Thursday, 4 October 2012

A Squint at Bristol Half Marathon 2012

OK… so yes, Sunday I ran a Half Marathon… the Bristol Half Marathon

…and it took me 1h49’56”. And I thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of those 6,594 seconds.


But let’s start at the beginning of the day. Up in good time, the usual wholemeal toast and banana for breakfast. I say ‘usual’ – well, it’s what I’d had on the morning of the TenTenTen, so that’s a100% record!

Jon picked me up at 7:30, complete with three pairs of Lucozade pace wristbands. Each featured the time we’d have to hit at each and every one of the 13 miles to achieve our target time. So why three pairs?
Because the first job was to agree a target time. 1h50’? 1h55’? 2h00’?
We opted for 1h50’. I was comfortable with it and Jon was happy with whatever I was comfortable with. I chose 1h50’ ahead of the initial 2h00’ because I was more comfortable with the notion of having a ten minute cushion to hit the two-hour mark than to get to the final stages on the borderline. Regardless, the underlying principle for me was to do the best I could. If the 8’23”/mile pace proved too much, I’d slow down. If that meant letting Jon go, no problem. My first target was to complete the race, something I felt I could do, not least because of our 22km training run on September 9. My second target was to complete the race in under two hours, something I felt I could do, not least because of our 22km training run on September 9. The former was absolutely non-negotiable; the latter absolutely was.

We parked near the Bristol Museum on Park Street and headed down to the @Bristol area. This was when I most felt the benefits of the previous week’s Sheffield TenTenTen. The whole set-up, the pre-race atmosphere… it was on a far larger scale than seven days prior, for sure, but in essence it was the same. No need to pick up a chip this time: no, it was already threaded through my laces. No need to pin on my race number: no, I’d done that four days earlier. I did play around with the pins, mind, just to be absolutely sure they weren’t at nipple height. Just in case.
We were pretty much ready. Time aplenty to mingle with some of Jon’s running friends, drop off his banana shaped/coloured bag with mine thrown, pay a few visits to the perfectly adequate toilets… and then to mingle with more of Jon’s running friends, pay a few more visits, just to be on the safe side… and then to head for the starting pens. At the time we did so, Jon was still wearing a black bin bag to keep warm. He was not alone in doing so, I should maybe add for the uninitiated (which is what I was at the time) and asked me to hold on to it for him over just as we got into our pen. In fact, just as we got into his pen. Yes, because in theory we should have set off in separate pens, a few hundred yards apart, which could have jeopardised our chances of running together. Whether he handed it over so that I could cover up my race number, whose colour revealed I was trespassing into a pen other than the one for which I was destined, or whether that was just the use to which I instinctively put, is something that we will never know.

The minutes passed… we stretched a little… and then we were off, destination Hotwells and shortly after the Portway, a dual carriageway. We overtook a few (runners dressed as) bananas and then ran under the Clifton Suspension bridge, Jon merrily leading the runners in a chant of “Oggy Oggy Oggy”. I tried to keep a low profile, not least as we’d just passed Karl, the only other person I knew running the half, and wasn’t sure the occasion warranted such a celebratory chant.
As we ran up and down the Portway, the main challenge was to keep within our target pace. By that, I mean that we were in serious danger of going too fast. We were well within our target times but had to hold back, hold some fuel in reserve. Jon knew exactly where we stood in terms of mileage and time; I was less enlightened, not least because I couldn’t see the mile markers along the route. Apparently they weren’t high enough. I say that because I only saw about three of the thirteen allegedly out there, so can only go by what Jon tells me. Which is usually right, anyway.

As we got off the Portway, we crossed the Avon and ran along Bedminster. All along, Jon was being cheered on by strangers… see, that’s what happens when you have ‘Jon’ on both the front and back of your running vest. He’d told me this would happen and it did seemingly help him, which in turn helped me. The amazing thing was that nobody else seemed to be on the receiving end of such encouragement, presumably because ‘JON’ is easier to read and therefore shout out than most names, not least when worn by someone moving at pace. It certainly made me rethink plans of having ‘GOS’ on my vest ahead of any future races I may or may not run. But what to have? ‘GIACOMO’ would get murdered; I hate my name being spelt ‘JACK’ and the variations I do accept in writing, ‘GIAC’ and ‘GIACO’, would probably also confuse standers-by. By the end of the half marathon I had settled on ‘SQUINT’ and see no reason to change that. Thoughts?

By now the shouts from the crowd were increasingly confident, the halfway mark safely passed. Some girls were merrily shouting “You’re nearly there now! It’s all easy from here!”. I did shout back “So why’s tha not running it?”, but I didn’t get a reply. Maybe I wasn’t loud enough. Maybe they were monolingual. Who knows.

Bedminster soon became the City Centre and the end was now in sight. In my mind, at least: this was to prove the trickiest part of the race by far. Which sounds bleeding obvious, I know: it’s the final third. What compounded the issue was that we went from long, straight stretches of road to twists and turns, more often than not logic-defying for a mind that knows where it is and where the finishing line is. So the end was in sight, we just weren’t running towards it. Heading for a direction other than the one you’d take if it were up to you really doesn’t help those old legs…

…finally, we ran up the hill by the Cathedral, towards the Hippodrome, round the corner and towards the finishing straight. What’s taken you two seconds to read took me what felt like a lifetime to run. I could see Jon ahead, shrinking with every few strides we respectively took, and believe you me, that distance my eyes saw my mind translated into far more than the two minutes that would separate us at the end. Had I not been surrounded by other runners who were clearly feeling a similar pain to mine, I would easily have stopped. But adrenaline and pride are awesome motivators, and they kept me going. I kept tagging onto other runners, none going any faster than I was, and establishing an instant, silent bond with their unaware selves that just helped take the mind off the task at hand, thereby providing temporary pain relief. This was the stage where I welcomed the earlier decision to target 1h50’: I knew that I could walk the remaining mile or so and still come in at sub-2hrs. Not that I had any intention of walking, whatever my legs reckoned…

…what I did do, however, was promise myself that I would never do this again. I was achieving something, but I had no intention of putting myself through that again. I had sworn “No mas!” to myself way before we passed a café with the iconic Che Guevara image. Moreover, as the thought that, if this were a marathon, this would have been merely the halfway mark for which I was desperately striving, I made it unequivocally clear that there was no danger I’d ever contemplate running a full marathon. I think the exact words I spoke to myself were “Don’t tha even f*****g think abaat it, Squintaani!”, but I cannot recall with unquestionable precision what I said to myself under such duress.

In spite of all this, the finishing line was actually approaching. Actually no, let me reword that: the lazy finishing line wasn’t budging, but I was getting closer to it. A Sheffield-like sprint finish wasn’t going to happen, but I was able to stretch my strides and speed up for the final fifty metres or so. Given that I only crept under the 1h50’ mark by six seconds, that mini-sprint, pseudo-sprint or whatever it should be called-sprint may have proven vital. Now, since my goal was 1h59’59”, you could argue that 1h49’59” or 1h50’00” would both have represented a significant overachievement. And, technically, you’d be correct. Of course you would. But, emotionally, there is a major difference between “sub-1h50’” and “just over-1h50’”… I only checked my watch once over the line, so I wasn’t aware as to how fine I’d cut it… and even then, with my watch saying 1h49’53”, I was worried the chip time would be in the onefifties… let’s just say I was delighted that, once home, the online results confirmed I had broken a tougher target than I’d originally hoped for.

See, I really don’t make up this stuff!

On the other side of the barriers beyond the finish line I saw a smiling face I recognised: Zoe’s, Karl’s wife. She was holding a bottle of water from which, without even bothering to ask, I took a quick swig. Don’t worry, I left plenty for Karl! Zoe used to be my doubles partner at the local tennis club: neither of us are members these days but we still try to schedule double matches from time to time. We’ve only managed one in 2012, mind – Zoe gets her fix at another club and I… well, I’ve been busy, you know? She had tried to schedule one for the previous Wednesday but I’d kindly declined, mindful of @TheCase1907’s injury whilst playing squash weeks before the Edinburgh Half Marathon. He still ran it, but his training had been seriously hampered and he still felt pain on the day. Now I’ve never injured myself playing tennis, least not if you don’t take into account facial injuries when falling deadweight after a seizure… but it was a risk I didn’t want to take.

I’m not going to try and describe the enthralling high which kicks in after finishing a race. If you’ve felt it yourself, you know what I’m talking about. Otherwise… it’s as if you feel the reward not just for what you’ve just accomplished, but for all the training up to that point. With other sports I’ve played, that payback is instant. Winning a football match takes 90’, winning a tennis match around the same time… and even during play you may have cause to smile about a deft touch, a top save, a stunning volley but running… running takes months, which come down to that one day you can’t afford to miss the way you can a team match, where nobody’s indispensible and some other player can step into your shoes and it’s not actually about the winning with running, either. ‘Race’ is an unfortunate term: sure, the elite athletes are racing, but for the rest of us it’s about crossing the line, maybe beating a personal goal but by no means the rest of the field.

[Did I just say “the rest of us”? Heck, have I become “one of them”? Somebody save me!]

The finishing line marked the end of the race, but not the end of the day. We met up with fellow runners that Jon knew, exchanged notes… it was great for me to be told that sub-1h50’ was a great time, especially for a first Half Marathon, as I genuinely had no idea. It sounded good, I knew a lot of training had gone into it and I knew I was pleased with it: but how it compared in the broader scheme of things was an unknown, not least because I had intentionally focused all my training on myself and on finishing the race in under two hours. Turns out that meant I came 3481st: when the
BBC reports that “Some 14,000 runners have taken part in Bristol's Half Marathon.”, you know you’ve done alreight.

Get this man a sponsorship deal!
I had brought along NourishMeNow drinks for both Jon and myself. During the week I’d been wearing a t-shirt they’d given me in Sheffield and had some of their drinks even after short workouts, because I could I felt like a sponsored athlete! Later in the day Jon commented that he wasn’t as hungry as he’d expect to be. That bottle probably had something to do with that! Top folks, the NourishMeNow lot – I hope they hit the big time.

We then headed up Park Street with a 2-hour stop at Starbucks, where Jon and I, in the company of a couple he knew (she runs, he drives her to her races), both treated ourselves to a frappuccino. I went for a caramel venti – a 510 calorie beast! Ah well… I’d earnt it. And yes, I’m fairly sure drinking that beast took longer than running the half. It was certainly more pleasurable!

’Twas then time to head back to reality and home. Fortunately and reassuringly, I didn’t feel sore nor hurt. The full extent of the value of this only became apparent when we got home and Big’Un and Littl’Un climbed all over me. We drew and played for the rest of the afternoon, during which Mrs S correctly pointed out that I was “on a high”. Well… you would, wouldn’t you?

In the evening I treated myself to a 14” Hawaiian pizza. Don’t worry, Karen didn’t starve – she had a 12” Quattro Stagioni and we shared potato wedges. Note to self: that can be a tad much lad, especially when you’re used to sharing a 14”. But I wasn’t going to stop. Boy, that was a treat to which I’d been looking forward for days! For miles! It did mean I managed to weigh slightly more on the post-Half Monday morning than on the morning of the race itself, but hey – who’s (calorie) counting? And yes, I had set aside a Yorkie bar for a Yorkie celebration but I really could not fit anything else into my belly.

There you have it – in as small a nutshell as I can muster, what could quite possibly be my one and only Half Marathon-related post. After all, I swore to myself quite clearly that I would not do this again: box ticked, weight lost, fitness reached… I’ll carry on training, but I’m not running one of these again. And you can forget about their bigger brothers, anall. You got that?

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