I wonder how they came up with the name for the race?
For the 2016 and 2017 races, please click below:
With regular racers, there tends to be two distinct camps: those with masochistic tendencies, who opt for the hilliest and most aggressive courses out there, and those who are all about fast times and flat courses. I fall into the latter, which is specifically why Lis and I made the trip up to York for the Brass Monkey Half Marathon, now in its 33rd year.
The route begins and ends at York Racecourse, taking runners through Bishopthorpe, Acaster Selby, Appleton Roebuck, and back through Bishopthorpe for the finish. With a reputation for being fast and incredibly flat (the only real hill is the hump over the motorway on the way out and back), the race regularly sells out within hours despite the strong potential for poor weather; 2013 was cancelled due to snow and 2014 was a wash-out, but still continued.
Read on to find out how things went. As ever, skip straight to “The race” if you want to avoid the ramblings of a running-bore!
All week, blog-reader Carl and I had been chatting about our respective plans for the Brass Monkey, along with the ever-changing weather conditions. Carl first popped his half marathon cherry at this race a year ago and had his sights on a rather tasty sub-80 minute finish. I wanted something in the region of 87:XX. I felt like I had held back ever so slightly at the Cardiff Half (also ran long for 13.18 miles) and with the flatter course on offer in York, I believed this would be achievable. 6:40 per mile was all that was required; at only 5 seconds faster than Cardiff’s average pace, this was not a big ask at all. If things went very well, just dipping into 86:XX may have also been possible.
Lis, my wife-to-be, had never visited York before and I had vague memories of a brief visit for a couple of hours over 10 years ago en route to a wedding. We ended up exploring what the city had to offer and according to my iPhone’s built-in pedometer, I had covered almost 240% of my daily 10,000 step quota. This apparently converted to over 10 miles of walking; we were both somewhat sceptical of the distance travelled, feeling 6-7 miles was more realistic. Not ideal pre-race prep but we enjoyed the sights and sounds of York nonetheless!
Also less than ideal was the tough week at work. With two meaty projects to supervise, I was pretty much mentally spent come Friday evening.
What else can I add to the list of pre-race faux pas? The fire alarms went off in our hotel at 6:30am on race morning. At least I wasn’t going to be late! I had a look outside the window and there was frost everywhere… great. All I had were my Nike Flyknit Racers, which are really minimal…
Frosty conditions aside, race morning was absolutely gorgeous, with brilliant blue skies and sunshine. I hoped the sun would work its magic and melt some of the ice ahead of the 10am start.
York Racecourse – one of the finest race HQs I’ve ever visited – Photo by Lis Morgan
Once at York Racecourse, it was pretty obvious that this was a serious event. There were club runners everywhere sporting their respective colours. The site actually made for a superb race HQ, with plenty of toilets for runners, both inside and out. The paved path surrounding the racecourse was also accessible for runners, though I only spotted a few hardy souls apart from myself actually using it for warm-up purposes; everybody else chose to stay inside the heated venue.
I still hadn’t spotted Carl and had to make my way over to the start area. These things somehow have a way of working themselves out because I soon bumped into him next to the finish chute. We’d both recce’d the finish straight and agreed it was lethally icy and prayed it would defrost. We parted ways, only to meet again in the start pen. Stood in the direct light of the sun, I actually felt pretty comfortable despite only wearing a vest, some shorts and arm warmers. The collective warmth of runners around me probably helped, also.
We were walked over to the start line and given a safety briefing, asking runners to beware of perilous ice at around the 6 – 7 mile stretch of the course. As expected of a race in its 33rd iteration, the hooter went off right on time at 10am and within a couple of seconds, I was over the line. Game time!
Even up in the sub-90 minute section, there was a lot of scrambling for position with the usual problems of slower runners starting too far forward, and faster runners starting too far behind. I managed to tuck myself into a fairly steady-paced pack with mile 1 ticking by in a flash as we made our way south and away from York.
6:40 miling felt relaxed and at ease. The forecast of 12 – 15mph wind had died right down and was almost non-existent bar a gentle breeze at times. Apart from the warnings of ice, everything was in place for a PB despite me not being as race-fit as I would have liked.
The only real hill of the course arrived in the form of the hump over the motorway below. I knew I had to tackle the hump again on the return to the finish later on, which was likely to sting after covering 12 miles of near-flat terrain.
Thankfully the field started to thin out after mile 2. I found myself running in a pack consisting of three female club runners, each running at around my target pace. They were all distinctly identifiable and gave me something to home in on when I started drifting backwards. What was interesting to observe was how cautiously the three girls took the icy sections of the course; slowing down dramatically to end up behind, only to then speed up again when traction returned to then overtake me. At this point, the ice was just a small annoyance. Only a minor adjustment of my running gait and outspreading my arms for additional balance was all that was required.
I sank my first of four gels at around mile 3 for some added perk and rehydration. Why so many gels? Water was readily available from three different stations out on the course, but it was served in cups. I’m totally crap at drinking from cups on the go, but didn’t want to risk going thirsty if I spilt it everywhere. You’d be surprised how dehydrated you can get, even in a winter race.
Passing by the mile 4 marker, my Garmin took a little while to beep and tick over into the next mile. It had been consistently doing this and I wondered whether the organisers had placed the signs in the wrong place. I found it hard to believe that such a well-established race would measure the course short. I knew my race would already come up a little long due to not running the shortest line through some of the early corners because of crowding, but as long as I came up with 13.15 miles or less, I was a happy chappy.
Unsurprisingly for a half marathon with only 1,700 participants, the field became quite strung out at points. I detected the pack was slowing from time to time, prompting me to make a dash to join the group ahead. This became a regular theme, rather than grinding things out alone.
I turned the corner for Acaster Selby at around mile 5. The ground underfoot gave way for treacherous ice and runners began to resemble Bambi on a frozen pond. There were icy patches before this point, but they were easily navigated. This stretch at the southern-most point on the course proved to be a real challenge and required my wits to be on call at only a moment’s notice. The three girls were still just ahead of me, but two fell by the wayside before too long to leave only one. When we exited this section, she started to slip from the pace and gave me a chance to run alongside her for a while. I gave her a bit of a pep talk to spur her on. She drifted backwards again and just when I thought I’d lost her, she came storming past and thanked me. She joined the pack ahead and that was the last I saw of her, despite me continually reeling runners in.
I checked my pace regularly and I was always behind target by a few seconds. The icy stretch had cost me about 20 seconds and the constant start-stop pace had taken some out of me, and others too I’m sure. Surprisingly, I didn’t see anybody fall at all for the duration of my race.
Around mile 8, I noticed I was at the back of a nicely sized pack. I looked behind me and there was nobody on my tail for a good 10 seconds. I reasoned that I had to do my best to stay with this group or risk being dropped to run in no-man’s land for a while. They were pulling away at just faster than what was comfortable for me at that stage of the race, but I stuck to my guns to follow them, which explains the 6:30 mile that appeared. I stayed with them until a few runners started to splinter off, which allowed me to ease off slightly before any further damage occurred from over-exuberance.
Miles 9 – 10 were pretty dull. I did spot one guy walking, who had clearly had a tough day at the office. This was it from what I could see so far in terms of runners that had dropped out.
Some comedy relief presented itself just before mile 11. Three guys came storming up behind me, with conversation in full flow. With a smile, I said to them that they must have been feeling pretty “fresh” to be so relaxed. One of them replied with, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, and another added, “We’ve got good poker faces – we’re all seriously hurting inside”. I laughed and wished them well before they charged ahead.
I switched my Garmin over to the stopwatch – it had ticked over into 1:15 territory and I thought Carl would have only been half a mile or so from the finish if everything had gone according to plan for him. For me, I had just over 12 minutes to cover a little under 2 miles to be pretty much right on target.
My sights were on a runner in front. I’d been tracking him for a while and wanted to reel him in to try and recover some of the damage from the ice. We approached the hump over the motorway and it was as if somebody had slammed the brakes on the runners around me! I effortlessly strode past them all and then did my best to use my advantage once past the brow of the hill. This slight lead lasted all of 15 seconds before everybody came past me… I really need to get some downhill training in. I was side by side with the runner I had followed and then all of a sudden, a car slowly pulled out from a side road to appear right in front of us. I joked to the guy next to me that all we needed was a timing clock on top of the car and we’d have been sorted. We urged each other over the next climb, to join one of the “poker face” guys, who had faded a touch. “Just over a mile, boys. You can see the racecourse and the finish – go for it”, were his words of encouragement.
I did what I could to lift the pace. I was fatigued, both mentally and physically, and couldn’t take much more. My breathing was laboured and I had also picked up a minor stitch. I tried holding my breath to stretch out the stitch, which helped somewhat, but did no good for my oxygen-starved body. You know that point in a race when the mile markers seem to move further and further away from each other? That was mile 12.
I was finally on the long straight where we had all started. Unsure of the distance remaining, I raised the pace once again and looked ahead to try and spot runners turning left into the racecourse. “Damn it! When are they gonna start turning?!” I kept thinking to myself. Not a moment too soon, marshals on the horizon began directing runners into the complex. Only a few hundred metres of suffering left and then it would all be over. My Garmin ticked over into 1:26:XX territory and I knew it was then or never, so I began to wrap things up with a cautious kick, unsure of the ground underfoot that had been so slippery before. Traction held up, so onwards!
Earn the gurn! – Photo by Lis Morgan
I had no idea if Lis was even in the crowd around me. I turned the last corner for the finish straight and my feet quickly decided there was enough grip for one last kick. There wasn’t much left in the tank, so I did what I could before fumbling for the stop button on my Garmin whilst crossing the finish line.
Here’s the Garmin data for this race.
Two photos and each time, Carl had his eyes closed… – Photo by Lis Morgan
I was wrecked. Well and truly wrecked. I had to use the grass in the finish chute to steady myself. Shoulders, hips, and calves – everything was aching. Lis called out to me from the other side of the barrier and once I’d recomposed myself slightly, I stumbled over like a drunk at closing time. We checked my Garmin and 1:27:28 (1:27:27 chip time) was my spoil for the morning – a PB by almost 90 seconds and ahead of the 1:27:51 minimum goal I had given myself. Carl joined us, having finished almost 10 minutes prior and fairly confident he had scored 1:18:54 for a strong sub-80 finish; there was simply no stopping the man with a 10 minute improvement only one year later, running at an already high standard!
There’s no goodie bag at the Brass Monkey Half, but rather a bottle of water and a long-sleeve technical shirt. This year’s is a handsome green (as modelled by Carl above) rather than the retina-burning fluorescent yellow of last year.
We parted ways with Carl before having to high tail it back to the hotel, which had kindly given us free late checkout.
Onwards and upwards to sub-87
“High risk, high reward” springs to mind immediately when summing up the Brass Monkey Half. It’s a real gamble for runners and the organisers to participate and stage a race at a time of the year when the weather can be friend or foe. Without the ice, today’s conditions would have been spot on for producing even faster times.
I can also see the Brass Monkey Half serving as a good tester for those entering marathon training schedules, offering a true benchmark race to either increase or decrease targets and training paces before fully committing. With my own marathons, I found races in March a little too late to act as confirmation of progress, or lack of. A long distance race in January is the perfect springboard to kickstart a marathon campaign with a nice training boost in the process.
As I sit on my sofa and type this report up, I’m absolutely whacked and can’t remember the last race, excluding marathons, that has been able to do this to me. Lis has reasoned that the ice and minor running gait adjustments had possibly caused some eccentric loading on my legs to account for the aches and soreness. She’s also confident that the ice triggered a heightened sense of awareness to explain the fatigue in my noggin. One thing’s for sure – recovery will take priority, so nothing but easy runs for the next week, me thinks.
Half marathon potential achieved!
EDIT – Curiously, I decided to enter today’s 87:27 finish into the McMillan Running Calculator to see how it stacked up in comparison to other PBs of mine. Well, I was pleasantly surprised to see I’ve pretty much hit my half marathon potential if my 18:51 5k PB is anything to go by. The 10k and marathon PBs now stick out even more like sore thumbs…