72 Painful Minutes
This morning I lined up, for the 9th time in my life, at the start of my home town half marathon in Berkhamsted. I had won this race for the last three years and was hoping to do the same again. Accompanying me on my mission was Dan, who had agreed to run with me for as long as he could to try and help me out. We had no idea how the race would pan out; my first win was a solo time trial, my second a man-to-man battle in torrential rain and my third another solo effort but a painful one after a needlessly fast start.
The 2014 edition proved to be a tactical race in very windy conditions. Within half a mile a group of 6 of us had formed at the front, soon to be whittled down to 5 after the first big hill. Dan was doing a great job leading it out and blocking the wind. It was hard to tell what pace we were running as some of the mile markers seemed to have been moved from their usual spots, but I did hear someone’s Garmin beep as we passed the 3 mile point in around 16:45. We exchanged the lead like a hot potato over the next mile , no one really wanting to push it on and do the work. I decided that if I was going to break the group up it might take a couple of moves and it would definitely involve taking the race by the scruff of the neck and pushing the pace. After a sharp right-hander in the 5th mile I went to the front on a downhill section and started to put my foot down. I suspected someone would try and go with me, but it wasn’t the two runners I had raced here before, nor was it Dan, who was tucked in at the back of the group. A gap opened up briefly but it was quickly bridged by someone I didn’t recognise. We pulled away from the others and reduced it from a five-man race to a two-man one.
My new companion was running well but seemed unwilling to do any of the work. I led him past the half way point and up the steep hill in the 7th mile. He stayed on my shoulder. I went to the middle of the road. He stayed on my shoulder. I went to the very edge of the road. He stayed on my shoulder. With a strong wind in my face I really didn’t fancy carrying passengers so I slowed the pace down, only for the other runner to pull along side me but not take the lead himself. I didn’t want to slow it down any more and let the others catch us up so I continued to drive my passenger for another couple of miles, exchanging neither glances nor words with the man running directly in my slipstream.
Somewhere between the 9th and 10th mile markers, I made a plan to drop him on an uphill stretch away from the wind. I pushed off the top of the hill and round the corner but it wasn’t enough. By this point my calves were aching, sore and stiff, but I took a guess that his probably were too. I realised that if I was going to get away from him it would require a big move rather than a gradual injection of pace, the kind of surge that can break an opponent but also potentially break you. I knew I needed to take a risk. As we rolled over a speed ramp I swung out to the middle of the road and put the hammer down. This time, it was enough. In my 3 wins on this course I had been running solo by this point and had the race wrapped up. This guy had made me work much harder. All I needed to do now was jog it in, safe in the knowledge that my opponent had fallen out the back door.
Or so I thought. I put in a big effort to increase my lead in the 11th mile but could still hear footsteps behind me. Shit. Not wanting to look back I listened to the time gaps between the shouts from the spectators at the roadside. The gaps were pretty short. One helpful driver even wound down his window to announce that “he’s not too far behind you.” As if I didn’t know already. We were approaching the final climb of the course, a tough 300 metre hill before the downhill finish. I knew that if I let him get back on my shoulder up the hill I would have no moves left and would probably finish second so I ran as hard as I could, whilst trying not to give away the fact that I was in pain. I got to the top still in the lead and began filling my head with every cliche in the book: “he’s hurting more than you,” “stay focused,” “only 6 more minutes to go,” “only 5 and a half minutes to go.” And so on. It seemed to work; as I turned the corner to start the descent into the town I could no longer hear footsteps. I stole a quick glance over my shoulder and estimated my lead at 50 metres. I still had to work hard down the hill but suspected that if I did the race would be in the bag. With calves, quads and hamstrings all screaming at me I covered my ears and ran. As hard as I could. I looked back at the last right-hander before the finish and had a winning lead. Patrick was standing on the corner and high-fived me. This was about all I had energy for. I had a half-hearted attempt at lifting my arms aloft in celebration but this was asking too much of my tired muscles.
I turned around at the finish and shook hands with the man who had pushed me to my limit over a tough course. We exchanged pleasantries and of course, these were the first words we spoke to each other all day. This was by far the hardest I’ve ever had to work to win a race, by far the most focused I’ve needed to be. The battle today was half physical and half mental and I did just enough to come out on top. By eight whole seconds.
One day I will lose at this race. This is inevitable. But I really am glad it wasn’t today. I don’t want it to be next year either. Or the year after…