunteered themselves to head to the start line until they were ushered to do so by the race starter.
Despite lack of enthusiasm I was one of the first onto the race track for the start, lining up on the inside of lane one. The pre-race formalities was mercifully brief save for a countdown that the starter insisted on being from ten to zero, much to the mirth of the drowning rats in lycra.
Finally off, I made a brisk start and, thanks to being on the inside of the bend, briefly led as we exited the stadium, thankful that the rain that had been lashing into our faces on the start line, was now pushing us along as a tail wind.
That brief moment of euphoria leading the race, as I did in 2016 was even briefer than 12 months earlier and ended in farce. Exiting the stadium we were confronted by two young boys wandering across our paths. In a split second decision, I and a few others chose to veer to the right, while the majority veered to the left. Those who veered left thankfully told those who veered right were heading in the wrong direction! I only lost four or five seconds but it cost me precious momentum and several places.
I didn’t have time to rue the lack of marshaling to prevent such an occurrence, I put my head down and tried to make up the places I had lost. The first mile heading to Barrowby was 5:39 which was pretty much bang on what I was hoping for, but already the first two – Adam and Ian, were well out of sight. A quick count up the road saw that I was sixth. On the second mile heading down the Drift towards the canal I passed the fifth place runner. Into the headwind he latched onto my heels and stuck to them. Into the headwind I was a bit perturbed by this but as we headed to the canal path and enjoyed a tail wind and a lessening of the rain, I was not upset that he didn’t want to help with the pace. The canal path was probably the wettest it has ever been when I’ve run along it, more puddles than solid ground it seemed, and I was grateful to have clear line of sight as I attempted to keep the fourth placed runner in check.
What was obvious to me now was that my heart rate was some way short of where I’d expect it during a half marathon, seeming to settle at or ever so slightly above my marathon heart rate. I was struggling to keep warm – my quads especially cold, I was struggling to maintain enthusiasm for the race and, moreover, the signs in recent training that the colds and chest infection were affecting the top 1% of my fitness were being borne out. The splits was between 5:40 and 5:50, which was okay given the conditions, but a little slower than perhaps I would have liked and certainly much slower than in 2016, when I was edging towards 5:30 on the canal path.
After three miles of canal path we exited at the Dirty Duck pub in Woolsthorpe. This was a key moment as the guy who had stuck to my heels failed to negotiate the treacherously slippery muddy exit around the style. I had learnt my lesson from the icy bridge on Wednesday and took extreme care. He went into the corner a little more aggressively and paid the price – a loud groan and soft thud I heard as he went down – thankfully without damage and without too much time lost. I pressed on, knowing that the first of the course’s main challenges – Woolsthorpe Hill lay just ahead.
Knowing the hill and its profile well I adopted a steady pace and went about getting up it with as little energy expended as possible. As in 2016 I didn’t think I was particularly effective up the hill, but I was able to close down the 15 or so second gap on the fourth placed runner and passed him two thirds of the way up the hill. I also managed to aggravate my left hip flexor, which loosened off a touch on the resultant downhill but never felt great for the remainder of the race.
As in 2016, the normal prevailing wind which blows you most of the way from Woolsthorpe to home was blowing in a near opposite direction, which meant that the normally quick run down to Denton was made much tougher, especially as there was little prospect of sheltering behind another runner. The third placed man was someway up the road, All I had to do was consolidate my fourth place with some steady running, which I did with a set of sub 5:50 miles through to mile ten and the approach to the stiffest challenge on the course – Casthorpe Hill.
Before the climb itself there was a large ford to navigate as the road had flooded. I managed to get through unscathed, but the feet once again got a good soaking. I had a quick look back at the base of the hill and realised that the gap from me to those behind was far less than I had expected. Given that the climb of the hill felt truly horrible and an effort to even remain running as I neared the top, I felt sure that I would be caught. As it turned out, however bad I felt, it wasn’t as bad as those behind me for I would end up with the fastest time of the day on the Strava segment for the entire hill (most of the top ten are on Strava).
As I topped the hill and knew it was pretty much downhill all the way from Barrowby back to the Meres Leisure Centre, it was simply a case of ignoring the headwind and keeping things steady to the finish. The climbing of the hill had doubled my gap to the fifth placed runner, there was no chance of him catching me barring disaster. Last year when I entered the stadium I was also fourth, but the closeness of the race meant a sprint finish saw me come home second just behind Adam the winner. This year Adam had long since finished victorious in a big new PB of 1:12, Ian Bailey second in almost exactly the same time I ran in 2016, and David Greenwood was third forty seconds clear of myself, who finished in 1:18:01, a sub 78 clocking missed perhaps courtesy of waving and smiling a bit too much at my family who I spotted at the finish.
So it was not a podium finish, fourth and the solace of another V40 prize courtesy of the real first V40 finishing third. The race was something of a disappointment, it left some questions regarding my form which I hope are just a temporary blip caused by illness. The 2017 Fraction will not live as long in the memory as the 2016 edition, but, in reality third was probably the best I could have hoped for so it wasn’t a disaster by any means. I’m also feeling a lot fresher than I did after the 2016 race which I hope will see me in better shape come the London Marathon, which is the next target.