Hackney Half had all the makings of an amazing event. Flat course, superb organisation, perfect weather; the most luxuriantly-bearded runners I have ever seen in the queue for a Portaloo. With that in mind, it was a bit of a shame I had one of the worst runs of my life.
I’d trained properly. I’d tapered right. I’d filled my face with enough carbs, the two days prior, to turn my body into a gigantic, person-shaped breadstick with a dough ball for a head. If this had been enough, I’d probably have been on course to finish with a shiny new PB.
As things stood, this was 13.1 miles of unrelenting physical and mental anguish. A personal best? LOL, said the running gods – how about some dramatic projectile vomiting at the finish line instead? (We’ll throw in a couple of blood blisters as well to make you look properly metal.)
I’d had an exhausting week, comprising several 12-hour days, some sustained sleep deprivation, and to cap it all, the pissing election. Normally when I do a half marathon I make that the focal point of the week. This time round, though, it was just another thing to tick off my list in between infiltrating attraction seminars and railing about the Tories.
So when I prised myself out of bed on the Sunday morning, it’s fair to say I wasn’t exactly raring to go. “I have never felt less motivated in my life,” I told my housemate, Jess, as we attempted to cram in still more carbs and miserably mainlined coffee. My innards were churning ominously, my legs seemed curiously immobile, and my eyelid was twitching like a voyeur’s curtains.
Jess – who was also running the race – wasn’t faring much better. It was 6am and we had a long and winding road ahead of us, literally. But this was Jess’ first half marathon and we weren’t about to bottle out now.
We met a few others at the station and headed down to Hackney Marshes, where the race began. Despite the cold and blustery week that had just been, the sun had decided to grace us with its presence, and the wind had popped a Diazepam or two. The race village had a carnival atmosphere – a riot of colour, with thousands of unusually attractive runners peacocking in neon-bright lycra.
As for the beards – my god, the beards. Any fears that we had indeed reached ‘peak beard’ were allayed within minutes – if the clean-shaven look is due a comeback, the news hasn’t reached Hackney Marshes. I don’t know if it makes you more aerodynamic or something, but the male runners had the best-furnished faces I’ve seen this side of a pogonophile’s convention. Even some of the women, admirably, wore fake beards, lightly fanning their faces as they ran.
I positioned myself in the middle of the 1:30-1:45 pen, where I overheard one girl talking about her race goals. She was shooting for 1:35 she said, but her main aim was to keep an even pace per kilometre. Since this was my best-case scenario goal as well – and I laugh in the face of watch-wearing – I decided I would use her as a pacer.
Pro tip – when using someone as a pacer against their will, you have to be subtle about it or run the risk of really, really annoying them. At one point in the race, I got a taste of my own medicine when The Most Irritating Man In The World began to flag me step by step, breathing all up in my grill like a foghorn with laryngitis.
Anyway, once we set off, it quickly became apparent that this was going to be a special piece of hell. In fact, if I’d set off on a normal run feeling like this, I’d have turned round once I reached the end of the street and done something more sofa-centric. In a race, however, running in the opposite direction to everyone else is actively discouraged, so I had no choice but to embrace my fear of public humiliation and follow the bearded masses.
The course itself doubled up as a twisty tour of the borough – from Homerton High Street to Hackney Downs, back in on yourself over to Dalston, down to Broadway Market and Victoria Park before a final torture-vortex in the Olympic Park and round to where you started. Disappointingly, despite running near a lot of parks you didn’t actually go into any of them: this was more about soaking up the A-roads.
Something strange has happened to me lately in that – despite proclaiming just eight months ago “I loathe off-road running with every fibre of my being’ – I have actually grown to like the trail, preferring to hop, skip and shimmy through woodland than pound along on tarmac. As such, I found myself craving grassy reprieve and wondering what the hell had become of me.
The support was phenomenal, on a par with the Great North Run. Perhaps better still if you control for the Geordie accents, which would make the most vicious torrent of abuse sound vaguely warm and encouraging. Here, there were banners, elated cheers, kids high-fiving you, the works. Without their help, I’m pretty sure I’d have been less ‘runner having a bad day’, and more ‘defeated carcass’.
I crossed the 10km marker at exactly the same point as my ‘pacer’ (44 minutes if she was on target) but knew I couldn’t sustain it, and watched her fly off into the distance. Knowing a PB wasn’t within my grasp, it was all I could do not to stop altogether; my challenge lay in resisting this all-or-nothing mentality and shooting for a secondary target. “You may not do your best,” I told myself sternly “but you can still go sub-1:40 and you’re not going down without a fight”.
A fight was the right word for it. During those interminable middle miles, I pulled every last psychological trick out of my armory. I turned off my iPod and focused on my breathing. I smiled a Joker’s smile. I repeated a few personal race mantras, again and again until the words made no sense and I was verging on delirium. I stopped to catch my breath. I focused on mini-milestones. I tried not to care as the hirsute of Hackney effortlessly overtook me.
What seemed like several hundred years later, mile 12 popped into sight and I knew I only had a couple of songs left to go. What those songs were, I couldn’t tell you, as my brain was so incredibly addled, but I was sufficiently compos mentis to count to two. I passed mile 13 and picked up the pace, seeing out the last .1 in a maelstrom of nerve, sinew, guts and inner fire. Then, finally, it was over, and I voided said guts and inner fire everywhere (with apologies to any fellow runners I may have splattered).
As for the 1:40 goal, I made it with seconds to spare. I’m calling it 1:39 and am happy with that considering.
After some time spent lying dazed in a heap, I returned to the finish to see Jess cross the line. More correctly, my other housemate Frankie arrived to manouevre me into a standing position, before gingerly assisting me to the finish like a puppeteer with a malfunctioning marionette. We watched Jess storm in, located the others, and opened the best-earned bottle of Cava I’ve ever spilled all down my top.
Everyone did amazingly, and returned a strong verdict on the event – although there were some complaints about the organisers running out of Lucozade, as well as about the Olympic Park resembling a barren post-apocalyptic wasteland.
While this was a disappointing day for me, I couldn’t fault the race itself. I’d like to come back next year to try again, which gives me a whole 365 days to work on my beard game.
Categories: Race recaps
British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands