After the calm prediction of a personal best the night before, I woke on race morning alarmed to find I could barely walk. Not struck down with flu or any viral malaise, instead the tops of both hamstrings were unfathomably tight.
I thought long about what could have caused this bizarre turn of events and concluded it was almost certainly the dynamic forward lunges I’d done as part of the Strength and Conditioning program in the morning the day before. Although at the time they felt fine, I imagine they’d just strained some muscle fibres enough to give this overnight reaction. I should have known better, similar afflictions have struck me twice before when doing these lunges – I just shouldn’t do them, especially the day before a race.
For the best part of the day I really didn’t think I’d be able to race. I went out at midday for a one mile new trainer foot pod calibration / fitness test. The trainers (A new pair of Nike Lunar Racer) felt great; the legs less so. It wasn’t a showstopper couldn’t run at all affair, more a I can really feel this and it doesn’t help with the running issue.
I spent the rest of the afternoon fretting over whether to run. I began to prepare at 5pm to leave at 5:30pm. At 5:35pm I decided I wasn’t going, when my wife texted me to wish me good luck. It was then I decided the very least I could do was go along, warm up, and see what happened. If it didn’t feel good I wouldn’t race, I’d sit back and enjoy the others run whilst I enjoyed the sunshine.
And so I left for Nottingham, enjoying the glorious weather in the car that would not make for quite so idyllic racing conditions, with temperatures still in the mid twenties Celsius and a blustery breeze that would slightly cool, but slow us too when exposed.
I arrived in good time, happening to park just ahead of the start line. I changed into my running kit, gently stretched the hamstrings and began to run. Slowly. A slow shuffle with both hamstrings not wanting to work and only wanting to hurt. After a couple of minutes I stopped to use the official race toilets – inside the Riverbank Bar & Kitchen. It was a little surreal to see a stream of runners using the facilities of what is quite a swish establishment, certainly the first time at a race I’ve got to wash my hands using cocoa butter enriched hand wash.
Whether that luxury hand wash permeated its magic to my hamstrings I doubt, but when I began running again, the hamstrings were a little less tight. For the warm up I ran most of the 2.5 mile loop that formed the course. After a mile I began to do some strides and surges and the legs felt as though they would cope. The race was on! I also noted that the return leg along the Victoria Embankment saw the headwind grow and grow in intensity as we curved around towards the finish line. Something to note for the race which would commence in twenty minutes time.
I was very relaxed at the start line, as though all the pre-race angst had been used up many hours earlier when I was fretting over whether to race. A little humour ensued as a credit card was found at the start line, a relieved member of BRAT sheepishly came up to retrieve his plastic from the race starter, declaring that post race drinks would very much be on him. I lined myself up next to what looked like the strongest ladies in the race and a gentleman who looked like he was determined to be up front for the first 200 meters at least before the inevitable severe and prolonged fade for the remaining 4.8 miles.
The starting pistol fired and we were off. As predicted some went off too exuberantly. I was steady but not slow, the hamstrings still a little tight but thankfully loosening off all the time, so that after 2-3 minutes of racing they were hardly a factor. The race, which was relatively small with just under 200 starters, was soon strung out and I found myself quite quickly running alone, albeit with runners not too far in front of me and behind. The first mile took us out on a loop away from the Embankment and then back on it. I went through the first mile on the watch in 5:25 – just a second quicker than at the Summer Solstice the month previous. I felt strong to the turning point half a mile or so later, where we headed down onto the footpath by the River Trent and enjoyed the support of the local fishermen and other hecklers – albeit the heckles were mild in tone and arguably supportive.
I knew this was a crucial point in the race. I was running alone but around 20 meters ahead was a group of five runners. If I could catch them in the next couple of minutes I could sit in the pack and take shelter for the 3/4s mile or so when there was the testing head wind. A short burst of sub five minute mile running and I was in the pack. I felt good, it was tempting to push on as I felt the pace was not quite as I could have managed, but I figured the shelter from the wind and the energy saved could probably result in bigger gains later on in the race.
And so I sat at the back of the pack whilst a pair of well built athletes provided an excellent wind break. The pace inevitably dropped, for a short period we were running at around six minute miles, but I kept calm and stuck with the plan. Mile two I went through in 5:29, the average pace for the third mile slipped to 5:45 as we completed the first lap and turned 180 degrees to begin the second.
Without hesitation I picked up the effort and the group disintegrated around me. I left them and pushed on closing down rapidly on my old friend from Coventry Godiva Harriers, Namir Batavia. I first raced with Namir back in the 2008 Coventry Half Marathon when he was clearly a talented, but very inexperienced, young runner. He stuck in my mind because he would furiously sprint up all the hills during the race, then slow to a jog at the top, where I would catch him up and we would recommence racing together. I thought he’d have no chance of making it to the finish, but earned my eternal respect when he did, and beat me comfortably too. Since then we’ve both improved – he has posted some quicker times than me, especially at the start of the year, with a low 27 minute five mile race performance, so it was a big mental boost when I surged past him just before three miles.
Although the Garmin was a bit up on the official mile markers, I knew that with the 5:34 third mile and 5k on or around 17:00 minutes I was on for a good race. The wise words of a 15 year old I’d read about in Athletics Weekly at lunchtime rung in my head: the best races are always the ones that feel the easiest. This is so so true, and tonight was one of those races. It felt pretty easy. I knew by my heart rate that it was no picnic in the park, I was pushing pretty close to my maximum, but it felt comfortable.
Two more miles – ten more minutes or so – I thought, to a good time, so I pushed on again. I went through the fourth mile in 5:28 and as we turned at the top of the course for the second and last time to run back to the finish, I had the lead lady, Juliet Potter, around 10-15 seconds ahead of me. I’d have no chance of sheltering from the head wind on this second lap, it was just a case of giving it everything and minimising any losses. I focused on Juliet ahead and steadily reeled her in, catching her with around half a mile to go. I thought for a second about tucking in and recovering but felt it would be best to surge on ahead, going for a long sprint for home.
Juliet doubled her efforts and stuck close to me as the wind made the going tough in the closing stages. The five mile split came up on the watch (5:23) and we were some way from the finish. I wanted to know what elapsed time was but I kept missing it on my Garmin as it scrolled through its four pages of data (My choice, it wasn’t ideal today). Then I could make out the finishing clock as it read 27:20. The PB was assured, clocking a sub-28 performance wasn’t. I pushed on again as the seconds clicked by, the finish line taking forever to appear. Finally it did, I stopped the watch. 27:53 it read – a PB by 26 seconds! I shook the hand of Juliet, who came in just four seconds later, then waited for Namir to come home and a Grantham runner I’d seen from afar during the warm up.
I was obviously delighted with the PB but there was no real euphoric outpouring. More a contented punch of the fists, then on with business. I find that’s often the case with midweek summer evening races, the atmosphere is usually far more relaxed than at a weekend race. Races are run, runners disperse and head home.
I was surprised to find I finished eleventh, far higher than I expected to be. Then came the two mile warm down, where the hamstrings showed how tight they were – not enjoying in the slightest this final hurrah in the fading sunlight. Still I didn’t care too much – the gamble to race had paid off, another PB achieved, this one an unexpected surprise.
A good evening.