How to run like an idiot and ignore everything you’ve learned: The Oulton Park Half Marathon 2018
As the end of February approached, I reflected on the first few weeks of 2018 against the intimidating prospect of tackling London – my first marathon since 2015. I’d exorcised the demons of Dewsbury, posting my first ever official sub-39 minute 10k; I’d taken 3 minutes off my Ferriby 10mile time, and according to Strava, I’d PB’d over 2 miles and 5km in training, and 10km, 15km, and 10 miles in races. Training had been going pretty well – I’d been able to up my mileage without any signs of injury, and to top it off, I’d managed to stick with the Suicide Squad for an entire two miles one night. So, it was with some confidence, and a spring in my stride, that I approached my next test in my road to marathon adequacy.
As a relative newcomer to the race calendar, the Manchester Marathon continues to emulate the blueprint of its more prestigious southern equivalent, cashing in on the running boom, and the opportunity that a chronically over-subscribed LDN continues to present. Like London, Manchester holds sister events that are pitched as key benchmarks of their shiny, approved training schedules in the run up to the big day. They are absolutely all about preparing runners for what’s ahead, and are in no way a means to make more money from naïve first timers (and, *ahem* gullible 45th timers like myself)…
To that end, in the same way that the London Marathon organisers have done for several years, the team behind the Asics Greater Manchester event plant a handily timed half marathon race around a racing circuit. Where London previously took over the world famous Silverstone track for its 13.1 miler, oozing history, with echoes of motor racing legends tearing around infamous corners, surrounded by every famous motor-sport brand’s own test facilities, hotels, huge grandstands, sprawling finishing straights and imposing pit-lanes, the Manchester team settled on Oulton Park. It has a café.
As I’m now a seasoned club runner, I was absolutely taking part in this race as part of my own, carefully crafted plans to get a decent time in London, and definitely NOT hooked in by hype or blind panic that if I didn’t race a half marathon THAT VERY DAY my training would be null and void, my legs would fall off, London would explode and I may as well give up running completely. That’s why I chose to drive 2 and a half hours, to arrive 3 hours early for the race.
My totally deliberate plan to arrive early afforded me the opportunity to have a look around the course. Having run Silverstone on several occasions, I was expecting more of the same: nice flat track; a couple of laps around the circuit, followed by detours around the outer service roads etc.
For one, I was ten strides in to my walk before Security Colin accosted me. Apparently, walking around an empty, second-rate circuit constituted major security concerns that could result in a snap meeting of COBRA. For two, in my ten strides forward before breaching the Geneva convention, I’d established that this was far from flat, that this was a really small circuit, and I’d have to run round it again and again and again (6 agains. I won’t write them all), to complete the distance. Joy. Still, at least I was guaranteed a t-shirt.
Thankfully, my boredom abated slightly, thanks to the 10k race that took place a couple of hours before the main event. The climbs didn’t appear to faze the runners that much, so a PB was still front and centre of my thinking.
The atmosphere was low-key, but friendly. Silverstone always used to bring out the likes of Scott Overall, the fields were in the thousands, and there was usually a razzamatazz PA playing music and giving shout outs to everyone. This had none of that, but the sun was out, and barring the stiff breeze, conditions were nigh on perfect. The ‘Beast from the East’ was yet to hit, although temperatures didn’t rise above 2 degrees for the entire race – unusual for a lunchtime start.
As we loitered around the start zone, it was clear that there were fewer than 1000 likely to toe the start line. I couldn’t see Scott Overall, Callum Hawkins or Mo Farah, so chanced my arm and stood right at the front. People in hats parped a horn, and off we went… far too fast.
Although the field wasn’t necessarily ‘elite’ (hate that word), the front-runners were still of a decent standard, and as my watch ‘peeped’ to indicate the passing of my first mile, it was clear that I’d ballsed up all of my pre-race plan around negative splits, a steady first half and gun it for the last, and instead opted for ‘just run like an idiot’. I looked down at my first split. It began with a ‘5’ – and not even a slight ‘5’, a BIG ‘5’.
Even my individual mile sprints in speedwork were under threat. Whoops.
My plan was to get around in under 85 minutes, which averages out about 6m29s per mile. I’d started 100 seconds faster than this. Panicking that I’d ruined my race, the next couple of miles were an uneven blur, but happily, the ascents that had bothered me before the race started, actually did me a favour – they slowed me down to a more reasonable pace. However, I was still going way too fast, going through my first 10km in 39.02 – again, to put that in perspective, my fastest 10km is 38.24. This, I thought, was not going to end well. I needed to slow the **** down and do the thing I’d planned and been working towards. Get your nut down TC, play the long game, this is just training for the main one in April, you’ll hurt yourself etc…
Then the voices started… usually the tablets keep them under control since the last ‘arson’ incident, but there they were – ‘Do you know what, you’re still feeling fresh – why not ignore every bit of common sense you have and see if you can carry on at your 10km pace? What’s the worst that could happen?’ Then Steve Prefontaine appeared before me in a vision giving it ‘The best pace is suicide pace’ etc. On reflection, it could just’ve been the V50 chap that passed me from Blackburn Road Runners. Superman passed me around the same time. It’s all a bit hazy.
So, there I was, still ploughing ahead, ignoring common sense, just waiting to blow like a female intern in the White House.
Thankfully, it didn’t come until the final mile and a half, although that sadly coincided with the horrible climbs. My legs went heavy, shoulders went up, and the spectre of a tight calf made its presence felt. As is always the case with multi-lap events, not taking the ‘racing line’ meant that I sailed through the half marathon distance with a good, painful quarter of a mile still to go until the line. My second 10k was 40.05 – not as horrendous as I was expecting. The additional yards meant that I crossed the finish slightly over my 85 minute target in 85.08, 21st overall, although I was pleased that my pacing stayed at a respectable 6m23s, taking my ‘technical’ half marathon time to sub 84, in spite of feeling like I’d run a terrible race.
Looking at my stats post race, not only had I PBd for a half marathon fairly significantly, but also over 10 miles, 15km and 20km, in spite of running like a tube for what felt like most of the race. Although encouraging, it felt odd to come away from a race feeling like I’d run poorly, with a number of improvements still made.
Not sure whether it was a confidence booster or not ahead of the big one in April! The marathon is a different beast – running like a tube is fine over the shorter distances, but I’ve a sneaky suspicion that doing the same in London won’t end as well. The positives to take were that, all things being equal, I’m still on target for a GFA time in London, providing I keep my efforts up. The negatives were, well, all of the stuff I’ve just written. Pacing will be critical to doing well in April, so I’ve got a lot of work to do on that front over the next few weeks.