Whenever I race I over think it. I am constantly doing calculations in my head, “at this pace it will take me this long to finish” and “I am this far from the finish which means I need to run an x minute mile to hit my goal.” I know I should just relax and be in the moment but I rarely if ever am. This is a total opposite to when I just run for my own fitness, recreation and training. I like to make sure I am not dawdling but just work within the time constraints I have. If I have an hour or two I fill it. If running was split into two parts, training and racing I am much more about the training and the process of that than I am the racing. I don’t race often and probably for that very reason.
So to the Cheltenham Half.
I started over thinking it when I saw the weather forecast. It was forecast to be wet and windy. Not just wet, thunder and lightning. I fretted and stressed deciding that while it might be wet the temperature would be ok so I was going for a t-shirt, a gilet and cap. That made sense and was sorted. I reconciled that if the rain eased then I could probably pack the gilet into my flip belt. Inside the race village I bumped into someone I knew who said that the weather had changed and there was some blue sky there now.
Panic. No sense of perspective whatsoever. I didn’t even check for myself, and there was time. I just retrieved my bag from the bag drop and put my gilet and cap away.
It actually turned out to be the right decision but cost some mental energy before we had even started.
The race was due to start at 9am. The crowd made their way out there ahead of this to warm up, do any final prep and find the right starting chute. I joined the 1:30-1:45 start. I was hoping for sub 1:30 but wasn’t really confident enough to join that group or to put it out there formally. After a slight delay due to a car being on the course the race started and we were off.
There was quite a crowd for the first part and I settled in behind the 1:30 pacers. My initial thinking being that if I could hang with them for a few miles I could then push on if I felt able. Being ahead of them would guarantee a sub 1:30.
This plan lasted about 500 metres. It actually, weirdly, felt very slow. I guess that was a combination of adrenaline and that the start is downhill. A quick rethink and the plan changed to being; if I get ahead of the 1:30 group I can push on - if they then catch me I know what I need to do to get to sub 1:30. Off I went and put down a 6:38 for mile 1. I maintained this tempo and had a pretty comfortable and uneventful race really. I went through 10km in around 38:30 and that was when I started with the sums again. I was trying to calculate a finish time and how much I could afford to slow down. More mental energy.
The crowds through the town, particularly Montpellier, Leckhampton and the Suffolks were great. I had a lot of shout-outs as I had found myself running alone. I was behind a group of around 50 or so that were leading and the rest of the field were behind me. The strong start I was having being not quite enough to get me to the front but quick enough to keep me from the masses. It was great to see friendly faces out there and particularly those from the Bath Road Beers run club massive!
This was the first race I have done as part of a run club and it was really good fun doing so. It was good to head to the course with the group and then meet with others once there. At the finish there were volunteers from the club handing out medals, water and even a hug!
Back to the race; it was around mile 10 that I started to struggle a bit, the course loops up and down and crosses the roads around Pittville Park. This was quite demoralising as the racecourse represented the finish and yet it was out of reach with yet another loop. It would get worse.
I hit the racecourse and really ran out of power. Mile 10 had been 7:07, mile 11 was 6:58 then 12 and 13 were 7:02 and 7:04 respectively. While they are good mile times in context they are a drop off from where I was at the start. I had paced totally wrong and was running out of juice. To make it even worse as I hit the race course with some 2+ miles to go I heard the announcer call out the winner! Brilliant!
The section around the racecourse was pretty grim. Some short muddy intersections to exposed tarmac service roads where the wind just blew into your face whichever way you were facing. It was only 2 miles on this section and I was again doing maths to calculate what I’d need to do. In the end I was glad it was over and felt like I trickled over the line. I did get a shout out from the announcer as I did though which was cool.
My finish time was texted to me pretty much instantly; 01:27:53. Good but 38 seconds outside my PB set at Tewkesbury around 10 years ago. Closer inspection of the Strava file revealed that my half marathon time was actually 01:27:01 with the race coming in at 13.23miles and not the regulation 13.1.
It is around 10 years since I last ran a half, my finishing time then was 1:27:15. Whilst I was really happy with the time I know I can do better if I can do it smarter. There is also that feeling of dread that comes with a race like this. Running hard for 13.1 miles is, well, hard. I run a lot, most days in fact, yet rarely get close to sub 7 minute-miling. That I averaged 6:38 is, to me at least, quite something. I have generally been able to turn a pace when needed and this is not through specific training just through strength of running. The fact that I run a lot and have some strength from that means I can turn a pace – it’s just not something I do very often. I also have for the past few years not done any events where I needed to run fast. Ultra’s being about getting it done, for me, and not racing.
A lack of experience told for me in this race. I didn’t really understand what my race pace could and would be so just ran. Knowing what I know now I would start at around 6:40/45 pace for the first 3-3.5 miles or so and then look to up the pace finishing stronger. On that basis I think I could take a minute off that time as while I was spent at the end of this I was strong for the majority of it. Better pacing would have helped that.
I also need to relax a bit (a lot); I run all the time so not sure why I find races so stressful. Maybe because I don’t race often I always feel like I have to do something. When I say something I mean against the context of my own performances. I am still chasing PB’s and want to do well. I have an uneasy relationship with being competitive. I don’t consider myself competitive but I clearly am. I hope that this doesn’t manifest against people I know and run with because ultimately what I want is only to do the best I can. What goes on around me is almost irrelevant I am only racing myself in these circumstances.