Perhaps appropriately for this blog, here’s something about enough space to contain 13.1 miles, an hour and forty-four minutes of time and an as-yet undetermined amount of money. Running the British Heart Foundation’s half marathon at Blenheim Palace on Sunday was also good fun, hard work and, to a degree that may only become evident when time comes to run another half marathon, self-illuminating.
grounds, Blenheim Palace
As for good fun, how could it not be so? Fabulous autumn day and the sublime surrounds of Oxfordshire managed to English countryside perfection, not to mention several thousand fellow runners and well-wishers and really excellent organisation. And, free entry to the gardens with a cheap upgrade to a full-year pass to the Palace; my wife and I shall be going back.
[To digress (from what clear path? you might ask), I have to-date avoided big charity events, as I won’t be the next one going around the office hitting everybody up for donations to buy my way into a run or cycle ride. I suppose I might do the more honest thing and go around the office hitting everybody up for donations to a cause I really, really believed in, simply because it was a good cause – but not because I would get to run a race. I want to pay my money and tie my shoes, which the BHF seems to understand; raise money, please, they say, but £23 gets you to the starting line, no strings attached.*]
The hard work and self-illumination parts come from the fact that I’m not really a runner. I run enough to be able to do it, but I’m a road racing cyclist (and sometime cyclo-cross man, which means cross-country running while carrying a bike). Putting this in perspective is something I’m struggling with a bit, honestly. Two years back I was invited by the genuinely nice people at Dassault Aviation to join, in my capacity as an aerospace journalist, their company group running the 20km de Paris*. That’s just short of a half marathon (and a wildly fun course, start and finish at the Tour d’Eiffel with a good chunk of the Bois de Boulogne in between). I got myself reasonably trained up on a short 10k route from home and went for it – it being a distance I’d never come close to running in one go before. The racer in me started out too hard, and the last 18km, let me tell you, were hard. But I must have got off to a good start, as I managed 1:35 despite having had the second-worst imaginable pre-race dinner, of (a rather good Parisienne) cheeseburger and chips.
After that I did no running at all until early summer last year, when it occurred to me that my only chance to run my first-ever half marathon on my 50th birthday was fast approaching. As luck would have it, the Ryde Harriers Isle of Wight was on 19 August – a day late but close enough – and we had family reasons to be on the Isle of Wight. So, trained up enough I ran, after the worst-imaginable pre-race dinner, as it included wine. On a scorching day and a brutal course – either steep up or steep down – I got off to another really fast start and rapidly settled into a backwards flow (it could have been a hallucination, but I’m not sure I wasn’t passed by a one-legged old lady). Rapidly, I reached a point where I needed all my willpower to carry on, determined to finish. Stunningly, at the 6.5-mile mark the penny found the slot and I was off like a shot, running better than ever to a sprint finish. Given the dreadful start, I was pleased enough with my a 1:48, especially as a really fast-looking guy I was following off the line was only 10 minutes ahead.
So, to Blenheim. My training consisted of a couple months’ worth of 45-min Saturday runs and one to full distance. That’s not going to qualify me for the Olympics, but I did to everything else right: eating, drinking (not), sleeping, logistics. Add in a beautiful day and a fairly benign course, and I was gunning for sub-1:40.
As expected, my instincts to start fast and keep up with the leaders were strong, but I resisted and settled into a 7:30 mile pace. On the assumption that after a few miles I’d come to life properly and speed up, that felt ok – especially as I felt, well, ok. I kept on some pressure, and at just about 6.5 miles felt the juice kick in and sped up. Actually, a ra-ther attractive woman about half my age motored past with a fluid gait and my male and competitive (admit it, guys!) instincts kicked in and so I sped up and, literally and figuratively, put her behind me.
But at about 9 miles it all went wrong. Let’s say I began to feel some concern that there might not be any more course-side toilets, and while I’m at least as bold as Paula Radcliffe, there actually weren’t any bushes out there. So, despite good legs, good lungs and good-enough feet, finishing meant slowing down.
In a word, drat and 1:44 (and 32 sec). I am mature enough to shrug it off, but really, really, really think I should go quite a lot faster. And want to.
Which is, however self-critical I may be inclined to be, fair enough. There shall be more races, and I may even train a bit more for one of them.
But the reason I relate all this is that what has occurred to me in the subsequent couple days is that a few minutes is a lot. To average, say, 30 seconds a mile faster puts a big margin between two runners. To improve by that much will take work.
We all know that. What needs thinking about, though, isn’t how badly I want it (which is enough to work for it) or even whether it’s possible given the constraints of job and family (which are real, and I know that they limit the work I can do). It’s whether it’s even possible, which begs the whole question of the limits of one’s physiology and psychology.
Physiology poses real limits. Mo Farrah recently clocked 60 minutes and change in the Great North Run half marathon, and didn’t win. He is a much younger man and a real runner, not to mention a professional athlete who trains rather more than I do. But I know that were I to win the lottery tomorrow and buy myself time to train like Mo, I’d still never keep him in my sights. He’s faster.
I can live with that, of course. The psychology is another matter, though – what I can’t know is how much faster I can be. After all, improvement takes training, and it also takes the stars aligning. But if I believe anything, it’s that great competitors can, sometimes, win even when things don’t go well.
So was 1:44 a good time?
*Donations are most welcome – I’ve set up a BHF fundraising page. The Heart Foundation does great things, with our help, and deserves our support, however small it may be (and we are today, mostly, a bit skint and a lot appeal-weary – so, thank you).
*That chip you put on your shoes? In French it’s “la puce”: the flea.