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Race report: Oxford Half-marathon

October 15, 2013

After my ego had recovered from the Burnham Beeches Half-marathon ‘vomgate’, I’d decided that it would be for the best if I settled myself back into a routine of three runs a week – two shortish after-work runs and one longer run. 

This didn’t go to plan.

In the four weeks running up to the Oxford Half, I’d managed two three-run weeks, one two-run week and one one-run week. That looks like a taper, but it really followed a pattern something like 3-2-1-3. I’d managed two half-marathon-length runs in that period – one of which hadn’t felt as bad as expected, and one of which had felt considerably worse than expected. In that order.

Things weren’t looking great.

I arrived at the Kassam Stadium in Oxford to a drizzling respite in the heavy rain that hung in the air in almost exactly the same way bricks don’t (thanks Douglas Adams). I dropped my bag, emptied my bladder and jogged over to the already-crowded start. (I say jogged – I meandered through the crowds at a jog until the density of lycra- and breathable fabric-clad runners became too great to circumnavigate.

It was cold and the spotting rain was turning into something more foreboding. I nudged my way over toward the 1:30 pacer and not wanting* a repeat of vomgate decided that I’d stick with the 6:52-mile pace until half-way through, then try to pick up some speed.

* I’d participated in a slightly disapproving conversation with my girlfriend following the whole running-until-you’re-sick incident. Apparently, doing your hobby until you vomit isn’t a good thing. Apparently she’s never knitted until she’s been sick. And I couldn’t find a good reason why running-till-you-vom might be a good thing. Sensible, chastened mode deployed.

Which was all well and good, but as ever with these things, people had massively over-estimated themselves and first-time racers had pushed themselves up to the start. I hung behind the pacer, but had to dodge to the fringes of the road to get round some of the backwards-swimmers, and then I was a bit ahead of the pacer, and hanging back just felt slow and like I’d be out in the rain – which felt like it was getting worse – for longer. So I set off at a comfortable pace.

The first few miles passed generally unremarkably. It continued to rain. The chill in the air became pleasant as my body warmed up. The rain got a bit worse. We cut through the Mini plant, over the fly-over, through the underpass, and headed towards town.

I’d not been paying attention to my watch – I just set it to show elapsed time, no sign of distance, no splits – and hadn’t spotted any mile markers. Checking how long I’d been running for, separate from any knowledge of the distance I’d been running for, would be meaningless, so I put it out of mind.

At the turn from Temple Cowley to Iffley Road I took a gel, because I thought my legs were beginning to fatigue a little. Shortly after I was feeling back on track.

We passed the famous Iffley Road track, hung to the left and entered Christchurch Meadows – and lo and behold, the first mile marker I’d spotted: Mile 7. We were half-way through the race, and I’d spotted my first mile marker. I briefly wondered if that would prove a problem for anyone paying particular attention to their splits.

The riverside paths were pocked with puddles, and so the running became more technical as I tried to dodge a full-foot drenching. Not that I need have bothered, because my feet were soaking, and I had a distinct sense of hot movement in my right shoe. My insole and foot were rubbing against each other like tectonic plates and I felt resigned to the fact I wasn’t going to escape a blister.

The rain got heavier. I spotted the 9-mile mark and checked my watch for the first time during the race – 56-something.

The route exits Christchurch Meadows, crosses Folly Bridge and then hit the equally-sodden Thames Towpath. I planned to have my second gel once I was back on the ring road to see me through the undulating last few miles through Littlemore.

As I mounted the short incline up to the ring road, I spotted my third mile marker: Mile 10. I took on some water, knocked back the gel and then got back to the task at hand.

The next section of the course is a bit wearying because you’re going up and down slight inclines, which can be deceptively tiring. But, that said, I was feeling okay. The burning in my foot seemed to have abated, and I was still pulling closer to runners ahead of me.

Then, before I’d really thought about it, I saw my fourth mile marker: Mile 12. With only a mile to go, I consciously decided to start winding it up. A consistent feature of my mid-week runs is trying to belt it down from Tavistock Square, through Russell Square and down to the office on Holborn – a run of close enough to a mile to provide good pacing and reserve practice for this last stretch.

Navigating round the various roundabouts that lead up to the finish at the Kassam Stadium I picked off a couple more runners, then dug deep for the dog-leg into the stadium and over the finish line, driven on by the sound of someone’s laboured breathing behind me.

And so, having gone from expecting a 1:28 or similar based on the pacing strategy I’d abandoned within the opening metres of the race, I’d managed a tough-but-not-massively-uncomfortable 1:23:09.

I walked through the finisher’s funnel, collecting water, a banana, a medal, a goody bag and a t-shirt (good haul) and then collected my bag. Having gleefully informed my girlfriend that I hadn’t even dry-wretched, much less vomited, I dried myself off as best I could and piled on as many clothes as I’d brought with me.

I immediately regretted my decision not to bring spare shoes or socks. I ate all the edible goody-bag goodies, bought a tea, and made my slow way back to London. All the while, feeling like I was about to start suffering from trench foot.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2013 5:49 pm

    Hi Lewis, what wonderful race reports. I am spending a pleasant day at work reading through them – shhh.

    Rhubarb & custard gels – YES PLEASE. We don’t get those over here, how terribly unfair.

    My husband and I ran our first marathon last month, he finished the race in similar fashion to your Burnham one, I thankfully did not. Apparently the medal givers were reluctant to approach him 🙂

    • October 18, 2013 8:23 pm

      Hi Susan, don’t worry – your secret’s safe with me! I prefer to think of vomgate as a macho badge of honour – or at least, I can see a time where I might be able to fashion it into such given sufficient passage of time…

      The gels are from a company called Torq. I don’t know if they ship internationally, but I’d heartily recommend them.

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