Playing at Home

Thursday 10th March 2011

In football, it is generally understood and statistically proven that you play better at home. I think the same can apply to running. Last weekend I ran the Berkhamsted Half Marathon, a race that takes place in my home town that I have done 6 times. In fact it was the very first race I ever took part in. There is something reassuring about running a course you know well – knowing when to hold back, when to push on, and knowing about that lung busting hill just around the corner.

In this case, said hill was in the third mile, and I have probably run up it 30 or more times in training. Approaching the 2 mile mark in 10:32 I was tucked in behind the race leader who had gone off hard but was easing back on the approach to the hill. Assuming he was hanging back to share the work out I reeled him in and we ran a few paces together. My race strategy was to hit the hills hard, safe in the knowledge that I had done all the necessary strength work in training. I pushed on and was pleased to hit the uphill mile in 5:48. By the top of the hill I had a 20 metre lead.

The next section of the course takes you through Potten End and towards Nettleden, following a flat and then downhill road. This is where you have to make up the time if you want a decent finish time. 5 miles: 27:02, 6 miles: 32:08. Looking over my shoulder as I approached the hill in the 7th mile I saw I had a 150m lead. I decided that as long as I felt good at the top of the hill the race would be mine. Feeling strong, I attacked it hard and pushed on at the top. Though the 7th mile was my slowest of the race, I was happy to have completed it in under 6 minutes, given that it consists of a really steep hill. The next time the course levelled out I had extended my lead.

Having a lead car in front of you is a huge advantage. It clears the traffic, shows you your time and gives you something to chase when you’re on your own. I found this to be a massive advantage on Sunday. Under 72 minute pace at 8 miles, I decided to go for the time and see just how much time I could remove from my PB (74:13 at the start of the race). I set a 10 mile PB, passing the tenth yellow sign at 54:30. To run sub 72 I’d need a 17:30 5k – no problem. To run sub 71 I’d need 16:30. I ran the next mile in 5 flat.

I overtook the lead car going up hill in the 12th mile as he slowed to pass some horses (only in Berkhamsted, I thought!) and then put my foot down at the top to try and sneak under the 71 minute barrier. The last mile and a bit are the best part of the course. In fact I would even suggest that they are the best part of any race I have done, with the possible exception of running down the mall towards the finish line of the London Marathon. The last mile is pure descent, with a view of the whole of the valley in which the town lies. This was my old route to school and also overlooks the finish area of the race. It is satisfying when you know that that hard work is over and that all you need to do is let gravity do its bit, but I tried to help gravity out a bit, sprinting round the last right hand corner. It was at this point that I saw my friends Stu and Rob and began pumping my fists triumphantly. I must have looked mad. I carried on running through the finish. 70:58 was my watch time, later corrected to 70:57 in the official results.

I would maintain that my best performances take place in the most familiar surroundings. My 5k best was recorded in a park I run in frequently on a course I know, my three best half marathon times are on courses in towns I’ve lived in, and even though running tracks are identical to the naked eye, the fastest 3000m I’ve ever run were on the track I train on twice a week.

My next big away match is in London in 5 weeks time. This is the big one, the title decider, the Liverpool vs Arsenal on the last day of the 1988-1989 Division One season. The question is, will I be Arsenal on the day or will I be Liverpool?

mile splits: 5:02 , 10:32 , 16:20 , 21:50 , 27:02 , 32:08 , 37:58 , 43:30 , 48:48 , 54:30 , 59:30 , 65:12 (12M) , 70:57 (13.1M)

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