Bear with me, this could be a long one…
In March 2014, I completed my first half marathon, at Silverstone. I trained, regularly, but quite gently, and finished the race in 1:52:58.
At the Great West Run later that year, I pushed myself harder in training and in the race, and despite having some wobbles (shivers, and throwing up after finishing) I made a massive dent in my PB, completing it in 1:41:52.
I then got injured through the winter, and wasn’t able to complete a spring half marathon. My training cycle for my autumn half marathon included a fair bit of rehabilitation work. In the race, I aimed for around 1:38, but ended up completing the Burnham Half in 1:36:37.
We then came to 2016. Except that another injury meant that I yet again missed the whole winter, and couldn’t complete a spring half marathon. My goals of a sub-90 half marathon were dissipating:
In my heart I’m still aiming for sub-90, but in reality, I think that has become something of a pipe-dream now. – Me, July 2016
Halfway through my training I set out my targets: Gold, 89:59 (sub-90). Silver, 91:32 (sub-7:00 min/mile). Bronze, 93:59.
I certainly had some concerns about my chosen race:
… what am I thinking, entering a race with over 10,000 entrants?! – Me, August 2016
My doubts remained as the race approached, and in all honesty, they were still there while I stood in the holding pen ready to start the race. But I’m getting ahead of myself slightly.
A 9:30 start for the race meant an early morning; a 6:00 alarm so that we could be out of the house by 7:00. Amazingly, even with a toddler, we left on time – although I did forget to have some toast after my cereal. So we’ll maybe call it evens. We arrived about an hour later, and parked at Cabot Circus, about a mile across town from the race village. This had three main advantages: it was far enough away that parking wasn’t an issue, I got a bit of a walking warm-up to loosen my leg muscles, and the toilets at Cabot Circus were not busy!
We arrived at the race village in time for me to head to the toilets once again, this time joining a queue, albeit a relatively reasonable one. I didn’t really fancy milling around the busy race village, and instead popped down a side-street towards the river. Just as we were about to settle down on a bench for a little bit, the rain came. (Hold on, the BBC said it was going to be dry!) And then got heavier. And heavier. And then really heavy. We quickly rushed to huddle under a balcony on a block of flats, and I contemplated how long I could leave it before heading out for a warm-up run.
8:40… still raining. 8:45… still raining. 8:48… sigh. I accepted the inevitable, and – still wearing my race top, t-shirt AND a hoodie – I set off along the river for a little warm-up plod. And got soaked. Still, my legs would thank me for it, and chances were that I was going to get wet during the race anyway.
Out along the Portway… and back (miles 1 – 8)
In the start pen, I slotted myself a couple of rows back from the 1:30 pacer, amazed at quite how near the front this put me. I decided that I would run with the pacer for the first few miles, and see how it felt – I could always drop off and adjust my goal down as the race went on. If I started further back, there was no chance I could speed enough sufficiently to adjust my goal up.
The crowded start meant that unlike most races, where I start too quickly, I actually had quite a slow initial get away compared to what I wanted. Still, I found sufficient pace soon enough, and started to work on keeping up with the 1:30 pacer, who’d got away fine, and was ten metres up the road. By the end of the first mile, I’d sorted my pace out, and went through in 6:48 – pretty much bang on my target pace for sub-90.
During the first couple of miles, I did struggle with the number of people around – running with the pacer did have the disadvantage of making up run in a close group, and I was constantly having to adjust my stride to avoid clashing with another runner. Eventually, I got fed up of this, and decided to move ahead of the pacer, into a pretty large gap that had opened up. I was wary that I might then push on too hard ahead of my target pace, but it was a risk I decided I had to take. After a second mile at 6:46, I sped up slightly in the third, to 6:40; whether this was related to pushing ahead of the pacer or not, I’m unsure. Just after the third mile was the first drinks station, but I opted against a drink – I felt hydrated enough, and I don’t believe in drinking too much during a race if you don’t feel that you need it.
The fourth mile took us to the turnaround point on the Portway, and we started to see runners coming back the other way. I had been worried before the race about this long out-and-back, but actually it was fine. Initially, it was so early in the race that I hadn’t got bored of running yet, and after that there were plenty of people coming the other way to keep you distracted. My fourth mile maintained my ahead-of-target pace, 6:41, and had been a gentle climb, making it an even harder effort. At this point of the race, I felt that I was pushing so hard to maintain the pace already, and that I couldn’t possibly keep it up for another… oh my God… another 9 miles.
It was around this point that I opted to do something both sensible and really stupid. I decided to break the race up into more manageable chunks: sensible. I decided that my target pace was more or less my 10k PB pace, so I my first chunk would be the first 10k of the race. And I’d try and get a new 10k distance PB: stupid.
Don’t get me wrong – I knew that to run sub-90, I would have to run a positive split. There was no way that I wouldn’t fade towards the end at that pace, so an even or negative split just wasn’t realistic. Given that, I guess it wasn’t so stupid after all, but it sure felt stupid, trying to run my fastest ever 10k with another 7 miles to go after. Either way, I managed it – Garmin recorded my 10k time as 41:24, almost a minute quicker than my PB. At least I knew I’d achieved something in this race!
I continued at my ahead-of-target pace for miles seven and eight, and remained ahead of the pacer, though a few times I could hear the group right behind me – so while I was running quicker than necessary, the pacer was driving a similar pace, which was slightly reassuring, and slightly worrying. Mile 3-8 were at 6:40, 6:41, 6:35, 6:43, 6:39 and 6:41. Unfortunately, my mile bleeps weren’t quite lining up with the mile markers, so although according to my watch I was probably about 67 seconds ahead of where I needed to be, the mile markers suggested that I was perhaps only 10 seconds ahead.
The ‘nothing’ middle bit (miles 8 – 11)
The first eight miles had been pretty straightforward: onto the Portway, up the Portway, turnaround, back down the Portway. (And, right at the end, a bit of twisting and turning across the river, or canal, or whatever it is.) I knew that most of the rest of the race was a lot more fiddly, twisting and turning through the city centre – with a couple of climbs thrown in for good measure. But first came the dreary middle miles. Mile 9 was entirely alongside the river, and at this point I caught up with a group of Great Western Runners, who I usefully paced along with for a while. I pushed on ahead of them when we hit Redcliff Hill, though my pace was nothing compared to the 1:30 pacer, who suddenly came flying past us all. I’m not really sure why he decided it was necessary to go so hard up the hill, but from this stage, I spent the entire race a fair distance behind the pacer.
Another hill followed just under a mile later, climbing up towards Castle Park, while the biggest was to follow shortly after, up past the back of The Galleries, though that was at least succeeded by a noticeable downhill, and as we passed over the river/canal for the third time, I spotted Lolly and Lani there to cheer me on. The combination of the cheering and the downhill gave me a boost, but I knew that my pace was starting to suffer, and every mile involved some calculations as to whether sub-90 was still realistic. At 10 miles (only a parkrun to go!) I had about 22 minutes left – a 22 minute 5k should be do-able, right? Mile 11 saw my pace drop a bit further to 6:56 – anything under 7:00 should be fine from here, but I was worried about the trend.
The horrible last bit (miles 12-13.1)
From the point at which you pass the 11 mile marker, to the finish, by the shortest route, must be about 500 metres. Unfortunately, we had to do an entire loop of Queen Square, and an out and back loop around The Centre. Yes, I know, 13.1 miles is 13.1 miles – but having so much twisting and turning at the end is mentally draining. The support from the crowds here was great – and it needed to be. I felt like my whole race was coming apart, and everything was a struggle. But actually, when I looked around, I was keeping pace with most of the runners around me, and even catching up with some others. And although my pace had continued to drop, it wasn’t too dramatic. It just felt it.
Somewhere around mile 12, I’m not sure where, as mostly everything blends into one around this point, I saw Lolly and Lani again. From what Lolly says, I wasn’t particularly cheerful, and I can believe it. My ability to do any sort of maths failed in the last mile, and so I wasn’t quite sure how slow I could afford to go to make sub-90, but I knew I was on course for it, short of a pretty monumental breakdown. Unfortunately, that was pretty much how I felt. I felt sick – like I was actually going to throw up. I was light-headed, and struggling to mentally focus on anything. Other than to keep going. Turning onto Broad Quay and then Colston Avenue, and seeing runners going the other way was tortuous, especially when I kept expecting to reach the turnaround point, but it took a forever to arrive.
Eventually though, I reached it, and there was just under half a mile to go. By this stage, I really was starting to go backwards relative to most of those around me. I was just hanging on as best as I could – forcing myself to keep pushing for the final few minutes. At the ‘400m to go’ sign, I briefly contemplated pushing harder, before realising that 400 metres is a quarter of a mile. At 200 metres, I allowed myself to push a bit, but in reality, I didn’t have that much to push with. But it didn’t really matter. As long as I didn’t actually collapse, I was practically guaranteed sub-90. The pacer crossed the line ahead of me, in pretty much 1:29 exactly. When I crossed the line, I could see that the clock was still reading under 1:30, so it was pretty academic what my watch said. I’d done it.
I’d done it. And now I had other things to focus on: not throwing up for a start. Step, breath, don’t throw up. Step, breath, don’t throw up. In such a fashion did I shuffle away from the finish line and collect my goody bag. Step, rummage in bag, retrieve water bottle, drink, don’t throw up. Step, drink, don’t throw up.
Eventually, I progressed to simply walking and drinking, the nausea passing, and I made my way back to The Centre to meet Lolly and Lani, so we could head off for a celebratory Nando’s back at Cabot Circus. After I’d bought some dry socks to wear, at least…
I’ll probably post some more thoughts on the race, and my training later in the week (I know, I know, it’s already Thursday). But I do need to say a huge thank you to my wife, Lolly. My training plan was 12 weeks, and at the time of my race, she was 12 weeks and 2 days pregnant. So the combination of pregnancy and having to cope with me being out of the house for hours on end training didn’t make things easy for her, and yet she remained fully supportive of my efforts to go sub-90 at Bristol. She believed in me far more than I dared to, and she kept me going at those points that everything seemed to be getting on top of me, and life threatened to get in the way. So, thanks Lolly 😀