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Another bib bites the dust
Few people seem to be able to share my love for the Silverstone Half Marathon. It’s flat, fast and cheap – all things that are important to regular racers. The event was originally my second half marathon (now also my tenth) and gave me a massive 12 minute PB on my first outing, and a 1 minute PB on my second.
There are a few caveats to Silverstone that need to be taken on-board before deciding to run there. It is, obviously, on an F1 race circuit which means it is incredibly exposed to the elements. If it’s windy or raining, there is almost no shelter at all for protection. The course is also pretty dull; great if you’re having a fantastic race where you can simply knuckle down and get on with racing well, but soul destroying if you’re having a bad day at the office. Spectators are also thin on the ground due to the relative difficulty of getting out on the course. Then there’s the 12pm start time, which could be a blessing or a curse. The later start means that people can successfully drive to the circuit in the morning without the need of an overnight stay in a hotel. Of course, this does raise questions like when to have breakfast (or brunch) and it also takes up the majority of the day once you’ve factored in journey times, the race itself and so on.
As ever, please head straight to “The race” if you want to get straight to the good stuff.
Dave and I were both due to run at Silverstone, but with markedly different ambitions. Silverstone was to be Dave’s spring A-race and for me, it was a fast and hard training run. I had to keep the race under control, but also push myself enough that I would receive some sort of training benefit to counter-act the slower long efforts I’ve been completing as part of my marathon training. For Dave, his target time was anything between 1:31 and 1:32 with my half marathon PB of 1:31:09 firmly in his sights; this equated to target paces of anywhere between 6:55 and 7:05. I punched in 6:55 pace into my Garmin as a pleased as punch target, but would settle for anything around the 1:33 mark.
All the race info heavily promoted the idea of getting to Silverstone by no later than 10:30am to give everybody ample time to park, walk to the race HQ, visit toilets and all the other pre-race checklist stuff that people forget about. Despite being reasonably easy to get to from Birmingham, the journey from the M40 junction to Silverstone Circuit can take as much as half of your total journey time. The roads leading to the venue simply aren’t designed for such capacities and I dread to think what the traffic is like on an actual race day when there are considerably more people than the 7,000 runners on Sunday. We used our time efficiently whilst stuck in the car, topping off our energy levels with more food and me downing two beetroot juice shots. Worryingly, one of them fizzed slightly when I opened it…
Our target 10:30am arrival time was way off, looking more like 11:10am by the time we were parked up. After a few toilet visits and dropping our kit off in the baggage holds, this didn’t leave much time at all for a warm-up so we had to improvise with running around in small circles for a few minutes. I am now a big believer in a good quality warm-up having a positive impact on your race performance, especially during the early miles where everything just feels easier and less alien.
Low-budget super heroes or runners? You decide!
With about 15 minutes left to go, we made our way into the start pens to be greeted by an enormous group of people in the 2 hour target zone. I had to smile because this was the zone I actually started from twice before and was now making my way much closer to the actual start line. Once we cleared the 2 hour zone, there were far fewer people waiting in the 1:45 area. The 1:30 zone was like a ghost ship with just a few souls in comparison and we were now almost literally within spitting distance of the start line gantry.
The weather was predicted to be poor, with heavy rain and strong winds to contend with – a real contrast to the clear blue skies and 14 degree temps I experienced at Silverstone only two years prior. Right on cue, it started raining and the gusts of wind welcomed us to what would be a challenging day ahead.
We were ushered forwards for the introduction and start of the wheelchair race, just a minute before we were due to start running. I couldn’t quite believe what was happening and I’m almost certain the wheelchair participants started at least 15 minutes before the masses on previous occasions; we all remember what happened to Tiki Gelana in last year’s London Marathon, don’t we? Once the likes of David Weir and co. were sent off, our race was just mere seconds away from starting. Accompanied by Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”, the spring was slowly wound tighter and tighter before the claxon was sounded and we were off!
Dave and I were not due to be running together; within only a few hundred metres I had already lost sight of him amongst the sea of runners tearing off into the distance like lemmings. I wanted a controlled first mile of around 7:10 pace before I would try and settle into something below 7 minutes per mile, recalling my dumb judgement of following the 90 minute pacer at the 2013 Great Birmingham Run and his foolish sub-6 minute opening split. To my right, three girls running together were already questioning their decision to start so far ahead, one of them quipping “Oh my god! Everybody’s running so quickly around us!” No shit, Sherlock! You were all in the wrong start pen and are now getting in everybody else’s way! This is the downside of larger races compared to small, local races laid on by runners, for runners.
My pace was fine, if a little odd in sensation. I was essentially cold-starting without a proper warm-up and this was a speed I rarely ran in training, with much faster efforts covered by intervals and Parkrun, and much slower efforts by my long marathon training runs. I was in no-man’s land and neither on the edge or feeling like I was working too hard; compare this to my Cardiff Half Marathon where throughout the summer, my then 10k pace in early June had effectively become my half marathon pace by early October, feeling very familiar.
The wind was already battering everybody senseless with us all running right into it. I tried my best to take shelter behind larger runners in front of me, but the gaps were too wide and the twisting circuit meant the direction of the wind quickly changed on a regular basis. Following a clean racing line was also tricky, where not following the crowds to run the shortest line also meant battling the gusts of wind on your lonesome. Despite the very grey and gloomy conditions, I was glad I opted to wear my sunglasses where they shielded my eyes from the gusts and gave everything a slight orange glow to help boost contrast.
Mile 1 ticked by in 7:10, so I was bang on target. Just in front of me were three club runners, covering the distance at just marginally faster than I was achieving, so I latched on to their group and hoped they would pull me along. By mile 2, I did feel like I was working slightly harder than I should have been and questioned whether I was doing the right thing to try and hit 6:55 minute miles with inappropriate training and less than stellar conditions. The first water stop of the race had arrived and I adopted a trick I’d picked up from the US copy of Runner’s World magazine, where I would scope out a volunteer further ahead and point at them to indicate I wanted their bottle of water. I did also make eye contact with them but I forgot that I was wearing sunglasses! It worked an absolute treat and minimised much of the bun fight that the first water stop can be at races with everybody desperate to get their fair share of liquid on-board.
By mile 3, I was definitely feeling the effects of no warm-up and I had to sink an energy gel to replenish what resources I had burnt through so early on. The gel was like sugary nirvana on my tongue and lips, and immediately gave my brain a slight buzz to allow me to carry on at target pace.
I kept a close eye on the mile markers each time I passed one, with the gap growing wider and wider on each occasion. Starting with mile 1, I was within mere feet of being accurate but had now moved up to 0.04 miles out by mile 3. Of course, there are too many variables to correctly identify what’s actually going on. GPS as a standard has an error tolerance of up to 2% and on my Garmin, it regularly tells me it’s only ever up to plus or minus 9ft accurate at its very best. The mile markers themselves can also be slightly out, where some contractor who doesn’t give a toss about running may just dump it wherever is most convenient at the time. I may also not be running the cleanest racing line and at Silverstone, this is far too easy to happen where it requires serious concentration on the course ahead. If you have a critical time goal in mind over a longer distance, it’s always a good idea to budget in a slightly faster pace per mile by just a few seconds to buffer these problems.
Drop the gels and put your hands up!
I had settled in quite nicely at mile 4 and felt comfortable with my performance – my breathing was calm and my form was top notch. The headwind continued to attempt to drive me into submission and I had now reached the conclusion that I definitely would have been able to run a slightly faster pace (and possibly PB by 10 or 20 seconds) if not for such challenging conditions. I was noticeably overtaking a lot of people around me, where I was either running more comfortably within myself than others, or they had simply shot off far too quickly in the opening scramble and were now starting to pay the price. One oddity I did notice was whilst running into the hairpins and corners, people seemed to dramatically slow down, requiring I take the outside line to overtake. Dave later commented that this was probably down to everybody else simply being fixated on running a clean line into the apex of the turn, where everybody is following the pace of the slowest runner to avoid running further rather than faster.
I don’t recall much of mile 5 apart from how difficult it seemed to dip under 7:00 minute mile pace on each split. Looking at the breakdown of my miles splits, I only achieved this on three occasions with all others clearly in the 7:00 to 7:10 region – at least I never slowed to more than 7:10 per mile so I’ll take whatever victories are available. This again reinforces my belief that I could have run much closer to 6:55 target pace if not for the windy conditions. A brief moment of nostalgia came over me during this mile where two years earlier, I had a huge grin on my face because I managed to nail an 8:45 mile as part of my campaign to run a sub-2 hour half marathon (it didn’t happen – 2:06). Oh how things have changed!
Mile 6 presented a short break from the wind with the course taking us into some sheltered areas. It really was like night and day – free to run without any external influence. One oddity about mile 6 was the lack of a mile marker. My Garmin beeped and I waited for the marker to appear but it never did. I looked around at the runners beside me but they were all racing with music, so I didn’t bother to ask them if they had seen the mile marker or not. We did run over some timing mats on the ground, so I figured they had chosen not to place a marker out on the course in exchange for a 10k split time to be taken instead.
I began to chase down a chap ahead of me dressed in a fluorescent yellow top and shoes (he was also wearing shorts, not running naked on the bottom), who was moving at just marginally faster than my pace. I kept him maybe 4 or 5 metres ahead for a mile or two, using him to pull me along during a part of the race where I was starting to feel at my weakest. I really could have done with an extra energy gel at this point, but I only had one left in reserve for the closing stages of the race. Fighting against the wind really was taking its toll.
Moving to the outer perimeter of the course, I noticed how poor some of the roads were, with huge pot holes and gravel to contend with. The marshals were all very good, alerting us to any potential hazards coming up with one pointing out a massive puddle to avoid. It wasn’t an easy day to be a volunteer and I applaud what they went through for several hours. At this stage of the race, I couldn’t help but notice a guy that was just on my shoulder. He had been following me for maybe 3 miles already, clearly using me for pacing assistance where I appeared reliable enough because I was constantly overtaking people. After another mile of him running with me, I finally asked him if he was going for a time. He responded with, “anything under 90 minutes would be great”, to which I replied, “sorry to be the bearer of bad news but we’re about 2 minutes off pace for that”. He told me that he had arrived late and started right at the back, fighting his way through the crowds to get to where he was. I felt for him, having gone through something similar at last year’s London Marathon, but at least he had a wide track to overtake on at Silverstone, unlike the narrow streets and 30,000 additional runners I had to contend with. He was clearly disappointed, but didn’t let this get him down, remarking that we were both consistently running at a faster pace than those around us. We introduced ourselves (his name was Chris) and awkwardly, he went to fist bump me and I went to shake his hand; I then went to correct myself and fist bump him and he went to shake my hand! Oh the hilarity!
Wind slowed everybody down…
Sadly, Chris appeared to fall off the pace slightly going into mile 9. I had been looking forward to this mile because it meant a Lucozade stop was nearby. My body needed some carbs and fast! Once I had a bottle, I decided to hang on to it and sip for another mile or so until I’d finished it off. Holding the bottle and passing it from my left to right hand did change my form and gait slightly due to the faster pace I was running at. This was not a problem at all during the Bramley 20 where I held on to a bottle of Lucozade for much of the run but this simply didn’t feel right at Silverstone.
Mile 10 was a complete blur where the only thing I recall was an announcement over the PA system that Chris Thompson had beaten the course record by a small margin, originally set in 2005. I later found out that there were almost 9 minutes between Chris and the second place finisher! And that’s the other oddity about the Silverstone Half Marathon where it tends to only get one elite athlete running each year. This year, it appeared that Reading had the big draw with Scott Overall (he ran at Silverstone last year) and Susan Partridge racing there. The PA system also commented that there was a nice tailwind in the final mile, helping runners to really sprint hard back to the finish – some welcome good news and something to finally look forward to.
Entering mile 11, I prepped my last energy gel to consume it at around 11.5 miles. This Isogel would be my saviour, I decided, because it contained caffeine to help perk me up. Sinking it at 11.5 miles would give me an immediate mental boost to pick the pace up, and ample time for it to be absorbed to really help me ramp things up for the final mile. Tearing into the gel with my teeth, it only went and burst all over my hair, sunglasses and face! I slurped up what was left and immediately began to overtake runners around me. Looking at my Garmin, this was actually misleading because all I was doing was staying on track for target pace and everybody else had actually slowed down due to fatigue.
Time to leave it all out on the course!
Winding the remainder of mile 11 up, I waited for the 12 mile marker to appear. The mind plays tricks on you when you’re nearly at the end of a race, almost like you’re in a desert surrounded by a mirage. I kept looking at things in the distance, thinking they were the hallowed mile marker only to be sorely let down. After what felt like an eternity, mile 12 finally appeared and I started my assault to finish the race feeling strong. I don’t know why but I picked a runner in a red vest about 100m ahead of me to reel in, or at least keep a constant distance between us. There’s a subtle incline back towards the finish, but this seemed to pose no problem for me at the faster pace I was covering. Looking at my Garmin, I was ticking by at around 1:28 with maybe a little more than 1km left to go. Not only was I close to my 1:31:09 performance, but with some effort I was possibly within reach of a small PB again. One by one, I overtook runners and even saw my female equivalent, running in a yellow vest, black shorts and the same red racing flats as me. The finish line never seemed to get any closer, with my eyes trained on the horizon trying to identify anything that could have been the finish gantry. With about 500m left to go, I caught a glimpse of what could be the finish. Was my mind playing another trick on me or was it really the finish? As it got closer with each step I ran, doubt was quickly dispelled and it really was what I had been looking for, and my pace continued to creep up. 400m from the finish, I glanced at my Garmin and I had ticked over into 1:31:XX territory and I knew a PB was off, but I could minimise any damage. The finish line was now only 200m away and with the crowds beginning to cheer, I began to sprint for the finish. This spurred another guy on to do the same and the roar of the crowd increased (whether they were really cheering for me, I’ll never know). 100m left and I kicked as hard as I could, arms pumping me forward and my cadence through the roof. I crossed the line – it was now all over and I had just run my second fastest half marathon with a time of 1:32:38, in tough conditions.
Tough conditions made for a memorable race
My legs were like jelly and I must have looked like a drunk trying to stumble his way back home after a heavy night. I didn’t feel wrecked, however, not like when I finished at Cardiff or Birmingham last autumn, so I knew I had sandbagged a little and the wind had consciously made me slow down a touch for fear of a total blowout. I spotted Dave just ahead of me in the finish funnel area and quickly asked him how he had done. He definitely PBd and started saying “1:31…” I was tense – had Dave beaten my 1:31:09 PB? “…29” he continued. My PB was safe for a little while longer! Dave had run an incredible race and in less windy conditions, he would have definitely demolished my PB and firmly seated himself in 1:30:XX territory. He immediately commented that one notoriously slow mile was what had cost him, and wondered where else he could have made up 20 seconds.
One of the most innovative medals I’ve ever seen
We collected our goodie bags and in a departure to previous years, they were organised in t-shirt size order. Traditionally, the Silverstone Half Marathon only gives out one size of t-shirt – a lovely XL one size fits all. It was nice to see them make the effort and it really does promote the race into the big leagues. The remaining contents of the goodie bag looked great, with almost everything edible and of a high quality. The medal also deserves a special mention where it’s a wheel and a hefty lump of metal at that!
Chris, who I had lost out on the course, caught up to me and revealed that he had run an impressive 1:32:22. He must have run a huge positive split for such a finish time, starting way, way behind me but beating my finish time by 16 seconds. When I asked if it was a PB for him, he only went and revealed it was his first half marathon and was the furthest distance he had ever run! Here was a man with some real running talent and granted we didn’t know what his running background was (he may be a merchant of speed), he now had a half marathon PB that some people will never achieve no matter how hard they try.
Conscious that the traffic getting out of Silverstone can be just as bad as getting in, Dave and I made a bee-line for the baggage store to reclaim our kitbags to try and beat the masses. Like at the London Marathon, one of the baggage ladies had seen me coming and got my bag ready, almost like magic. I thanked her profusely for her efforts; I had to wait for nearly 20 minutes last year at Bath to reclaim my stuff and it’s little touches like these that really make a difference, especially after a hard race where you just want everything to be smooth and efficient.
Heading back to the carpark, it was remarkable how few empty spaces there were around us with more than the vast majority of people either still running (there was a thick flow of runners as we walked past part of the course) or simply hanging out around the finish area. After some quick stretches, we were back in the car and on our way back to Birmingham with a pit-stop of KFC to refuel.
Here’s the Garmin data for the Silverstone Half Marathon.
After checking the official results, it seems both Dave and I had been gifted an extra 2/3 seconds to promote Dave’s PB from 1:31:29 to 1:31:26 and my time from 1:32:38 to 1:32:36. It would seem this is not unique to just the two of us, with other folks online indicating similar performance boosts by a few seconds. Fantastic news I’m sure if you had run 1:30:02 only to later find out you actually had 1:29:59 under your belt. I can only guess the first few timing mats on the start line weren’t working properly, so our chips were only activated several seconds later by the mats further on.
Both Dave and I would have run much faster times had it not have been for the headwinds. On a calm and still day, Dave definitely would have smashed my PB out of the park and I may have come close to dipping into 1:30:XX territory, or at least finished with a time much closer to my 1:31:09 PB.
As a fitness benchmark, I’m definitely where I want to be. I didn’t attack Silverstone, which means recovery should be swift and I can resume marathon training shortly. Based on my finish time from the race, the McMillan pacing calculator is saying I should be able to run a marathon in optimal conditions at around the 3:14:XX mark. This alone is way ahead of what I’m targeting at London, so if I’ve grossly underestimated my marathon fitness on the day, I may even be able to stalk a better finish time from my wildest imaginations.
Asking Dave what he thought of the course at Silverstone, he failed to remember much of it but agreed with my thoughts that it’s an ideal course for PB chasers with few distractions on calm days. We both remarked that it was almost odd to see spectators out on the course, where their absence seemed to take little away from the race for us. On the way back to the car, we did see a few stragglers at the end, walking their way around the course and it’s for these folks where the course at Silverstone will be most depressing.
We may give the Reading Half Marathon a blast next year where we seem to be slowly making our way around the nation’s spring half marathons.
I’ve yet to be disappointed by the Silverstone Half Marathon where it seems to live up to, or exceed my expectations each time I have run there. Definitely recommended, but do take heed of the intricacies I’ve mentioned previously to avoid disappointment.