There’s a plethora of things reasonable people would do with eight days’ notice. Go for a meal with work colleagues, head out to a football match or write a short essay on the global political outcome of Donald Trump becoming US President. I really hope this doesn’t happen, but I understand meals with work colleagues are fairly common in civilised society.
Eight days’ notice to train for a half marathon is somewhat outside that reasonable person’s agreeability, and rightly so. On the plus side, I’m a fairly well trained (although dubiously dieted) athlete and have run the distance twice before in races. Conversely, I’d just had a week off running with a cold, had only fully recovered from a knee injury in mid-April, and am quite afraid of half marathons, and with good cause because both those previously races went fairly poorly.
I had planned to pace a friend to finish in 75-76 minutes, and was fairly confident of being able to do that. Fairly confident, that is, until I read the weather forecast. It seemed impossible in subzero temperatures, as for some reason (not unrelated to recent searches for a now infamous polar research ship) my default search prefix was ‘arctic’. Sadly, temperatures were to be only partly more hospitable, reaching 26 degrees in the course of the morning.
At least I was going to be on a proverbial lead with pacing duties, and constrained from doing something stupid. Something exactly like planning to test the limits of my endurance and psychological toughness by running hard for 10 miles then trying to hang on for the last 5k and a PB (previous best 76:16 at Ealing in 2014). Definitely not that on a hot day after two races and two parkruns in the previous eight days. As if determined by the fates as a test of foolish endeavour, my pacing mission was aborted the day before as my friend pulled out.
Free of my lead, any sort of responsibility and running a race I had absolutely no plan or target for, I decided… well, it shouldn’t be that hard to guess what I might have decided.
‘It’s not a day for PBs’ they said, ‘start slowly’ they said, ‘nearly there’ shouted one encouraging bloke, absolutely inexplicably as there were five miles to go at that point, but I’m getting ahead of myself…
I had pulled a random target out of the hat and came up with top ten and sub-75. I’m not sure which hat, but something like the large floppy hats fashionable women wear at summer parties. Or the ones in my imagination anyway, having never been to such an event, and having a great fear of doing so (for more about my fear of formal social endeavours, click here (link pending…)).
While aerodynamically suicidal such a headpiece would have been wonderful sun protection. I’d have been very shady, and by the end of the race I’d certainly lost enough body weight to feel slim. My authenticity, slim shady or otherwise, on the other hand, was to be called into serious question, as we’ll find out later on.
Completely against character, I decided to make some preparations the evening before, rather than just getting up slightly earlier than normal with a vague but determined sense of where everything I needed was and how to get where I needed to be. Racing kit was laid out, efficiently if unceremoniously, a change of clothes for afterwards sat alongside sun cream (something I’m sure I would have forgotten in my morning assemblage of items) and various unexciting accoutrements of travel and logistics, all of which can be seen below.
I also put some pasta in a box, which I had planned to eat on the journey in. I had even packed a spoon in a plastic wallet, but when it came to the pivotal moment of potential pasta consumption I folded and failed to eat it under pressure from other tube travellers also travelling to the race. I felt outnumbered (as opposed to among fellow runners sharing a similar activity in the summer sunshine, which gives some clue as to my level of relentless sociopathy) and hoarded my food avariciously. Ironically, in a state of post-race exhaustion I entirely forgot about it, and feasted on the far less appropriate items in the goody bag while lamenting the lack of carbohydrates…
After some stresses in locating a number (one did not arrive in the post) a urinal (thank you, discreet patch of shrubbery) and the bag drop (given the queue I seriously considered hiding it up a tree, but I rightly assumed my legs would be in no condition to climb after the race), I was at the start line. Well, near the start line. I had underestimated how many people constitute well over eleven thousand, and must have awkwardly danced, shuffled and squeezed my meandering way through several hundred metres of competitors before I reached the start line. To my great disappointment, there had been a small gap in the fence to allow the elite athletes and faster club runners to assume their allotted placing at the front. I always feel a bit uncomfortable positioning myself close to such mythical figures, but this time I felt the position had been well earned through much wriggling and contortion.
After fifteen minutes of delay waiting to clear the course (in my imagination, the people of Hackney were fighting off a Vogon destructor fleet, but the reality was probably just a lost, confused ore belligerent driver), we were off. Well, before we actually depart I should note the presence of several Highgate athletes that will be returned to later, and a friend of mine who was to win the women’s race by an astonishing seven minutes. I was thinking of popping over to say hello, but as she’s a run fast athlete and was accompanied by the top two male finishers, both also with run fast, and also elite Kenyans (who in what really shouldn’t constitute a spoiler were to beat me by ten and seven and a half minutes respectively), I smiled timidly then continued to wonder about how the Vogons were dealing with the more determined hipsters.
(As the race commenced I cunningly took the inside line approaching the first left turn, a strategy not employed by my Kenyan opponent on the far right, who obviously felt confident enough to concede this significant early advantage)
A first mile went by fairly uneventfully: I had decided to start at a sensible pace initially and see how things developed, but my strategy of running the first nine or ten miles hard was voicing itself agreeably. After looking around at the rest of the large group I was in, I decided valour, while perhaps not the better part of discretion, was the part I preferred, and sped off in pursuit of the escaping front runners.
Surprisingly, I felt fine after a couple of miles, and made my way into 7th place, sitting behind two fairly serious looking club athletes. I had run alongside a fellow just before, and asked him what time he was going for: “about seventy three, seventy two” he replied. Bearing this in mind, I decided he was either going to change gear substantially or was playing mind games, whichever the case I decided to continue my daredevil charge forwards.
Coming alongside a park I used to cycle past, I was struck with a burst of reckless zeal, to add to my pool of reckless zeal, and decided to try and pull away from the three athletes alongside me. Having done so, I found myself in fourth, and spent the next five miles enjoying the acclaim that comes with being the first British runner in such a race, although I knew that such joy was fleeting. I expected to be caught on nine miles, despite a growing lead I always struggle in hot conditions and I knew this pace was unsustainable given my limited training.
The crowds were great fun, and in the first two thirds of the race I tried to raise a hand or a smile as often as I could to thank people for their support. I saw a few friends and club mates along the way, and in these stages I was able to shout back grateful thanks. After picking up water bottles I tried to throw them into recycling bins, and can look back happily with a 60% success rate. It’s hard to go past countless kids waiting for a high five without meeting one or two of those outstretched hands, and thankfully I know from previous experience it takes a bit of slowing down: I once tried a high five at a 10k without breaking stride or arm movements, and to my great regret I nearly took somebody’s hand off.
Reading this, it might seem like I wasn’t taking the distance or the race especially seriously, and that would be… right. I passed a set of steel drums and tried to pull off a little bit of samba, to the extent such a thing is possible when racing, and it seemed to go down very well. Realistically, even though I was in fourth there’s only prize money for the top three, and I preferred to treat the race as a training exercise than getting too worried about placing or strategy.
I’d hope to run several minutes quicker than my finishing time later in the season, and there were several good opportunities to do so, so the pressure was certainly off. Also, there was a race to get substantially more worried about two weeks later, where twenty five merciless laps of an athletics track need to be negotiated, and I thought it best to save my worrying until then. Also I might have left a saucepan in the sink that was doubtless attracting an army of intrepid rodents.
Looking back several times, I saw after seven miles that I had a far larger gap than I expected, though I knew this was only likely to delay the point where I got caught, as I was feeling the fatigue building up in my legs. Any delay in getting caught is better than no delay though, and some part of me still believed that there might just be a chance. A chance they’d respect my careless disregard for strategy and give me a guard of honour over the last three miles, perhaps.
It was at this point that a spectator shouted ‘not far now’. This point, eight miles into the race, with just over five miles left. That’s a bit like the teacher welcoming you all back to class after lunch with a cheery, “nearly there class, just double maths then Latin to come”. I’m sure in such a situation, dependent on the environment of the school, the response would be anything from odd whispered remarks to a barrage of rubbers, pencil cases and arrows. I shouted back: “five miles still!” more in amusement than dismay. There was still some dismay though, as it had provided transient but substantial bamboozlement.
As this is rambling on a bit, even for me, suffice to say the next three miles were uneventful, although I did get steadily more tired and the pursuing pack closer (is three a pack? certainly three cards would be a poor total, and three wolves somewhat shortpawed). In a tunnel just before the eleven mile marker, I felt my resolve start to crack, and having run alongside me for a quarter of a mile, first one and then the other passed me. One green vested foe (thankfully not Highgate!) remained behind, but I knew I was fading fast. I was snapped a couple of times here, and in none of the photos do I look brimming with effervescent liveliness, but this black and white one at least spares the obvious tiredness a little. (Thanks to Tom Hosking for the photo)
A few more friends and club mates (Thanks Mary, Henry and Sam, others I can’t recall through recollections of painful steps) offered support in the closing stages, and it gave me a lift, but I knew the legs were spent. The green vest was closing determinedly in, and I knew I had an unassailable lead on the runner in 8th. This was not the time for heroics, it was the time for a swim, but sadly there was no pool handy, I don’t think any degree of tiredness would coerce me to go for a dip in the canal, and at any rate there was a race to finish.
Passing under a set of bridges the realisation that my last run over ten miles had been towards the end of January hit home fairly sharply: the last couple of miles were effectively uncharted waters. Here be dragons. Unsafe. Sadly more thoughts of water related travels were not what the doctor ordered (though our proverbial doctor would probably be fairly firm in his insistence that an IV drip be supplied), and I struggled to keep things together.
Had I known that all three British athletes who finished ahead of me had run marathons well underneath 2:40 I would have felt a bit better about being overtaken. One, Patrick Wightman, actually has the world record for the fastest marathon dressed as a banana (2:58 in Barcelona in 2011). As it was I glared ruefully at their escaping backs, and desire and determination bled from my legs with metres ticking slowly past.
Having said that, it’s a pretty normal situation for me: I can think of only a few races where I’ve misjudged things to such an extent I’ve actually had energy left in reserve! Pacing a friend round 5k in sixteen minutes last year, I felt at 4.7k that the job was done, though the presence of a Highgate vest in front of me may have had something to do with that decision, and I blasted the last 300, happily leaving the aforementioned zebra singlet behind.
The prime example of the opposite scenario was the South of England cross country championships, incidentally on my birthday this year, where I, filled with anniversarial zeal, ran the first quarter mile at a canter, an felt like I was hanging on for nearly nine miles! That made Sunday’s effort feel exceedingly comfortable in contrast, but it’s probably the hardest I’ve ever run, barring a V02 Max test on a treadmill that remains locked at the back of my mind…
Returning to the present, or at any rate the more recent past, the final runner of the dread following trio passed me with a mile or so to go, and by that time I knew anything less than seven minutes for the last mile would see me through under 75, and into the top ten with a big PB. Despite most parts of me generally wanting to give up and walk, it was happily not a democratic decision on a cellular level, and my brain’s determination that twelve miles of hard work was not to be wasted brought me to the finishing straight (or, the finishing section of fewer and fewer corners).
In one final quarrel before the day’s efforts were concluded, I found myself wondering angrily at the jocular unspecificity of the ‘nearly there’ sign, in place of a much less cuddly but infinitely more practical ‘500m left’, and then I saw the finish. The commentator noted that I finished like speedy Gonzales, and the composition of my facial expression shifted to incorporate an aspect of amusement in an otherwise dire grimace of finality and exhaustion. Pondering this later, I realised that the rapid mouse has a giant yellow hat, which would have been a rather spectacular addition to my race equipment.
Crossing the line in 74:11, seventh overall, I felt a disorientating wave of dizziness, and determined to find the nearest shelter. It transpired to be beside the metal fencing that separated the crowd from the athletes, so in front of confused looking spectators I retreated to the shadowy embrace of these barriers for several moments before returning to life and meandering my way to the bag collection and home, via a much appreciated sports massage.
Thanks to anyone who got to the end of this one, If I ever do run a marathon I feel I’m now committed to a commensurate length of report, but equally it’s only 215 words a mile, so tune in next week for a paragraph on my 800m at the county championships…
Reviewing the results afterwards, I saw my name had been replaced by the enigmatic Jake Chilcott, who seems to have no previous athletic performances and will doubtless have been rather surprised to see his name up in the proverbial lights of the first page of the results listings. As I mentioned many hundreds of largely frivolous words earlier, I had needed a replacement number on the day, and the swap had not been made.
I suspect following an enquiry that Run Hackney will take seven years to discover the truth and in the interim Jake will be appointed Middle East peace envoy and earn a fortune on the public speaking circuit, while I will be dismissed as a Celtic incumbent whose gruff manner and stout appearance renders him a scapegoat for the collapse of the global running shoe market.
[This is entirely constructed because I saw a Chilcott enquiry joke and couldn’t resist, sorry if the politicisation of otherwise entirely light-hearted content raises an eyebrow of disapproval! As we see below, the matter was in fact dealt with in a tenth of a percent of the time it will have taken the government enquiry, and one suspects with a more authentic and satisfying result.]
After a mere modicum of processing delay, the good folks at Run Hackney resolved the mystery of Jake Chilcott, and my name was reunited with the result it earned. Even more excitingly, evidence below supports what wordpress has been telling me for a few weeks, that you, dear readers, actually exist, and are not a figment of my imagination!
Thanks of course to the race organisers, but especially Sara at Brooks for magicing a race entry out of the hat for me! #runhappy