I have ran for maybe four years or so now. It's difficult to really say why I run, lots of people run for peace of mind and list it as a great factor for improving their mental health but I can't really say this has ever been an issue for me prior to running, so it's not that.
People run to stay fit and it certainly contributes to a better level of fitness but I can't say that I run to get fitter.
Well don't turn to running, in four years of running the only time I've lost weight is when I controlled my diet, so it's not for weight loss.
In the book Born To Run, Chris McDougal argues that we, as a species, are hardwired to do it, and physically built to be brilliant at it. But a quick peek at the general population will reveal that not many people are bouncing lithely up and down the road, and many who do don't look natural at it, but laboured (me included).
I don't run to race, I'm not bothered about beating people or being beating others. I just like to run, and that's it, and if you want to achieve any of the above there are easier ways.
So, it's not surprising that as a runner of four years I have never entered a race. Not once.
Until last Sunday.
I received a message from a friend saying that he was running a local 10k race and would I be interested in coming as nobody else was going to be with him. I didn't want to leave him hanging and duly signed up and paid the entrance fee and arranged to meet him there.
I can run ten kilometres and do it a couple of times a week.
I had run a hilly 10k the previous evening and in accordance with common race lore I hit the taper immediately and postponed any runs until the big day.
Also in accordance with race lore it drove me mad. Anyone that has had to do a pre-marathon taper will know the doubts and worry that can fill your head during this time can begin to play havoc with your mental health. The anguish of surely failing your race goals because you WILL have forgotten how to run vs overdoing it in the days leading up to the race.
Two days before the race I also managed to wake up with a locked neck which tends to happen to me about twice a year. I took a pile of ibuprofen and hoped that this wouldn't be like that time in Madeira where I tanned one side of my face as the other was permanently pressed against the sun lounger.
I woke up early on the morning of the race with a stance like Quasimodo with haemorrhoids and ate some porridge and brewed up some coffee. With plenty of time for a pre-race bowel movements (two) I packed a bag with a change of clothes and some water and drove to the race.
After pulling up in designated parking on a quiet country lane I was told to 'just follow the path and keep right'. After five minutes of wandering through peoples gardens I arrived at the village hall where very jolly and animated ladies were busy issuing race numbers. I stabbed my fingers with safety pins as I tried to get my number on my shirt and strolled out of the village for a warm up jog across the fields.
The weather was mild, with an easterly wind and the route was pan flat, everything about the day should have been relatively easy. For somebody who gets in around thirty to forty kilometres a week a 10k should present no problem. Throw in the fact that I like running on inclines and this was fen land with the total climbing clocking in at 20 meters this should be comparatively easy.
As the saying goes, check yo'self before yo' wreck yo'self. I was about to get a hard lesson.
After making my way back to the start line via climbing over the tractor of a friendly farmer who had closed the public byway to move his cows I met up with Jota and Phillipe, who had also been persuaded.
Jota was typically relaxed about the whole thing whilst Phillipe, as a former Spanish fitness champion, was busy doing one legged squats as a warm up. By now three hundred and ten people in every conceivable piece of running kit were stretching and limbering up. After a brief warm up and couple-of-thank-yous from race organisers as drones flew overhead, it was time to head to the start line. It was strange to be standing on a closed road surrounded by hundreds of other people. It could have been mistaken for a riot if it wasn't for the lack of water cannon and petrol bombs. I checked my watch which was telling me that my heart rate was a couple of notches above where it should be. Nerves over not knowing what was coming were having an effect.
Conventional race wisdom states that negative splits are the best way to run a race. Meaning you start slower and build your speed throughout to finish fast. I had looked through my previous runs to get an idea of what my target paces should be and decided that a starting pace of 5:40m/k should be ok whilst beginning to squeeze it down to 5:15 after 5k and at around 7k begin to push harder and take what I could get. The final kilometer would look after itself, most of my runs finish strong as the urge to get it all done with as soon as possible is enough to spur me on.
The three of us wished each other good luck and as the whistle blew three hundred and ten people began to cross the start line and move as a pack with people cheering and clapping from the side of the road. I glanced at my watch to check pace, whilst I was bang on the target I had set I was growing anxious at the rate of people passing me. This is a big thing to overcome in races, it's very easy to get caught up with the crowd and let yourself get swept along and pay for it later on.
I swallowed my pride and let pretty much everybody run past me, I locked on to a silver haired lady who seemed to be enjoying herself and sat in the pack with her whilst just ahead a husband and wife chatted about what they were going to do that evening.
The plan was going nicely as the tarmac turned to stony byways and green hedgerows sheltered us from what was turning into a brisk crosswind. By kilometre two the wheels were coming off the wagon as my pace was quickened ahead of schedule by ten - twenty seconds and I found it hard to reign it back in. My heart rate was also picking up. It's worth mentioning at this point that I'm training for a marathon which involves an awful lot of running long distances at an easy effort, never really allowing my heart to go past 84% of maximum. It was now sitting at 89% and threatening to go through the 90% at any time.
Around this time, I began to notice people around me were beginning to slow down dramatically. A guy I noticed sailing past me earlier with a very nice 'Wolf Pack Running Team' t-shirt was now walking dejectedly. I was pleased that my holding back was allowing me to still run but I was also conscious that in about another 6k it could easily be me having to stroll.
Another guy in front of me stumbled on the gravel and just about managed to avoid hitting the ground. Without pause, two runners either side caught and steadied him and asked if he was OK. He nodded and we all climbed a short incline over a road bridge that crossed a fenland streams.
After a couple of right hand turns we hit the 4k mark and began to run along a guided busway. My pace swung between 5:00m/k and 5:25m/k as I began to move up the field. I didn't start with the intention of overtaking anybody but gradually I began to reel in other runners as they either tired or I pulled my pace up.
By now my heart was well into the 90% and trying to reign it in at this point was useless. I would run to slowly reel in the runner in front and then sit with them for a minute whilst I recovered a little then began again.
Every so often the path would incline to cross part of the water and I opened my stride on the decline to allow gravity to give me a little tug. Every little was helping.
This stretch of the course was tough. It was long, straight and boring with a very slight incline all the way.
As I mentioned before; I like busting a gut up a hill to be rewarded with a downhill to coast but here the effort was a solid one all the way through. I remember a cycling trip to Skegness which saw us take a quiet country road north of Boston that was straight and flat for mile after mile. It was maddening and the only thought in my head was 'when will this f**king end?' at that moment I would have swapped Lincolnshire for the Alps in a heartbeat. I was finding the course, and this stretch in particular, tough.
Half way and the Water Station
I ran through the water station managing to spill most of my cup and splitting what remained between my mouth and my head. I carried on taking moving up and in the distance I could see the marshals directing runners from the what could be a contender for Cambridgeshire's most boring piece of tarmac. As we turned the corner one runner was collapsed on the floor with medics attending. I wasn't the only one feeling it.
This was the end of scalping as the route turned onto a single-track footpath. Here passing anybody would mean literally shoving them into Hawthorn bushes to do so and if you're prepared to do that for a few seconds in the bank you should probably seek help and get yourself checked for psychopathy.
I settled down behind a group and my pace slowed to 5:38m/k. My bad neck also began to play its part at this point and every time my right arm swung back a dull ache swelled across my neck and shoulder. After another kilometre, the track opened up and I was able to pass a few more people before the route turned to the edge of a field. The ground was uneven and I slowed from 5 – 6:00m/k as I picked my way over the clods of dirt. I ended up going off course as me and another runner shared the track on the next corner with the attending marshal exclaiming that I was definitely doing this the hard way.
The route turned on to a playing field and made the long stretch of boring road look like a piece of cake. Whilst looking flat the playing field was actually the sharpest bit of climbing on the course and was soft turf instead of compacted dirt or tarmac, the runners were also suddenly exposed to the wind which made me shiver despite the effort I was putting out. This stretch of the route was barely two hundred meters but it felt like I ran over it with someone pushing me backwards with a hand in my chest, my pace slowing to the lowest point during the race. I manged to hi-five a bunch of kids wearing big foam hands and turned onto the path with 2k left to go.
Nearing the end
By this point I was feeling it, my pace slipped to 5:46m/k as I worked harder to try and pull in those in front of me and the distance countdown on my watch seemed to tick slower and slower. I recalled that a friend of mine who had done a half marathon with a time of 1:40:00 told me that he basically completed the last 5k trying not to cry as he was completely exhausted. Whilst I wasn't welling up I was definitely feeling like I was beginning to give out.
The route went back down to single track as I got ran behind a guy who was letting out a deep prolonged grunt with every breath. He also turned to spit over his shoulder which landed on my shin, but by this point I didn't care.
Turning back in to shelter from the wind and sensing the end my pace lifted again to 5:20m/k. The last corner had marshals screaming at us for sprint finishes as the trees opened to the school playing field with the finish line now in sight. In what I can only assume was my legs desperate plea to get this shit over and done with as soon as possible I pulled my pace to 4:08m/k and passed as many as I could to get it finished.
I crossed the finish line and was beckoned over by a marshal who bent down to remove my timing chip. I mouthed the words "thank you" whilst I simultaneously tried not to vomit over the back of her head.
As I staggered out of the enclosure another thrust a finishing medal and a bottle of water into my hands. I found a bench and sat down and slowly drank the water whilst thinking of absolutely nothing.
After a while I managed to find Jota and Phillipe who had finished ahead of me and we posed for a couple of photographs with our medals hanging out of our mouths, they for comic effect and me because I genuinely hoped it was edible. We chatted for a while about how it went before saying our goodbyes and heading home. Later on that day the results webpage updated giving me a time of 55:59. My fifth fastest 10k time.
The Next day
The next day after a night of the deepest sleep I've ever had I had time to think about the previous day. It had initially bothered me that my time wasn't really up to what I could do, my running over the past year had mainly consisted of running 10 milers at an easy pace of 6:19m/k which will basically ensure that I can run a marathon with not to many problems. When I look back at my twenty minute 5ks my running basically consisted of going hell for leather for the distance.
My heart rate basically lived at +90% for twenty to fifty minutes. In some respects, I can look at my time and say that I had taken 45 seconds a kilometre from my average pace which wasn't bad.
They say that a runners ideal training plan will combine long distances of easy effort with speed work. I wouldn't say that I'd neglected to do the speed work as my main motivation for running was never really racing but if there is one thing that everyone was talking about after the run it was how they had improved. In any cycling event I've been involved in the main competition is other riders, verbal sparring with and a desire to beat other cyclists is prominent. In cycling, there is the phrase to 'drop' somebody, either in races or social rides and - in my experience – gleefully so.
To my knowledge there is no 'dropping' in running (not that I've experienced) as really you are only racing against yourself and your previous time.
Whilst I passed other runners there was no sense of achievement specifically for passing them, if anything I was a little worried they would think I was a bit of an arse. So now because I want to beat myself I'm incorporating more tempo and speed work into my running to see what effect that will have on my next 10k race (already booked) and hopefully make it faster.
My performance aside, the race was great. Everyone who I dealt with connected with the race from the parking to the race marshals were astonishingly friendly given that they had to get up really early on a Sunday morning. The course was pretty much lined with people who were there to cheer on a friend or relative but extended the courtesy to everyone that passed them, I would never have thought that it would help as much as it did.