I am no sprinter. Yet, the day before I was due to run the Malmesbury Half Marathon, I found myself running full-pelt down my street after four kids who’d been causing a bit of a social nuisance. This was foolish not only because I was taking a risk with injury but also because the “kids”, when I caught up with them were a lot older and bigger than I’d realised. Fortunately, I suffered no ill effects from the physical exertion and at least one of the lads was prepared to listen to my – slightly breathless – lecture on respect, so it was worth the effort. But, effectively I had done a 200 metre sprint, barefoot, with no warm-up on the day before my most important race yet.
Most important race? Yes, I had decided that this race was to be a benchmark test for how far I had progressed as a runner over the past 12 months. I had a target time of 1:45 in mind, purely because I wanted to see if I could hold my pace within 8 minutes/mile for the full 13.1 miles – something I had never previously managed. This would offer indications as to my current level of fitness and the effectiveness of my training approach.
Other than the crazy sprint I mentioned, my preparations for the race had been near ideal. I’d had an enjoyable taper, adding a little more running than I usually would do into the final week before the race, some extra yoga too and doing all the necessary with my fuel and hydration intake.
The weather on the morning of the race was pretty awful. A constant, chilly rain had set in early which was a real shame. The organisers had attempted to create a carnival atmosphere for this, the inaugural staging of the Malmesbury Half. A few hardy souls still turned out along the route to offer support but the fair in the registration field was a washout. Still, the pre-race warm-up was well attended (although I gave it a miss, as I always do) and then there was a short walk uphill to the starting line in town. By the time the field of 366 runners had huddled together there, all of us were soaked to the skin. The usual pre-race banter was in short supply; everyone was keen to get running. This suited me fine. I wasn’t in the mood for conversation; I wanted to focus on my performance and race plan. My only slight concern regarding the rain at this stage was with my shoes. The Inov8 BareX Light 150s hadn’t really been tested in wet weather and I wasn’t sure how their virtually gripless soles would handle slick surfaces.
The race began with a downhill stretch through the pretty town of Malmesbury. In past races I have gotten carried away by the increased pace a downhill start affords. I wasn’t about to make the same mistake and made the necessary adjustments to ensure I wasn’t rushing off too quickly. The route took us out of town within the first mile and from there, the next 11 miles would be ran mainly on narrow rural lanes. The rain persisted but my Helly Hanson cap with it’s rather large peak kept it out of my eyes.
After the about a mile, another runner, a chap a bit younger than myself, came up alongside and remarked that he guessed I was used to running longer distances than the half marathon. Really? He went on to qualify his assumption by complimenting me on my “relaxed and natural” form! My resolution not to speak to anybody was broken – I’m a sucker for flattery. His story was that he had injured his knee two years ago by slipping badly on some ice. This was his first race since recovering. The interesting part was that he’d made the decision once leaving hospital to change his approach as he found that the shoes and orthotics he’d previously relied on now irritated his knee. I observed that his own gait was relaxed and very light – it was hard to imagine him running any other way.
We ran, chatting for a couple of miles together before wishing each other well. He was accelerating and I was determined to keep to the plan. I had a good rhythm going and felt very comfortable hovering around 8 minute/mile pace.
Mile 6 of the Malmesbury Half
The 6 mile mark approached. Several things happened in the space of half a mile. A photographer awaited at the bottom of the first climb. A gave her a grin and pressed on up the hill. Before the race started, there had been much chatter about the fact that course was “lumpy” and that there was a terrible hill just before mile six. I was happy to find that the impression I had of the route by looking at an elevation graph - that it was, in essence, flat – held true on the day. This “terrible” hill was steep but I was up it in a flash.
At 6.75 miles there was an aid station – a little further on than advertised. I had taken a gel not long after cresting the hill and looked for the aid station to get water to wash it down. One small organisational gripe here was that marshals on both sides of the road were so keen to offer cups to runners that they had advanced into the road and, with their outstretched arms, had effectively narrowed the road to such a degree that I almost collided with another runner.
From the hill on I had started to pass people. I felt strong and had to rein myself in from increasing my pace. I joined a small group which had, at it’s centre, two runners that were keeping abreast of one another, trading conversation and looking very comfortable. I slipped in behind them. My Garmin told me they were keeping a very steady pace at just under 8 min/mile. My assumption was that one or both were experienced runners, perhaps using the event as a training race. (I later learned that was indeed the case, with one of them being capable of a 1:16 finish!) So I was happy to sit with this group for a while and see how I felt after another couple of miles.
As the 9 mile mark approached, I was enjoying myself immensely and I decided to notch it up. Leaving the little group I pressed on but was soon surprised as the route turned onto a potholed track of compacted gravel. This slowed me a little initially but I soon hit my stride again, and a little side-to-side was actually a welcome break after 9 miles of linear road running. The shoes coped well with this surface – as they had throughout in the wet conditions. I would later hear complaints from others about how heavy their shoes had become once saturated with water. Whether it was because of the BareX-Light’s mesh upper allowing water to pass through easily or because they are very light (only weighing 150g), the last thing on my mind whilst I was running where my shoes.
In my mental preparations for the race, the ideal strategy was to get to the 10 mile mark and then run my own “5K race”. Remarkably, as I left the gravel behind and mile 10 approached I felt I could go for it. Even the presence of another short steep hill didn’t deter me. With each successive mile I increased my pace, moved up through the field and felt wonderful.
So, on entering town, as I flew down the cobbled hill toward the park, I was reminded of the chase the previous day and, not for the first time during the race, came out in a broad grin. The few who were out in the rain supporting the race responded with encouragement. I was excited and shouting “well done!” to those who, having already finished and with medals on display, were making their way back through town.
Malmesbury Half finish
Over the final stretch, along the narrow park trail I had to dodge several groups of umbrella-wielding pedestrians which I think was pretty poor from a marshalling point of view. I didn’t have time to be grumpy though. My wife and daughter were there and I slowed for a high-five from Lily before heading toward the line. I had not looked at my watch once my own personal ”5K race” had begun but now, as I crossed the line I glanced down to check my time. And that’s what the photographer saw! If he’d waited a second longer before clicking the shutter he’d have seen a very happy Ape as my Garmin showed 1:41.22!
My training - overall slower running and Jack Daniel’s inspired pace sandwiches – had improved my speed and endurance and I shall continue in the same vein into the future. My preparations, from taper to race-planning had worked out well. The Inov8 shoes had done their job. I was particularly pleased that I had managed to maintain my pacing discipline and because of this achieved a fairly substantial negative split.
8:06, 7:59, 7:53,7:54, 7:49, 7:53, 8:03, 7:47, 7:43, 7:45, 7:36, 7:20, 6:59, (0.36)
But much, much better than the numbers from my Garmin was how I felt throughout the race and, in particular, during those final 3 miles: light, controlled, strong and with energy to burn. I wonder now if I could achieve something similar over twice the distance …. ?