Those who have read the weekly training log for the week will know there was a real dilemma over whether to race the Fraction or take part in the Witham Wheelers Reliability Ride. I guess the title gives the decision away, but it wasn’t a clear cut decision.
I woke at 7am and headed downstairs to have a coffee and breakfast as I do when I ride. I had a full bowl of cereal, something I wouldn’t do normally when racing, and headed upstairs to get changed into my cycling gear. As I climbed up the stairs I did a set of eccentric calf raises and drops. Since the massage on Thursday I’ve been doing 100+ of them daily as I was trying to do some of the things I’ve done over the past six months that may have helped ease the pain in the calf and help me run. Through Friday and a lot of Saturday when I was doing them I was getting an intense burning sensation running up from the calf, up the hamstring and into the glute. This to me gave an indication that there was some nerve irritation going on, as I was getting no similar sensation in the other calf.
After parkrun on the Saturday I massaged the right hip and glute with a hockey ball as suggested by my massage guru David. Previous to his massage on Thursday this produced little in the way of relief or sensation, but today, probably as a result of the tear inducing work he performed on Thursday night, I was able to get a real sensation of things moving, shifting, releasing, unsticking. That evening when I did the calf raises and drops there was less of a burning sensation than before.
That set of raises and drops on the Sunday morning produced nothing but a deep stretch – just as they should. No burning, no pain. Wondering whether this would translate into a positive feeling when running, I quickly ditched the cycling clothes, grabbed some shorts and a running top, pulled on my trainers (making sure the Garmin was on and satellites locked….) and headed outside for a quick impromptu jog up and down the road. To my surprise there was little or no discomfort in the calf. I did another couple of minutes running. Still nothing. I did another minute or so to make it a mile, picking up the pace to something close to race pace. Zilch. By now it was too late to ride with the Wheelers. There was no pain. It was written in the stars. I was going to race!
Being a 10:30 start and it being a mere couple of miles from home, I now had an hour or so to kill. I spent the time wisely, stretching and some gentle massage. Plenty of positive vibes coming from the calf and hip. I left the house at 9:20 to allow myself an hour before the race. The venue – the Meres Leisure Center – is where I use the gym so it is like a second home. There was to be no stress before the race. Familiar faces as I collected my race number, some surprise from those who I’d told I definitely wasn’t racing.
It would have been easy to have got too relaxed, so I headed away from HQ and did my warm up alone to focus on the race. A mile and a bit of easy running. A slight ache in the calf, but very slight. I trusted the compression socks and placebo tape would hold everything in place when the going got tough. Spotting the queue for the toilets at the track were long, I took advantage of my gym pass to use the deserted ones in the leisure center. I arrived back at the track for a hasty Grantham Running Club team photograph (I would be wearing their top over the Kenilworth Runners T-Shirt in an attempt to show allegiance to both my running clubs), said my farewells to the family, who had come to cheer me on, then went for one more toilet break just to calm the nerves.
I arrived at the start with two minutes to spare – perfect timing. I took my place near the front of the field and waited for the countdown, which were ten of the longest seconds ever counted down.
The horn sounded and we were off. Full of adrenaline at my home race I went off a little too enthusiastically and found myself leading briefly as we left the stadium. I glanced at my watch and realised I’d set off at sub five minute mile pace. I’m not Aaron Scott so I reduced my effort and allowed the pre-race favourite, Adam Holland, to take the lead. He was joined by James Skinner, a runner I wasn’t familiar with. As we turned left and headed towards Barrowby I sat a comfortable third. The legs, quads especially, began to feel a touch heavy. I lamented that spin / elliptical trainer session I did at the Meres a couple of days earlier. Thankfully after a mile or so the heaviness lifted and I felt full of running, although a little anxious that the watch clocked the first mile at 5:30 pace, more 5-10k sustainable pace than a half marathon.
I charged through Barrowby and towards the canal path in third place. The crowds were not exactly huge, more a smattering, but many knew who I was and were cheering me on in person. I cannot express how much of a boost this was. I was the local boy in third place, running for club and town.
I was running alone, with the leaders drifting ahead. For a minute or two I began to lose concentration, the race appearing as though it would be a typical time trial affair, with wide gaps between finishers near the front of the field. This was reflected in the second mile split – 5:49, although this was mostly uphill.
As we came down the drop at The Drift and onto the Canal Path I was caught and passed by Robert Windard and another runner. Robert was looking strong, especially on the downhill sections.
Oftentimes I would let other runners pull ahead and run my own race, often to heart rate. However today, as I glanced at my heart rate and saw it was in the right zone for a HM, I made a concerted effort to pick up the pace and stick on to the heels of Robert. Once there things magically felt easier, we had another Robert – Robert Scothern join us (This reminds me of the Not The 9 O’Clock News Skit about a car factory full of Bobs). I rarely get to run quick in a group, this was my chance, and it felt great! What was even greater was that the lead vehicle, replaced by a lead bike on the canal path, rather than disappear slowly into the distance as I had expected, was appearing to ever so slightly move closer to us.
Adam Holland by now had been caught by James Skinner and they were running together. Adam is a phenomenal talent – especially as an ultra runner. He holds the record for the fastest ten marathons in ten consecutive days, the youngest runner to have raced 100 marathons (He has since raced 244), he holds a treadmill endurance world record, and last autumn he embarked on a 2000 mile continuous run in 20 days, during which he ran a 2:28 marathon at Chester (where I saw him running hours after on a main road as I was driving home!), and later took victories at the Bristol to Bath marathon and the Newcastle Town Moor Marathon.
I’ve run with Adam at a few parkruns at Newark. I noticed two things about him. One he is the slowest looking quick runner you will ever see, his form is very deceptive as he barely appears to be trying. Second, I get the impression in a race type situation he will typically do just enough to win or finish highly. This may be an incorrect assessment but it appeared to be happening again at the Fraction, he was toying his opposition, waiting to pull well clear at any moment.
Still, as we ran along the three miles of canal path – very familiar to me on my training runs – he was still well in sight and a great rabbit to focus the mind and ignore the pace we were running. I don’t think I really looked at my watch much in that section other than to clock a 5k split and a 5 mile split, but miles 3, 4, and 5 were run in 5:28, 5:31, and 5:34. I passed 5k in 17:11 and 5 miles in 28:10 or so.
It was just as we were leaving the canal section and into Woolsthorpe where the right calf began to ache. It was the typical gentle ache, not enough to slow me, but enough to make me wonder if at any moment it would develop into something rapidly race ending. I rehearsed what I was going to say to the guys I was racing with if and when it did happen, something like that’s it boys, I’m done, go get ’em!
We had a short section of flat before the first of two big hills on the course at Woolsthorpe. The race by now was clearly developing into a highly tactical affair, developments were likely on this half mile plus climb which Strava states averages 6% but is signposted at 12% average. The climb began as we passed six miles, the sixth mile showing little slowing in pace with a 5:37. There was a drinks station where I failed no less than three times to grab a cup of water, to the mirth of Robert Scothern, who received an impromptu shower. On a different, warmer, day I would have been concerned about taking on no liquid. But conditions were perfect for racing at around 9C with early mist and fog gently clearing to reveal blue skies later in the race (Once we topped Woolsthorpe Hill, to be precise). I also normally take a gel during a half marathon but, probably as this is a training route for me, the thought never occurred to carry one. I didn’t seem to miss it.
I’ve had plenty of times to rehearse Woolsthorpe Hill. Right from the foot of the ascent I took to the front of the pack and eased gently ahead of the two Bobs I was running with. I’ve climbed the hill quicker but today I had to pace it carefully, one because I didn’t want to push the heart rate too high, two because my calf was giving worrying aches when I tried to lengthen the stride on the steeper sections, and three my guts were beginning to churn a little with the increased effort – a legacy of the roast dinner the night before no doubt.
I noticed ahead of me the lead vehicle was definitely getting closer. James had pulled a little clear of Adam who appeared to be labouring a touch, but I appeared to be marginally the fastest of the lead five climbing the hill. I reached the summit in third and pushed on without delay. The Lincoln Bob (Robert Windard) was chasing me as we gently drifted clear of RAF Bob (Robert Scothern). I heard a shout out from Grantham running legend Chris Armstrong, who was a very fine runner back in the 1980s and I recalled the clip he posted of his victory at the 1986 Kinloss to Lossiemouth Half Marathon. I didn’t much fancy being greeted at the finish by bagpipes but I was inspired by the thought of perhaps finishing in the top three. We were halfway through the race, I was third, and, barring injury, there was a chance I could stay there.
The run down from Woolsthorpe Hill to Denton is all downhill, mostly gradual with a fairly steep descent to finish. Adam had retaken the lead of the race but wasn’t really extending the gap – the lead vehicle sometimes coming very close to us as it struggled with some traffic. There was more support from friends – this time on bike and I was beginning to feel very racy. I was fully switched from chasing a time mode to how best to tactically race mode.
The first decision was to let Lincoln Bob catch me and to let him take the pace – we were running into a very slight breeze and I wanted to conserve as much energy as possible. As we dropped into Denton he pulled five seconds or so clear as I couldn’t live with his downhill prowess. He used this skill to catch second placed James. As we turned left in Denton onto the Casthorpe Road I was cheered on in name by some of the council guys in charge of closing the roads. The sense of not letting them down spurred me on. I made a concerted effort to close the gap to James and Bob who were running side by side. On the slight rise out of Denton I managed it and for then next two miles sat firmly in their slipstream.
Miles 7, 8, 9 and 10 were covered in 6:15 (Woolsthorpe Hill included, so 5:33 with Strava Gap incorporated), 5:34, 5:33, and 5:38 – my watch showing ten miles covered in what would be a PB time of 56:44. Adam had not pulled into the distance but I reckoned he had enough of a gap to comfortably take the win.
My strategy was to implement local knowledge and try to break the two I was running with on the second and hardest of the two climbs in the race – Casthorpe Hill – before putting in a flat out last two miles towards the finish back at the Meres. It was a plan I had rehearsed at the culmination of a long 20 mile plus run a few weeks earlier with some considerable success, a pair of Strava segments my reward.
Strava again lists the climb at half a mile long and with a 6% average gradient. In reality it is, in its entirety, a little bit longer, and although may average 6%, the steepest section in the last part of the climb averages 12% with a short section of 14%. I let the pair drift a few yards ahead as we dropped briefly before the start of the climb, recuperating myself for the upcoming effort. There is a long gentle drag uphill where I pulled alongside them, dropped back, then pushed on again, harder and with more determination.
The attack had almost the desired effect and an unintended beneficial consequence. Lincoln Bob couldn’t quite live with the pace as we pitter-pattered up the steepest section of the hill, covered in rain water still cascading down from the surrounding fields after the recent heavy rainfall. James remained on my heels, resolutely unwilling to be broken (Following the race it turned out that he had finished third at the race in 2015 – so was well aware of Casthorpe Hill). We nearly, very nearly, caught Adam. I reckon the gap was down to around 8-10 seconds at the top of the climb.
At the top of the climb James pulled alongside me and we ran together briefly before he edged ahead and Lincoln Bob remained in the wings just behind ready to pass if I faltered at any moment. I had plans to attack immediately at the top of the hill and give it full gas, as I had done on my long run a few weeks earlier. However the cumulative efforts of the race and the subtle, but noticeable headwind we had in the final miles meant the attack never quite materialised (I ran 6:29 (hill included, 5:32 with Strava GAP), 5:33, and 5:41 for miles 11-13, around 10-15 seconds slower per mile than on my training run). As we ran through Barrowby I was pretty regularly being cheered on in person or by come on Grantham! by local supporters and that was enough to keep the desire to ease up and settle for a comfortable fourth at bay.
This year alone I must have run down from Barrowby to the Meres Leisure Center ten times or more yet, weirdly, this last section of the race appeared to be the least familiar. Maybe it was because I am usually running very comfortably along this stretch, but right now, all I wanted to do was stop. The legs were heavy, the calf more than a little achy, the tanks beginning to run empty. James pulled around 5 seconds clear as we approached the Meres, Lincoln Bob a little more behind, Adam still strangely close to us in the lead.
As we entered the stadium a lady who had helped volunteered at parkrun the day before shouted Go on Matt, you can catch him! I didn’t believe I could but was alarmed when I looked around to see that the gap to fourth had shrunk from over five seconds to less than a couple! I was determined to finish in the top three. My strategy as we entered the final 300 meters of the race was to attack for second in the hope that if Robert passed us both, at least I would still be third.
As we hit the back straight I picked up the pace. I could hear the shouts of encouragement from the spectators gathered at the finish line. They spurred me on. The gap to James and I melted. At the top of the bend I decided not to wait and went for all out for the sprint finish, the aim being to catch James unawares and leave him unable to close any gap. It appeared to work as I passed him and eked out a small gap. However, at the start of the home straight, with only around 80 meters remaining, the early sprint took its toll and I began to tire badly. I looked around anxiously, as Mo Farah does at the end of a race, and swore that James and Robert were catching me fast. Willed on by the support at the finish and sheer bloody mindedness not to lose my recently gained second place, I did what Mo does – gritted my teeth and kicked and kicked again – hard all the way to and just past the finish line – not forgetting of course to stop my watch at the finish line (Old habits die very hard).
No one passed me. I was second!
As I crossed the line there was a broad smile and a small fist pump. Then as I stopped running, the euphoria mixed with a little bit of pain and I looked to the sky before sinking to my knees to catch my breath. Moments later I recomposed myself and was quick to congratulate those I had just beaten.
Genuinely more thrilling than the second position was the manner in which the race had panned out. I’d forgotten about times – it turned out I’d run 1:15:30, my third fastest ever, one second slower than my Power of 10 PB set at Nottingham in 2014 – and run a race full of tactics, changing of positions and uncertain in its conclusion literally until we had crossed the finish line. For the record, I was one second ahead of James and three seconds clear of Robert. Adam had finished fifteen seconds ahead of me, which meant the top four was covered by less than twenty seconds!
I spent a longer than usual amount of time chatting with the guys I’d just raced, including Adam, who was typically unassuming in his victory, totally unaware of his finishing time. I slowly walked to meet my family and then the large contingency of GRC, Belvoir Tri Club and Grantham Athletics Club members and supporters who had congregated at the finish. The number of people coming to congratulate me was heartwarming as was the pleasure of seeing many of my friends coming home with new Personal Bests.
Unfortunately I had to miss some of them as there was the small matter of receiving my prize for finishing second. Still a rare occurrence for myself, I smiled a little uneasily as a small ripple of applause erupted around the room as I collected my wares (A trophy, £60 voucher towards a pair of Brooks trainers and some seeds), proud to have my two daughters alongside me. A virtual tear welled up the next day when my eldest proudly told all she could at school and sports club that daddy had finished second in the running race.
Having had a couple of days to reflect, I don’t think I could have done anything differently on the day to change the result. Had I not the calf issue it is possible I may have attacked a little harder on the hills and perhaps closed and caught Adam. But I firmly believe he would have found a little extra to make sure he would have been the deserving winner.
I am more than delighted with my second position. I ran well in the face of a little adversity and uncertainty. Tactically I played all my cards correctly. I was spurred on by the local support of friends, family, and just locals who recognised the Grantham vest. All in all it’s right up there in my top three best races ever and I really hope the calf injury clears up so I can enjoy some more races like that again soon!