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Posts Tagged ‘half marathon’

In August I moved to Durham, North Carolina, to work as a researcher at Duke University. It’s taken a while to settle and longer than expected to get into a decent running routine (in fact, five months in I’m still working on that) but running has been helpful in pushing me to get outside when all I wanted to do was sit on the sofa and feel homesick. More on that another time, perhaps.

When I signed up to Durham Half Marathon I was taking quite a gamble with myself. I’d hardly run since the UT55 – a few parkruns here and there, a birthday run into town for birthday pancakes – but I felt no interest in running for a long while (and it’s still not fully returned even now). When I moved over to NC it was too hot to do anything, never mind run, with temperatures sticking around 30-35C for the first couple of months. It was too hot, I was too tired, I was too homesick and sad to find any motivation. The city was new and everything felt too hard. Running was the last thing I wanted to do; I was sweaty enough just sitting quietly at home with a book. Over time I started getting out here and there for a 2-mile loop around a nearby trail, and I noticed that on days when I felt bad, after even a short run I felt much better. Little by little I gathered the evidence: even though it was uncomfortable, even though I never actually felt like doing it, when I got back from a run I felt noticeably less terrible. In fact, it made me feel pretty great.

So I signed up to the local half marathon, taking place only a mile away from my apartment on 10th December. The race description drew on the appeal of the ‘mild Durham winter’ while also promising me festivities along the course. The route didn’t look particularly inviting but I put my worries aside and dived in, knowing that I’d push myself to do the training once I was signed up to do the race.

And I did do the training, sticking to almost every run on my 12-week training plan. I ran three times a week with a long run at the weekend – a sensible amount for a half marathon, but for me this was less running than I’d normally put in, with pretty low weekly mileage (I think I did one 20-mile week in that time). Despite this, it was a constant uphill struggle and at every corner I looked for excuses to drop out of the race. The victory I felt after completing the first 7-mile run surprised me, but it also felt really good to recognize that distance as an achievement. Ramping up to high mileage for marathon and ultra running had led me to develop a distorted perspective on my own achievements. Health issues, a long break and eventually a fall-out from running set the clock back at zero, and perhaps this was what I really needed.

I never once actually wanted to get out for my weekend long run, but every week I came back beaming from ear to ear. I ran in blazing sunshine and unfamiliar autumn heat, I explored new areas of Durham and found a great route away from the road on the American Tobacco Trail, and I slowly but surely re-learned all the good things that running had to offer me. I finished my training with a 12-mile adventure covering almost all new local territory, and stopping off at the farmer’s market 10 miles in for a coffee and some blues in the sunshine. Running wasn’t only getting me outside, helping me feel positive and strong in this strange new life that I’ve taken on, but it also helped me forge a better relationship with Durham. I got home from that run feeling (perhaps for the first time) really positive about Durham.

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Still, I was finding running hard, and motivation even harder. It wasn’t until the day before the race that I fully committed to taking part. I woke up at 5am on 10th December to the coldest Durham day I’d seen so far. The world was sparkling with frost and the air was sharp to the lungs. The race started at 7am in a local shopping mall carpark, and it took too much energy just trying to stay warm enough before the race – I huddled in with other runners, since I couldn’t carry anything extra without anyone supporting me. I had a Clif Bar tucked into my sports bra and was planning to take off my outer layer when I got running. We all stood at the start-line as a fellow runner sang the national anthem (in the US every single sporting event begins with the national anthem, even roller derby), and as soon as the singing was over we were heading off, sun rising above the mall and various elves, santas and even a Christmas tree rushing past me and into the first mile.

I took it steady because I really had to take it steady; I knew that even finishing the race, my first half marathon in 7 months, was going to be a challenge. But at the same time I had to rush ahead as best I could, because it was freezing! We turned out onto the open road and I got that surge of joy and excitement that I’ve missed so much in the months of not running – being there with so many other people, the joy of road closures just so I (and thousands of others) could go for a run early on a Saturday morning. The cheering and the music and the first mile of celebration was just wonderful. It reminded me of how much I love big road races – the sort where you can get lost in the crowds and forget where you are. As much as I love trail running, it can get lonely out there on the fells, and when you’re tired and lacking in company it’s generally hard to sum up a party atmosphere.

The route was nothing special, as expected. In fact, it was quite a lot worse than expected – a largely out-and-back course along the Ellerbe Creek Trail, until the final miles when we seemed to loop around every single block in Trinity Heights. It was a lot like trying to make up mileage at the end of a run; I had no sense of where I was going or where I’d been. But I enjoyed it all the same. By mile 10 I was feeling really out of it and unsure if I could continue for another 3 miles – I felt like I was running my slowest ever race, but I purposefully didn’t check my watch because I really didn’t care. I stopped to walk for the first time, retrieved my Clif Bar and spent a few minutes trying and failing to get my frozen fingers to open the wrapper. 10 miles in and I was still wrapped up, still frozen solid – the temperature was becoming quite challenging. I gave up on the Clif Bar but felt revived from the walking, and trotted out the last few miles with a real sense of achievement.

As I crossed the finish line in almost my slowest time ever (only 9 mins faster than my first ever half marathon), I felt 100% sure that I’d given everything I had to give. And what a great feeling! Of all the PBs I’ve ever achieved, all the longer distances and new milestones reached, getting to the end of this race was one of the best feelings of success I’ve ever had. And perhaps the best feeling of all was that it reminded me that I do still enjoy running, and that taking part in races is something I’ve done for fun (because I do find it fun). Perhaps pushing harder and faster can take away the enjoyment, and perhaps as a result the sense of achievement, of doing the race in the first place.

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I worked out that Durham was quite probably my 20th half marathon; for the next 20, I plan to put sheer enjoyment as my main priority. It doesn’t really matter to me how fast or slow I run, so long as the training feels good and the race is enjoyable. So I’m now considering my next race, which may or may not be taking place in the coming weeks. We’ll see!

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When your hometown club puts on a race, it’s pretty difficult to opt out of taking part. Especially when it’s a comeback race to celebrate the club’s 30th anniversary. And when your parents are the main sponsors of the event. Whether or not I fancied running a half marathon in the first weeks of ultra training, circumstances left me with little choice, and so we showed up at my parents’ early on Sunday morning for what was to be a brilliant day out.

Unluckily for the organisers, but perhaps luckily for those who took part, the race coincided with the much heftier ‘Yorkshire’ half marathon, with thousands of runners flocking to Sheffield instead of the West Riding that morning. Corporate events aren’t my favourite, and though I do have a soft spot for the Jane Tomlinson Run For All events, you can find cheaper marathons with much smaller carbon footprints to boot. This was totally not the case at Ackworth: for a rather humble entry fee, runners were treated to a brilliant course, excellent support, FIVE water stations, TWO medals, and a goodie bag like none I have ever seen before (more on that to come).

I acknowledge that I’m a little biased in my review of this race – I do have personal interest in its success, after all – but all of the feedback I’ve heard and seen has been unanimous: it was awesome. We arrived at the start line – a big field on top of a hill next to the prominent local landmark of Ackworth water tower. It was freezing, and a bit windy, and husband and I huddled together for warmth as everyone got organised. There appeared to be a strong contingent of club runners, as well as lots of beefy chaps with lovely thick West Yorkshire accents (again, I know I’m biased) and people just out for a nice morning run. There were a few charity runners, and no one was in fancy dress. We stuck kind of near the middle, as I was in it for a PB, and I need the faster people to set my pace for me in the first few miles. Daniel was taking it steady, as he always does, and I was so tempted to stick by him and just enjoy the ride. I’d been up all night worrying about the race, and my nerves had taken firm residence in my stomach, which had not taken kindly to any attempt at eating breakfast. Still, I was determined to give it a good try since I was on home turf. I knew all the roads, so I kept in mind the bits to look forward to, and had a plan of action for the difficult sections that were familiar in the unfriendly sense.

Photo credit: Andrew Thrippleton

Photo credit: Andrew Thrippleton

The horn sounded, and we were off! It was strange to be running in a pack of people around local streets that I’d so often run alone, but the roads were closed and the day was still young (yes to 9:30am starts!), and I’d managed to gather a nice comfortable pace from the outset. Things were looking good, and despite the rather meagre chocolate coins that I’d managed to digest successfully, I felt pretty good, too. I managed to break the 5km point with an average pace below 8;30, by which point I felt able to keep it up for at least another four miles to my first gel. The hills came and everyone slowed, but every hill was matched with a downhill, and generally I was easily able to make up what I’d lost. We turned in to the village of Wentbridge and I knew we had a killer climb ahead, which I had done only once before. I’d forgotten exactly how killer it was – easily a match for the bigger hills at Keswick, even – and I began to question whether I should stop running and just walk for a bit. “You’re nearly at the top!” shouted a nearby onlooker, and as I looked up I saw the hill becoming a little more gentle in front of me; ‘nearly’ was a little optimistic, but the climb became easier and I managed to push it to the brow of the hill. No mountains to see over the other side, unfortunately, but there was a great view of the three local power stations, as well as the water tower, which would continue to bob on the horizon for the rest of the race.

Photo credit: Andrew Thrippleton

Photo credit: Andrew Thrippleton

The next bit was my favourite, as we left the main roads for a quiet single-track road that I’ve regularly followed both while cycling and running. At this point we were coming to seven miles, and I knew that I was in for a pretty solid PB if I kept it up – I hit mile 7 around the hour mark, and stopped briefly at a water station for a gel (which exploded and covered me in ickiness) and a sip of fluid. Stopping didn’t hinder me too much, and I felt good as I continued down the road. But then we turned left, and I knew what was ahead: the road of eternal gales. It lived up to its nickname*, with strong winds blasting us right in the face, making forwards-motion seem almost impossible. I got into a pack of other runners and ran along quietly, listening to their conversation to distract me from the discomfort. The winds picked up, the road climbed upwards and then down a bit and then up again and then a bit down (‘undulating’ always sounds so appealing, doesn’t it?), and I just kept pushing forwards with that water tower in the corner of my eye. We turned back into Wentbridge and it became apparent that what was just a chilly breeze a few miles back had become a proper bit of weather, and whichever way the route turned, the wind was never in our favour. Another hill, and this time I felt as if I were trudging, using everything I had to keep moving forwards; suddenly things weren’t going so well. The empty stomach that I’d set off on came back to haunt me around mile 10, as I bottomed out and felt totally unable to keep going: my pace was slowing but I didn’t care, I just wanted to stop. I had another gel and pushed and pushed, and just as I passed the 11 mile marker I heard a familiar voice behind me, and almost tripped over in shock as I saw my husband rushing past. I may not have cracked it that day, but he certainly had! I felt an overwhelming sense of pride, which was quickly scrubbed out with annoyance that he was so nonchalantly rushing past me. Oh well.

Photo credit: Andrew Thrippleton

Happier running times, around mile 7. Photo credit: Andrew Thrippleton

The last mile was a killer, but it was almost irrelevant as I was kept entertained by some ‘inspirational’ signs that someone had put up by the side of the road. ‘Humpty Dumpty had wall issues too’ was a particularly pertinent message at that point. I checked my Garmin, almost not daring to look, to see that I could still come in under 2 hours with time to spare so long as I kept moving forwards. With 200m to go I dared to push to a sprint, and made it over the line with relief, rather than joy. I spotted Daniel in the crowds and rewarded him with a sweaty, sticky runner’s kiss – he was the winner of the day, after all. My Dad had pulled out due to a calf problem early on so he was also frustrated, but none of that could distract us from the fact that it had been a resounding success: brilliant marshalling, loads of water stations, great course and a really fun local event. Just a shame about the wind!

Photo credit: Andrew Thrippleton

Photo credit: Andrew Thrippleton

The fun didn’t stop there, though, as we were handed lovely Ackworth AC goodie bags complete with two medals (both engraved), water, chocolate…and a set of false eyelashes. Apparently they make you run faster, so perhaps I will test them out at my next race – maybe they’ll help me get through those last three miles, next time.

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*not actually an official nickname – it’s just known as Wentbridge Lane

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For the past three years now, the first Sunday in May marks one of the best events in the year’s calendar: the Keswick Half Marathon. This race was my first half marathon back in 2010, and has sentimental value reaching beyond my running history, as the route passes through a host of the best childhood holiday memories any person can have.

This year, my Dad, my Taller Half (as my husband-to-be will hereby be known, thanks to his 6’5 stature) and younger brother also took part, and the shared sense of nerves and excitement provided a super-charged car journey over the A66 to the Lake District. We ate bagels in the car at around 2 hours before the race was due to start. This was on top of large bowls of porridge and honey which we made time for before the long drive to Keswick; a long drive always mixes up the routine a bit, but this can actually be useful as, for me at least, I generally eat more than I usually would if a race is taking place nearby.

The forecast was good, but as we arrived into the car park it started to drizzle. Not to be deterred, we went for a walk to Derwent Water to stretch our car-heavy legs and take in some fresh, spring air. We collected our numbers and started to prepare for the race. The rain got heavier, and though the lack of wind was a real relief after a very blustery race in 2011, it was inevitable that the weather wouldn’t be changing fast.

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I prepared myself with waterproofs, and decided to stick with the cooler option of no mid-layer, as I tend to get super-hot very quickly! I’ve taken to attaching my race number to my shorts instead of my vest, as I’m constantly off and on with various layers as the weather changes! The starting line is a mile away from the car park, in a nearby village called Portinscale, which means you have to leave the car in good time before the start of the race at 11:30am. And behold, at 11am, just as the weather forecast had promised, heavy rain started beating down on the car roof. We decided to wait until it calmed down rather than getting soaked and freezing before the start, and luckily it turned from downpour to drizzle in a few minutes while I crammed in a couple of slices of Soreen. Unfortunately this meant a rush to the start line along with everyone else, and the atmosphere was quite tense and frustrated as everyone rushed to get there in time. We were bottle-necked at a kissing gate and then again over a narrow footbridge, and just as the frustration started to turn itself outwards I heard a voice over a tannoy, and then the starting horn – we had missed the start! The start of a race is one of my favourite things in the world: the tension and excitement turning emotional as everyone comes together, the smell of deep heat, the sound of all the feet clattering as we set off, the colours sprawling out ahead. And Taller Half had missed his first ever race start!

Not to be deterred, we warmed up quickly, and then started jogging towards the start line. I hit ‘start’ on my Garmin as we passed the man with the horn, and we were all systems go, just as the sun started to come out! I found myself running a little faster than I normally would have in the first half mile as I desperately wanted to catch up with the other runners, but then I reminded myself that I would anyway, and not at the expense of my energy levels, which I wanted to remain as constant as I could for the first seven killer miles.

Keswick is areally hard route. The first 8.5 miles are absolutely stunning, but you have to push hard for the best views; the course is mainly very undulating, but there are three hills in particular which leave you burning from top to toe. Many people walk up these hills (and who can blame them!), but I have managed to run every step of the way for the past 3 years – the feeling when you get to the top, lungs on fire and heart popping out of your chest, to turn and see the spectacular views offered by the natural landscape is just fantastic, and shouting out in agony and joy is one of my secret indulgences! The last few miles are all along the main Borrowdale road, without much in the name of scenery, and often with cars crashing past a little bit too close for comfort. Then there’s the final uphill climb to the finish, which takes up the last three miles of the race.

Hard as it may be, it’s the perfect mix of scenery, fresh air, ups and downs, pretty villages and wonderful people. My third experience of the race was as fantastic as the previous two years’, and this time it didn’t all start to come undone at mile 10! I felt powerful throughout; as I was running with my Taller Half I didn’t push too hard, so when it came to the last mile I was sprinting gleefully, full of energy and excited for the next challenge taking place at Windermere in under 2 weeks’ time!

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Thanks to running 13 miles in almost brand new running shoes, I gained a big blister on the inside of my foot, and my knees were rickety and clicking from the 51 miles I had accumulated that week. I was hobbling but less so than usual, and I have to say that I rather enjoy the aches and pains that come after such endurance. We brought ourselves back to life with some recovery shake and flapjack, and, as is the tradition, we went to our favourite vegetarian café in Keswick for a post-race refuel: The Lakeland Pedlar. A sweet tea and a bowl of fiery hot chilli was enough to revive me past the nausea and exhaustion, and as the afternoon descended into early evening we headed back along the A66 home.

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