A late change in focus shook up this annual staple of a race from becoming yet another item on my growing list of recent setbacks.
For the 2015 and 2016 races, please click below:
Regular readers will know I’ve had a particularly troublesome time of late – first with two bouts of illness, and then injury. This naturally meant 2017’s Brass Monkey Half Marathon would be the first without an eyeballs out PB attack on the agenda. So very, very disappointing, especially on such a fast and flat course!
Dave Burton was once again in tow on mine and Lis’ now bi-annual jaunt to York. We also covered his race entry fee as a 50th birthday present for him – only runners could possibly get away with giving a gift that’s equal measure pain and joy! Sadly, Dave didn’t feel like he was in PB shape, either, even after last year’s surprise sub-89 performance from him. With neither of in great condition, we opted to simply aim to get under 90 minutes with as little distress as possible.
Then out of the blue, an interesting request came my way. It seemed Carl Stainton (also racing) and Darryll Thomas both have a mutual friend that was participating, with hopes of going under 90 minutes for the first time. Madeleine had a 90:50 to her name, so certainly within reach without overstretching.
Reaching York Racecourse, we proceeded to set up camp and went on our warm-up. Dave had to confirm whether the 10 minute mile pace he was seeing was correct, and indeed it was. I hadn’t run in over a week by this point, and doubt quickly entered my mind. How reliable a pacer would I actually be at crunch time?
Warm-up completed, none of us had spotted Carl. Dave Johnson, a fellow runner from Birmingham who we see more often in York than Birmingham, also eluded us. Having run out of old tops to throw away, I opted to break out an unused poncho from the Cardiff World Championship Half Marathon to keep me dry and warm whilst waiting for the race to start. The thing was huge – don’t believe the lies that one size fits all! With time pressing on and not wanting a repeat of last year’s fiasco of trying to go against the horde of runners exiting the Ebor Stand, we made our way to the start area.
We soon spotted Dave Johnson and Carl, who introduced me to Madeleine. We made our way forward to seed ourselves into the correct place, though noted there appeared to be many more people ahead of us than in previous races, even factoring in that we started a few rows further back.
Mile 1 to 4
Stood further away from the start line than normal, it took Madeleine and me some 20 seconds to cross the row of timing mats. Congestion was clearly present, but not of major hindrance; I did have to concentrate on where my feet landed and did come into contact with one guy that seemed insistent on running right next to me at an identical pace. With the opening mile being largely downhill, too, the temptation was always there to go haring off in the hope of gaining a few extra seconds. I reminded Madeleine to stay calm and relaxed, letting those around us get their adrenaline surges out of their systems.
Only having been introduced to Madeleine minutes earlier, I broke the ice and got to learn a little more about her. She’s a big fan of marathons (and a fellow Marathon Talk listener) and I was in awe of her 3:10 marathon PB – a time that would beat most men at the London Marathon, let alone the fairer sex.
My pacing strategy was to start off conservatively, allowing us to ease ourselves into race pace over the first mile or two. Mile 1 came in exactly where I wanted it for 6:52, and with the descent, factored in, it would have felt even easier and more like a 7:00.
I could still see both Daves ahead of us by some 50m. I knew it couldn’t be long before we at least realigned with Dave Burton, pacing for sub-90, too. Madeleine pointed out a training partner-come-rival of hers, also ahead of us in the distance and in a similar situation to us.
Mile 2 clocked in at 6:49 for an imperceptible uplift in pace, avoiding any sudden surges as much as possible.
The crowd began to thin a little in places to provide a bit more breathing space. I couldn’t help but notice how laboured some runners around us sounded already, and we were only on the approach to the third mile! Madeleine appeared to be running well within her capabilities, and her ability to converse with fully formed sentences confirmed as much. Looking inside myself, I also felt pretty damn good in spite of the dramatic drop in training mileage and intensity due to illness and injury of late.
Mile 3 produced a 6:48 and continued to feel really comfortable for the two of us.
Conditions would have been perfect, if not for the surface water left behind by the rain. Whilst cool, this iteration of the race was by far the warmest of the three I’ve run. The arm warmers I wore were completely unnecessary, so I rolled them down to my wrists. One could only imagine how warm Carl was in his compression shirt with vest on top!
Madeleine and I finally reached the two Daves somewhere within mile 4, but only Dave Burton stuck with us. Dave Johnson had participated in a Parkrun and also some cross-country action only 24 hours earlier, so it was no wonder he didn’t have the capacity to maintain the pace. This particular split came in at 6:46, so by all means still pretty static, though we continued to reel in and overtake runners as they flagged.
Mile 5 to 9
I tucked into my first of two gels, whereas Madeleine stuck to just the water offered out on the course.
Whilst our pace remained pretty resolute, the feedback from our Garmins was skewed by the trees lining the southernmost section of the course. We found GPS reception was dampened somewhat, presenting a pace that was typically nearer 7:00 than 6:50, with mile 5 eventually settling on 6:47.
That rival of Madeleine’s? Well, we passed her at some point early on during mile 6, coming in again at 6:47 – I did say my strategy was to run steady! I had a weird sense of déjà vu and recalled she was one of the two women I found myself running with and overtaking at exactly the same point on the course, two years prior.
Passing the halfway point, the clock read 44 minutes or so. Madeleine was still running superbly with no labour at all to her breathing. Dave, who was regularly just behind us by a couple of steps, chimed in that we were both making a sub-90 attempt look far too easy with the level of conversation we had going on… We did, sadly, lose Dave at some point during mile 7; a combination of a perceived pace slip that wasn’t actually there and the tree coverage spurred us on to an uncharacteristic 6:43.
My companion came clean and admitted that she was beginning to feel the effort ratchet upwards slightly, recalling that the stretch between mile 8 and 10 in a half marathon were usually her downfall. I did my best to dispel any doubts that we wouldn’t make it back in under 90 minutes, and we agreed to keep chatter to a minimum. I, too, was feeling the uptick in required effort but donned my best poker face. The lack of training and intensity also began catching up to me, but at least my Achiles was holding up without a peep from it at all.
Miles 8 and 9 produced 6:47 and 6:44 splits, respectively. Noticing the mile markers were beginning to grow increasingly out of sync, I directed Madeleine to hug each and every turn or corner in an attempt to recover a few precious metres and seconds from the route.
Miles 10 to 13.1
The crowd grew sparser as we progressed back towards Bishopthorpe. We maintained our pace whereas many of those around us dropped off theirs, providing us with a powerful mental boost. Whilst Madeleine’s breathing grew a little more laboured than before, she continued to show little struggle in keeping up with me.
Being there to help, and not hinder, I had already been warned not to say, “Just a Parkrun left to go” at mile 10, so I kept schtum whilst a Cheshire Cat-sized grin grew across my face. Didn’t stop other people around us from using the phrase, though! Miles 10 and 11 remained steady for 6:45 and 6:46.
Approaching the second of just three total climbs, Madeleine shared that she would slow slightly on the ascent but would reclaim it on the other side with a slight surge. Amusingly, I was struggling to keep up on the descent as somebody that’s dreadful at running downhill…
Spectators began to litter the sides of the course as we returned to civilisation, providing welcome support and the villages offering a change of scenery.
As we made the left turn back on to Bishopthorpe Road, I knew the ghastly-in-context climb over the A64 would soon be upon us. I told Madeleine I needed her to “dig deep” because there wasn’t much of a drop afterwards to compensate for the damage from the ascent. Helpfully, a chap that we had tracked for much of the latter miles of the race was still just a few metres ahead of us as we climbed. I told Madeleine to focus on him and to not allow the gap to grow any larger. She tackled the climb wonderfully as I spouted all sorts of encouraging nonsense. The mile 12 marker came into view, and even with two climbs to conquer, became our fastest split so far of the morning for 6:41!
With only a mile remaining, we continued to pick off runners that had faded on our return to the race course.
I switched to elapsed time on my Garmin and continued to spur Madeleine on. She was increasingly checking her own Garmin, which I told her to ignore and to keep pressing for the finish. The numbers confirmed we had a healthy margin in place from the consistent 6:45 to 6:47 paced miles, and it even looked like a sub-89 finish was within reach. I wasn’t sure if Madeleine knew how close we were to such a target, so I sneakily began recalling the time but withheld the preceding minute – 1:45 became just 45 seconds, and so on. Nothing like the panic of failing to eke out a little bit more effort! The pace continued to rise and we rounded mile 13 off with a 6:39.
Once on the finishing straight, I gave the orders to kick and boy did she kick. My Garmin averaged 5:48 for the remaining distance, with a peak of 5:22!
Here’s the Strava data for the race.
I came in just a step behind Madeleine, who threw her arms up in victory once over the line. Her grin quickly turned to a look of revulsion as she proceeded to throw up in the finish funnel; for a few seconds, I thought I’d pushed her too far… She, thankfully, bounced back quickly enough and was thrilled by the race outcome. Forget about dipping under 90 minutes; we made it back in under 89 minutes with change for 88:43 and 88:44 respectively, and some 2 plus minutes hacked off from Madeleine’s former PB.
Dave Burton followed shortly after, finishing in 89:38. We didn’t catch Dave Johnson, but later found out he finished in 1:35:10, causing a few winces. Causing a few more winces was the news of Carl’s battered feet en route to his stunning 76:31.
Congratulations and farewells sorted, Dave, Lis and I made a beeline back to our B&B and for some grub. Capping off an enjoyable weekend and race, we were then greeted by a car breakdown of all things… Whatever happened to karma, eh?
I’m now taking a break from running for a few weeks to give my Achilles a chance to recover. Weekly blog updates will obviously be a bit light on content, but will continue – I’ll still be found volunteering at Parkrun – either Cannon Hill or Cwmbran.