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Gatekeepers and clubhouses

March 15, 2015
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This afternoon I was following two quite disparate conversations on Twitter, which both stem from one peculiar behaviour.

The first conversation concerned the Spen 20, a 20-mile hilly race held by Spenborough & Disctict AC, where a runner had been pulled out of the race by a marshal just 1.5 miles in for running too slow.

From the limited information available online, no cut-off time was mentioned in the entry forms. And, quite aside from that, 1.5 miles into a race is really, really early to force a runner to step aside.

The second was a conversation about this article from the Telegraph bemoaning the lack of commercial success of a Great Novel.

As a precis to the Telegraph piece, the journalist bemoans that ebooks tend to be genre fiction, and that there seems to be little commercial oomph behind highbrow literary fiction – here touted as books that are tough to read.

There’s a snobbery in both these cases – a kind of insistence that in order to validate your place in a particular club (be that running or reading), you need to be able to have jumped over certain hurdles. You need to have run a sub-60 minute 10k. You must have read Midnight’s Children. But of course you’ll be negatively splitting that race right? And naturally you’ll have a well-formed opinion on Joyce’s presentation of Ireland in Ulysses?

Is all this so different from some kind of frat-house initiation? Forcing people to run qualifying times at their local parkrun before they can be allowed to enter anything so auspicious as an amateur road race. Prescribing the 20 finest works of literary fiction from the last two centuries before letting someone read that new frothy beach book.

Are these barriers the best thing for our clubhouses? Are the gatekeepers up to the job? Because if you’re going to set these barriers – time, assumptions about quality and merit – you need to be comfortable with the implications: a lack of participation and general indifference. Is a race with 100 amateur runners all tracking 7-minute miles better than a race with 1000 amateur runners where the long tail of the field walks?

Participation is the only way to safeguard a future for the things we care deeply about. Without the succession of pop-fiction, publishers would never be able to produce the dense tomes of ‘quality’ fiction – for better or worse. Without the entrance fees of the hordes of runners, whatever pace they’re making, few races would ever be financially sustainable.

By reflected light

February 8, 2015
The fens at sunset

The fens at sunset

Running in the dying light of the day is becoming a great source of inspiration. The big skies running through a molten sequence of colours before night sets in.

Cambridge is incredibly dark. Like, really dark. The streetlights are spread widely and lit dimly – and the pavements are narrow and often more than a little uneven. A winning combination.

Naturally runners head for the miles of paths that spread out across the fens, some paved and shared with cyclists, some dirt tracks shared with grazing cattle. Weekdays, while the days are short and the sun has determinedly set by the time I leave the office, require a sturdy head torch. Weekends, though, when you’re late heading out and battling the setting sun, are aided by reflected light.

Puddles, the sluggish river and the drainage ditches cut into the fens themselves are all lit by the dusk light, helping to navigate the route. Sometimes there’s a mist hanging in the air, or a delicious thin wisp of log fire drifting lazily from a canal boat. The flatness of the terrain cloaks its scale, and it’s only the occasional flash of perspective from reflected light that helps give a sense of distance in the compact darkness of the fen.

Inspirational as these twilight runs might be, the primroses, daffodils and tulips pushing their way up along the city’s paths hint at warmer weather and longer evenings to come. I’m looking forward to that first evening run in sunshine.

Restarting routine

January 27, 2015

It would appear that I need routine in my life. I don’t want to be one of those people who needs structure and discipline, but I am. The evidence is undeniable.

Christmas came – the festive season, not the toe-curling smut-pun that concludes the excruciating The World is not Enough – and the mandatory structure of the working day dropped away for a gloriously unstructured two and a half weeks. Within a few days, we’d been getting up so late that lunchtime had back-shifted to 4:30 on a good day (and 5:30 on the worst).

And come the end of the fortnight-plus holiday, I’d squeezed in a grand total of three runs – of which precisely zero had been anything other than a last-minute dash to beat the flagging daylight. It took three days’ pre-emptive early nights and reluctantly set morning alarms to try to shake off the holiday jet-lag. The subsequent week, throwing myself out of bed while the morning was still dark (or, perhaps more accurately, starting to become light) felt like an epic struggle from a pit of quicksand.

So, I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that I need structure and discipline. (Booooor-ring.)

Struck by enthusiasm, I set my alarm early on the second Tuesday back at work. I would get up at 6, and I would run before I’d even had breakfast. Dammit, I was going to be a machine.

My enthusiasm churned round in my restless head as I tried desperately to get a good night’s sleep. Eventually I dropped off, at what must have about about half two.

The alarm went off at 6. I hit snooze. 20 times. And then got up at 7 and felt rotten for the rest of the day.

It turns out I’m not an early morning runner. So I ran home from work, using my bike lights to semi-light my way, and it was awesome. I might not have been a machine, but I felt satisfied and refreshed. And I slept really well that night.

And so a routine was reborn. Running home Tuesday and Thursday, and then running in the daylight unencumbered by a bag stuffed with work kit on the Sunday.

So yes, I need structure, but then running has always been about structure. Times per week; miles per run; pace per mile. It’s all about dedicating time. And the routine of running has always served a purpose – a target and focus in periods of aimlessness, an outlet at times of stress, and time to process and percolate those ideas that bubble up persistently, begging for something to become of them.

No sleep till Broxbourne

January 28, 2014

There are some runs you know are just going to hurt. Like the anti-smoking ads, there are some runs you’d rather cut out. But when you’re training for a marathon, there’s not much room for choice.
The sun was shining when I set off, but it being winter, I know it wouldn’t last long. There was maybe an hour of sunshine left, before dusk would set in, and eventually full darkness. I set off towards the Lea Vally, but would rather have headed off to bed.
Saturday hadn’t so much passed in a flash as in a blur. The first day of the weekend is the domain of the smug runner – those who get their long run out of the way early on, so they can bask in the satisfaction of having got it done for the rest of the weekend. Instead, I’d spent a pleasurable lunchtime in a tasty restaurant in Islington, after which we decamped to one of my favourite pubs, and then made our way to a housewarming party.
My shadow began stretching out before me, setting a pace I was never going to match, as I edged my way through the industrial estates that line the canal. The brutalist warehouses and tower blocks softened in the mellow dusk light.
This was feeling like hard work. The party had felt like it might be coming to an end around 11ish as the South London folk made their merry way back to the last night bus. But then there had been something of a second wind, and we finally got home at 5:30. Even at the time I thought I was getting a bit too old for those kind of shenanigans, but now I was really feeling it.
I trod gingerly through a section of muddy not-quite-flooding, which marked the closing metres before the M25 crossing. The light was fading quickly and the towpath was busy with dusk dog-walkers and cyclists heading back home after a day on the trails.
Naturally, with such a late night, it had been a late morning. I’d dragged myself out of bed around 1, and faffed around getting myself ready. Where normally I’d do the weekly shop before my run, I had no option but to flip the routine on its head this week.
As I passed the path to Cheshunt, the light faded to a dim dusk. I needed to get to Broxbourne, where I would catch the train back to town, but the final stage would be in the half-dark. As I turned a corner in the river and the town’s lights became visible in the distance, the light faded fully.
The final section was slow and largely involved trying to distinguish the path from the canal edge, but eventually I emerged into town safe – and tired. I jogged in the direction of the train station, and arrived – gratefully – just a few minutes before the train back to Seven Sisters.
The whole journey back, I swore to myself that next time I was going to make sure I had a decent night’s sleep before my long run. But for the meantime, I was just glad to have got it done.


Crouch End

January 14, 2014

The galaxy of the city at night lay below, pin-pricks of light sketching out the London skyline. A soft mist hung in the crisp air, obscuring the modern constellations of Canary Wharf, the Shard and the City’s surging towers.
It was late for a long run. The weekend had been eaten up by other commitments, leaving me to trace out a route I’d normally take in the light by dark.
Exiting the deserted Alexandra Park I swept through a brightly lit subway and immediately plunged into disorienting darkness again. I slowed to let my eyes adjust, picking out the path in the pitch darkness as I ran along the eastern stretch of the deserted railway.
The city’s nightscape swept into view again over the edge of a viaduct, fleetingly beautiful with all traces of modernity erased. With the exception of the street lights and illuminated windows below, but softened to a gas-lamp glow by the haze.
A flank of bare trees obscured the view once more as the banks of the dirt path piled up either side of me. In the crackling-dry undergrowth I heard one of the city’s night creatures prowling.
Emerging from the dirt path on to the road up to Highgate, I passed streets lined by grand red-brick Victorian terraces. In the distance, a silhouetted fox slunk across the road.
The road climbed, eventually reaching a lung-punishing summit, opening out to reveal Highgate high street lit by strings of white lights stretched between buildings. A couple of weeks past Christmas, but still with a Dickensian festive charm.
The high street was fleeting; I was soon descending towards Hampstead Heath. The ancient countryside of London draped in darkness, its fringes lit by street lamps of Narnian inspiration.
I traced the outskirts of the Heath, sticking to lit roads, passing grand city mansions on slabbed pavements. The bare branches of gnarled trees stretching blackly into the dull night sky.
The peace of the night was pierced by the child-like scream of a fox. As I ran along a fenced edge of the Heath, something the other sides of the panels briefly kept pace with me, urgently crushing leaves and snapping brittle twigs.
Slowly, the road slipped from the edge of the Heath, with imposing buildings lining both sides as it climbed back towards Highgate.
I needed to be out for two hours, so I checked my Garmin to see whether it was time to head home. I looked to be on track, but even as I looked at the screen it flashed up a battery warning before cordially dying. The bloody thing had been left to charge, but was clearly getting old. Perhaps I should have used a tracking app on my phone, but it was too late now.
Passing Highgate high street again, I caught narrow flashes of Crouch End below, through flights of steps that link the streets that run parallel on the steep gradient of the hill. If ever I was looking for a location to remake The Exorcist, this would be my first choice.
Crossing a road at the lights, I ducked into a side road before joining the western end of the deserted railway. To my left, the dark path vanished hauntingly into a disused tunnel; to my right the path was dimly lit by a sole Victorian-style ornate street lamp.
Soon I was back in the dark. The dirt path cosseted by banks of bare trees and bushes was only lit by reflections of the sulphur-tinged sky in the muddy puddles. The uneven ground and uncertain surface slowed my pace, testing my balance against my confidence in my footing.
The noise of traffic reduced to a dull rumble as the path rose above the streets. The only noises to be heard were my footfall, my breath and the rustling of scuttling unseen creatures.
Passing through the abandoned station that marks the half-way point of the path, I paused to check the time on my phone. If I was running ahead of schedule, I would need to weave in a slight extension to my route to build it up to the two hour mark.
My hands were damp with sweat, and the sheen of cold precipitation on the phone’s touchscreen had affected its accuracy. Once unlocked, the phone paused unresponsive for a moment before turning on its camera and then cycling to its screen-facing camera.
I found myself staring at my own face, lit by the dull glow of the phone’s screen. There was a rustle in the undergrowth and something in the railway arches behind me moved. The camera snapped a photo.
Dry branches cracked and then there was the soft thump of something landing, followed by a soft – but unmistakeable – exhalation.
Freaked, I ran as fast as I could, clutching my phone in my hand. There was a commotion of movement behind me, but it faded and I exited the dark path to find a safe-feeling lit street. I was shaking, suddenly cold, but I wouldn’t let myself stop.
When I got home, I checked the photos on my phone.


South of the river

January 7, 2014

A friend, recently returned from a six-week trek along a pilgrimage route in Spain, recently commented on the satisfaction of setting off in the morning, walking to a landmark on the horizon and going beyond before the day is through.
In other news, I’ve been playing a bit of Grand Theft Auto V over the Christmas holidays. In one section, having blown up a crystal meth factory, smuggled some weapons over the border and massacred a family I made my way over the mountains, pausing briefly to survey Los Santos below, before heading to the city to cause rambunctious chaos.
So anyway, I was inspired to plot a nice long Sunday run.
There’s not much you can see on the horizon of a flat city from a point of little elevation. However, from certain angles or vantage points you can see key landmarks, and so from the Lea Valley, there are points at which the towers of Canary Wharf swing into view.
At Hackney marshes, the towers battle for prominence over the Olympic Park, Westfield and various other tower blocks. But you get further down the valley, where the footpath crosses the Lea and switches over to the Limehouse Cut, the turrets of Canary Wharf loom over the locks and warehouses and jumbled housing blocks.
And then you’re running along a wobbly gangway and hugging the warehouse-lined stretch of water and thinking ‘Can I smell flapjack’ before finally bursting out into the marina of Limehouse Basin.
Hanging a left to play tag with the Thames Path (impossible to follow exactly, but easy to follow broadly – losing and rejoining at random) and head out into the Isle of Dogs. Between buildings, Canary Wharf is now to the left, vanishing regularly behind residential buildings. And following the road round, eventually coming out at Island Gardens, with the Wharf definitively behind me.
Feeling I may have misjudged the distance, but taking it easy and bracing myself for the long haul, I ducked into the Greenwich foot tunnel, racing through the weirdly distorted echoes of over-excited children, until I emerged into the brightness and busyness of Greenwich on a Sunday.
I cut through the crowds, made for the park and headed up to the Observatory for the summit of my run. Now – I feel I need to explain myself here – long distance running deprives the brain of oxygen and what feels like a stroke of genius at the time just turns out to be the burblings of an idiot. In Grand Theft Auto V your character can take photos on his mobile phone – including selfies – so you can capture moments of particular mayhem for posterity with the kind of cheesy inane grin you so frequently see on social media.
And so, with the inevitability of life imitating art imitating life, I present to you the selfie of shame.


Yeah, happy face.
Anyway, with my dignity truly in tatters, I decided it was time to make an exit. Rather than run back up the Lea Valley, I decided to make my way to Liverpool Street to catch the train back home. Which was probably just as well because, as I realised as I checked my watch as the route had been just over 20 miles – not the 14 I’d planned. Oops.
I should probably have just car-jacked someone.

Process, not outcome

January 1, 2014

It’s that time of year again. The time for dusting off the battered dreams and aspirations of the year past, setting new goals – defined by either doing something less or more – and testing the mettle of your ambitions by pushing through the head-fug of a hangover only to head towards disillusioned abandonment in February. 

Not that I have anything against New Year’s resolutions, per se. The beginning of the year is a natural point at which to reflect on where you are and where you’re going, and a cycle of reflection used effectively can help you get to where you want to be – whether that’s fitter, happier, or whatever else you might be shooting for. But the ‘big bang’ fitness revolutions notorious for this time of year are self-defeating.

Few fitness-related resolutions are made for the process; they’re all about the outcome. Sometimes that outcome is clearly defined – lose a stone by May – other times less so – move from Meat Loaf towards Brad Pitt in the Fight Club continuum of body shapes. Which is all well and good, but when your sole focus for an activity is an outcome, you leave yourself with two issues that threaten the sustainability of your resolution:

  1. The thought of your overall goal might not be enough to sustain you through the dedication required to achieve that goal. Let’s say your route to losing a stone is running; if you do the same run, the same route, the same speed the whole time, your motivation is going to hit a low pretty soon. Even sooner if you’re doing this routine on a treadmill in a packed gym.
  2. What happens after your goal? If you’re purely outcome focused, your chosen route of reaching your goal might not be sustainable. Let’s say your transitioning from Loaf to Pitt, alongside a shed load of aerobic exercise, you’re going to need to do weights and live off egg whites and whey protein. Once you’re ready to fight yourself in a car park (or your boss’s office, your choice), you’re going to have to keep up that routine and diet in order to just maintain your conditioning. Which means never – or very rarely – indulging in cheese and beer. (And if you’ve got the Fight Club Meat Loaf physique, you’re pretty certain to like cheese and beer.) Is that realistically sustainable in the long-term?

Which is where I take issue with various fad diets and the rise of High Intensity Interval Training, where you’re only focused on the goal – and your chosen route to the goal is eating detox slop that looks like vomit, or sprinting on the spot until you vomit. And nobody enjoys vomit.

But if you shift to focus on the process, you stand a much better chance of success in the long-term. Joining a running (cycling, rowing, whatever) club would be a more sustainable resolution, because you’ll meet new people and improve at whatever your chosen sport in a social context. And having a regular slot to hang out with fun people is much more enjoyable than just trudging through whatever routine you’re forcing yourself to complete down the gym. And because you’re having fun, you’ll be more likely to keep it up, and your goal will be something you achieve through simply focusing on the process.

And so, for my part, my resolution this year is to focus on enjoying running more. After the long period of rehabilitation from my injury (which still niggles, but is on the way out), and with a new job to work a running routine around, I’ve realised I value the outlet of running more than simply chasing times and distances. This year calls for new routes and new adventures, not just chasing the same old routine.

Here’s to 2014!

Product review: Thermolactyl top

December 16, 2013

As anyone living in the UK will know, winter’s here. This means several things: wind, rain and cold, and spending more time in the pitch black than would be considered normal by non-runners.

So it was particularly good timing when the kind folks at Damart sent me a base layer to test out. Especially as, the day I chose to take it out for a spin, the frost had set in hard and there was a lingering pea-souper coating London.

Base layer

Base in the place, London – the base layer is very light, but also very warm

Now, before I go too much further, I have some non-running news. So, a month ago I started working in Cambridge at a new job – it’s exciting, challenging and I’m working with a great bunch of people. I am, however, now acquainting myself with the world of having a sturdy commute – 90 minutes door-to-door. I’m still working out my running routine within these new constraints, but I’m fortunate enough to have an on-site gym equipped with treadmills and easy access to off-road paths around Cambridge. But lunchtimes make for some slightly rushed runs, and several times over the past weeks meetings or deadlines have scuppered the best-laid plans.

However, with a bit of planning and some thought to logistics, I can get off a station early at Cheshunt and take a 10-mile trip down the Lea Valley.

Getting changed at work, I paired the black long-sleeve base layer with black running tights, black shorts, black socks, black gloves, a black beanie – by which point there was a distinct air of the Milk Tray man about me – and a luminous yellow t-shirt and boil-in-the-bag luminous yellow jacket. This all suited me well for the inevitable standing around at Cambridge station, but by the time I got to Cheshunt I had decided the boil-in-the-bag would be a bit much as the base layer was actually much warmer than I’d thought it would be. A promising start.

There’s something soothing about running along the towpaths in the dark, seeing the canal-side lit by the moon and the beams of a headlamp. That is until, inevitably, you remember the Blair Witch Project. It may have been an over-hyped low-budget film more likely to induce motion sickness than panic attacks, but running through the sparse tree-lined nature reserve with occasional movement in the periphery of your vision and intermittent rustles of movement in the undergrowth isn’t the greatest combination with a fertile imagination.

After about seven miles, I was feeling warm – but not too warm. The base layer had been doing a good job of regulating my temperature, and that – I thought – was about all you could ask.

The towpath goes through a small industrial estate, marking a relatively well-lit stretch of the canal. A canal boat was moored alongside the path, and its occupants were standing on the path discussing something or other, clutching cans of beer. They saw me coming and parted, so I could pass along the path—

And before I knew it, I was down. My hands, elbows and left knee lit up in agony as my subconscious reflexes had cushioned my fall before I even knew I was falling. I picked myself up, not sure what the damage was, but well aware that there was some damage.

I looked behind me; the guys at the canal boat hadn’t noticed my spectacular fall. But they were still standing right by the rope the idiots had stretched across the towpath to moor their stupid canal boat. ‘Guys,’ I called at them, ‘you going to do something about this rope?’

One of them started remonstrating that their boat had broken down. In truth, I can’t remember exactly what my response was – I know I managed to keep my temper, and that I didn’t swear too much (only for emphasis, you understand – but quite shortly they started apologising and attending to the rope. (It’s not just a footpath they had effectively erected a tripwire on – it’s a cycle path, and things could have been much worse.)

Conscious of the fact I had a few miles left to go, I hobbled off in the direction of home. It took me a few minutes to walk off the absolute worst of the fall, but eventually I felt like I might be able to run slowly. And so I did.

And so I eventually made it home, somewhat slower than intended, and in somewhat more pain than I would have liked. On getting into the house, I inspected the damage with trepidation. A few cuts, and possibly some bruising. A hole in the knee of my running tights (towards which my toes will now gravitate next time I put them on), but no damage to the elbows of my base layer. Clearly, made of some sturdy stuff.

So, in conclusion, some people don’t know their responsibilities to path users when tying up their canal boat, but some people do know how to make sturdy and warming base layers. Which is probably why Damark is celebrating its 60th anniversary.

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.

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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