Before I ran Bushy Park Half Marathon yesterday morning, I wasn’t sure I could run a half marathon. A day after completing the race, I’m still not sure I could run one. I got through it, my memory suggests, and with an alright time, but it’s hard to make the cognitive leap from ‘impossible joke distance’ to mission accomplished.
Around six months ago, I realised I was stuck in a fitness rut. I walked everywhere, sure, and notionally went to the gym, but I definitely wasn’t any kind of runner. Would a runner head to the gym before work, only to divide her time between:
- five minutes of cardio
- a sit-up?
- a languorous half-hour shower?
Would a runner head to the gym after work, only to leave within minutes because she didn’t have the patience to:
- wait for a machine?
- wait for some space on the mat
- wait for the bubbliest section of the jacuzzi?
To reiterate: I wasn’t a runner. I definitely prioritised the pub.
Now, whether or not I am currently a runner depends on how you define it. I still prioritise the pub, and, while my recent fitness gains astonish me, it’s all about your frame of reference. My flat-out 13 miles, slightly flattened abs and new-found aptitude for self-flattery? That’s another person’s Sunday stroll / Boxing Day bloat / pathological self-delusion. I don’t think Jessica Ennis need watch her step. Still, the last six months have been a real voyage of discovery.
In February this year, I registered for the Great North Run. Back then, the distance really was impossible – I rarely ran outside, and the thrice-weekly treadmill slogs maxed out at 30 minutes. Estimated time? asked the GNR website, keen to assign me to the appropriate holding pen. Errr, 2:15? I wavered. You might as well have asked me to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar.
Cut to yesterday morning, and I’m about to embark on the Bushy Park Half Marathon. I’m treating this mostly as a training run, helping me get a handle on race logistics. What’s more, I have an inkling I can run faster than 2:15, but need to submit official evidence if I want to change my holding pen.
I leap out of bed at 6am, feeling wired and jittery and pumped with carbs and more than a little bit crazy. It’s still chucking it down, after a day of heavy rain, but what’s a little drizzle to dampen the human spirit? What’s a little mud to mire down the victor within? I have to fill my brain with motivational rubbish, because truth be told I’m utterly bricking it.
Bushy Park is a long way to go, way out in the hinterlands of Zone 6. The train is creakingly unhurried, which you might take as a form of foreshadowing, but eventually it pulls into Teddington and some muscle-men in Vibrams disembark. I follow them meekly towards the start.
The course itself will involve three laps through varied trail terrain, a fact that only now becomes apparent:
Previously, I’ve mainly run on roads, and while sandy paths would be OK, yesterday’s monsoon put paid to the prospect. As it transpires, today we’ll be running on mud, with stretches of quaggy grass and the occasional blessed interlude of road-like surface. There will be puddles, and then more puddles, and I’ll have to leap over these puddles or risk damaging the timing chip on my trainers. Still, it’s pretty flat. And (pathetic fallacy time!) once we arrive, it soon stops raining.
I slough off my bag and stand in line for my number and timing chip. The numbers are allocated alphabetically, so being called Abi I’m number 1; had I been christened Zsa-Zsa, the pressure would have been easier to handle.
Alison from my running club is here as well – it’s a relief to have somebody to babble to. We line up at the starting line amid several hundred runners and discuss pacing strategies. Start slow, speed up – that’s the consensus, although it seems that the so-called ‘negative split’ is notoriously difficult for beginners. What the hell, I’ll give it a shot, I think as the starting gun sounds. How hard can it really be to go slow?
FIRST LAP (MILES 0-4.33)
Hard, as it turns out. Very hard. I’m full of nervous energy and it seems an exertion to restrain myself, when every fibre in my being wants to sprint. The clog of runners thins out as we find our pace. I fall into place behind a girl in pink shorts whom I decide will be my nemesis.
Because we’ll be running this course three times, the mile markers aren’t always on the money. Case in point – we pass mile 9, then 5, then 1, before we’ve so much as muddied our trainers. It seems a cruel joke to see ’12’ whoosh by when you’re only three miles in, but I figure that towards the end of the race, I’ll feel smug streaming past the three-mile marker.
For now, my main grievance is my iPod, whose controls seem to have been usurped by a tone-deaf poltergeist. It’ll start playing a song, and then the volume will spiral upwards towards the max, and then it’ll skip, and another track will start, and then it’ll stop, and I’ll turn it off and turn it on again only to be treated to the first song on repeat. This musical merry-go-round is throwing me off my stride, but at least it’s diverting attention from my quad strain.
I sail past the girl in pink shorts, and as we reach the drinks station ahead of our second lap, I could happily take or leave the proffered water.
SECOND LAP (MILES 4.33-8.67)
It starts to get slightly trickier somewhere around mile 7, when the lazy part of my brain informs me that I’ve already completed a long run. “Pat yourself on the back and go home,” it says. “Seven miles is not to be sniffed at.”
Such instructions are all well and good when I’m cruising down the canal towpath, but they aren’t particularly helpful in a half marathon. “This is hard,” my brain points out at mile 8. Cheers for that, brain. Cheers for the helpful commentary.
My legs are growing heavier, and just as I should be speeding up, I’m really beginning to struggle. I pin my hopes on getting second wind, or, failing that, acquiring Lucozade. I eagerly await the upcoming drinks station.
THIRD LAP AND THEN SOME (MILES 8.67-13.1)
Alas, the Lucozade isn’t magic juice. The Lucozade is pimped-up Ribena. By mile 9 the tiredness is hitting me in waves: an exhaustion that ricochets forcefully from joint to worn-out joint. I’ve run this distance at least five times before, so it shouldn’t be so difficult, but clearly marshy grassland is no match for bouncy pavement.
In fact, I’d say I’m wearier now than I ever have been on a run. Three weeks ago, I ran 13.4 miles without stopping, and, would you believe, actually enjoyed it. Right now, at barely 10 miles in, I’m having to stretch my legs against a tree. The girl in pink shorts passes me with ease, and then powers off out into the distance. I’m overtaken by a bloke with a beer belly. “Come on, hop to it!” I entreat myself – “only 5k left to go!” but during the slog to 11 miles every last ounce of strength is in abeyance.
The surprising thing is not my tiredness, which is par for the course in a half marathon. The surprising thing is my internal monologue. My inner motivational guru has been replaced by a petulant child who whines that it just isn’t fair. “It’s a stupid distance!” the child sniffs, indignantly. “Nobody should have to run this far!” Right now, I’m definitely putting the ‘huff’ into ‘huff and puff’ – it’s as though I’m attempting to rebel against some phantom sadistic PE teacher.
At 11 miles, the terrain becomes firmer, and the next stretch is comparatively straightforward. Only once we reach 12.5 miles, and yet more puddles, does the petulant child make its reappearance. This time round, I’m simply done for. I want to cry. I’d love to say I summon up one last, glorious burst of energy, but my run has slowed to a timid jog and the finish line seems to be creeping ever further away. “Don’t stop now love,” says a man, overtaking me, and I try to keep up, but each footfall is suffused with an aching sense of defeat.
The change, when it comes, is sudden. We turn one final bend and I spy the finish line! Then, ten seconds later, I see the time on the clock. The petulant child becomes an athlete – I sprint through the finish – I pummel the air. I’ve just registered a time of 1:43:51 (1:43:40 on the chip), surpassing my secret goal of 8 minute miles, and smashing the 2:15 guess into oblivion.
Finishing this race is, quite possibly, the purest sense of elation I’ve ever experienced. I take my medal, down a gallon of water, reunite with Alison, scoff a banana, don my new race-finisher T-shirt, pull that annoying Facebook-era stunt of getting Alison to take a photo.
This isn’t the most flattering pic of me (especially given the bright red face and the tent-like proportions of the T-shirt) but I’ll always be able to look at it and remember how jubilant I felt. Oh, then there’s the accompanying song – Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’ – which briefly flashed onto my malfunctioning iPod as I shuffled arthritically out the park.
Official stats time: I was 91st out of a field of 242, and surprisingly enough, the 7th woman (pink shorts nemesis came 6th). The overall winner – part of the Great Britain Cross Country International team – clocked an incredible 1:13:07; the winning woman was on 1:26:36. Respect to anyone running 6-minute miles on a course which was, frankly, ridiculous.
Next time round, I think the battle will be psychological as much as anything; I’ll have to learn to pre-empt that point where the petulant child makes her appearance. For now however, as I nurse my assembled aches and strains, I’m very, very happy. You want to know why people get up at 6am on a Bank Holiday weekend to run round a muddy field? So did I, believe me, but I think I’m beginning to find out.
Race photos here.
British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands