As is fairly typical I was one of the first to arrive at East Carlton Country Park, venue of the Two Counties Half Marathon, two hours or so before the start. I had a relaxed build up to what appeared to be a fairly relaxed, low key kind of race. Around an hour before the start I went on a one and a half mile warm up which doubled up as a recce of the infamous hill that we would face at the end of the race. It’s the same hill that many a runner has moaned about in the Corby 5 Mile Race. To be honest I didn’t think that much of it – it was certainly no Casthorpe nor Minnett’s Hill, but I could see that in the final mile of a half marathon it would be a great deal harder to climb than during an easy paced warm up.
The warm up itself felt okay, if a little concerning in the sense that the head cold I had caught was definitely just knocking that 1-2% off my peak capacity. I still felt I could run a good race, I just had to be careful I didn’t push too hard. A final trip or two to the toilet and I was good to go, making my way back to the base of the steepest part of the hill where we would start. A couple more trips to a bush to lose some of the fluid I had taken on board (it was around 19C – so reasonably cool, but warm enough to require good hydration) and I was finally ready to take my place near the front of the field on the start line.
At just before 10am we were sent on our way. A fairly young runner (the bearded one on the video above) who had lined up just behind me, wearing the oversized Oakley Jawbreaker style sunglasses that have come back into vogue, shot past me and hurtled into the lead. We were running slightly downhill but I sensed immediately he had no hope of maintaining his pace, which I estimated to be well under five minute miles given that my watch suggested I was running at around 5:20 pace for the opening few hundred meters.
Sitting in fourth I deliberately held off the pace off the runners in front of me for the opening mile, slowing enough to go through mile 1 in 5:49. Shortly after the opening mile came the first challenging climb of the race – I was pleased to see that I could close on those in front of me without having to go full gas, although they did then pull away again on the following downhill section. At a mile and a half we reached the end of Wire Lane and headed into Ashley Road to begin a near 10 mile clockwise loop, shaped rather like a bow tie.
We had a headwind for the near two mile long stretch to the village of Ashley. Mile two was a 5:51, mile three was 6:08, but worth 5:49 on Strava gap once the ascent was taken into account (and perhaps worth a little more given the headwind). By now the gap to third and second which had been around 10 seconds had begun to close down, so that by the time we went through 5K in 18:32 and headed north to Medbourne, I was hot on their heels.
Aided by a tailwind and the adrenaline of running on a road open to fast moving traffic while catching those ahead of me I caught and passed the third and second placed runners in quick succession, running the fourth mile in 5:36. The fifth mile saw us run through Medbourne and it was here where I caught the leader since the start of the race, who was quite dramatically paying the penalty for his over exuberant start.
I quickly put a gap on him but noted that I still had company. The runner who I passed when he was third had moved up the field just behind me and had now closed onto my shoulder, passing me as we went through mile 5 (5:39). The standard racing tactic would have been to sit on his shoulder and try and hold on but, given that I knew that the hardest sections of the race were still to come, I decided to stick to my own pace and let the gap grow to around 10 seconds as we passed through mile 6 (5:51), running the second 5K in 17:41. The runner at the front of the race was Luke Montgomery of local club. It was soon apparent that he was pretty well known to those supporting the race, cheering him on nearly all by name and clearly giving him that hometown adrenaline buzz.
Mile 7 was was another fairly swift one at 5:38 as we enjoyed flattish terrain and a rear crosswind. Not long after seven miles we began to climb. I’d had information from a club mate who had run the race in 2017 that this was a fairly testing climb. I was quite pleased to see that the Luke was coming back to me quite swiftly. Indeed as we turned off the main road to head south through Bringhurst and the road ramped up again, I caught and briefly passed him.
Feeling the legs start to get heavy from the effort of climbing I looked at my Garmin and noted that my HR had climbed over 175, which is getting towards the upper Z5 levels of my capacity. Knowing it would be unwise to go too long into the red I eased up and allowed Luke to overtake me once again and pull away as we went over the top of the climb and onto a fairly long descent. The gap pulled back out to around ten seconds before stabilising. I didn’t give up hope of a potential victory – I knew that the worst climb of the race was still to come and if I could leave something in the tank it could be expected that I could close the gap again and retake the lead.
Mile 8, which featured the long climb was a 5:57, mile 9 a little quicker at 5:53 but effectively saw a slight slowing as it was mostly flat. This was also the diciest section of the race as the narrow road, open to traffic, was busier than it should have been thanks to a local car boot sale that was just starting and attracting plenty of somewhat impatient visitors.
As we ran first through Cottingham and which led near seamlessly into Middleton, there was a sharp right hand bend which took us onto a pleasant tree covered road that would take us back to the opening road of the race and the finish. There was good crowd support here for a small rural race – all of it though was for the leader, who appeared to be coming back to me as I clocked the gradually uphill mile 10 in 5:58.
The road was now closed to traffic as it would be to the finish. Mile 11 was slightly downhill for the most part, the pace picked up up to 5:48. Without consciously picking up the pace I had all but caught the leader. Rather than sit with him and run at his pace, risking the possibility that he could rally in the final stages – especially with the local crowd support, I maintained my pace and pulled alongside and ahead of Luke. He tried to stay on my heels, but as we turned left into the long, mainly uphill finishing straight, the gap began to quickly grow as Luke appeared to crack.
Mile 12 was 5:49 and the biggest test of the race was about to commence. The first of two climbs, the first was a short, sharp test, which I managed without too much difficulty. I relaxed as I went over and down over the other side, encouraged by what appeared to be the race organisers roadside. Taking a breather as I knew the bigger climb lay ahead, I took a little look around and was relieved to see that there was no one in sight.
Knowing that, barring absolute disaster, victory was mine, I could have eased up the final climb and cruised to a win. However, this was a club GP Series race and times converted to age grade is the all important factor, so there was no letting up. My rather brilliant Peter’s (Race) Pacer data field on my newish Garmin had been telling me for some miles I was looking at a low 1:16, which began to drift a little as I began the final climb. Keen to keep it under 1:17 I kept the effort high, pushing all the way to the top of the hill and onto the finishing line inside the Country Park.
There was a little celebration at the finish, the raising of both hands and a big smile across the face. The finishing time was 1:16:52, which was apparently a new course record (The race is only in its second year). The final mile was the slowest of the race at 6:12 but the Strava GAP reckons it was worth 5:37, which makes it one of the quickest of the race.
As a result of this strong final mile the record books will show that I ended up winning by a fairly comfortable minute and fifty seconds. That won’t tell the full story of the race, how I sat off the pace at the start, took the lead only to lose it, then sat fairly patiently off the leader suspecting that he may not be able to sustain his pace.
It turned out to be a high risk strategy that paid off, especially when I looked up Luke’s Power of 10 profile at the end of the race which revealed he has a 10K PB nearly two minutes quicker than mine. The reason he cracked was that he specialises in the shorter distances (he runs a lot of 3000 and 5000 meter races on the track) and this was only his second foray over the half marathon distance (his other effort was in 2014) and he found his stamina on the day a little wanting.
With plenty of spectators wishing me a warm well done I moved back a few yards down the circuit to see in the small contingency of fellow Grantham Running Clubbers who were also taking part. We had to wait an eternity for the ultimately rather low key prize giving, but it was worth it for the generous cash prize that came my way. With the sense that I had won the race in the quickest possible time with the least possible effort and hadn’t strained myself too much – especially with the cold I was carrying, it was definitely a sense of mission accomplished as I made my way back home.