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72 Painful Minutes

Sunday 2nd March 2014

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…

Training – Week Beginning 24 February

I tapered this week to prepare for the half marathon.

Monday: 13km easy (13)

Tuesday: AM 7km easy / PM 2 sets of 1000-3×400, around 3:07/72 (21)

Wednesday: rest (0)

Thursday: AM 6km easy / PM 13km easy (19)

Friday: 10km easy (10)

Saturday: 8km easy (8)

Sunday: Berkhamsted Half Marathon, 1st in 72:18 (25)

Week total: 96km

Title Defence

Wednesday 7th March 2012

This weekend I returned to my home town to defend my title in the annual half marathon race. Last year, I ran a personal best time of 70:57 and on a sunny spring morning won a race I had raced every year since starting out as a runner.

So for the first time ever, I entered a race as defending champion. Training had been going really well and early in the week I was feeling very well prepared. We ran a tough but low-volume track session on Tuesday evening and the plan after that was to ease off for the next few days. However, by Thursday morning I was suffering from an intense soreness and throbbing in my quads and calves that even made walking feel painful. I have had this pain before and am awaiting the results of blood tests that will try and determine what is wrong. I took the day off running and hoped it would go away. It didn’t, and by Friday the pain was even worse. Frustratingly, the cramps and soreness never seem to be linked to my training, and don’t feel like the usual fatigue that comes from heavy training. I tried to run on Saturday morning and the pain stopped me going far.

I dosed up on Ibuprofen and went to bed early, hoping that would at least ease the pain a little. I woke up on race morning feeling heavy legged but still wanted to give it a go. I worked hard for the win last year and didn’t want to give up my trophy without at least trying. The rain was coming down hard and I realised that this could end up being very bad day indeed. I left my watch in my jacket pocket at the start; sometimes it is better to run free of pressure and to run acccording to feel, rather than checking your watch every two minutes.

The gun went. Expecting to feel terrible, I was surprised that I was able to put my left foot in front of my right with relative ease. The pain that had been so intense the previous three days appeared to have eased. Still, I didn’t want to take any chances and allowed others to set the pace. I tucked in behind the leaders.

Fortunately, the pace was much slower than it could have been and I was thankful for this. Two miles in there were two runners leading with me tucked in just behind. The third mile involves a long climb and one of the runners started to drop back. I vaguely recognised the other athlete who was with me now; I think he may have won the race a few years ago. The climb up the hill was slow and I didn’t care. My aim was to win the race and as long as the other athletes finished behind me I wasn’t too concerned about how long it took. A quick glance at the lead car’s clock told me we had got to 3 miles outside 17 minutes. Last year I had got to the same point a whole minute quicker. We continued on down waterlogged streets, both drenched by the rain. This had better be worth it, I thought to myself. We got to the five mile marker in just outside 28 minutes. No point pushing the pace just yet, I thought; there is still a long way to go and no guarantee your legs will hold out. The next section of the race was a long descent to the 6 mile point. I noticed that the other athlete had a very long stride and looked at his most confortable going downhill. With this in mind I knew that the best way to win would be not to wait until the last 3 miles, which are predominantly downhill. At six miles (33:40) I tested him by moving to the front and picking up the pace. He covered the move fairly easily and I dropped back in behind. The rain was hammering down by this point.

I tracked him up the hill between Nettleden and Little Gaddesden, allowing him to do all the work. This is the steepest incline in the race and takes you to the highest point on the course. After a fairly slow first few miles I still felt strong and thought that whatever happened, a negative split would be likely. The course flattened out and now we were into the second half I considered my tactics. One of us would win, but would it be me or him? Was he feeling comfortable and ready to pick up the pace, or was he suffering? Time to find out. Just before the eight mile marker, passed in around 45 minutes, I stepped to the front again and attacked, this time with greater purpose. He stayed with me for a hundred metres so I pushed the pace even more and felt the gap begin to grow. I continued to increase the pace and with my calves screaming at me I looked behind at nine miles and saw a gap of at least 30 metres. I followed the lead car up the next hill through Ashridge, not even trying to avoid the large puddles on the road. For a start, the water was cooling on my legs and besides, they were so big now that I couldn’t have avoided them even if I had tried. I turned the corner and saw a photographer from the local newspaper who had taken my photo before the race. What she captured on her camera can’t have been a pretty sight. I then looked back and noticed the gap had stayed the same, and had perhaps even shrunk a bit. I hadn’t been concentrating going up the hill and knew that if I got caught now, the momentum would most likely take the other athlete past me. The ten mile mark took longer than expected to arrive and when it did, the lead car’s clock said 56:10. With a downhill section ahead, I picked up my cadence and really started to push. The 11th mile must have been the quickest of the race yet, close to 5 minutes. I knew that I then had one more hill to negotiate before the descent back into the town in the last mile. When I got up it and had increased my lead I knew the win was likely.

The last mile of the race is my favourite of any race, as the whole thing is downhill. Once you get to 12 miles you can just let gravity do the work. Having said that, I did try and give gravity a small helping hand, running scared in case the athlete behind was gaining ground. I needn’t have worried. By the time I turned the penultimate corner and looked over my shoulder I couln’t see him any more. My winning time from last year had already passed according the clock on the race car, but that didn’t bother me at all. I knew I was about to win.

Passing my wife at the last corner, I held my arms aloft prompting a cheer from the crowds. The lead car pulled over and I passed my brother, who had come down to watch. I high fived him and punched the air with my fist as I crossed the line in 72:02 (the sub-16 last 5k mainly due more to a large altitude drop than anything else). Last year’s win was a surprise; this year’s was a relief and my celebrations at the end probably reflected this. The second-placed athlete crossed the line 42 seconds after I did. We shook hands and shared our complaints about the awful weather. After eight miles of running side by side, these were the first words we spoke to each other all day. After picking up my winner’s trophy and shaking the mayor’s hand, still wearing my soaking wet race kit, I fled the scene in search of warmth and food.

March 3rd 2013 will be the day I go for three in a row. It’s in my diary already.