The weather gods smiled benevolently on today’s Keyworth Turkey Trot half marathon. After a few week of icy weather, the thaw set in on Friday, and by yesterday almost all the ice was gone from the roads. As we lined up, the starter warned us to be wary of ice on the road as we approached the 11 mile marker, but as the 800 or so runners streamed through the streets of Keyworth and then out into the delightful rolling countryside of the Wolds that straddle the Nottinghamshire-Leicestershire border, the sun shone pale but encouragingly, through a gap in the scattered fluffy cumulonimbus clouds There were some patches of snow on the roadside verges, and the puddles of melt-water that had re-frozen overnight were still frozen solid, but the road surface was fine. I was wearing a long-sleeved cotton top and light-weight gloves – the first time in my life that I have raced in gloves, and I wondered whether or not I would regret that decision.
On account of the various problems that have beset me this year, my preparations had been brief, consisting of six week in which I had run an average of 37Km per week. My six long runs had gone well, but my attempts at speed work had been rather dismal. I was confident that I could achieve a time of 110 minutes, but had decided to aim for 105:30 (5 min/Km) despite that fact that my paces in training suggested I would have trouble maintaining 5 min/Km for the entire half-marathon, especially on a challenging hilly course.
The first 2 ½ miles were predominantly downhill and runners streamed past me. By the two mile marker I was far back in a long ribbon of humanity that stretched across the Wolds, passing sheep grazing sedately in the fields. I had covered the first two miles in 15:43 (4:54 min/Km) which I considered was near perfect pacing for my optimistic 105:30 target. There would be many hills ahead, and I knew I needed to establish a small reserve of time on the downhill stretches.
About half a mile later, as we approached the beginning of the hilly section which the race organizers describe as the most challenging section of the course, runners were still passing me, but I claimed my first ‘scalp’: a young woman with a pony tail and a bright pink lightweight top. However as we began the first serious ascent, the young woman with the pony tail loped past me with an easy gait. On that ascent my pace slowed to around 6:40 /Km, but I was not far short of the anaerobic zone and my legs were reluctant to go any faster. I decided it was best to husband my resources for later. On the next major ascent my pace slowed even more seriously and at times I was barely achieving a pace of 7:40 /Km. When the road levelled out I was able to increase to around 4:50 pace again. By this stage the pink top with the ponytail was visible about 350 m ahead of me. Because the bright pink was an easily discernible target, I decide that catching up would be a worthwhile goal and set about narrowing the gap. The next two miles were mainly downhill and by the 5 mile marker, shortly after passing through the village of Wysall, I drew level with my quarry. My time at 5 miles was 41:22. I was about 80 seconds behind my target time, but the most challenging part of the course was now behind us.
The road again turned upwards and the young lady with the ponytail pulled ahead again. My legs simply couldn’t match hers on the ascents. We were still heading predominantly south and I was aware of that there was absolutely no movement of air past my face. I was starting to feel a little too hot. I also noticed that the young woman had removed her bright pink top and draped it around her waist. However I was not really worried about over-heating as I knew that the absence of air movement as we ran south meant that as soon as we turned back to the north, just after the halfway mark, we would have a gentle but chilly breeze on our faces. I reached halfway in 54:00, still 75 seconds behind my target schedule. I was feeling reasonable strong but I was aware that I had little in reserve and I wondered whether or not I had the capacity to achieve a negative split. It would depend on the hills ahead of me.
The young woman with the ponytail pulled further ahead as we continued to climb but when we began the long descent towards the village of Widmerpool, I once again started to narrow the gap. I was again maintaining a pace of around 4:45 /Km and at 9 miles I overtook the young woman. For a short distance, I was amused to note the shadow of her swirling ponytail on the ground just ahead of me, as we ran with the low-angled sun behind us. But then I lost sight of the swirling shadow as I forged ahead. At the third drink station, I took the proffered open cup, and as I attempted to consume the icy water in small sips to avoid the risk of stomach cramp, I managed to douse both my gloves. With sodden gloves and a fresh stream of arctic air in my face, it was clear I no longer had any need to worry about overheating.
Beyond Widmerpool the road began a long slow ascent that was to continue for 2 miles. Near the summit, I was aware of footsteps approaching from behind, and again the shadow of a swirling ponytail appeared on the ground just ahead of me. Yet again the young lady came up beside me but this time she did not pass me. It was clear that we were well matched and it appeared likely we would have a tightly fought duel to the finish. She appeared to be running well, but I wasn’t going to give in without a good fight. Over the next few minor downs and ups, I would take the lead on the down-slopes and she would close the gap again on the ups.
As we approached the outskirts of Keyworth, with a little over a mile to run, she was at my shoulder. Then at the 12 mile marker a group of enthusiastic spectators who were clearly her friends called out: ‘Take him now, Emily’ and cheered as she surged past me to open up a 3 metre gap. Over the next few hundred metres I whittled away that gap. I was now on the edge of the anaerobic zone, and with about 1200 metres to go, on a slight down-slope, I decided to make my move. I accelerated to a pace which my Polar monitor subsequently revealed was around 3:50 per Km. I was now seriously anaerobic and wondering how long I could hold this pace. I knew there were still two small hills ahead, and my adversary was definitely stronger on the hills. Whatever the cost, now was the time to establish a clear lead.
The first of the final two ascents started at about 800m from the finish. Just as I began to ascend, I felt a twinge of cramp in my left hamstring. I decided that the only thing to do was to adopt a high cadence with short stride, using my hip flexors to lift my knee high in mid-swing, thereby applying a dynamic stretch to the cramping hamstring. Dynamic stretching of a cramping muscle is a bit risky, but this was not the time to stop and stretch the complaining muscle carefully. I managed to get my cadence above 200 steps per minute but my stride length was frustratingly short. I almost felt as if I was running on the spot. My pace slowed to 5:30 per Km, but mercifully, the cramp resolved. Beyond the hill top I accelerated down the small dip before once again struggling on the short final ascent. At this stage I was still passing many runners, though just as I reached the top of the rise a younger man went past me and I could not catch him in the final sprint to the finishing chute. However I was pleased that I had overtaken a substantial number of runners in that final 1200m surge. Emily reached the finish around 35 seconds behind me.
My finishing time was 108:45, so despite the finishing surge, I had dropped an additional 45 seconds behind scheduled pace in the second half – mostly on the long ascent after leaving Widmerpool. However I am pleased with my performance. I had known before I started that 105:30 would be a demanding target. Neither my legs not my aerobic capacity were up to the demands of the hills. But the really great thing is that neither my knee nor the protruding heads of my metatarsals, which have been a problem for much of this year, caused any problem at all today. So now I can settle into the task of slowly building my fitness. Then, next year, after I have retired from work, I hope to have the time to begin to train seriously.