As some people may know, I like to participate in the odd running event for fun and over the years, have managed to complete several half-marathons. I never thought I would say it, but I quite like running this distance. Mainly because of the broad range of people and abilities taking part, including many of those wearing fancy dress. There will always be some seriously speedy competitors at the front of the pack kitted out in the latest high-tech trainers but they definitely do not make up the majority of runners. Which means that the whole event feels less like being part of a ‘race’ against each other and more like running in the middle of a giant wave of like-minded participants that surges forward past the crowds.
But despite the all-embracing, tree-hugging inclusion with motivational cheering of half-marathons, you cannot hide the fact that there are also 21km of hard slog to contend with. Not everything always goes to according to plan on the day, despite your best efforts, and I am no different. In fact, it is fair to say that my experience of running half-marathons has been very mixed…
When I think of the halfs that didn’t go well, the 2015 Milton Keynes Winter Half-Marathon immediately comes to my mind. The weather was hellish with torrential rain of biblical proportions that had completely flooded the course before the race started. As the route had not been altered, there were several unavoidable ‘puddles’ that were actually knee-deep icy pools. The freezing rain never stopped once and the wind lashed it down so hard it felt as if we were being fired at with needles. It was so relentless, it put me off running halfs for quite some time afterwards.
At least until I ran the inaugural Buckingham Half-Marathon in 2017. The Bucks Half is the hilliest course that I know of which is why I had firmly decided not to enter the event. However, family loyalty compelled me to sign up less than 2 days before the event to take the place of my husband who was injured. As one of my sons was also taking part and it was his ever first half, he needed someone to help him last the distance. How could I have said no? Although I ran it on tired legs as I had gone for my long run of the week, 16km, the day before I had to sign up for the Half. It is broadly accepted among runners that you should ease off the distance whilst training in the week leading up to a half-marathon. Well, with every hill I knew exactly why that is…
As fate would have it, I unexpectedly ran the same Bucks Half again in 2018, this time only signing up 1 week before the event. My injury-free husband was back to finally have a crack at it and when one of my children’s sports fixtures was cancelled, I found myself at a loose end. I was going to go to the Bucks Half to support my husband but then again, I thought, why not run it? Before I knew it, I had signed up too. This time I expected the course to be just as hilly as the year before but that was the least of my problems. The Bucks Half took place at the height of an epic heatwave and temperatures reached the high 30’s. It was like running 21km on melting tarmac that emitted a blast of burning heat with every stride. Towards the end of the half-marathon, dehydration finally caught up with me. I practically collapsed into a sweaty heap as I crossed the finish (as did many others).
Based on this recent track record, you would think that I had had enough of half-marathons but I have clearly not learned anything. Why else would I be signing up to do more? I have run a half in extremely wet and wintery conditions, run another without even properly training for it and lastly, run a half while battling sunstroke. I fear I am living out the runner’s definition of insanity, running the same race over and over and expecting a different outcome. Could this be a side effect of the ‘runner’s high’? Perhaps I have a classic case of runner’s FOMO, because I always prefer to run a half-marathon than spectate at it. I do love getting a shiny finishers medal and I’m even happier with a free t-shirt. Whatever the reason, it struck again because after swearing that I wouldn’t run the MK Winter Half again, I signed up for 2018.
I signed up for the Winter Half with 1 month to go, so at least I am getting slightly better at planning. There wasn’t much time but as I had already got in some good runs with decent mileage, I thought I could cope. And I mostly did and managed to get in some good training in the weeks leading up to the event. However, as we got closer to the actual day of the event, I realised that there was a glaring clash of dates in our ‘home diary’.
Like many parents, we attempt to organise our lives and keep on top of things by writing down all of the school/work/sport/social obligations in one place, aka our home diary. It may look like an old, tattered bog-standard notebook but this diary rules our house like an old school Siri. What’s not written down it isn’t happening, which is also the standard reply to the most frequent questions my children ask me. When they ask if I am picking them up or driving them to some random event, I don’t even have to think. I can simply fire back: Is it in the home diary??
But of course, this system is far from perfect and I am as guilty as the rest at not seeing something written down, even when it’s plainly there in bold ink. Which is why I failed to notice that the weekend of the Winter Half-Marathon coincided with my daughter’s 17th birthday party. The one we foolishly agreed that she could host at home, the night before the Winter Half took place.
It was too late to do anything with the party planned and the date set. I would have to hope for the best, but how bad could it be? 30 people were invited and at this age, there would likely be some drinking. But they were all nice kids and the pick-up was at midnight. I wouldn’t get as much rest as I had hoped, but then again, how many runners sleep well the night before a race? Having 8 hours of uninterrupted snore-free kip was perhaps unrealistic. Running a half-marathon a little sleep deprived would be no big deal. At least, it couldn’t be worse than running in sheets of icy rain or in the searing heat. On the plus side, I had been training, felt pretty strong and was truly running it for fun rather than trying to get a new PB. I was even thinking about wearing a Santa hat.
Well the night of the party came…As expected, our house rapidly filled with teenagers in direct proportion to the amplifying music. My husband and I quickly retreated to our room to binge watch Netflix. We didn’t worry because our daughter is normally pretty responsible. As a precaution, we had also arranged some backup to keep an eye on things in the form of one of her older brothers visiting from uni. At the stroke of midnight, we reappeared again to help herd the teenagers out of our house but we were met with quite a sight. Amongst the crowd of still loitering teenagers, the ones I recognised were rapidly trying to clear away beer bottles and wipe up multiple spills of sticky alcohol off every surface. Looking around and assessing the damage, what hadn’t been covered pre-party was now filthy. It took some time to clear the house whilst searches for phones, jackets and shoes went on. Which meant we stayed up even later to deal with the party fallout and our hours of sleep shrank further.
The next morning, I had to drag myself from my warm bed feeling knackered after hardly any sleep. But there was no time for whinging and we quickly grabbed some food before leaving for the Winter Half. Of course, our late start meant a late arrival at the ‘event village’, where we joined a massive snaking queue for the bag drop. We only left our things 10min before the Half began. There were plenty of other late runners, though, and we ran towards the start area. With no time to spare, I thought that the first couple of kms could be our warm-up but I wasn’t worried because I wasn’t going to try and set any records. But my husband had other ideas and got right down to business by charging ahead of me and weaving between the masses of runners in order to get closer up to the start line. I eventually caught up with him once we got to the starting area for runners aiming to finish the Half in 1hr 40min. Only my PB for half-marathons was considerably slower at 1.44 and I knew that I would be quickly swamped by faster runners. But before I could do anything, the Winter Half began and I just started to run like mad.
Elbows knocked elbows and runners were all over the place, scrambling to fit themselves into the spectator-lined course. Many were forced to run slightly off-piste until the pack finally began to thin out after the first couple of kms. After a sleepy start, I was fully wide awake, warmed up and being spurred on by the speedy runners alongside me. My husband and I started to run in a large pack of other runners at a comfortable pace and before long we passed several mile markers. Since I only run in kms, I didn’t pay much attention to the increasing numbers. The truth was, I didn’t really want to know how much further I would have to run. Ignorance is bliss, I thought, as I tuned out the noise of my running watch which vibrated with every passing km. My ever-conscious husband, however, consulted his own watch at every mile marker and soon reported that we were going a bit fast. However, I could see that he was also just as keen as I was to keep running in the pack so we carried on.
As this wasn’t my first Winter Half, I recognised when we reached around the half-way point of the race. By then our pack had whittled down to a half dozen runners who were still going at the same steady pace. I also knew that we would soon meet some hills which filled me with dread. My husband, sensing a wobble, told me to just try to stick to the two runners in front of us. With my eyes fixed on the runners’ socks, we started upwards as a crowd of spectators cheered us on. As I heard someone shout at me, ‘Go lady in the middle!!’ I realised that the rest of the pack were running while surrounding me like some special protection officers. These bodyguards stuck to me like glue and propelled me steadily upwards. I could only grimace as I kept the pace knowing that slowing down would cause a pileup of runners.
After our pack passed some more mile markers I could see that we had finally reached the double digits and would be heading for the finish before long. The course began to flatten out and I was still feeling good but very slowly our pack started to break up. First the two runners in front started to gradually decrease their pace little by little until they moved to the rear of the pack. As my husband and I took on the lead role I realised that I had nobody’s socks to focus on. Without the socks to help keep me going, the Half suddenly felt never-ending. I looked around for some motivation but my thoughts kept returning to my lack of sleep and tired legs. Worse was to come because a third runner in the pack then started making a Chewbacca-like moan, as if in pain. I looked to see if he was hurt but he was quiet again and didn’t stop or slow down. We carried on running and then he did it again. But every time I turned, he stopped. I began to wonder if I was imagining it or simply hearing an internal soundtrack of my own tiredness because I kept asking myself, how much further??
On passing mile 12, I was spurred on to pick up the speed a little, if only to distance myself from all the noise. With no socks to follow, the last mile seemed to stretch out ahead of me. I knew I couldn’t look at my watch to check how much further we had to go without seeing my time but before long, we rounded a familiar corner. I could see from the building crowds that we were about to enter the home stretch. I tried to sprint but my legs couldn’t go any faster so I just willed them to keep going and make it over the line. At last, we finally finished and with an unbelievably, overwhelming feeling of utter relief I allowed myself to look at my watch.
Although I had entered the Winter Half without any expectations, I had felt so strong running it, I secretly hoped my time would not be too far from my PB. I was shocked to find out that we had, in fact, smashed it at 1.38.56! After getting our medals and t-shirts, I tried to look for the socks of the two lead runners in our pack that I had been following. I really wanted to thank them for getting me through it. But before I could do anything, the remaining runner in our pack stood in front of us and thanked us for doing the same for him.
As we watched the other runners finish, the event village started to resemble a festival. With a live band playing and pop-up vendors selling everything from running shoes to glasses of prosecco, we started to remember the night before and the state of our house. We knew it was time to head home again and check in with our daughter. The house now looked more familiar but it still had some way to go. At least we were too tired to care.
Despite my mixed experiences of running half-marathons, I know I will continue to sign up for them because admittedly, I still enjoy them. Somehow even the halfs that I ran in extreme weather, without preparing or with very little sleep hold fond memories. Of course, no one would plan to run a half-marathon in anything other than ideal conditions but the numbers of people signing up for them continues to grow. Which means that I am not the only one who has been put off by bad experiences. I think what it comes down to is that half-marathons, by definition, are always going to be long, difficult and intimidating and just finishing one is quite a feat. However, the inclusivity of half-marathons and non-competitive nature of the participants and spectators means that you are more able to achieve against whatever odds you face. And for most runners, the feeling of triumph is slightly addictive. Now If only there was a way to transmit some of that feeling to a certain teenager who faces the challenge of cleaning…
But in the meantime, here is a recipe for something to refuel you after a winter workout. Whether you eat it freshly cut or toasted alongside a cuppa, a slice of Spiced pear and walnut bread always hits the spot.