The taper for the Robin Hood half marathon had gone fairly well. In contrast to the final few months of training during which my pace during tempo runs was very disappointing and I had be quite unable to achieve anything approaching a reasonable race pace when I pushed myself in the final few Km of long training runs, I had been pleased that by the end of the taper I could maintain a pace around 4:50 per Km comfortably for short distances. It was still very uncertain for what distance I could maintain such a pace, so I had very little firm evidence on which to base a pacing strategy in the race itself. A time anywhere in the range 102 to 108 minutes was plausible. I decided therefore that I would run by feel rather than by the watch. As both Robert and Ewen pointed out, this is a bit risky because the extra adrenalin can distort perceptions on race day. I think I have a fairly good capacity to estimate effort, by conscious attention to the depth and rate of my breathing, and by an awareness of the overall sense of wellbeing or distress generated by the many non-conscious signals that pass from body to brain. I accepted it would be a bit risky to rely on these sensations, especially as I have only raced once (a 5Km last November) since I ran the Keyworth Turkey Trot two years ago, but I was prepared to take the risk, rather than settle for a sensible target of around 105 minutes.
In the Turkey Trot my arthritis-ravaged legs had let me down. Although I was pleased on that occasion that I was able to make a good race of it, largely due to an impromptu duel over the final few Km with a young woman named Emily, my time of 108:45 had been unimpressive. Unfortunately, due to subsequent painful remnants of the episode of arthritis I had not managed to make much progress with the leg strengthening exercises that were clearly required, so once again, today I was starting a half marathon aware that my legs would be my vulnerable feature.
For a few days I had been watching the weather map monitoring the progress of a cyclonic system that had deepened to the east of Iceland mid-week. As the high pressure that had provided us with some stable weather during the week moved further eastwards, we were in for some strong south-westerly gusts by Sunday, Perhaps not ideal for long distance running, though I noted optimistically that as the Robin Hood course heads mainly south west in the first half before turning back the northeast, and the winds would probably strengthen throughout the day, we might get some net wind-assistance, . It was also clear that the temperature would be cool.
Before pinning my race number on my vest last night I popped out to assess the likely temperature and make a final choice between T-shirt and singlet. The sky was clear, the moon was full and stars sparkled though a crisp atmosphere. If it stayed as clear as this, it would be chilly tomorrow, but I was fairly sure that clouds driven by the approaching cyclonic system would sweep over us before morning, so I elected to pin the number on my singlet.
I set the alarm for a little before dawn, to allow a leisurely breakfast. As the sun rose the underside of the accumulating clouds turned pink. The cyclonic system had not quite reached us though the breeze was freshening. It looked like the weather would be ideal and the rising wind would be more a help rather than a hindrance.
At the start I found a spot near the back of the red pen (for runners aiming for 90-105 minutes), along with a variegated mass of humanity – some wiry, with serious faces and club vests, jiggling around to keep warm; others dressed as Robin Hood, apparently more intent on enjoying the experience than worrying about the stop-watch. As the wheelchair race was getting under way, the drums increased their tempo, and it was impossible to avoid a surge of excitement. However as we stood waiting I noted that my pulse was a steady 57 despite the rousing beating of the drums. Rather than being concerned that adrenaline would mask my sensation of effort, I was now a little more concerned that the benefits of my light warm-up might have dissipated. A few spots of rain fell, but I knew that I would warm up again fairly quickly once we were under-way.
The drums masked the sound of the start horn, but I became aware that the mass of humanity was moving and gathering speed as we approached the inflatable arch that defined the start. I had little control over pace at this stage, but had reached a gentle trot as I passed under the arch. In the next few minutes the human mass became more chaotic as individuals struggled to establish their own pace However, frantic scrambling at this stage is pointless. I was locked in the midst of a clump of burly men bearing logos proclaiming that they were participants in the Cooper Parry Relay. When one of them announced after we had covered a few hundred metres that we were now doing 6 min/Km I decided it was time to at least extricate myself from this particular clump, so I tucked in behind a rather muscular young (male) fairy wearing a pretty blue tutu, and followed as he forged ahead.
As we approached the first mile marker, my breathing was relaxed and I recognised the rhythm as one breath every six steps – a rate that I knew I could maintain comfortably for at least the HM distance. My overall sensation was ‘OK’ though I was aware that my legs were moving a little less fluently than that they had been during the best of the short runs in the recent taper. However, at this stage, there were no grounds for serious concern. As a safety precaution I checked my watch at the mile marker. The time was 7:46 (equivalent to 4:50 /Km) and heart rate was 130. I only intended the watch-check as a back-up to avoid serious misjudgement. Nonetheless I was pleased to see that my pace over the first mile had been at the faster end of my expected range, yet my HR was still well below the upper aerobic zone targeted by HM runners. Although pleased, I was not surprised as I knew that it was unlikely that either heart or lungs would be the limiting factor today.
At the first drinks station I consumed about 150 ml of water. I wondered whether the fluid was worth the few seconds I lost in weaving through the still tightly packed mass of runners, but that had been my prior plan so I stuck to it. As we headed south westward along the wide open boulevard on the north bank of the Trent, I expected the head wind to be challenging. However, I was still in such a tight mass of runners that I scarcely noticed the wind at all.
As we ran through the campus of the Boots Company, it was necessary to watch out when approaching the sharp bends to avoid collision with runners trying to save a metre or two by running the tangents. However, by and large, the mass of runners was now fairly streamlined. I was still breathing with a comfortable 1:6 rhythm, but my legs were definitely not coping well. My left knee was a little painful and both gastrocnemius and hamstring muscles were tightening.
Shortly after entering the University campus we encountered the only appreciable hill on the entire course (apart for the ramps leading to bridges) and I was happy to let the majority of nearby runners surge ahead as I slowed a little to reduce stress on my legs. At the top of the rise we passed through the imposing portico into the courtyard of the Trent Building – the administrative headquarters of the University. Although it was awe-inspiring to run through such an imposing portico, I have some mixed feelings about the grandeur of Trent Building. When the University administration top-slice my hard-won research grants to cover university overheads, I wonder, in an iconoclastic frame of mind, how much of the top-slice goes to maintain the splendid wood-panelled Senate Chamber and the Vice-Chancellor’s Office. However, today, it was an occasion to simply enjoy the grandeur.
On the descent from Trent Building to the lake I caught up with most of those who had surged past me on the ascent. As we rounded the head of the lake a wonderful steel band was beating out a rousing rhythm. Another quick glace at my watch showed that my HR was still 130 (though it had almost certainly been higher on the climb and was now probably a bit below average following the descent). Although my legs were still uncomfortable, we were now at the half way point and I was fairly confident that the legs would hold out to the finish. I decided it was time to apply a little more pressure. As we left the University campus, I scanned the mass of humanity ahead for appropriate quarry to add a little spice to the chase. At this stage, the majority of the pack were still running with dogged determination and no-one was offering themselves as easy prey. Most had the demeanour of runners with serious intent. I could see the green tunics of two Robin-Hoods not far ahead. They were running strongly but nonetheless I decided they would have to do. However, despite a substantial increase in effort, my legs were reluctant to go much faster and it was not until after the nine mile marker that both Robin Hoods were behind me.
My breathing rate had now increased to one breath every four steps but was still comfortable. I was sweating lightly but felt more water logged than thirsty, so I did not deviate from my path to pick up any water at the third water station. As my legs were reluctant to go any faster, I settled in to maintain my place in the pack. The continual slight shifts of position within the pack made it impossible to focus on a particular person, but I was surprised by just how many of the pack were runners who had forged slowly ahead of me in the earlier stages. I was confident that I was running a slight negative split, so overall the pack was scarcely weakening.
I had almost forgotten about the wind until we did a dog-leg back to the southwest approaching the 10 mile mark, and the gusty south-westerly asserted itself. After a few right angle turns in the next mile or so, we were back on the river embankment, passing near to the finishing point, but with a two mile loop along the river bank still to be run. I could hear an excited voice announcing over the loud speaker that someone of apparent local importance, whose name I didn’t catch, had ascended the slope onto the flood protection embankment leading to the finish as the race-clock passed 1 hour and thirteen minutes. I estimated that whoever he was, he had about two minutes to run at that point, while I now had about two miles to run. My brain was still working well enough to estimate that provided my legs didn’t give up during those two miles, my time would be around 102 minutes.
The outward leg of the final loop exposed us once again to the gusty wind and my breathing was deeper now – I was definitely in the upper aerobic zone. Then there was a short stretch shielded from the wind by trees and enthusiastic spectators; a short sharp pull up to the top of the flood protection embankment, and a final sprint to the finish. By this stage my leg muscles were tightening quite alarmingly. In the final 50 metres I tore a few fibres in my left calf. As I crossed the line, the race clock indicated a little over 102 minutes. As I had crossed the timing mat at the start a short time after the official start I expect my official chip time will turn out to be under 102 minutes. According to my watch, my time was 101:50. [Note added 1 Oct 2012: the published results confirmed 101:50]
I am delighted to have achieved a time at the leading edge of what I thought was possible. As in the Turkey Trot two years ago, my legs were again the limiting factor, but my time was about seven minutes faster. There is no doubt that a program of leg strengthening must now be my highest priority. I also feel a bit sheepish about tearing fibres in my left calf, as I was aware that they were at their limit before I began the final sprint. However, even though the sprint gained me only a few seconds and three or four places in the finish order, I find it difficult to resist the temptation to treat the final run to the line as a race with whoever else has managed to get to the home straight at the same time. That surely makes us balanced and worthy opponents.