Running with Gareth

I’m a creature of habit, so I found it rather unsettling that real life got in the way of doing my long run on Monday – especially since the routine had been disturbed the week before by the taper for the Cambridge Half Marathon, and the event itself. But this week, shock horror, long run day was Tuesday. And after the half marathon break I was back to the 19.5 mile 3/4 marathon long run.

We’ve had remarkably good weather all through the winter, and that has really helped in getting out there for the training runs (which unlike previous years have been almost exclusively outside). But Tuesday was the day that storm Gareth arrived. We got up to find a cold and windy day. Somehow it takes longer to get out of the door when it’s like that. But eventually I was off, having prepared a bottle of plain water for the first of my three 6.5 mile laps, and a couple of Lucozade Sport bottles (acclimatising for the London Marathon) for drink stops as I passed home.

My target for the London Marathon is simply to finish, preferably reasonably elegantly and I’ve realised that, for such a distance, learning to start slowly is key to that. The aim for this run was to practice slow running. My parkrun a couple of days previously fitted in well with that – I had run round gently talking to a friend. For the long run there was no running partner to pace me, apart from Gareth the Gale.

Not only do I normally run alone, but I rarely meet anyone along the way – it’s mostly country lane and farm track. Today was different. First came the man who looked as though he’d just stepped out of All Creatures Great and Small (stories about a veterinary practice in the 1940s). He was in an old Land Rover, dressed in tweed from head to toe, and searching for the Suffolk Hunt Kennel. Conveniently he was very close and I was running that way, so I could put him right.

Then came the tree fellers – two of them, which might confuse an Irish reader. They had been called in to sort out some trees damaged by Gareth and wanted some local knowledge on whether the road was busy. It’s not!

Shortly after that I came upon the man planting a new hedge along a field edge. He was talking to another man in a very big shiny Audi SUV (he probably owns the whole village). I greeted them both and continued on my first lap, moving over shortly afterwards to allow the Audi to overtake as I struggled against the wind blowing across the open fields.

I completed the first lap, picked up a bottle of Lucozade and set off up the hill for lap two. This was less eventful but hedge-planting man was still at it. He greeted me as I panted past, and was somewhat surprised when I said I would be coming back one more time. At the end of lap two, half marathon distance, I was definitely feeling tired. I’d drunk less than half of my sports drink so I continued on to lap three without a stop.

Why does my lap start with an unrelenting kilometre of climbing? I’d been checking my Fitbit all the way to try to ensure that I kept a sensible pace, and trying to do mental arithmetic on my average pace. Battling with a gale, and feeling pretty tired I was convinced it was a slow run. It had started to drizzle on the third lap. By the time I met hedge-planting man for the third time, the rain was getting more insistent. We had a quick chat. I explained this was my third 6.5 mile lap. “One more lap and you’ve done a marathon,” he said perceptively.

One more lap and you’ve done a marathon!

“That’s the plan,” I said. Hedge-planting man had that air of unruffled calm that possibly comes from working outside. It was blowing a gale, and the rain was getting more insistent. But he kept going – no rush, one step at a time. That was a good model for me to follow.

By now I was definitely tired, but I could still plod on. The wind made it hard work, but I knew that would ease once I’d made it through the open fields. The rain wasn’t too bad…

…and then, a mile or so later, it was! I was again heading straight into the wind, with a slight slope helping me. But the rain was torrential – were those just big rain-drops or was it hail? I couldn’t open my eyes. In the middle of the road I turned my back on the wind and tried to clear my eyes. My waterproof jacket was by now clearly not waterproof – I was soaked to the skin. It was cold and windy. I resumed my homeward plod – lucky it was the last lap.

Things became better, the wind eased as I took the turning for the last couple of miles and the rain was past its worst. Keep going, one step at a time, no rush.

The end result? We ran the distance 5 minutes faster than last time – me and Gareth, despite all the stops. Keep going, one step at a time, no rush – hedge-planting man set a good example.

Cambridge Half – so far so good

The weather forecast was a bit gloomy for the 2019 Cambridge Half Marathon, especially in comparison to the February heatwave we were enjoying a few days earlier. The actuality was not so bad. The lack of sun made for good running conditions. There was a little drizzle, but not enough to be noticeable while running. And the earlier dry weather meant that the grass at the venue was in good condition – it has been ankle deep mud in the past.

I’ve done every Cambridge Half since it started in 2012. In the past it’s been my highlight event of the year. This year it’s forming a part of my training for the London Marathon, so it felt a little different, but I was still feeling pressure. It wasn’t so much fear of the distance, as it once was, but fear of screwing it up.

“If the Cambridge Half goes wrong, how will you feel about a full marathon a few weeks later?” said a niggling inner voice.

The Cambridge Half would provide a break from the strict training routine I had been following. I would taper, have a couple of days off, and the distance was less than my regular long run. It would also provide an opportunity to practice discipline in my pacing when surrounded by lots of people, as well as rehearsing the slightly surreal atmosphere of a big running event. I know I can survive a half marathon even if I do blow up after eight or ten miles due to an over-ambitious start. That would be more serious for a full marathon, and I know I’ve always felt pretty exhausted at the end of 13.1 miles. My training for the longer distance was suggesting that I had to work on going slowly at the beginning. So the objectives for the day were:

  • don’t break myself
  • run a controlled race
  • feel good at the end

I won’t describe the run in detail, mostly because I don’t remember the details. At the start I was focusing on taking it easy. It felt very easy, and people were overtaking, but my watch told me I was sensible. I then relaxed a bit and focused on staying comfortable. The record says that I was getting a little faster – I was now overtaking people. The halfway point is just after Grantchester, and not long after that we turn right at the roundabout and head back towards Cambridge along the A603 Barton Road. I’ve always enjoyed that part of the run. We’re on the way back, it’s slightly downhill, there’s lots of space – I just feel good.

Finishing straight

I was still restraining my pace – enjoy, but don’t push. It would be all too easy to get carried away, and I know from past experience that the run back through the City can still be very tough, even with all the encouragement from the lovely spectators. But this time it wasn’t. I think it was at the end of Silver Street that I almost tripped over as I tried to skip a little jig to accompany the bag-pipe player. And then with around 2 miles to go, I allowed myself to accelerate. It was less than a parkrun now, and I was still feeling good. I ran those last miles at around my normal parkrun speed, and still had energy for a decent sprint at the end. Unlike last year, my legs were still good, and I didn’t feel faint. I could enjoy the alcohol-free beer and my brain was still working as I unlocked my bike.

Riding back up the Milton Road to the car, there was a following wind. I was on a high and diced irresponsibly with dick-heads in cars as I sped along. I didn’t die.

All in all, it was a good day. The only mistake I made was to forget to stop my watch at the finishing line. It said exactly 2 hours 15 minutes when I did remember. The official time was 2:14:28. A new personal best just before my 66th birthday – and I wasn’t even trying for a time.