Oxford Half 2012: What a race!

A frosty, sub-zero morning was not what I’d expected when I decided to run the 2012 Oxford Half Marathon back in July.  Scraping the car at 8am made the summer feel a very long time ago indeed.  Rather than making me panic about being late, methodically clearing the ice actually helped to calm my pre-race nerves.  As with other aspects of my life, I had planned the journey to Oxford with a certain degree of contingency.

My race pack had arrived in good time.  Upon opening I found a car park pass – the organisers had arranged for 3 dedicated car parks for us 4,000 runners.  At the time I was a little disgruntled to find that, due to my own tardiness in entering the race, I was allocated a pass to the BMW Mini Factory car park – the furthest from the start at te three-sided Kassam stadium.  With multiple double-decker busses laid on to shuttle runners back and forth, it was in fact, a very convenient car park.  Easy to access direct from the ring road, plenty of spaces and after the race there was no waiting down to a whole load of people out running, it was straight out onto the ring road again. Result!

After a friendly chat with a couple of other runners, we disembarked the shuttle close to the start line, which was still being constructed – it was still an hour until the “b” of the bang so not a problem.  Despite me feeling calmer than for any other race I can remember, the habit of my bladder being nervous before races meant I was soon hunting out the facilities.  I was pleased to find metres of troughs, empty from the football fans they’re used to, in the belly of the stadium.  Less happy were the male runners needing a little more of a facility, or indeed the women already queueing opposite.  Either there were some more “real” toilets elsewhere which could’ve done with more signposting or perhaps the organisers could think of supplementing the facilities for next year.

Next on the agenda was to find Grundy, the younger brother of my flatmate from my Aberdeen days.  Like me, Grundy was aiming for a sub 2 hour time, although having seen some of his results I knew he had a little more natural pace than me.  After a quick text we met up close to the burger van.  I’m glad to say that I didn’t see any runners participating in a pre-run burger however there were plenty of spectators taking up the opportunity.  The Wife even heard one family ask if there were smaller burgers for kids!  Way to go parents – bring your kids to see the inspirational sight of 4,000 people running and shove a burger down their throats.

It was great to catch up with Grundy’s parents, Rita and Dave, who were acting as chauffeurs and cheerleaders for him.  As any of you who were at my wedding will know, Rita has a special connection to me and The Wife.  Long story short: The Wife and I knew each other at school, I went to uni, we fell out of touch, Rita helped our paths cross again, we started dating, I relocated back to Oxfordshire and The Wife became The Wife!  Rita and Dave are a lovely, friendly couple and it was fantastic to have a chin wag to take my mind off the waiting.

Gradually, I removed the layers of hats, gloves, tops to acclimatised to the chilly air.  Some water, a banana and a couple more visits to the loos later, Grundy and I left Rita, Dave and The Wife with our stuff and headed to the start.  Lucky for us we had bag carriers; the queues for the baggage drop were snaking around the car park!  I’m sure the organisers will take it into account for next year.

As we walked the short walk to the start we noticed the race pacers with their red t-shirts and balloons with predicted finishing times on. My thought before the start was that they were standing too close to each other but as I was only going to use them as a guide (I’d set up a customised workout on miCoach to work with my pace bands I have used in training) I wasn’t that fussed.  Between mile 1 and 2 I lost sight of all of the balloons so I fell back to plan A and listened to miCoach.

I’m not sure if there were any announcements in the runner’s “village” to get people to the start but there didn’t seem to be much urgency, especially as there was still a big queue for people dropping baggage.  Once at the start we could just about see the guy trying to prep us for the start (it was difficult with the sun low in the sky behind him) but the PA system was so poor we couldn’t hear a word he was saying.  The start time of 09:30 came and went and eventually Sir Roger Bannister took the mic and said a few words.  It was highly inspirational to hear from the running legend – or at least I’m guessing it would have been; the poor PA meant I didn’t hear what Sir Roger said either.

After what seemed like an age (it was probably only 10 minutes) we were off!  Grundy and I had agreed to run our own races and very quickly we had been diluted into the mass of runners.

The first couple of miles were quiet and slightly uphill – not many spectators, and runners concentrating on finding their pace.  With the help of miCoach (and with the advice from my experienced running friend Steve to keep calm in the first mile) I tried harder than ever to go steady.  It’s always difficult to tame the start line adrenalin but I’d say I was partly successful; I remained comfortable whilst clocking 8:23 and 8:20 for the first 2 miles.  Not bad considering I was aiming for 9 minute miles.

At 2 miles, you enter the BMW Mini plant and at the same time get a sight of the quick boys and girls who are passing mile 3 on the overpass in front of you.  My heart sank a little but my mind soon wandered onto the amazing Mini production line.  If you ever get the chance to do a tour you should – as you’d probably expect, it’s an amazingly slick operation.

The mile and a half stretch along the ring road is not the best part of the course but a means to an end.  The left hand lane had been closed for us and, at least while I was running, the traffic seemed to be driving sensibly in the right hand lane.  There were still a few runners who were tempting fate by running on the traffic-side of the cones but all seemed to pass with no incident.

At the 4 mile mark the course narrowed as we ran through Oxford Academy (the venue for the UKA Leadership in Running Fitness course I’d attended the weekend previous – more on that in future blogs) and we started our 3 mile journey into the heart of Oxford.  The roads were mostly traffic free although a few pedestrians and cyclists diced with the wrath of runners as they tried to dart across the roads.  The crowds were building and it was around mile 5 that the first of my cheerleading crew was stationed – I spotted Rich late and didn’t catch Gem at all but it was still a boost to hear a cheer.

After crossing Magdalen Bridge, the route turns left along Rose Lane before entering Christchurch meadows at the 7 mile mark.  This is where my I found my second band of cheerleaders – The Wife’s mum and dad!  Luckily I spotted them early and gave a big wave so they could see me.  I thanked them for coming out on such a cold morning and navigated my way through the narrow entrance to the prettiest few miles of race I’ve ever had the pleasure to run.  At this point I was feeling very comfortable – unnervingly so!  The miCoach app was helping me keep to my “Green” pace zone but I still managed to reach 7 miles more than 4 minutes ahead of schedule.

As we followed the river, a snippet of conversation between a middle-aged, middle class couple who were out for a Sunday stroll caught my ear, “Isn’t this absolutely splendid!” they commented at the sight of the 4,000 red-faced runners trampling along the path.  It made me smile at how pleased they seemed to see us all.

It didn’t take long for the beauty of the surroundings to be overtaken by concentration – the path along the river felt like a tightrope compared to the wide Iffley Road.  Passing slower runners with care and avoiding the few bumps, lumps and puddles felt draining, both mentally and physically however, my splits remained on track.  I did have the help of my first band of cheerleaders who’d scurried to mile 9 to give me a second cheer – and an energy boost too!  The steep path from riverside to the ring road at mile 10 was a bit of a pain but I now found myself 5 and a half minutes ahead of schedule with only 3.1 miles to go!

I don’t know whether it was the short sharp hill to get back onto the ring road, the long, slow hill on the ring road or me mentally relaxing at the thought of being well on target but my 11th mile was my slowest.  At 8:53 it was still inside my 9 minute mile goal but nearly half a minute slower than my average pace to that point.  It mattered little, as I managed to refocus as we ran through Littlemore and Sandford and soon I was at the 12 mile marker.

My legs were beginning to ache now, especially my ankles, so I was struggling to up my pace as I’d planned but I was determined to not slow down and once in sight of the Kassam stadium I began to feel a surge of energy again.  On rounding the corner to enter the stadium, with around 50 metres to go another comment from a spectator drifted into my ear, “Isn’t it amazing how many people are sprinting to finish after running 13 miles?”.  That was my cue.  I summoned everything I could and for the first time in the race focussed on passing as many people as I could.  I was so focussed on finishing as quickly as possible, I couldn’t see the race clock and didn’t even attempt to look for The Wife, Rita and Dave who had been patiently waiting for me to return.

For once, I remembered to stop my timer on crossing the line and I was filled with the best feeling ever!  I’d done it!  Finished my first half marathon since 2005 and smashed my target of 2 hours in the process: my official finishing time was 1 hour 51 minutes and 48 seconds.

It took a while to get through the crowd of finishers waiting to pick up their goody bag, then a medal, then scrum for the t-shirt then get past the runners queueing for confirmation of their official times.  Hopefully next year the immediate post race melee will be a little better planned – I couldn’t tell what the hold up was and what people were queueing for and all I wanted is to find The Wife so I could put some clothes on and have a banana!

The reliable fleet of shuttle busses were waiting to take us back to the car and we swiftly escaped the pandemonium of the baggage reclaim.  Just a few minutes later we were back at the car and pulling out of the BMW plant, onto the ring road I’d run on a couple of hours previous and were on our way home.

Considering this was only the second year the race has been run it was fantastic and I’ll be looking to enter again next year.  Given the improvements I hear that were made on last year’s race I whole heartedly expect some of the logistical problems to be improved upon.  The route is great, relatively flat and proved to be quick so why not give it a try next year?  A big thank you to my supporters, the race organisers, the marshalls, the bands (who whilst I didn’t mention, did help to keep you going) and all the other spectators and fellow runners who made the race so enjoyable.

And just in case you’re interested, here are my splits:

Oxford Half Splits
Oxford Half Splits
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