The sub-1:50 half marathon challenge is OVER. My 13 week-long spring half marathon challenge is complete after I freakin’ kicked it over with my super-fast feet! I hoped to hold an 8:15/mile pace and finish in 1:48:00 and in the end I dragged my sweaty ass over the finish line in 1:48:35. That, my friends, is a success, right?
I felt strangely calm in the days leading up to the race. Not calm in a cocky, ‘I’ve-got-nothing-to-worry-about‘ kind of way, but calm because I’d been thinking about this race for so long it seemed to have transcended reality and become a kind of non-event. And so when Saturday evening rolled around the nerves hit me like a bulldozer and I handled them in the only way I know how: I pottered and indulged in some comforting routine behaviour.
Pizza, garlic bread and a bottle of ale.
I’m not kidding. This meal has been tried and tested before every race since last summer’s Battersea Park 5-miler and hasn’t given me a dodgy tummy yet. My ale of choice this time? Golden Champion. I invoked the speed and strength of the pony on the label.
Oh, and a load of water too. Obviously.
I also washed my kit, wrote a list of everything that I needed to take in the morning, packed my bag and folded up my clean kit into a pile in the order I would need to put it on in the morning. I then calculated our journey time to the race HQ in Chingford and established my alarm time.
Anal? Yes. But it worked, and my morning was completely panic free.
The 444 bus transported me, my girlfriend and her dad smoothly to Chingford Station, just a few minute’s walk from the race start, which rather bizarrely was set up next to a funfair on the edge of Epping Forest. Could we get a free ride on the waltzers by presenting our timing chips, I wondered? After a couple of visits to the portaloos, which were set up on such uneven ground that they rocked when my nervous urine flow picked up pace, I decided that today was not a day for the fairground rides or anything else that might induce motion sickness.
The nerves had finally set in.
I dropped by bag off with the cheerful volunteers at the baggage tent and jogged off for a gentle warm up with the GF: a super slow 5 minute’s jog, some slow dynamic stretches and a couple of strides in the golfer’s car park.
After warming up I needed to pee again and jogged toward the queue. Here, the GF found a fellow Chaser, Steve, who I’d roped into running the race, and where I also found a second unexpected Chaser, Gary.
We are now officially a crew. Damn we should’ve brought the club flag…
A guy with a megaphone had been walking around the small field shouting at runners from quarter to ten. Fifteen minutes to go until race start, 8 minutes to go until race start… With just a few minutes to go until the race start the small, 300-strong crowd gathered in front of the smaller-than-average inflatable arch. Runners under 1:20 line up here, Megaphone Dude called, Runners under 1:40 line up here, under 1:50 here… The crowd shifted back rather comically, further and further and further… Realising that he was hollering at a largely local, fundraising crew who were appeared to all be running a 2hr race, Megaphone Dude adjusted his imaginary start pens. We all shuffled forward slightly and were set off by an underwhelming ‘Go!‘ from the megaphone.
We whispered good luck to each other, I squeezed the GF’s shoulder goodbye (we were aiming for different finish times and would not run together), and slowly we all beeped our way over the starting mats.
Now Chaser Steve is a cracking runner who, after some ITB issues had found himself training more or less at my pace over the last few months. He had a goal for the race, but didn’t think it had PB potential because of all the road crossings and the great big hill at the end. Chaser Gary is also an incredible runner whose half marathon times have tumbled in the couple of years that I’ve known him to somewhere absurdly far below the 1:40 mark (makes you spit, doesn’t it?). I didn’t expect to see Gary for dust after the man with the megaphone set us off, but Steve planned to take the first couple of miles easy and so I tagged along with him through Chingford. I’ve trained with him a few times and he’s wonderfully chipper. I’ve never run a race with anyone before, but having a little gossip during the first couple of miles was lovely. Really, really lovely. Our 8:10/mile pace felt easy and relaxed, the cool temperature and Spring sunshine felt glorious, the locals stopped and smiled at us and I hardly noticed those first 2 miles pass. Steve began to pull away as we neared Walthamstow and picked up his 7:50/mile goal pace, but I settled into my own steady run and was pleasantly surprised to find myself still full of beans as I passed 3.5 miles and the first water station.
By the time I passed through Walthamstow the small field of runners had spread out so much that it barely looked like a race anymore. Well, not the kind of road race we are used to seeing anyway, with inflatable clappers and salaried support. We were just sporadically appearing Sunday morning runners, who looked a little more harrassed than your typical Sunday morning joggers, perhaps a little sweatier too, but otherwise much the same. I could see a handful of runners ahead of me, mostly middle aged men, some slowing up, some pulling away. I picked out a few targets and one by one picked them off. I barely looked at my watch and I barely looked at the split times that I had scrawled on my arm the night before. For the first time ever in a half marathon I was actually enjoying the running bit.
The route was more fun than I’d expected, winding through residential streets and surprising local residents. People were standing outside newsagents and betting shops, wondering what was going on. I called good morning to the bemused looking locals. That was quite entertaining and I enjoyed how comfortabe my lungs were feeling as a greeted them. Marshals stood at each road crossing with hi-viz signs reminiscent of old lollypop ladies/men outside my primary school. They held up the cars and direcdted us across the roads. I called thanks to the marshals and waved appreciatively to the drivers. I heard only one barrage of car beeping during the entire race, and I thought it sounded more supportive than pissed off. Waltham Forest seemed to be enjoying the race as much as I was.
Through Leytonstone I ran passed a photographer and a man in Ronhill track bottoms and a bobble hat. Keep it up, they cheered at me. You’re the 4th lady! Fourth? I called back. Woohoo! I looked at my watch on my right wrist and looked at my splits on my left arm. 2 minutes ahead of schedule, feeling fantastic, and a prize would be mine if I could just pick of that 3rd place woman up ahead… I could see her in pink, bobbing in the distance. We seemed to be running at more or less the same pace, so I would need to pick it up a bit if I was going to get her and I would need to pick my moment wisely. For now I would just keep her in sight.
5 miles and we were passing through Walthamstow Village, a bizarrely quaint spot within an otherwise very suburban area. It’s got lots of black and white houses, its Londis sells sandwiches made by the restaurant next door, and the restaurant cooks sausages sold by the sausage shop across the road. Do you get the idea? Very twee and very cute, but nowhere near as cute as the cheering station set up outside the local primary school. Thirty or so cheering children and responsible looking adults, all with hand drawn banners and squeals of support! It was the most heart warming and encouarging sight, and filled me joy. I felt like we were participating in something really quite special – bringing sport to people’s doorstep, making it visible and accessible. Those kids gave me a huge boost that carried me over the half way mark and into the slow ascent up through Whipp’s Cross and Woodford New Road.
After all the fun of Walthamstow and Leytonstone, Woodford New Road was a bit of a desert. It was one of the first clear, sunny days of the year and, with Epping Forest opening out on the right hand side of the road and the long main road visible ahead of us I felt the atmosphere change. The still air and the silence combined and I felt like I was running through the Q Continuum. I get bored very easily when running and so I knew that this part of the course was going to be the most challenging. I had run it during training and doubted that the main road would be any more entertaining than it had been 6 weeks ago. But I was wrong.
I spotted a Chasers vest up ahead, the familiar orange, white and green, walking on the wrong side of the road as a marshal on a bicycle rode slowly alongside. Steve’s ITB problems must have caught up with him, I thought. Steve! I shouted. But as I ran closer I saw it was Gary, clutching his thigh and shouting something about his hip back across the road to me. I made a heart shape with my hands. I have no idea why I did that. I doubt it made him feel better. Poor guy…
A few minutes later a hi-viz blur came up behind me – the marshal on the bike.
Your mate is just coming up behind. He’s hurt his hip. If you’re not aiming for a specific time…
I am, I blurted out. I felt like an arsehole as soon as I said it, but it was true, and I was terrified of ending a race that seemed to be going so well. For the first time ever I was concentrating really well!
It’s a silly sport, isn’t it? The marshal chuckled as Gary ran up behind me.
He was running pretty damn well for a guy who was limping and couldn’t bend his knee properly. If he was offended by my continuing pace he didn’t show it. Instead he joined me at my pace, which was a jog for him. He checked his Garmin, told me we were making great time and ran with me for those long, boring miles along Woodford New Road. I asked him how he was doing a couple of times, but he started to looked pissed off that I was drawing attention to his hip. I tried talking about other stuff, but it was starting to get hard to talk. Instead we ran together in silent comradery and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. The road was gently ascending and my calves were taking a beating.
10 miles. We swept over the flyover of Waterworks roundabout. The 3rd place lady in pink was still in my sights. I told Gary that I wanted to take her, but instead all three of us – two Chasers and the pink lady – overtook a woman in black. I’d done it! Not quite how I had planned, but that didn’t matter. I was in third place – I could win a prize! And then, just as quickly as I had got third place, I lost it.
A woman in blue overtook me.
I won’t write the words that went through my head, but needless to say I was pissed off. And then another woman overtook me too… 5th place. Nevermind. Glory was fun, if shortlived. It was time to concentrate on my race again.
Gary looked at his watch.
Still a great pace, he said.
This is really hard, I replied.
I looked at my own watch. 10 miles must have passed in around 1:20:00, still 2 minutes shy of my target time. That will get me home in 1:46:00 if I can just hang in there, I thought to myself. I started to pull away from Gary and felt freakin’ awful as I did, but he told me to go ahead. I honestly don’t know if I could have kept up such a good pace through those urban desert miles if it hadn’t been for his company, and I still feel like I owed him more than the ‘cheers, dude‘ I panted back at him, but we separated on Chingford Lane and I crossed the road towards Friday Hill alone.
Friday Hill isn’t that big. It’s not as big as my familiar hill in Finsbury Park, nor is it as long as Highgate West Hill, a beast of a slope in North London that the Mornington Chasers regularly run up. But 11 miles into this half marathon, that hill looked bigger than any I could remember. I followed the marshals’ directions across the road and began the climb, passing the final water station as I did so. My pace had slowed right down and I managed a couple of big glugs of water before engaging my arms, facing my hips forward and lifting my knees up into that hill. At least, that is what I was trying to do. But in reality my legs had almost nothing left in them. At one point I considered whether I would be faster walking up this hill. I made the mistake of looking at my feet – my strides were tiny. I wondered what I must look like to the family watching from the roadside bench. Was I even moving anymore, or was I just bouncing on the spot, hopping from one foot to the other in some kind of bizarre, new, Sunday morning exercise routine? I kept swinging my arms, hoping they would trigger some response from my legs, and the crest of the hill finally got nearer. I heard panting behind me as another runner began to push ahead of me.
Don’t you bloody dare… I thought to myself. I have not hauled my ass up that freakin’ hill just for you to overtake me at the top of it!
And I ran hard down the other side of Friday Hill, leaving him for dust.
I regret that I only found my fighting spirit at the top of the hill and not back at the flyover, where I lost sight of those pesky women runners, but it’s better late than never, eh?
The last mile and a half sucked. There is no way that I can dress it up for you. That last hill killed my legs and they I felt like I had weights strapped to my ankles during the last 10 minutes or so. I started to desperately look at my watch every couple of minutes, getting increasingly frustrated as it told me I’d only run a further 0.3 miles. The last stretch, alongside Epping Forest again, didn’t feel long, as such – I knew that the finish was just round the corner and over the road, half a mile according to my watch – it just felt slow. I dug as deep as I possibly could, but there was nothing there. No final sprint over the finish line. Just a clumsy jog during which I saw my watch tick over 1:48:00 as I nearly knocked over a child on the pavement (not my fault, I hasten to add) and hollered at some supporters who were actually blocking the path.
It wasn’t quite the glorious finish I had imagined, but it was pretty good. I could hear my name being shouted as I got closer to the inflatable arch and I ploughed every ounce of life left in my body into just not slowing down.
Chaser Steve was there, still in one piece, saying something about finding something in his legs at the end, and the proud owner of a spangly new PB (1:43:16). His partner, marathon-runner Mairead was there too lending support, whoops and cheers. Chaser Kayleigh, my running buddy, had also appeared, still in her lycra from her morning run.
I crouched over a bit, stood up a bit, made some strange half-crying-half-squealing noises, walked away and then realised I had no where to walk to and walked back, crouched over again, stood up a bit again… Eventually I stopped acting quite so weirdly and I found my girlfriend’s Dad standing nearby with his phone poised to take a photo as soon as the GF appeared, which she did in 1:53:20, soaked from having thrown water over herself, but surprisingly well for someone who had run a cracking half marathon debut. And as for Chaser Gary, well he made it back too in an incredible 1:50:44, a minor miracle considering when I left him he said he couldn’t bend his knee.
It’s Wednesday now, and I’m still smiling. Obviously I am absolutely thrilled to have achieved my sub-1:50 goal, but it’s not an overwhelming kind of happiness. It’s a mixture of relief and smugness. I knew I had done the training – I’d meticulously written and completed 13 weeks of it! – the big unknown was whether or not I could perform on the day. And so that is my biggest achievement in Waltham Forest – concentrating for an entire half marathon, not losing faith in my legs, and not compromising when things started to get tough. I haven’t only learned to run a sub-1:50 half marathon, I feel like I’m learning how to run a race.
Oh, by the way, did I mention I’d entered a marathon?
The Waltham Forest Half Marathon has had some shockingly bad reviews in previous years – reports of bad organisation, terrible marshaling and runners getting lost. I didn’t experience any of this. There are lots of road crossing along the route, but it is what it is – a small race through residential areas – and the organisers seem to have ironed out the kinks from previous years. The marshals were efficient and effective at every road crossing I came to and still had the energy to cheer and applaud us all. The police had also been roped in and helped out at larger road crossings. All of the volunteers were overwhelmingly cheerful and enthusiastic and added another dimension to the race. I can’t wait for next year!