Fresh from my trip to the Peak District, I had a feeling that I would enjoy my first half marathon.
The word enjoy, as always with running, is relative. In running terms it means a type II kind of pleasure – that ‘oh that was fun’ kind of feeling, not a ‘oh this is fun’ kind of joy like, say, boozing can be. Still, I thought it would be at least more fun than the constant agony of the flat out 5k, and the only marginally-less-constant-agony of the 10k. The pace of a HM is, naturally, more sustainable and as such the agony shouldn’t be as constant.
And that’s nice, isn’t it?
Still, I had the jitters.
St Neot’s Half Marathon isn’t the biggest, or fastest, race around but it is still the largest event that I’ve ever toed the line for, with at least 1000 runners in participation (that’s not strictly true because I did toe the line for the larger Great Eastern Run but that didn’t actual go any further than the start line so we won’t count that). A big event means that parking, getting my number, and queuing for the loos takes much longer than usual and my laissez-faire approach to race preparation was challenged, slightly. Still, I was able to rock up at a moderately leisurely hour, get my shit together, jog around the grass field of the car park, and toe the line in just enough time to wriggle my way to the first couple of rows of runners.
The main problem I had approaching this race was that I didn’t really know how fast I should have been running it. My 10km PB is 36:23 – type that into the Jack Daniels VDOT pace calculator and it coughs up a 1:20:29 HM time (6:08 a mile). It’s sort of agonizingly close to the 80 minute mark, and for a while I considered that I should aim to break the arbitrary barrier straight away, but I decided against it. I’ve struggled to get close to my 10k PB over the summer despite some obvious fitness gains, so I settled on a broad pace window of between 6:10 – 6:20 a mile wanting, more than anything, to finish my first half marathon as happily as could be.
The gun went and off we ran, chasing after a lead car. The top 20 or so runners seemed to be settling into a quicker pace than I wanted. I had plotted on a negative split, but I went through the first mile in sub-6 minute mile pace and I felt as if these were the runners that I needed to be around if I wanted to get close to the 80 minute mark, and the top of my pace goal, so I stuck in.
We kept the pace for the first 5k, where I lapped my watch for the first time. This was a new tactic of mine, breaking the race into 4 blocks of 5k, and then one, last, smaller block where I would grit my teeth and empty the tank. The course is undulating, and the first notable hill came in as I hit the lap button for the first time. It set us up for a slower block, but by this point we had settled into our little groups and the same runners were orbiting around me. We weren’t in a peloton but we pushed, chased, fell back, rotated. Alongside the gentle, but fairly constant, undulation, this kept my mind occupied.
Before I knew it, we went through 10k. I took a gel and sloshed it down with some water from an aid station. There were plenty of water stops, and strong support. The route took us out and back through a village on the outskirts of the town and the residents were out in full force; cheering us on, and clanging pots and pans, with army cadets there to watch us through and offer us water bottles. I fell off the pace as I took on my energy and hydration, but it gave me something else to focus on as we entered the second half of the race. I focused my eyes on the back of the runner who I had let get away from me, and designated myself the mission to get back up with him, worry about the rest later.
This worked well. In fact, after I got back up with that runner I was able to push on and catch up with another runner I had earlier been with, and then on again, to the second placed lady, and again to a runner who had steamed past when I had been drinking. Inspired by this on-the-fly goal setting I was then fortunate enough to spot the first place lady – in my head I imagined she must have been aiming for around 80 minutes so I figured if I could get to her I wouldn’t be too far off my goal. Obviously that wasn’t necessarily true, but I chose to believe it, and catching up with her became my next little mission. Things were starting to hurt then. I think on the downhills I was running a little clumsily, landing further back on my heels than usual, because they were starting to feel sore. Thankfully I was able to file this away because I had already come to terms with the fact that the last 5k of a half marathon is supposed to hurt, and mentally I was prepared to go into the pain cave.
With the pain in my heels from running downhill, what I had originally imagined to be a positive aspect of this course became a bit of a bummer; the last few miles were net downhill. Not only that, but the strong wind which I had felt blowing around my head all morning was now blasting itself right at us. I reminded myself that the documents in the filing cabinet of my brain indicated that I had already signed a contract which declared that I was fine and dandy with suffering in that moment, and that suffering was all part of the plan, run smart for 10 miles or so, then run like a hot mess for the last 3 and a bit.
When I came through the finish line, and foolishly followed the commentators instructions to smile and put my arms out, I was thrilled to see that I hit the very top of my pace goal: 6:10 a mile, 1:20:57. Could I have run a minute quicker? Broken that 80 minute mark? If you’d asked me within those first couple of ecstatic minutes after the race, I would have said yes.
If you’d have asked me 20 minutes later when I was trying to jog about and warm down whilst supporting the rest of the field, it would have been a definitive no.
But damn me, I was right. I did enjoy it.