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Huzzah! The demon has been slain and I can finally put the Cardiff Half Marathon to rest.
As always, if you want to skip straight to race day then scroll down to “Race Day” or even “The Race” to avoid all the pre-race rambling and blah, blah, blah from me.
Cardiff Half Marathon history lesson
For those of you who don’t know my running background, I started off long distance running with half marathon road races. By autumn of 2011, I had two half marathons under my belt and had shaved a massive 12 minutes off between my first and second outing, but the sub-2 hour finish was still a touch out of reach.
Training for the 2011 Cardiff race had gone reasonably well and all signs were pointing to “yes” for a sub-2 hour race, just. I was running within my capabilities on the day, following the sub-2 group diligently. If you’ve ever tried pacing with a group in a big city race, you’ll know how stressful it can be with all the people running at one pace only; I decided to clear some breathing room for me and I ran ahead of the group. It was here that my 1:59 goal decided to creep up and become 1:50ish or so. With experience and hindsight, this was possibly the single most stupid move I have ever made in a race because whilst running with others and having crowds cheer will speed you up, they will not give you 9 minutes from nowhere if all you’ve trained for is to dip under 2 hours. Needless to say, I blew up horrendously at around mile 10 on the soul destroying dual carriageway to limp home with a 2:20 finish.
The organisation of the race was far from perfect, but most of the blame lay directly with me for my failure.
Neither Dom nor I made it into the ballot for the Royal Parks Half Marathon in London, so we both decided to give Cardiff another try. For Dom, it was to benchmark how far he had come in a year of training and for me, it was to settle an old score.
The day before the Cardiff Half Marathon
I decided to stop drinking about 2 years ago in a bid to help improve my training. I wasn’t normally a big drinker but it had enough of an impact on me that it made training at the weekend harder if you had a sore head from the night before. This all came to an end when I celebrated my 30th birthday with a few halves of Peroni…
The next morning, I found myself awake early; booze has that effect on me where it disrupts my sleep pattern. I woke up feeling very dehydrated, but not fragile. Nigel from Lliswerry Runners had requested my pacing assistance at Newport Parkrun where I would be leading his friend, Mike, to a new PB. Mike wanted to dip under 21:20, so I punched in 21:15 pace into my Garmin. I had a quick chat with him before the start and he explained that he normally goes for a negative split, which I personally find hard to achieve good times with in a 5k race; you lose too much time at the beginning and you still have to contend with fatigue and oxygen debt in the later stages anyway when you should be going faster.
Anyway, we started and went around in a steady 6:50 per mile fashion. We lost a little time due to the uneven terrain but I managed to get Mike around in 21:24; not on target but still a 1 second PB for him. Take a look at the Garmin data here.
Despite the relatively easy 5k pace, the boozy night had hit me and I was starting to suffer the effects of sleep deprivation. I felt tired and cranky despite eating and beginning to rehydrate.
Lis, Elsa, Iain, Yvonne and I headed into Cardiff for a spot of shopping and other errands. I ended up having a huge KFC meal which went down a treat but was hardly ideal pre-race nutrition. Whilst the ladies went shopping, Iain and I went to claim my orange coloured wristband to correct my incorrectly issued race bib colour. We caught a few glimpses of the men’s Welsh 1 mile road race where there was no sub-4 minute performance that day. We also reccy’d the finish area and noticed how the lead up to it was much shorter than at the Cardiff 10k; ideal for a short fast sprint but potentially not long enough to really take advantage of the speed increase.
Dinner that night was spaghetti bolognese with garlic bread – race fuel of champions.
I headed off to bed pretty early to make up for the lack of sleep. Needless to say, I slept soundly for once the night before a big A race!
The big day had finally arrived. I had been looking forward to the Cardiff Half Marathon for a long time, ever since my 10k times started to tumble in the summer. The distance is a great test of endurance with a sprinkling of speed with the last flexing of my half marathon muscles over 7 months ago in Bath.
I got up at 6am to allow plenty of time for breakfast to go down, which consisted of two slices of toast with honey, a Nectar energy drink and two beetroot juice shots. This combo has worked very well for me nutrition-wise and if it ain’t broke, there ain’t no need to fix it!
The weather outside looked very good; it was dry with little to no wind and moderate temperatures.
Lis, Elsa, Iain and I made our way down the M4 towards Cardiff and parked at St Davids 2. Since it was so early in the morning, we had our pick of spaces on the first parking level. Entering the shopping centre, we were met by runners everywhere along with a queue for the mens’ toilets.
Today’s a good day for a PB
We ventured over towards the Cardiff Castle area next to where the orange start pen was. I went for a 0.5 mile warm-up jog whilst the others went for some coffee and breakfast. Dom was somewhere in Cardiff but had yet to meet us. The queue for toilets was already immense at 8am, so I decided to go back to the trees opposite the Civic Centre…
Dom still hadn’t turned up yet and not wanting to end up too far back in the orange wave, I had to make my way over. Literally as I stepped into the pen, Dom was walking out! He needed to stash his specs with my guys but I had no idea where they would be on the bridge; instead, we opted to stow the specs away in one of the large plant pots outside the castle whilst not looking like terrorists trying to plant a bomb…
We were quite near the front of the orange wave which seemed about right given our target finish time of something around 1:30 to 1:31. The 90 minute pacer was nowhere to be seen and nor was the 1:45 pacer.
After a rendition of the Welsh national anthem and an introduction by Colin Jackson, we got ready to start at the chime of the clock’s bell. The gun fired and after some cheering, we began to run forward before coming to a complete stop. I joked that we’d all false started and were thusly disqualified! We started running again and this time, we actually made it across the start line where a chorus of GPS and stopwatch beeps could be heard.
The 2013 Cardiff Half Marathon route
Dom and I had more or less agreed that our target finishes were just different enough that we wouldn’t be running together. I could see Dom about 15m away in the distance; he’s a tall lad and had a distinctive club runner vest, making it easy to spot him.
The congestion was pretty bad so early on with people shooting off all over the place. I crossed the bridge on the left but Team Beetroot were nowhere to be found (they were on the right), with the sea of faces serving as more of a distraction from my race. I suddenly became caught up in a wall of runners that all seemed to be running at an identical pace – it was only the 1:45 pacer group! I thought it was ridiculous that they had started so far up the orange wave when the time designation is 1:30 to 1:45, causing the vast majority of the wave to run around them for a good period of time. I tried to stay calm, recalling my London Marathon experience and dialed the pace back a touch and went with the crowd temporarily until I had a bit more room to breathe. Ultimately, my first mile clocked in at around 7:15 so I was 10 seconds off my race plan. More worrying was the fact that my watch beeped about 10 – 15m ahead of the 1 mile marker. The London Marathon really was coming back to haunt me! The problem would either get worse or I could try to run a clean line and minimise the damage.
I felt quite awkward in the opening 2 miles where I was consciously holding my pace back. I’ve not raced anything further than 10k since May and this was completely at odds to the faster runs. Mile 2 presented some more industrial parts of Cardiff; not particularly inspiring scenery but so early in the race it shouldn’t make a difference. Mile 2 was definitely more like race pace with a 6:55 mile split.
My hamstrings were throbbing a little which worried me so early in the race. Had I overdone it at Parkrun the day before? Perhaps I should have run a full mile for a warm-up? My body still wasn’t game for the task at hand and needed some more coaxing…
Dom had pretty much disappeared from sight and was nowhere to be found. He wanted to get as close to 90 minutes as possible, hoping to dip under with some luck. I used this as a performance benchmark where if I happened to see him again during the race then it would mean my negative split strategy was working.
We overtook a few of the wheelchair participants and I don’t know about earlier or later on in the race, but immediately around me, not a single person gave the wheelchair racer any encouragement. Discussing this with Team Beetroot afterwards, they did highlight that some ‘less-able bodied’ people can get funny about encouragement and can feel patronised, which is fair enough because no two people are alike. However, we were going up one of the two hills on the route and this guy was doing it in a wheelchair!
Speaking of hills, the mile 3 hill going into Penarth was completely pointless. We went up and then came straight back down again, costing us all precious time out on the course.
Running through Penarth was an odd sensation because this was the point where I was walking during the 2011 Cardiff Half Marathon. Our first water station arrived and the volunteers had actually been instructed to remove the screw tops before handing them over to us runners, which meant the roads were clear of hazardous bottle tops to slip up on. This was a major problem when I ran in 2011.
I approached the Barrage and the view was gorgeous all around us. I was actually in a fit state of body and mind this time to enjoy the surroundings and my pace started to increase. I started to feel really good and settled into a comfortable rhythm where everything had warmed-up effectively. The congestion had now subsided and I was able to consciously follow the cleanest line possible on the course. And I comment on this all the time but it’s genuinely surprising how many people hugged the opposite side of the road rather than running the shortest route through a corner.
The end of the Barrage did not pose a problem for me, but reports from those running in the masses cited it as a major pinch point on the route. What was shocking was how poor some of the roads were out on the course. If you weren’t careful, you could very easily fall into a pothole or two!
I was now firmly in the Cardiff Bay area and the crowds were out en masse to cheer us all on. This was such a contrast to the 2011 race where spectators merely came out to stare with very little atmosphere or support. There was a chap running in a charity vest that seemed to be using me for pacing, keeping up with me and occasionally running ahead. Not one to let a mini battle go, I would then regain the lead and this would rinse and repeat for much of the race.
A trend that seems to be cropping up with a lot of races is the provision of energy gels in place of an energy drink. Cardiff Half was handing out Maxifuel Viper gels at Roal Dahl Pass, which I declined. I tend to try and keep new nutrition at bay during a race unless absolutely desperate (the London Marathon as an example). Energy gels seem to disagree with a lot of people and I wonder how many would have happily accepted the Maxifuel gels, risking a visit from the gingerbread man later? I was carrying my own in the form of my trusty orange Isogels on a gel belt. They’re a little heavier than a typical gel because of the water content, but this can actually be more convenient if you need a pick-me-up and there’s no water station nearby to wash the gel down with. Iain mentioned that the adoption of an energy gel sponsor may simply be down to financial reasons, where Lucozade or Powerade (Coca-Cola) can’t or won’t commit to the provision of two drinks stations. Pitched correctly, it would be a good opportunity for an energy gel sponsor to introduce their product to a wider audience where they’re often viewed as nutrition for more serious athletes. Roal Dahl Pass was apparently covered in gel residue later on in the race, making for a very sticky situation for the slower runners coming up. Thankfully, it was still clean and dry when I ran through.
I ran past the Wales Millennium Centre and on to Lloyd George Avenue, bringing back more memories of the 2011 race. I had to keep my wits about me because Ben and Kate would be somewhere in the crowds to cheer me on. I ran past the block where their apartment is but there was no sign of them. I passed by the block where their previous apartment was but still no sign of them! Much further up Lloyd George Avenue, I finally spotted Ben, Kate and Ben’s mum waving at me; I waved back and even got a high-five from Ben! This really helped to break up the race and provided an instant lift.
I was feeling great by this stage of the race and everything felt smooth, in control and comfortable. I was bang on target for something in the region of 1:31:XX, with the virtual pacer hovering between 0 seconds and 5 seconds ahead. There were loads of people at the end of Lloyd George Avenue, possibly because it was close to town and also because it was close to the halfway point of the course.
The next part of the race is a little fuzzy in my memory. We started to run towards the dock area, but made a detour towards some residential streets. This was another curiosity where there were cars still parked on the roads. I can’t think of any other major city races I’ve done where cars were allowed to be left on the roads. It wasn’t a problem for the pace I was going at but for those further back in the field, the cars would only cause further bottlenecks. There’s even the possibility that the course was measured at a time when the cars weren’t present, which may have contributed to the mile markers seeming out of place.
The first and only energy drink station appeared somewhere at around mile 8 or so. Lucozade Elite was handed out which caught me by surprise where I was expecting regular old Lucozade Sport. There was no mention in the race pack or online that Lucozade Elite would be provided. What’s the beef? Lucozade Elite uses a different carb mixture to Lucozade Sport and also contains caffeine. There’s a good likelihood that it would disagree with folks, just like the gels. Nothing new on race day! I’ve had Lucozade Elite before once as a sample and it sat reasonably with me, but I wasn’t keen on the taste where I found it slightly bitter. During a marathon, this bitter taste could work well to give your taste buds a break, but few people would have trained with it because it’s actually very hard to find in the shops.
At around 9.5 miles, I spotted Dom in the distance once more and began to reel him in. This was shaping up to be just like the Cardiff 10k, so much so that I actually shouted out “Dom, you’re running really well” out to him again! I caught up to him and we ran together for a while, giving him a time update. I ran in front to pace-make for Dom but must have lost him somewhere in mile 10.
The rise up to Roath Park Lake arrived and people began to drop like flies around me. I powered up the hill, running a clean line and high fived a bunch of kids for some distraction. I tried to consciously increase the pace but it just wasn’t happening. I settled at the pace and decided I would try again on the other side of the lake and use gravity to my advantage to lift the pace.
What was odd but pleasant to experience was how short the half marathon felt up to this stage. I was still feeling decent and only had a Parkrun left to go before the end of the race. I almost wished it was a 20 miler that would allow me to cruise through at 7:30 miles to see where my marathon ability is right now. I was genuinely enjoying the race for what it was; such a contrast to the last time I ran the Cardiff Half Marathon.
Mile 11 arrived and I began to push and reel people in ahead of me. I kind of put my faith in gravity and hoped my cadence and quads would carry me through going downhill. I hugged each corner as tightly as possible to make sure I didn’t add any more distance to my run. Right at the end of mile 11, a short but sharp hill came out of nowhere and caught me off guard. I asked the runners around me whether they had seen the 90 minute pacer but they all shook their heads. One runner piped up and said he’d seen him earlier and wasn’t too far away, ushering me on to try and catch him with just over one mile left to go. Could I do a mile PB within a half marathon?
I went into mile 12 and said “let’s eat this last mile up” to everybody around me and began to kick a little. The final mile is more or less completely downhill until the last 400m, so I continued to let Newton’s Law guide me to the end. My breathing became laboured with shorter breaths and my arms began to swing more rapidly. I was flying and knew I’d finish right on target with 1:31:XX, possibly even 1:30:XX at the rate I was going.
Congrats to Elsa for a great photo!
The road started to level out and I knew the finish wasn’t far, increasing the pace further. My cadence was sky-high and my arms continued to pump as I went into the final corner to see crowds everywhere. My eyes started to dart through the spectators and clocked in on Team Beetroot, giving them a wave before I launched into my final kick. I must have easily passed 20 – 30 people as I ran straight down towards the finish line. My thoughts the previous day were correct and the home straight was possibly too short to allow me to fully take advantage of the short burst of speed towards the end. I crossed the line and stopped my watch for a 1:31:09 finish. I did it – I didn’t just beat the Cardiff Half Marathon, I’d smashed it to pieces for complete vengeance.
I was unsteady on my feet and a marshal came over to ask if I was OK pretty much immediately. I said I was fine but he grabbed my arm and walked me over to the barrier to lean against. A St John’s Ambulance paramedic, Keith, had a further chat with me, asking if I was OK, what my name was etc. I told him I’d done this before and usually ended like this. He asked what my previous Cardiff Half time was and you could visibly see his eyes widen when I told him 2:20. My breathing and heart rate steadied and Keith was happy to let me go; I shook his hand and thanked him and the rest of the St John’s guys for helping out at the race.
Dom had just crossed the line and I caught up with him. He’d put on a brave performance, trying for sub-90 and didn’t quite make it but still PBd with 1:32:12, more than a minute faster than the time he posted at the Prague Half back in the spring. You can read his take on the race by heading here.
I don’t feel guilty for having this medal, unlike the 2011 one…
We collected our medals along with some refreshments and our goodie bags with almost all the contents being edible and branded unlike the cheap-ass crap in 2011. This is also the second year that they’ve given away technical t-shirts, now supplied by Brooks.
A post-race traditional Nandos was had with everybody to begin the recovery to get me ready to do it all over again in Birmingham just two weeks later.
Conclusion and closing thoughts
For those interested, my Garmin data for the 2013 Cardiff Half Marathon can be found here.
I had an amazing time at the Cardiff Half Marathon and posted a very rewarding PB. I didn’t go for sub-90 and I’m happier for it, where I was only 70 seconds away from the legendary finish time. Had I have been gunning for it and ended up with 1:30:XX, I think I’d be struggling to come to terms with the achievement and would only focus on the near-miss. I slashed off more than 6 minutes from my previous half marathon PB set in Bath back in March, which is basically a little under a minute per month when you break it down.
Pacing-wise, I was happy with my performance running a small negative split meaning I’d efficiently used my resources. I was initially worried the weight of 3 Isogels would slow me down over the shorter, faster distance compared to the marathon but needn’t have worried; the benefit from the energy burst outweighed (pun intended) the additional mass.
One quirk that I’ve yet to completely pin down is the total distance I ran – 13.22 miles. I’m normally very good at running a clean line and whilst I fully acknowledge that mile 1 had me weaving a fair bit to make room, I’m not entirely convinced by the rest of the extra distance. Another guy on the Runners World forum also logged 13.22 miles and he ran it in 1:20, so could hardly blame crowds and congestion. The reality is most likely somewhere in the middle; I was a victim of zig-zag drag as Dave calls it and the course may have had a tiny bit of additional distance added just in case after the 2010 race was 200m short.
The ideal tool for spectators
The overall organisation of the race was very, very good after the initial speed bump of the bib colour issue. Everything was where it should have been and the provision of the online tracker to follow athletes was a god-send to every spectator I’m sure. They just need to better publicise what nutrition they’re providing out on the course to prevent and surprises.
The course was great, showing-off many of the sights of Cardiff in a more logical manner than in 2011. It’s not a guaranteed PB course, but correct pacing and anticipation of the inclines should see you well prepared for what’s to come.
I say this every time I score a major PB but I’m genuinely excited by where my ability and fitness is right now. I’m so close to a sub-90 finish and my performance in Cardiff has given me the confidence to try for a sub-90 minute attempt at the Great Birmingham Run in less than two weeks. I’ve achieved my season PB but the Cardiff Half Marathon was missing that little something to get that fire inside me going. It was a strategic race by the numbers and went according to plan and whilst there’s nothing wrong with that, it isn’t quite as memorable because there was nothing to lose whilst I was out there.
The 2013 Cardiff Half Marathon was good fun and it’s given me the assurance that they’ve stepped up their game. A serious contender for an autumn half marathon if that’s what you’re looking for.