My fourth attempt at racing a spring half marathon after many cancellations. Read on to find out how things went.
Newport Half Marathon – cancelled (twice!)
Coventry Half Marathon – cancelled
Wilmslow Half Marathon – postponed
It’s with plenty of irony that the only half marathon I’d successfully been able to run in 2018 up to this particular race was the Brass Monkey Half Marathon, which was actually pretty reasonable in terms of weather conditions in spite of its name!
Feeling like I’d failed to truly capitalise on the opportunity presented to me in above said race, I’ve long felt like some sort of redemption was in order. I’d done the training, consisting of near-weekly bouts of 15 mile long runs, time at half marathon pace and a couple of what felt like near-maximal parkruns. Throw in the recent PB at the DK10K sans any specific 10k work and the odds of a credible PB performance were moving in my favour. Sub-83 was the target for the morning…
Whilst May half marathons aren’t my thing, especially after 2017’s Tewkesbury Half Marathon sweat-fest, I had few options available to me that were optimal for a fast time with a decent field. I was also flying solo at this race; Lis had a prior engagement and I knew not of anybody running the half marathon, though there were familiar faces I was aware of in the marathon.
With a 09:00 start, it meant an even earlier departure from Birmingham for me. I’d budgeted some 45 minutes for the drive, giving me over an hour beforehand for various pre-race admin, such as warming up, toilets and so on. I counted my lucky stars as I’d seemingly arrived before the masses with my pick of spaces in one of the car parks located roughly halfway between the runner’s village and the start line. With time to kill, I’d opted to head over to the runner’s village to scope things out. Bumping into a volunteer who seemed too eager to help, I asked if the “village” was straight ahead. “No, that’s not the village,” came her confusing reply. Looking around, there were plenty of runners heading in the direction that I pointed in. “That’s not the runner’s village?” I quizzed. “Oh, yes it is. I thought you meant Stratford-upon-Avon town centre.” I know we’re not supposed to judge volunteers too harshly, but…
The runner’s village was located at the same spot as where Stratford-upon-Avon parkrun takes place. Despite warnings of limited parking spaces, cars were backed up in the queue trying to get in. I did a quick reccy of the grass finishing straight to confirm my own fears that I couldn’t rely on a finishing kick like usual – I’d have to make a bigger dent during the body of the race.
Returning to the car, I embarked on a 2 mile warm-up with a set of strides thrown in for good measure. Whilst it was only 08:15 or so, I was already breaking out in a sweat and my heart rate was elevated. Form didn’t come easily, likely due to a slightly too heavy taper.
Back at the car for the second time, there were still plenty of spaces available. If you’re reading this ahead of the Shakespeare races, do yourself a favour and park at the Bridgeway multi-storey car park. Payment is made on exit to save you a few minutes, unlike the runner’s village car park that requires payment up front. Furthermore, there are plenty of toilets at one of the exits. OK, 20p was required, but judging by the length of the pre-race queues adjacent to the start, I’m sure many would have happily paid up if given the option!
I bumped into BRAT member, Rob Dowse on my way to the start line. We both agreed we were too far back in the field and began navigating through the crowds to be nearer the front – advice I’d been given beforehand. All of a sudden, we found ourselves in a clearing almost on the start line itself! The familiar faces of Simon Rhodes, Orlando Corea and Peter Dimbleby of Birchfield Harriers were in attendance, helping to make the time ahead of the start fly by. Steve Edwards of 1,000-targeted marathons-fame was the guest race starter for the day. Rather clumsily, they had to somehow allow him to enter the race from his starter’s position, requiring a few barriers to be moved aside… Go time!
Miles 1 to 3
Sometimes you don’t get a feel for a race from a simple overhead map view. Studying the route, I noted that there were several sharp right hand turns in quick succession through the streets of Stratford-upon-Avon town centre. After turning right a couple of times, I had no idea which direction I was running in anymore! Also, if it weren’t for all the turns, I’d have probably gone even faster than the 6:14 I registered as an opening mile (this was the fastest of the day)!
Runners very quickly found their positions and surprisingly held them with little chopping and changing. I clocked a Halesowen Triathlete (who looked suspiciously like the guy that finished one place behind me at the recent DK10K) and a woman in a purple vest (third place) just slightly ahead of me by 10m – no matter what I did early on, the 10m between me and this pair remained constant. Undulations added some slowdown for mile 2 to come in at 6:23.
The first of many water stations appeared quite early on, for which I was grateful for given how warm the morning was getting without the forecasted cloud cover. For the first time in a race, I was offered a wet sponge, though declined. Wanting just a bottle of water, I went towards the volunteer on the right, to follow the race line; out of the blue, he stepped over to the other side for some unknown reason whilst his hands were still full of bottled water, leaving me without! Panicking, I quickly went wide to grab a bottle from the final volunteer, with much chuckling behind me… Mile 3 came in at 6:21 to average out at 6:19 – sub-83 was still on!
Miles 4 to 6
The Halesowen Triathlete and the woman in purple remained elusive in spite of my best efforts to reel them in. As we approached the first of two significant climbs on the half marathon route, I hoped the hill would send them back to me, but sadly not. Thankfully, I was able to join and detach from a number of small groups to rarely be running on my own. Within one group, somebody was horrified to learn that he was actually running at closer to 83 minute pace when all he wanted was an 86 minute finish…
Even though I chose to wear my Nike Vaporfly 4%, they seemed to perceivably offer less benefit than in previous races. Comparably, the lack of propulsion was akin to how they felt during the Gloucester New Year’s Eve 10 Mile; by the end of this race, they’d have over 80 miles on them to be pretty much at their half-life before severe decline kicks in.
Miles 4, 5 and 6 held steady for 6:24, 6:23 and 6:23. Were it not for the undulations, I’d have hit the required 6:20 per mile pace for a shot at a sub-83 finish.
Miles 7 to 10
Somewhere on the approach to 7, the Halesowen Triathlete disappeared from view suddenly; one minute he was there and the next, he’d drifted backwards in the blink of an eye. The woman in purple began to wobble slightly as the course began climbing. “Keep at it. There’s a nice downhill stretch at 8 miles,” I shared with her to try and keep her motivated and ahead of me. There was no response and within the few hundred metres that followed, she had also drifted behind me.
Luckily for me, the second place woman was just ahead on the horizon. Through a combination of the climb slowing her down and a small surge from me, I was able to work my way up to her over a few hundred metres. I revealed to her that the woman in purple was not far behind. She let out a response of surprise, for she had been stalking Nicola Sykes of Bournville Harriers for much of the race, whereas there was a race for second place going on right behind her. Miles 7 and 8 featured plenty of climbing for 6:27 and 6:35 respectively.
Cresting the hill, it’s a pretty steep descent all the way down! My left quad is shot as I type this report out and I’m pretty certain it was travelling downhill on this particular section that’s done it. A cyclist joined Jo behind me; I had no idea whether he knew her or not, but I did pick up snippets of his dialogue including some encouragement and confirmation that she was indeed in second place before he shot off. An additional set of footsteps joined us from a Kenilworth runner I’d shared some dialogue with during the opening mile, though he seemed quite transient and drifted backwards again once the descent flattened out.
Working with Jo was like mana from heaven. We managed to recover some pace damage to get miles 9 and 10 to 6:16 and 6:17 respectively. I did what I could to keep Jo motivated to chase down Nicola Sykes in the hope that she could tow me to a faster time and a higher finishing position. She was well aware of Nicola’s ability, recalling that she went on to win the race a year ago. I’d originally assumed Jo was a Birchfield Harrier from her all black vest and shorts, but she turned out to be an unattached runner like me.
Just when I thought we were at the beginning of a subtle kick for the final 5k…
Miles 11 to 13.1
…the Greenway struck!
What is the Greenway? It’s a straight as a die path that makes up the majority of the final 5k of the Shakespeare races. It’s a disused railway line that’s been filled in; it’s pancake flat barring a few very subtle rises and dips. Unfortunately, the top surface of the route is a fine and loose dirt to cause some traction loss. Coupled with its seemingly never ending nature, the Greenway caused both Jo and me to lose some 10 seconds per mile despite our effort remaining the same. It was an incredibly jarring experience to abruptly transition from running on the paved road to such a surface. Miles 11 and 12 came in for 6:28 pace.
We tried to keep our spirits up and had successfully chipped away some of Nicola’s lead to be only 20 seconds or so behind.
For the first time in a long time of racing half marathons, I wished I had another gel to slurp down. Three didn’t feel like enough on this day, especially with such a focused effort on a PB with no cloud cover – energy expenditure was always going to be high.
After what felt like a lifetime on the Greenway making no perceivable progress, we were finally sent back on to the road for a welcome return to traction. The only downside? We were instructed to stay inside some cones, akin to the final few hundred metres of the DK10K. There was little room to manoeuvre or overtake; I was caught behind a tiring runner when all I wanted to do was press on! I waited for the main road to clear before I stepped outside of the cones to briefly surge forwards. The Kenilworth runner followed and we both slotted back into a gap that presented itself. The return to road running was short-lived for we were sent 180° and single file on to another section, off-road.
We now had hedges on either side of us, which is not what you want in the final few hundred metres of a race! Returning on to a paved path in the recreation ground, I tried kicking but nausea took hold. My stomach churned as the effort ramped up significantly. “Keep going,” the Kenilworth runner encouraged. I knew I was at my limit. “You go on,” I snatched. Passing the mile 13 marker, I went through in 6:18 to be ages away from the sub-6 ultimate mile I ran at the Brass Monkey Half Marathon back in January. Before long, I’d made it on to the grass finishing straight; I was at least thankful I’d wrung myself dry as the grass would have been frustrating to run on if a finishing kick was required. Nearing the finish, the compere called out my name. From the crowd, a female voice cheered me on by name to confuse me; I wasn’t aware of anybody I knew spectating, but it turned out to be Trudie – a Kings Heath Running Club member Lis has run with on a number of occasions. I hurtled for the finish because on the other side was a chance to stop and recover!
Here’s the Strava data for this race.
There is one benefit to the finishing straight and funnel being on grass – you can simply collapse in a heap with a soft thud! The disadvantage to finishing with a thud on grass is grass stains… I took a few sidesteps to my right so as not to be in the way of other finishers. A paramedic rushed over, just in case, though I reassured him I was fine and just needed a few moments to recover. The friendly paramedic helped me back up on to my feet when I was ready. “That was a strong finish back there. Well done!” “Thanks. A PB of 30 seconds or so. Thank you for your help!” Officially via chip timing, I finished in 83:39 for a 29 second improvement; I was a little disappointed as I had hoped to go under 83 minutes, or at least low 83 minutes. I lost around 30 seconds out on the course with the climbing and the traction issues on the Greenway, so I’m pretty confident I’d have done it on a flatter road course.
I caught up with Jo, who wasn’t able to kick with the Kenilworth runner and me upon leaving the Greenway. She confirmed her second place finish, though shared she was around a minute off from a PB due to the London Marathon that was still in her legs. Phenomenally, she revealed she completed London in 3:01, and had a 2:52 marathon PB to her name from 2017! I was in awe and had no idea I’d run with such esteemed company!
A few more familiar faces came through, including Alex Parker of Birchfield Harriers and Rob Dowse who I’d bumped into before the race. Rob was outside of his sub-90 target and also blamed the loss of traction and motivation on the never-ending Greenway. We both reasoned that such a running surface shouldn’t be as devastating to pace as it is, with plenty of fast parkrun courses taking place on similar terrain with no qualms from runners.
A couple of stats and facts for you:
- Equivalent to more than 4x sub-20 5ks, back-to-back
- Equivalent to more than 2x sub-40 10ks, back-to-back
- Fastest 10 miles ever – 63:41
- Bloody left nipple
My next crack at sub-83 will be the postponed Wilmslow Half Marathon in June, which I will be tackling with Darryll Thomas for a joint-PB-busting effort. Part of my issue was the transient nature of the groups and runners around me; except for Jo, there was nobody else that I was able to reliably work with and downplay the exertion. It’s a realisation I will have to come to terms with that I as I grow faster, there will be ever diminishing numbers of runners to work with except at races with the fastest of reputations.
Would I do the Shakespeare Half Marathon again? I’m undecided for now. It was easy to get to and pretty well organised, with plenty of water on the course. Irrespective of my PB that morning, I would not consider it a fast course due to the undulations and that damn Greenway. The climb at mile 8 could be brutal if you go out too hard and can’t hang on. Many people I know were at least a minute or two from their 13.1 mile bests to give any would-be runners a better idea of what to expect.
Next up: the Cotswold Hilly 100 team relay!