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Race report: Burnham Beeches Half-marathon

August 19, 2013

A while ago, we were driving somewhere and I’d insisted that we had an episode of Marathon Talk for the trip. ‘They talk about poo a lot, don’t they?’ My girlfriend commented part-way through a gingerbread man-heavy installment of Tony’s Trials. And sometimes – rarely, if you’re lucky – a running tale just has to embrace bodily functions.

The Burnham Beeches Half-marathon was my first shot at the 13.1 distance all those years back, and eventually led me on to tackle the full. So while mulling my return to racing, it seemed like a fitting event to stick in the calendar for the normally quiet August period. It was only when I received a race details email a week or so before the actual race that it struck me the race was being held earlier (9:30, instead of 10) and that race numbers and chips had to be picked up from race HQ (a good mile from the car park), that I realised this meant an earlier morning than I’d fully anticipated.

Come race morning, I turfed myself out of bed as quietly as I could, had coffee, breakfast and went through the three-‘s’ alliterative morning routine (with the exception of a shave). I’d gathered most of my kit the night before, but couldn’t find my gel belt (for carrying gels during the race), so decided I’d go without as time was running short.

The drive was quick and quiet, which is one of the advantages of being up early on a Sunday. I parked up, discarded any clothing I didn’t need for the race and jogged over to race HQ as a warm-up. It was humid, a little windy, but overall not bad conditions for the race.

Once suitable numbered, chipped and limbered, I gathered at the starting line. The race director commented to the assembled group that this had been the smallest turnout for the race since its inception, so he’d welcome any feedback as to why this might be. After a little wait, we were under starter’s orders and then off for the canter.

The area is hilly. I knew this. My training has been inconsistent and largely over shorter distances as I’ve been holding off a relapse of my Achilles. I knew this. Still, I belted off, feeling happy to be out for a run in pretty surroundings and buoyed up by the general excitement of a race.

Part-way through the first mile, I fell into stride to chat to a guy who I’d talked to at other races in the past. He was coming back from a knee injury; I commented on my slow return to form; then we parted ways as I continued to canter on. The forest road dipped and I was tearing along, passing other runners, generally feeling awesome. Even as we went over the first hillock I was feeling good and fresh. I knew I was probably going a little too fast, but didn’t look at my watch as the first mile marker sailed past because I was running on feel.

This continued for a while, and soon enough mile 2 flashed past. I did check my watch then and was a little apprehensive to see a 6:03 lap pop up. But it had been largely downhill, and it was all time in the bank for the dreaded hill at miles 6 and 13. I pressed on.

At mile 4 (where the air turned thick with the aroma of cows) I remember thinking ‘Well, that’s a third of the way through.’ And, yes, it would be had it been a 12-mile race. As it was, I was dimly aware that I might have been running this more like a 10k than a half.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the hill that signaled the close of the first lap hit me hard. It wasn’t steep, but it was long and draining. My pace slowed and I could feel my thighs burning, but on passing the half-way sign I checked my watch: just shy of 42. I was going well (on paper), and I started to regain some pace as the hill leveled out and we hit the descents again.

In reality, I wasn’t going faster – it was just feeling easier – and the overtaking I’d done in the first mile turned to being overtaken as I made backwards progress down the field. I focused on the next drinks station, conscious that I was thirsty.

The mile 8 sign passed. ‘Two-thirds,’ I thought before realising I actually had 5 miles left to the finish line. 5 miles felt like a long way. My lungs filled with cowpat-flavoured air.

‘You’re second lady,’ one of the marshals called out to the woman who ran past me. I contemplated calling out some encouragement, but instead started fantasising about the next drinks station. Man I was thirsty.

Then, the woman ahead veered off the road and dashed into a bush.

‘You’re 22nd,’ a water-station marshal called out to me as I tried not to choke on my much-needed cup of water.

‘You’re second lady – you can catch the one upfront,’ another marshal called out as the woman overtook me again. ‘No, I can’t,’ she called back as she dashed off the course again.

I carried on putting one foot in front of the other, feeling increasingly like I needed the fuel injection – or at least psychological benefit – of a sugary gel. In that moment, I understood Chris Froome’s decision to throw away seconds in a penalty for getting Richie Porte to fetch him some gels just a few kilometres from the end of a mountain stage. Yeah, me and Froomey, just a couple of energy-depleted elite competitors.

The mile 11 marker made unnecessary leisurely progress towards me, drawing alongside me as the second woman again overtook me (accompanied by a guy from a Tri club – for shame). ‘Just a Parkrun to go,’ I quipped to them, but more to spur me along. 3.1 miles, or 5k, the kind of distance I should be able to knock out unthinkingly. Gunning down the hill at Finsbury Park for two laps and seeing how long I can hold on to the pace on a Saturday morning is one thing, but doing it when it feels like someone’s taken a baseball bat and an ill temper to your legs is a different matter.

I picked up the pace to keep up with Tri-guy for a while, but it wasn’t helping, I couldn’t kid myself out of the fact I was spent. He, and a few other runners, slipped off into the distance as I willed the final water station closer.

Grabbing a cup, I slowed to a crawl to drink deeply. The advantage of this was that I didn’t drown myself and was able to deposit my cup neatly in a bin, the down-side was that I had to summon the energy to pick up the pace again for the final hill. Eventually I got moving again, and passed the sweeper bike and the back of the field coming to the end of the first lap. They cheered me on; I cheered them on. Neither of us moved any faster for this mutual support, but it felt cheer-inducing.

Finally, with a flourishing right-hand turn and sharp left, I was back in the grounds of the swanky private school that was playing race HQ for the day. Following a short-and-sharp juddering descent on to the cricket field, I was (assured by signs that I was) 400 metres away from the finish line. I could hear another runner pummeling the grass behind me – now was the time to try to regain some glory, to wind it up into a glorious sprint finish – a battle to the line, cheered on by the amassed families and relatives and marshals all lined up on the grassy bank beside the finish line.

Deep breaths, pistoning arms, lengthening strides. The 200m-to-go sign made achingly slow progress as the lactic built in my body and the guy behind me breathed down my neck.

And then, out of nowhere, a juddering feeling in my stomach as I dry heaved, still distant of the finish line. I slowed and was passed. Regaining control, I picked up the pace again, only to slow to wretch a little. The final 100m or so was something of a fartlek as I sped up, slowed to heave, sped up, slowed to heave.

It might have looked like a dip to the line as I finally reached the race finish. A final unnecessary flourish inspired by the spirit of the World Championships. But it would have quickly become obvious as I bent over the finishing funnel fence, on the immaculately manicured lawns of the swanky private school (which was doing a fine trade in tea and scones for spectators) that I was parting company with my breakfast.

‘Well done – I finished about 20 seconds behind you,’ commented the guy I’d been chatting to in the first mile as I regained my composure. He looked like he’d done a considerably better job of pacing.

I was separated from my timing chip, picked up my medal and goodie bag and made my way to collapse somewhere discreet on the grass. Along the way, I congratulated a few people who I’d seen pass me. It was only as I was about to tuck into the Mars bar and water that I noticed I’d been wandering around with vomit on my shoulder. I washed it off and made my slow, tired way back to the car, a mile away.

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