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.