Hauling yourself out of bed on a cold, soggy Saturday morning and heading to an exposed Warwickshire airfield to run round in circles doesn’t sound that appealing but I had something to prove.
Five weeks ago I ran the Oxford Half in an attempt to add another PB to my year of PBs but I ran the first few kilometres like a dick and paid for it in the last few. Writing my strategy down, in a vain attempt to make it more real, hadn’t helped – a severe case of advice amnesia took hold on the start line and by the time I shook it off it was too late. The damage was done.
Despite legs of lead, I still hung on for my second fastest half marathon and was only 15 seconds off a PB but couldn’t help being disappointed.
I knew I was in PB shape after a great 3 months of training and when my wife suggested I find another half marathon straight away who was I to refuse. The search for a flat half commenced only a matter of hours after getting home from the Oxford Half!
My weekends can be chocker-block but fortunately I found the Raceways Autumn Shakespeare event near Stratford-upon-Avon was on an unusually free weekend. And it was flat.
But it was on an airfield. In November. The wind and rain could be horrendous. And involved four 5k laps with an additional small loop to make up the distance. Oh. Maybe this wasn’t the sure shot I was looking for.
The search continued but I couldn’t find a flat race on a free weekend so I convinced myself that the exposed, groundhog day-inducing lapped course of the Autumn Shakespeare event would have to do; perhaps the laps would help me keep my pace disciplined and the laps would be good mental training for my London Marathon training in the New Year. And who knows, the weather might be fine.
Cue the most torrential rain we’ve had in months.
The hour’s journey across the Cotswolds to Long Marston airfield was not very pleasant. The rain was still lashing down and there were huge puddles of standing water on most roads. Luckily at that time of the morning the roads were quiet. While the puddles retained there size, the nearer I got to the race, the rain lessened.
On arrival I was greeted by a smiling face – painted on to the nose of an old plane carcass! My first impressions of the venue left me a little nervous. There wasn’t much here and the couple of single storey buildings in the distance looked a bit run down. Heathrow T5 this was not!
However, after the short walk from the parking, Race HQ was warm, dry and well organised. We’d been briefed to check an entry list to learn our number before trying to collect the race bib but not sure why, as the smiling face (this time on a human rather than a plane) at registration just needed my name.
After a quick check of my England Athletics number I was handed my bib. There was space to grab a quiet corner to attach my number and I wandered off to find the “facilities”. There was a good amount of toilets and although a bit dark and damp, at least they were actually in a building and not portaloos.
I took to the tarmac to get warmed up and get my watch set up before catching up with my clubmates (who were taking on the marathon race – there were 5k, 10k, half and full marathons simultaneously) and heading to the start.
The start and finish of each lap sits snuggly in a drag racing stadium so is nice and sheltered and, I should imagine, in the spring and summer versions of this event holds more spectators than the hardy few that were there today.
In a reasonably organised fashion (like with many races, it was hard to hear the instructions) the four races were assembled; the marathon had a slightly advanced start position to allow them to taker a loop to top up the 5k laps to full marathon distance and those of on the half marathon had a smaller loop to top us up to the 21k.
Each race was staggered by a minute or two which helped get each race underway cleanly but also resulted in a good mix of runners on the course. Despite coming up to slower 5k and 10k runners, the entry fields were relatively small and there was plenty of room to navigate. I was taken slightly by surprise when the marathon lead bike suddenly came from behind but again, a side step to the left allowed the lead runners to come through with no problem to either their race or mine.
On paper, the lap route doesn’t look ideal: 5 hairpin turns (although one is nice and open) and a further 6 right-angle-ish corners. The wide and grippy airstrip tarmac meant tackling them was no issue. The two tightest hairpins disrupt your pace slightly but I really didn’t find it a problem. The flat course meant it was easy to get back in to a steady rhythm.
Some of the tarmac is a bit broken and potholed but, again, the space meant it wasn’t an issue to avoid them.
A feature of the event that I’ve only ever encountered at the London Marathon before was a painted course line that mapped the officially measured course. It not only gave me something to concentrate on instead of my tired legs but ensured I didn’t cover a metre of distance I didn’t need to. I was amazed how many people weren’t hugging it more closely.
The varying lengths of straight that joined the tight corners kept the view changing and meant the laps seem to pass quickly. Also, the benefit of the out-and-back approach to the corners meant that any wind (and there was a little in places) that slowed you one way, helped on the other.
The races featured a real range of runners which added to a friendly feel. I was surprised at how few club runners there were – that, or runners were opting not to wear their club vests? Due to the traffic-free, lapped course there weren’t many marshals (there didn’t need to be) but the ones on the course were fantastically interactive and supportive – nearly as good as the Cotswold Classic marshals 😉
As the field thinned, with 5k and 10k runners completing their distances, it did get tougher as there were less people to break up your lap but I had a nice chat with a couple of runners. Runner 711 was close to me for virtually the entire race so we had spoke a few times.
We got chatting near 3k as he tried to make sure his watch was working properly and it turned out he was also aiming for 1:40. When I asked how close he’d got to a sub-100 before his reply took me by surprise; this was his first half marathon! It turns out he’d parkrunned for a few years and upped to 10k and now wanted to get a half in before Christmas.
I’d set my watch to warn me when my pace was +/- 5 seconds per km off my target pace and with very few buzzes I knew I was running fairly consistently. My fellow sub-100 runner had set his watch to run against a virtual pacer so it acted as another verification of our pace. He came past me with just over 1k to go. “Let’s see what I’ve got left” he said as he passed me. I’d already decided to build up to 10k pace with 1k to go and then push from the last dead turn. I caught him just before the final turn and unleashed my trademark sprint finish in desperation of that sub-100. I new it was going to be close.
The chip timing meant as soon as I could catch my breath and stand up straight after crossing the line I could go and tap my bib number in and get a print out of my result.
And what a result it was!
“One hour, thirty…”
The metaphorical cheer in my head blinded me from seeing the rest of the time, in the style of the Iffley Road crowd drowning out the annoucement of Bannister’s sub 4 minute mile. In the same way, the rest of the time didn’t matter – I’d broken the 100 minute barrier!
Only once I’d calmed down could I read the full time of 1:39:52. Eight seconds inside my stretch target and a new PB by 1 minute 19 seconds.
I’d pointed my raceday running buddy to the time printer. His watch has said he’d missed out by a few seconds and he returned, confirming the printed slip said the same. So close! But we shook hands and he vowed to see if he could sneak in another attempt before Christmas.
When I checked the results online this evening I was left with a smile on my face. Runner 711, or Michael Maher as he’s normally known, was not only a Vet55 but he won the category. And what’s more, when he read his print out he must have looked at his gun time rather than his chip time. He’d actually completed his first half marathon in 1:39:57! I hope he’s realised and is celebrating.
I got myself wrapped up warm, grabbed a sausage bap and headed back to the course to throw a few cheers at my clubmates still lapping the course for their marathon efforts. They were looking good but starting to feel it. Having only run the London Marathon I’m not sure how I’d cope with 8 laps of a quiet airfield! I hope they’re happy with their times.
In summary, I really enjoyed this very different race. The course was not boring. The tight corners didn’t disrupt my rhythm. The weather didn’t get in the way of my PB attempt either. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. I stuck to my strategy and it paid off; proving once again that running an even pace and finishing strongly is the most effective way to a PB. I even managed a fabled negative split. Just. 50:07 first half, 49:45 second half.
I’d like to get more of the club down, perhaps in the summer, to see if we can score a few more PBs.
In case you’re interested here’s a side-by-side comparison of my Oxford Half Marathon effort and today’s PB. Orange is heart rate, blue is pace, green is elevation.