As I sit with my feet up, nursing a very blackened toe I have taken a moment to reflect on the past weekend. Last Sunday, I joined over 2000 other runners and took part in the annual Milton Keynes Winter Half Marathon. I have run this event several times before and have had very mixed experiences of it mostly due to the dodgy weather at this time of the year. But like many others, I haven’t been put off by it either. The Winter Half is increasingly sold out every year and for the first time, the start was organised into waves of evenly paced runners. Not that this stopped a bit of ambitious manoeuvring to the front of the start by runners from later waves. But the slight kettling at least meant that the beginning of the race felt less like being chased by a herd of gazelles who thundered by while you tried not to get trampled on or slam into the occasional bollard.
The other difference in this year’s Winter Half was that the course had slightly changed. Now this is not unusual because the changing winter weather can mean that some years, the route must be altered at the last minute due to flooding. However, as I have run the course so many times before I never pay much attention to any tiny little tweaks to the route. Especially because the course always overlaps and repeats many of the running routes I normally train on. So as far as I was concerned, as long as the Winter Half course was pretty much the ‘same old, same old’ and not any farther than the 21 long kms, I was fine with it. Or so I thought…
However, this year, I entered the Winter Half trying not to expect too much of myself as I wasn’t feeling 100%. I had been ill and missed some weeks of training and was a bit intimidated to be entering a race. I had already pulled out of a dirt half marathon some weeks earlier so as the Winter Half approached I mostly kept my head in the sand. Until, of course, the day before when I started to get nervous. But rather than do anything constructive about it, I immersed myself even more into the normal activities and chaos of a weekend with children. Therefore, it was not until I was actually lining up in the crowded starting area surrounded by some serious speedy-looking runners that I suddenly realised that there was no escape. I was going to have to run this thing. I knew my husband would be running by my side but like every overwhelmed runner, my head began to fill with a multitude of swears.
Yet soon after starting the Winter Half we warmed up and got into a steady pace. I began to relax as we ran several kilometres on the same trails that we had slogged over in previous years. Everything seemed to be going according to plan and I was no longer nervous. In fact, I was even starting to enjoy the Winter Half. That is until we reached the halfway point in the race where it took an unexpected turn.
Just at the point in the race where the course was so familiar to me that I knew I could run the next 5km blindfolded, a gilet jauned marshal blocked the path with a massive arrow. As he directed us to take a sharp 90° turn left, I hesitated but felt my body carry on following the rest of the runners. My brain, however, screamed out that this was all wrong. It was the wrong way, the wrong path, this had never been part of the course. I had no choice but to dig deep and run up the incline into the unforeseen wilderness of bends and turns. My head flooded with more swears about why the route had changed and why they needed another climb on an already undulating course. I was completely disorientated as my internal satnav struggled to recalculate. The detour was probably only a couple of rogue kilometres off track but it felt like a never-ending stretch.
We finally returned to the traditional Winter Half course again but the simple diversion had sparked off a real wobbly crisis of confidence in me. It had somehow really thrown me off the race and I spent the rest of it half expecting the course to change again. Even when it was clear that it was following the usual Winter Half route I couldn’t quite relax or trust that I would ever get to the finish. My husband, on the other hand, spent the rest of the race like a running guru, repeating the ‘You’ve got this!’ mantra as we counted down the kms left. It wasn’t until I saw the finish line in sight that I dared to believe him. Incredibly, I managed to cross the line with a new PB but I cannot say that I truly enjoyed this Winter Half.
I have learned the hard way that ignorance is not always bliss when it comes to running especially if you are not entirely ready to race. Whether you are an elite athlete, a parkrunner or if you are just doing it for the medals, your mindset has a massive influence on your experience. Every runner knows that it can make the difference between a dreadful run and a great run regardless of your physical strength. Without a positive mindset, most runners wouldn’t choose to face a broad range of bad weather; occasional twinges, niggles and injuries; and the odd badly behaving dog, to do something that is absolutely knackering. Your mental and physical health are meshed together but each is integral to your enjoyment and performance. Which means that it’s just as important to keep your mental fitness in check as it is to look after your physical fitness. In fact, it is essential because you never know when you are going to be faced with an unexpected turn and have to mentally dig deep. And just like a wise running guru would say, what is true to running is also true to life.
But back to physical health, while my toe still throbs I have vowed to check the course for next year’s Winter Half before I line up to the start line. Strangely this race keeps drawing me back for more punishment like an annual flogging. However, I have since discovered that the route we ran this year at the Winter Half only changed on the day of the race from the advertised course map. In other words, no one knew about the last minute change in route except, of course, the gilet jaunes…In any case, I think a couple of recipes for recovery and recuperation are in order. Pumpkin spice coconut bars are perfect to recover from a long run, while a slice of Pumpkin bread goes down very well as you rest your feet.