Mother Nature vs the Winter Half

Some time ago back in October, whilst still on a bit of a high after the Althorp Duathlon success, I foolishly agreed to take part in the Milton Keynes Winter Half-Marathon. At that moment, the event was so far ahead into the future that I didn’t consider how exactly I was going to train for something leading up to Xmas. It is not just a problem of finding time to train amongst the usual Christmas preparations and extra busyness of school plays, activities and inevitable December exams. I had forgotten that any outdoor training would have to contend with the combination of wetter, windier and cooler days and earlier darker evenings that would make running outside more of a challenge. You may be familiar with the famous Scandinavian saying that gets bandied about by outdoor clothing companies and hard people, alike, which goes something like ‘There is no such thing as bad weather just bad clothing’. But that is just insane. I cannot count the number of times I have gone out for a run for the weather to turn dramatically halfway through and I have arrived home soaked to the skin and shaking like a leaf. Sometimes the weather is simply so hideous that there is no combination of Goretex, merino wool and fleece that can save you from the elements. And unfortunately, I was reminded of this very fact on the morning of the Winter Half.

I knew that it was forecast to rain light showers on the day of the Winter Half and so I decided to dress strategically in several layers of what I thought was the best combination of warm and waterproof gear. I also donned my favourite Goretex trail shoes which have always managed to keep my feet dry. However, with my mind only focused on the weather of the actual day of the event, I hadn’t appreciated that it had been raining for several days prior and the ground was waterlogged to swamp-like conditions. But as they say, ‘the penny dropped’ for me as I walked towards the race registration area in a large field, as several race marshals handed out bright plastic shoe covers which everyone was putting on. At first I thought that it was a bit over the top as I didn’t see the point in trying to keep my shoes dry for a couple of minutes before the start of the race only to have to run 21km in the pouring rain. But as I stepped further onto the grassy field and immediately started to sink into the squelching mud, I was grateful to be wearing them. After checking myself in and reluctantly removing some of my outer layers, I headed to the start. I huddled, sandwiched between the throngs of other wet competitors who were trying to hide from the rain while we waited to set off.

I was feeling both nervous and apprehensive about the Winter Half as I had originally planned to run it with my husband who had decided that we should try to run it in 1hr 45min. I don’t know why or how he had come up with the 1.45 but I was very skeptical about being able to do it because it was simply too fast. Sure it would be great if I could run a PB but doing things with a time in mind takes all the fun out of it and I always hate the pressure. Therefore, I very carefully agreed to ‘see how it goes’ on the day without actually committing to the 1.45.

However, a last minute clash with my daughter’s rugby match meant that only one of us could do the Winter Half and it was decided that I would run solo. Believing that my husband had got the short straw, I felt badly that he was missing out but admittedly, at least a part of me was a little relieved to not have to stick to the 1.45. But my husband was one step ahead of me and had thoughtfully printed out a paper pace-band for me to wear. The pace-band was basically a paper bracelet that displayed the time at each mile marker that I would have to meet in order to finish the Winter Half in 1.45. He must have registered the growing look of overwhelming panic in my eyes as he explained how to use the pace-band and reminded me to think in miles rather than the metric system I was accustomed to because he followed this with the caveat, ‘You don’t have to wear it if you don’t want to’. Of course, I waited for the start of the race wearing the thing and hoping there was a way I could run a 1.45 but not believing for a second that it was possible.

After more waiting, we were finally off in a massive surge forwards under the starting banner and hundreds of runners struggled to stay on the paved path while avoiding the soggy grass. Bin liners worn as rain ponchos were ripped off superman style and abandoned whilst the shoe covers long forgotten and still worn by distracted runners flew off left and right. I tried to dodge runners (and their paraphernalia), get ahead of the pack and gain some ground while clearing massive puddles. I could not help but get splattered with mud and soaked with rain and thought that this must be a new weather low and possibly the worst conditions I have ever run a race in. There was nowhere to go but forward and I soon spotted the first mile marker in the distance. This would be my chance to check if I was running at the right pace for the 1.45, but I didn’t even need to glance at the pace-band as I had already memorised the time I needed to meet. As I passed the first mile marker, I checked my watch and my heart sank as I realised that I was going almost a minute too slowly. I knew that I was being slightly held back by the crowd and couldn’t run at my normal race pace so I tried to remedy it by speeding up and weaving even more between runners and puddles. The conditions got worse and the puddles grew but the alternative of running off piste didn’t look any drier.

Eventually I approached mile 2 and this time I anxiously consulted the pace-band to check the required time. It was only then that I realised that I couldn’t read it without my reading glasses or even keep my arm steady enough to make an educated guess. So beaten by my dodgy eyes I just continued to keep on running while swearing to myself without a clue to what pace I was going at. The rain continued to pound down even more and the crowds of cheering spectators thinned out more until only the committed family members were left to witness the paths becoming even more flooded. The next miserable miles went by in a blur of wetness which was frequently pronounced by the sudden, sharp chill of my feet being completely submerged in icy puddles. It was if Mother Nature had taken one look at the hundreds of expensively kitted out weather-proofed competitors and said, ‘Bring it on!’. My Goretex trainers really had no chance.

It was still raining when I reached the half-way point of the race and I could see the second drinks station ahead and out of nowhere, a large crowd. Upon getting nearer I could see what was attracting all of the attention; the path went directly through an enormous 3m wide puddle! There was no way to avoid it and as I got closer I slowed as I was absolutely dreading the wave of cold that was about to engulf me. It was even worse than I imagined as I ran through the mini lake that almost reached my knees. I came out of the other side utterly furious, like a swearing drowned rat. Mother Nature had crossed a line with me and as I passed the drinks station, scowling at the cups of rain splattered water on offer, I decided right then that I needed to end this race asap. I ripped off my illegible, soggy pace-band and was now determined to get to the finish as fast as I could.

What I didn’t know is that anger can be a good motivator when it comes to running because before long, I passed miles 10, 11 and eventually 12. It certainly wasn’t easy and at times I came very close to stopping when I couldn’t breathe and literally slowed to crawling pace. But I was far too wet and angry to stop and wanted the horrible Winter Half to be over. With no indication to how much further ahead the finish was other than yet another person promising ‘not much longer’ I suddenly found myself at the beginning of the final 100m stretch. I tried to sprint with the tiny bit of energy left in me without tripping over my wobbly legs and practically collapsed upon crossing the finish line. I have never been so relieved and happy to be finished a race before and it took me several moments to remember to check my time. I couldn’t believe it—1.44! It didn’t seem possible but it was confirmed by the timing chip to be my new PB!

I was extremely shocked and happy with my time and couldn’t stop smiling for days but I don’t know if I can ever imagine facing another Winter Half again. Mother Nature came out tops again as it was definitely the hardest event I have ever taken part. But my complaints seem to be falling on deaf ears at home because my husband keeps mentioning various events in the New Year and has already mentioned a Summer Half. I have a bad feeling that I haven’t seen the last of the pace-band…

But now for the recipe and it has to be something warming. These Cornmeal and cranberry muffins will help you last the distance of any winter workout but maybe think twice before considering a Winter Half.

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