The pattern of a race every fortnight continued. Read on to find out how things went on this particularly warm outing…
First of all, I can already see many of you asking the following:
Where is Wilmslow?
According to Wikipedia, it’s a town south of Manchester and happens to be one of the “most sought-after places to live in the UK, after central London”. Apparently, many footballers live in the locale.
Some of you may recall this as one of the races cancelled by snow back in March. Rather than issue refunds, the organisers went down the route of postponing the race and inviting people to resell entries if they could no longer make the new date. Having bought a place from somebody else before the snow fell, I was determined to make use of it rather than write the race off, especially after I felt a wee bit short changed at the Shakespeare Half Marathon.
Also wishing to prove his mettle was Darryll Thomas. Over the past several years, we’ve both proven to be close in ability and even went into this race sharing the same 83:39 PB, albeit set at different events. The goal was to break 83 minutes, with either of us accepting a new PB as satisfactory.
Lis and I bundled this together into yet another weekend away to make the most of our pre-baby time, spending the previous day in Chester (lovely city – well worth a visit as a day out). Staying very close to race HQ, we arrived with plenty of time to beat the crowds. Upon registration, I was surprised to be given a brand new bib number when I had originally been designated 683 from the cancelled March race. There was no proof required that I had legitimately entered the race, so chancers looking to enter that morning could have very easily bagged a free place with nobody any wiser.
Once Darryll arrived, we embarked on a gentle 2 mile warm-up to scope out the start and finish. Also confirmed was the worst outcome we could have hoped for – clear blue skies overhead and still conditions… We agreed to continue onwards with plan A in a bid to seek out a sub-83 finish.
Due to the relatively compact nature of the race HQ and immediate start area, the 2,200 or so runners easily felt more like double that number. I had been warned beforehand of a need to get into a desirable start position early; due to last minute toilet visits, we ended up having to fight our way through hordes of runners, starting with the 2 hour pace group, then the 1:45, pace group 1:30 pace group and so on. Surprisingly, the race provided pacers for 85 minutes, 80 minutes and even 75 minutes – such is the depth and strength of the field attracted. We positioned ourselves in between the 80 and 85 minute groups, identifying those around us to try and stay with for the duration of the race. Darryll decided to get a few glute activation exercises in, attracting some odd stares from runners and spectators. My own felt dormant, likely from the sharp taper I employed, and I hoped a set of strides would wake them up from their slumber.
We waited for the countdown, and after a test shot of the starting gun, the race started proper at bang-on 10:30.
For a few hundred metres, we got caught up in the group swell like it was the beginning of a 10k. It didn’t help that it was such a densely populated field, flush with strong club runners from the immediate and wider region.
At 10:30, it was already warm and would only grow warmer as we drew closer to midday. How do you manage heat whilst also going for a new PB? I’ll give you a clue: you can’t…
Going into the race, Darryll and I devised a crude plan of him pacemaking for the first half, playing to his strength of downhill running, and then switching over to me for the climb back to the finish for the second half. On paper, this sounded reasonable enough, but how hard do you push so early on? I historically fare much better with an ascending first half, followed by descents, so this course tested my abilities.
The strides I completed before starting did nothing to activate my glutes, adding to my general feeling of missing power, even on the descent. Darryll had the last laugh, with his start line glute activation workout clearly worth the strange looks he may have received!
Not long after starting, a female Wilmslow Running Club member – one of the fastest women of the day – joined us. We all began to use her for pacing, such was her strength, but she wouldn’t even make it on to the podium due to the deep field that morning. Browsing through past results, this particular race attracts a lot of talent, irrespective of gender. All of the local and slightly further afield clubs were in attendance, even on this scorching day.
The first 3 miles clocked in at 6:16, 6:22 and 6:17 to be not far off from where we wanted to be. A sub-83 finish was no longer likely, though a new PB for both of us was still possible. Whether it was the added stressor of the heat or lack of ability, or both, I never really felt at ease due to the aggressive approach. Adding to the unease was the deceptive course profile. Conducting some research beforehand, all of the elevation charts I studied suggested a gentle descent all the way to halfway; the reality was an undulating route that gently rises and falls, never really allowing for a rhythm to develop or feeling particularly advantageous.
Anticipating a tough morning and reviewing my Shakespeare Half Marathon experience, I decided to carry 4x High5 Isogels on my person. 3x have usually sufficed in tough half marathons previously, but I was left wanting another sugar hit in the closing stages of the Shakespeare race. No problem if I didn’t need the extra gel as I could have just left it holstered, though I ultimately did consume all of them.
The first of three official water stations arrived just before 4 miles and never before had it been more welcome! We were lucky enough for bottled water to be provided rather than trying to drink from cups and risk potential waterboarding in the process. Despite a slight slowdown through the water station, the water reinvigorated everybody and the pace began to rise, with miles 4, 5 and 6 coming out at 6:11, 6:12 and 6:18. The effort to maintain such a pace, even on a gentle descent, ratcheted upwards – how long could it last?
Whereas timing mats at regular intervals are very much the norm in marathons, they’re less common in shorter races. Whether they’re for the athletes or for spectators, I’ll let you decide. Quite unusual, to me at least, was the provision of timing mats at 10k and 10 miles. Darryll and I went through 10k in 38:52, which was just 13 seconds shy of 10k PB territory for me – that’s just how soft my best is over the distance. Not long after, I declared to Darryll for him to push on as I concluded the effort was no longer sustainable. He tried briefly talking me out of it, which kept me going temporarily, but it was to no avail. Darryll was in much better form than I was, with more recent warm race experience than me to boot. He slowly edged away into the distance though would still glance backwards from time to time, just in case I was still in range.
Disappointingly, subsequent water stations after the first were cups. I needed water and somehow managed to up my game, pouring it in my mouth without fuss before grabbing another cup from the next nearby volunteer. Maybe I’ve cracked this drinking from cups malarkey?
Thankfully, for a race with such a deep field, I was able to drift in and out of contact with various runners – many of which I started out with. Everybody was suffering, though some simply suffered less. And those that suffered more? Well, I lost count of how many people had dropped out with a few requiring medical assistance. Looking on Strava at other runners that finished in a similar time to me, there was one poor soul who collapsed at 10 miles to receive an ambulance ride back to the finish. Whilst he was delirious, he had enough about him still to ask the paramedics to stop his Garmin for him! They declined, so he ended up with some bizarre looking splits and a complete GPS trace following the actual race route, even whilst in the ambulance.
Mile 7 was the last of the downhill miles before the work really began… In cool March, the change in elevation is probably a minor-to-moderate inconvenience. In warm June and approaching midday? Yikes! 20 seconds minimum was added to each uphill mile for me! I had no C-goal after both A and B-goals had expired, so motivation also dried up. I was able to reclaim a few places from people that had gone out harder than I had and blown, but all I was capable of was steadying the ship and not doing anything to delay my return to the finish. Miles 7, 8 and 9 came in at 6:13, 6:33 and 6:40, respectively.
As the race and my body wore on, each subsequent mile seemed to stretch and drift further and further away. Around the mile 10 checkpoint, a sole volunteer stood with a couple of bottles of water to hand out. One cack-handed runner ahead of me went for one, and whilst he successfully grabbed a bottle, he also went and caused the volunteer to fumble and drop the rest! As I edged closer to the volunteer with his back turned whilst he picked up the remaining bottles, I tried to get his attention for one, but it was no use – he turned around and got back on his feet just as I passed by and missed out.
More and more runners were dropping like flies, having overcooked their races earlier. I, too, felt gassed and my only objective was to make it to the finish in one piece. The field became more strung out and I increasingly found myself in isolation. Darryll had disappeared entirely from view on his quest of a fresh PB. Occasionally, I was able to overtake runners who, on paper, had half marathon and marathon PBs faster than my best by minutes. The results table with its 10k and 10 mile checkpoints makes for eye watering viewing, with some runners going through 10k almost 2 minutes faster than me, 10 miles at a similar pace to me, and crossing the finish line some 3 to 4 minutes after me!
I wanted the race to end, as I’m sure many of my peers did. I was treading water and continued willing each mile marker to appear sooner. Miles 10, 11 and 12 came in at 6:49, 6:39 and 6:53 respectively. It was positive to see me reverting to (sub-3) marathon pace when I was hurting!
I’m told the race is incredibly well supported in March, with many of the locals coming out to spectate and cheer runners on. Even in the 2017 washout event with pouring rain and howling wind, the route was supposedly still lined with well-wishers. With the splendid spectator-friendly weather on offer, the crowds didn’t disappoint and helped to keep me chugging along. As I neared the finish line, the crowds swelled to cheer everybody in. I got to that point of desperation in most races where I frantically searched the horizon for any glimpse of the finish line. Darryll and I had encountered the finish area on our warm-up, though I couldn’t visualise how the course would play out. What didn’t help was much of the final mile being made up of one very long straight, followed by a right turn into another long straight…
Turning the corner, my grimace lightened up as I realised I was still in with a chance of a sub-85 minute finish and a shot at my third fastest half marathon. There were a few guys ahead of me in the closing few hundred metres, giving me some targets to chase down. One of the guys I overtook on the finishing straight was an example of somebody that had gone through 10k almost 2 minutes faster than me in the pursuit of a sub-80 finish; he had no response to my kick and his face says it all as to how broken he was. Finally, I crossed the line and I could stop running on such a torturous morning!
Here’s the Strava data for this race.
Eugh. I felt incredibly ill upon finishing and borrowed a seat from a volunteer for a few minutes to sit down and recompose myself. Those first few steps when I got back up were a doozy!
Checking my Garmin, I’d recorded 85:04, later confirmed as 85:01 via chip time to become my fourth fastest half marathon, and only seconds away from being my third fastest, originally recorded under perfect conditions on a pancake flat course.
Regrouping with Darryll and Lis, I began gulping down provided water and energy drinks like there had been a drought. Darryll went on to run a superb 84:04, only losing sight of a PB in the closing 2 miles due to succumbing to the warm conditions whilst climbing. Both of us ended up with sizable runbritain handicap performances from the race, with it now ranking as my strongest performance relative to all others.
My feelings are confirmed that the course profile in itself isn’t fast and the downhill first half just isn’t conducive to fast times when you need to traverse much of it, uphill, back to the finish. What does make the race fast is the stellar field it attracts. I finished 91stout of almost 2,200 runners that morning, and in cooler conditions I would have likely ended up outside of the top 100 with faster runners better able to tolerate the demands of the race.
As ever, would I compete in the race again? Probably not. I entered originally out of desperation when several target half marathons and back-up races were snowed out. Even in March, I’m not sure it would be worth the trip when there are several closer alternatives available. The exception to this applies to faster runners, where having other athletes to work with would more than compensate for races with more optimal course profiles, but more shallow fields.