Five weeks ago I had my worst ever run at the spiritual home of my running, the Great North Run. This morning I was up, literally, at the crack of dawn to implement the lessons I learned from the GNR at this year’s Oxford Half Marathon.
Prior to the Great North Run I was undecided about whether to run this year’s Oxford Half Marathon. I set my PB at last year’s Oxford Half but the race was not the best organised I’d ever been too. However, after such a disappointing GNR there was only one option – I needed to run Oxford to banish the demons.
With five weeks between the races I continued my training, trying hard to ignore the doubts that were creeping in about whether I’d done enough, or the correct, training.
I took a little time off from pace-based training while on holiday in Cornwall, doing two awesome trail runs which reminded me how much I love running. I also had some great coaching sessions with my adult beginners, some interesting coaching workshops and I started coaching at my club – reminding me how much I love helping other people love running!
My confidence also had a boost when I secured a PB at Oxford parkrun – without even trying! (Well, I didn’t look at pace once; I just concentrated on posture and technique and used heart rate to judge if I was working hard enough) I knocked almost 30 seconds, talking me down to 21:28.
Following this 5k PB, my Support Coach for my UKA Coach qualification, Evelyn, gave me some reassurance that my half marathon goal of sub 1:45 was absolutely achievable. She re-iterated what I’d learned at the GNR: be conservative with pace at the start; don’t get carried away.
Somehow, hearing it from a coach helped to make me more determined to follow what I already knew. But I tell you, holding yourself back is HARD (but more on that later)!
I was ready for this race. Oxford Half had been kind to me for the last 2 years, despite the weather, and provided me with 2 consecutive PBs. Would this year be the hat trick? I was determined it would be.
To avoid any problems with the weather, traffic, road closures and bus queues we left the house way too early, picking up my club-mate Jackie on the way. We navigated the Oxford ring road with ease and slipped into a very convenient parking space at the BMW Mini factory that hosted the event’s Park & Ride service. Hopping straight on a bus, we were whisked to the Kassam Stadium with ease – unsurpisingly, given that it wasn’t even 8 o’clock yet!
Large chunks of the stadium were closed and the “athlete’s village” was very much under construction but we managed to find some warmth (and toilets) in the stadium reception. As this small space got bigger, the larger room next door was opened meaning we could grab a welcome seat in a warm corner.
Inevitably as time passed, the stadium grew busier and the toilet queues, especially for the women, grew. Why are there never enough toilets at races? Or is it just that runners suffer terribly with nervous bladders and upset tummies? Personally, 3 visits was exceptional, even for me – maybe it was the cold!?
Getting to the start was easy and I was impressed and surprised by the “Green Start” area for club runners; much more space and much more relaxed than normal race starts. I know this doesn’t make a difference for the majority of runners but a big plus from my point of view.
A much better PA system at the start area meant we could actually hear what was going on. Unfortunately, many of the messages related to a delay to the race start. I believe one of the shuttle buses bringing runners to the stadium had broken down so they delayed the start. By 20 minutes! I appreciate the organisers want to help when one of their service providers has a problem but we’d all been told to get there in plenty of time and given most of us were there, standing around in the cold for 20 minutes wasn’t ideal. With chip times, any late runners could still race the course so I think they could have started the race on time.
It was great to have a motivational speech from Sir Roger Bannister before the race. Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while will know how inspired I was by the 60th anniversary of his sub 4 minute mile earlier this year. An ageing man but every bit still legendary.
And with Sir Rog’ sounding the klaxon we were off!
All that was running though my head was “Pace yourself”, “Be conservative”, “Take it easy” and all my watch was saying was “You’re going too fast”!
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t flying like I did in the GNR but I was really having to try hard to ease off and not get carried away. Despite being ahead of schedule I kept calm and felt comfortable.
There were a couple of slight course changes from last year that I very much appreciated. The first was, instead of having to run on the ring road alongside a lane of moving traffic, we took an underpass and used a pathway running alongside the ring road; a definite improvement. The second was a lovely touch, paying tribute to Sir Roger Bannister by diverting to utilise the Iffley Road track – my second visit their in a year, having completed my first track race there in July (yes, it was a mile and no, it wasn’t sub-4 but was my best ever mile).
One criticism I would have of the course is the lack of marshalls and/or signs to warn of numerous items of pavement furniture, especially near the beginning of the race when it’s more congested so harder to see what’s coming. A few people had near misses with bollards and the like!
Not only was I once again graced with a superb selection of friends and family out on course to cheer me on but thanks to the drier weather, there were much bigger crowds on the route providing enthusiastic support. Wearing my club vest was a winner too as I got a lot of “Come on Witney”, “Well done Witney” and even a spectacular hullabaloo in the grounds of Christchurch College from a group of kids who I can only assume are from our Junior section. That, or they were just cheering anyone with any sort of name on their vest! It was also great to see a fellow club coach pop up a couple of times to shout me on – thanks Tony!
The bands that were dotted along the route were equally invaluable to keeping the old left-right-left-right motion going.
The hardest section of the race is at around 9 and a half miles where you sharply kick up from the river towpath on to the rising ring road. I dug deep and upped my cadence and concentrating on the downhill that I knew followed it. For some reason, the other late climb in Littlemore, didn’t seem as difficult as the last two years!
As the final miles ticked by I started to feel a sense of achievement. I was still
on target ahem ahead of target and felt good. Seeing the 12 mile board (much better mile markers this year although some seemed to be a little out of position) gave me the final lift I needed and I started to relax and increase pace. At the 13 mile mark it was time to let loose and go for every last second. Luckily I had the energy left to power home with a super-sprint!
I was so focussed on powering my arms and legs that I didn’t clock the time, until I stopped my watch. Holy moly! I was targeting a new PB (sub 1:46:59) but really wanted to get under the 1 hour 45 minute mark. Imagine my delight when I saw a time beginning 1:41 on my watch! It shows that by working on my technique, rather than “just” running, I have made big improvements at all distances this year.
And I was equally surprised to get my official time by text within half an hour of finishing – good work organisers! I never understand why chip-timed races take long to sort out the results and a big improvement on last year where I had to wait days for my official time after my chip washed off in the rain! The results were also up super quick on the Internet too.
The finish funnel was much better organised and much less crowded than previous years which really helps to return to normality but I was disappointed to see a cotton t-shirt rather than a technical tee. I appreciate that professional race organisation costs money but given the number of sponsors on the back of the shirt and the entry fee of over £30 I’d say a technical tee isn’t too much to ask.
It was great to see some familiar faces after the race (sorry I didn’t recognise you Joel!), lovely to meet Henry for the first time and I’m sorry that I didn’t get a chance to see some of my Tuesday night group cross the finish line.
After some delicious mud pie made by my vegan club-mate Jackie, in return for the lift, it was time to head back to the car. Wow! The queue for the shuttle buses was huge. So huge we decided to retrace the first two miles of the course back to the BMW factory car park. A nice way to keep the legs moving but certainly an area for improvement for next year: more buses needed please.
Overall, the event was much better organised than both previous years. It is a bit pricey and a shame about the t-shirt but a great atmosphere and a great course. The virtually ideal weather capped a perfect race day for me and a hat trick of PBs at the Oxford Half. A sub 1:40 next year? Maybe!