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Race report: Southend Half-marathon 2013

June 10, 2013

There’s something bittersweet about a comeback PB. It’s simultaneously a declaration that you’re on the mend and an acknowledgement that you’re not where your current state of fitness should be. However, as my first half-marathon since taking time out to let my Achilles heel recover at the start of the year, I was always guaranteed a PB of some sort at Southend.

With the knowledge that this race was coming up, I’d started to build my long runs up to half-marathon length over the past few weeks. Maintaining a steady pace had worked out fairly well for the first 10 miles each time, but the final three miles were like treading through treacle. Each time, the distance had become easier, but that wasn’t saying much.

I settled on a couple of race goals: run comfortably and aim to finish in under 90 minutes.

The morning of the race was cool, and there was a thoroughly noticeable breeze blowing off the North Sea, which would provide both a welcome tailwind and a nasty headwind. Following slow progression through the traffic jam for the car park and the winding queue for the gents’ toilets, I made my way to the start line. There was talk that the start had been delayed due to unexpected circumstances, but I’m naturally skeptical of the quality of information gathered while waiting for a urinal. This, however, was me being uncharitable, because the start had indeed been delayed – which was good news for many runners who were still queuing for the baggage tent or Portaloos.

After a bit of a group warm-up – ominously started by the PA system asking the assembled runners ‘Who’s regretting their decision to run today?’ – the race started with a countdown and applause. I wasn’t particularly well-placed, so had to wait a while before gently shuffling through the start arch and then hang to the edges of the course to find a comfortable pace.

The first two miles wind through housing estates before you hit the seafront, and I felt a bit like I was straining at the leash. I passed a lot of people and nearly ran into a lamp-post, but gradually the crowds thinned out and I was able to settle into a rhythm.

Running towards the first turnaround point, the wind didn’t feel entirely at my back, but once through the hair-pin bend of the turn I came to appreciate just how wind-assisted the run had been so far. I dug in, and at the 5-mile mark took a gel. There were lots of water stations on the course, but water was dished out in small plastic cups. Normally this would be fine, but I’d got out of practice at drinking on the run, so my hydration strategy felt a lot like drowning. Eventually – having filled my eyes, nose and lungs with water – I ceded that each time I took on water I would need to slow down a bit.

Once you’re headed towards the second turnaround spot, you can see what’s happening in the rest of the race, which is one of the great things about the Southend course. It’s a big race – more than 1900 people finished – and some were in army garb carrying hefty backpacks, another man was in a police cap and stab jacket (which seemed a bit extreme), another guy had opted to carry a flagpole on his back. Each to their own. The guys at the head of the field looked to be quickly catching up with the tail of the field.

Coming back down the seafront, and with the wind to my back again, I started catching up and passing the tail of the field. This was a good thing, because the runners ahead were quite a bit in the distance, so this made the relentless forward progression seem a bit more manageable.

Soon enough, though, the turnaround point came again, and I was head-first into the wind. I’d planned to take a second gel at 10 miles, but I could feel the fluids rattling around in my stomach, so the jury was out. I slowed to sip some water, and a chap who had been behind me nipped round me. Tossing the cup aside, I regained a bit of speed to keep pace.

‘Want to take turns shielding?’ He asked. An Arctic gust hit me square in the chest. This seemed like a very good idea. So, for the two or three miles back up the seafront, Steve (for that was his name) and I took it in turns to act as a buffer for the other. I’d felt like I was flagging, so this was just what I needed – partly to have a break from the wind, and partly to have someone to try to keep pace with.

The course then cut inland, and up an incline which took some of the wind out of my sails. However, there was another guy ahead also feeling the burn of the hill, so as Steve overtook him, making good on the final three miles of the race, I had a new target. Knowing that it was less than a Parkrun to the finish line helped, but I still needed to dug in and keep focused to avoid slowing down. Gradually, I closed the distance, and – in what turned out to be a blessed relief – completely missed the 11-mile marker. The 12-mile sign appeared on the roadside, and I was just a mile (and a bit) away from respite.

After keeping my cool through the tantalising ‘800m to go’ sign and the ‘400m to go’ sign, I swung into the grassy final straight and gave it hell. Or ran a bit faster, arms flailing in the air, head back, grimace on. I came close to pipping the next runner at the line, but not quite. I did, however, cross the line, stop my watch, and finally have a chance to actually drink rather than inhale some water.

My chip time was 1:21:49. (I’d crossed the line in 30th place according to the results, and according to Garmin I’d run relatively evenly.)  Not just a comeback PB, but an actual PB by a modest 4 seconds. Which is something I need to digest, because my fitness still isn’t where it should be, but perhaps this comeback is going to help me find some substantive improvements. This isn’t the last half-marathon I’ll run this year, and although the next one in my diary is hillier, I definitely need to line up a flat autumn race to chart my progress.

Now, while my ankle held up well in the race, and my soreness is largely muscular this evening, I fear there were some serious casualties at the half-marathon today. It was chilly, and clearly drinking from plastic cups results in a lot of water being spilled everywhere, which turns technical fabric into something akin to a cheese-grater. I spotted a guy crossing the finish line with two blooming rosettes on his white running vest. ‘That man’s bleeding’ my girlfriend announced, horrified. Indeed he was, as if he’d been shot twice. So, here’s the lesson: nipple plasters.

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