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Oxford Half-marathon: Race report

October 14, 2012

Kassam stadium in the fog

6:20am and my alarm goes off. The previous night had been spent trying not to get drawn into the online coverage of Ironman Kona. I give it five minutes to snooze before forcing myself up for porridge and coffee. The air feels colder than it has been for ages, and it’s dark.

Fed, showered and dressed, I leave the house. There’s a frost on the car. The first I’ve had to scrape off this season.

It’s at this point that I wonder whether my only concession to the cold – plasters over my nipples, since you ask – will be enough. It’s not traditional vest and shorts weather. It’ll warm up, though.

Sunday morning traffic is easy-going. The sunshine is glorious and the sky cloud free. Perfect for running. I’m making good time and all’s well, but then I cross the Ridgeway – an 85-mile ridge of limestone separating London from Oxford – and the road descends into an impenetrable fog.

I see a flashing traffic notice ahead of me, at the side of the road, but it’s indistinct in the mist. I slow down as I drive closer. Eventually the message becomes clear: ‘Fog’. Thanks.

Beyond the pea-souper, the rest of the journey is easy until I join a slow-moving queue to the Kassam Stadium. The memory of the hour-long traffic jam getting to the car park at my last half-marathon flashes through my head as I watch the thirty minutes until kick-off count down. But this is different, the traffic moves, and once in the stadium it’s easy enough to find somewhere to park.

The pint of coffee I had before leaving the house is pressing on my bladder. I dash to the stadium and find the loos. There’s a solitary cubicle with a long queue of resigned-looking runners – I’m reminded of the scene in Trainspotting when Renton dives into the worst toilet in Scotland – but there’s plenty of standing room.

I jog over to the start line, limbering up as I run. I fear I’m cutting it fine, but it turns out that the warm-up is still going on when I get to the start line. I see balloons attached to the pacers – 1:40 appears to be the fastest, so I try to squeeze in ahead of that. The start line is packed, though, and I have to stand at the edge of the road while the organisers hand over to Roger Bannister to honk the starting klaxon.

‘Did you find the loos,’ a guy standing next to me asks his friend. ‘There was a massive queue.’

‘Yeah, but I took a massive dump at your place.’

Oxford: city of scholars and gentlemen.

The klaxon honks out, and continues to honk out, potentially causing minor inner-ear damage to the runners closer to Sir Banister. We surge forwards, and come to an almost complete halt as the bottleneck that is the start line halts everyone in their tracks. The klaxon stops, much to my relief. Someone has wrestled Sir Banister away from the air horn.

Once through the narrow starting gates, I’m aware that I need to get further up the field. But that won’t be something I can do immediately since there are cars parked along the side of the course and the road is thick with runners. I hang to the edges and skirt round clumps of runners, making rapid progress through the field in the first mile.

It turns out that there are a lot of runners who have pushed themselves ambitiously to the front of the field and are now finding themselves swimming against the stream. I wonder whether the race organisers should have marked suggested target-finish-time pens along the starting area in order to try to give a bit more order to the starting proceedings.

I pass the first mile marker, which I don’t really believe, and sure enough it’s a little way down the road before Garmin calls the first mile. I’m running faster than I had planned (6:06), but I’m feeling okay, so I keep plugging away.

There are some slight downhills, which I ride out, and I hold my own on the uphills. The field thins out as we head out towards the Mini plant. Once there, we weave around a little. There’s a race photographer hanging around behind a blind corner, which means that there are going to be some very naturalistic photos of the race. I’m not sure that’s a good thing – normally when I spot a race photographer I’ll try to refine my running style, or at least make it look less sloppy, but no such chance.

I grab a drink at the first water station and manage a couple of gulps before chucking it away. Drinking is harder than I remembered. I haven’t practised drinking on the run for a while.

Oxford Half-marathon runners

Runners on the finishing straight of the Oxford Half-marathon

Exiting the Mini plant we head out over the ring road flyover, the gradient up is slight, but the descent the other side is slight and feels significantly longer than the ascent. We turn off and twist down a back street before picking up a cycle path and heading under the ring road.

Someone shouts ‘Come on Abingdon.’ I haven’t seen any Amblers, so I wonder whether this is someone I know from my old club.

Back on residential streets we head down quite a steep descent towards Iffley Road. I go with gravity and stretch out, making some progress on a couple of runners. It’s steeper than I had expected, but levels out quickly and twists to the right before joining Iffley Road and heading towards the scene of the first ever sub-4-minute mile. My pace has evened out around 6:10s.

I see a colleague at the corner of the road, who recognises me and shouts encouragement. I hit Iffley Road feeling strong.

‘Come on, you’re nearly there!’ Some lads shout out the upper window of a house along Iffley Road.

‘Not quite,’ I shout back.

‘How long you got left?’

‘Six or seven miles.’

‘Oh.’

There’s a water station and I grab a bottle. I decide to take a gel – forest fruits (tasty!) – but struggle to get it down me. If drinking water on the run is proving tricky, swallowing a sticky gel is a positive challenge. I manage to gulp most down with a bit of water, but I can feel it sitting on my stomach. I run over Magdalen Bridge feeling decidedly ropey.

We hang a left at the University Botanic Gardens and head into Christchurch Meadows. There’s a guy ahead of me who is, from the looks of things, wearing the same vest as me. I close down the distance between us as the gel settles in my stomach, and we duke it out as we join the Thames, swapping positions as we run up to Christchurch College, joined by a couple of others as we hit a short section of road before turning back down the canal path along the Thames.

Eventually I manage to shake him, but trail behind the other guys who have picked up the pace. Or I’ve slowed. I’m not sure which. I’m trying to focus on regaining composure and recharging for the final three miles once we’re off the towpath.

We pass the pub at Iffley Lock, there’s a band playing and it helps me along. I started this race eyeing a 1:25 finish, but I think I can make a 1:24. If only I keep strong.

The climb off the path and back to the cycle track alongside the ring road is short and tough. I grab a bottle of water at the bridge over the Thames and take a few swigs before discarding. My watch chimes the tenth mile. 6:41. Not so good.

I chase down the runners ahead of me, knowing that I’ve only got 5k left to run. 5k feels easy. I’ve had a bad mile, but I’m getting over it quickly.

We go through an underpass below the ring road and I pass my colleague again, who cheers me on. Before I know it, I’m on a road that I drove down this morning. I know this terrain, and there’s a lot of downhill, but also some uphill.

Taking one mile at a time, I push onwards, fighting for the 12-mile marker. I pass another band, and then I spot Julian from the Abingdon Amblers standing by the side of the road with a camera. I wonder whether I’ve already passed him once more today.

We pass the fabled 12-mile sign as we turn under a bridge. I forgo water at the last refreshment station because it would just slow me down. After a couple of roundabouts, the Kassam Stadium comes into sight – bathed in sunshine rather than shrouded in mist like earlier this morning – and the strains of a brass band fill the air.

I pass the 13-mile marker, hang a left and run into the stadium. I’ve not had a stadium finish before. Turns out that with two stands full of spectators and the finish line tantalisingly close, it’s something I like.

Short of a sprint finish, I cross the line and stop my watch. 1:22:11. Despite having only really had one good week of training in the past month and a bit (holidays and illness knocking my routine fairly substantially) I’m less than 20 seconds away from my PB.

I congratulate and thank my fellow finishers. A woman who I passed in the last mile has come fifth and knocked a good few seconds off her PB. ‘I felt good. I should have gone faster. I could have gone faster.’

‘You’ve got a London Marathon Championship time, though,’ I say.

‘Already had one of those,’ she says. I suspect she’s going to have a very good marathon time by the close of 2013.

Oxford Half-marathon medal

The medal, complete with Mini

I collect my goody bag, and go fiddle with the chip-time machines at the end of the funnel. I’ve not seen these before, and after 13.1 miles they’re a bit like the Krypton Factor. Oxygen-starved runners jab at buttons like clerical zombies. I emit a Chewbacca-style yowl as I try to work out how to print a receipt. Befuddled by technology, I decide to cut my losses and soak up some atmosphere.

Before long, the main bulk of runners starts to come in and the population of the road swells. It’s time to go before the traffic becomes a nightmare. I edge myself into a stationary line of cars trying to exit the Kassam complex. Then it strikes me. The car park exits on to a road closed for the half-marathon. Damn.

Despite the slightly chaotic start, and the somewhat chaotic traffic at the end, the Oxford Half-marathon is a definite PB course. Next year I’m coming back, well-trained, fully fit, and I’m going to see what happens.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. domholdsworth permalink
    October 15, 2012 8:50 am

    Great work, Lewis. Fantastic result and a gripping race report! Dom

  2. Tom permalink
    October 15, 2012 1:25 pm

    Great write up Lewis, enjoyed that.

    Just have one question if I may, have you ever had stomach upset issues from gels?

    Spent 4-5 hours after yesterdays race, lying down in doubled over pain back and forth from the bathroom, and still feel fairly unsettled today. I took 2 SIS gels during the race, at about 5 and 10 miles, the last one was a +Caffeine one.

    Reading around it seems fairly normal, but this was supposed to be a trial for next week, as I haven’t really used gels up to now, and it doesn’t bode well.

    Any recommendations for good and bad ones in terms of evil stomach pains?

    • October 15, 2012 3:15 pm

      Sounds nasty. It might be the caffeine as that can sometimes do funny things to your digestive system, especially combined with the churning aspect of running.
      It might be the type of gel not agreeing with you – they can vary quite a bit. But you don’t really want to try anything different on race day.
      Did you take some water with the gel? Sometimes that can help make them that bit easier to digest. Normally (although clearly not yesterday) I try to drag out a gel over half a mile or so to avoid bombarding my stomach.

  3. Waine permalink
    October 22, 2012 10:08 pm

    Great reading a report of a race i was involved in. Great remembering all the features you describe, well done on the time!. Interesting what you say about the first mile too, I was convinced it was short (though had no fancy gizmo to prove it) and it’s good to have that backed up.
    Well written report too! Thanks very much 🙂

    • October 23, 2012 8:07 am

      Thanks! I hope you had a good run – the conditions were perfect, and I loved the part of the course that went along the Thames.

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