Thursday, 16 May 2013

Deo Adjuvante, Labor Proficit: The 2013 Sheffield Half Marathon

Greetings from a train somewhere in Sweden! I’m not even halfway into a 4-hr journey from Stockholm to Lund and I’ve long lost any genuine interest in trees and lakes – it’s high time I filled you in on Sunday’s events!

On Sunday I took part in the Sheffield Half Marathon. Before anyone asks me again: I ‘only’ ran the Half because there is no longer a full Sheffield Marathon! I couldn’t go round twice! (not that I tried). I approached this race knowing it could be a watershed event for me – I was in serious danger of enjoying it…

…I’d travelled up in good time on the Saturday, spending some time with relatives and friends, the latter primarily at “The Hammer and Pincers”. In all my life I’d never seen everyone in a Sheffield pub come together (in united fashion!) to celebrate a goal shown on TV, but to a man/woman we all jumped up when Wigan scored against Man City! Friends like Streetsy, Joner and Sootie were joining uncles like Tim and Rog in lowering the Hammers’ beer reserves whilst I made do with four pints of orange juice. Although I must look up John Walker’s claims about ale’s energetic properties…

Woke up nice and early on race day, the granola I’d brought up from home nicely topping up the previous night’s pasta cooked by Auntie Dawn. My bag was a darn sight smaller and lighter than Manchester’s TWHBE – indeed, far smaller than it was lighter… I guess carting around four bagels will always come at a price!

Simon picked me up at 7:00… well, 7:08, if truth be told. Philip was already in the car and Martin was duly picked up at the Shell garage at the end of Ecclesall Road. #teammazymixer was truly on its way to Don Valley Stadium!

Just typing that stirs up conflicting emotions. The car was a testament to the new and now: to new friends with whom I share all this here running lark. The destination was a testament to the old, to the soon to disappear: an expensive stadium for which nobody has been able to find a sustainable use or put up a credible plan. It hurts my heart to think about those wrecking balls heading its way: I was at the 1991 World Student Games’ Opening Ceremony, at a floodlit cricket game that took place way before anyone’d heard of Twenty20 and at a 1995 Bon Jovi gig (with Little Steven as a support act) where I nearly passed. How’s that for a mixed bag? However, painful as it is to think of it disappearing and to think of the missed opportunities throughout its life, the truth is that it is an expensive asset. Don’t take my word for it, take Unitedite’s – here.

We got to Don Valley in good time, parked and headed inside – into what is tautologically the finest pre-race area I’ve ever been in! With all due respect to Endcliffe Park, that is. We soon met up with Martin BOB, with Andy, with Chris… and, eventually, even Mike!

I was heading back from the gents when I saw Mike had joined the crew. I crept up behind him, put my hand on his shoulder and introduced myself with the most formal and impeccably pronounced “Giacomo Squintani” I could muster, the one I generally reserve for business meetings in Italy. Mike was on pacing duty today, looking to lead Sarah to her first sub-2hr half. It was a brief chat but, nevertheless, one that had all the tones of a chat between long-time friends. Long-time and lifetime, dare I say. Well, one step at a time and all that.

I’d not packed a throwaway shirt and this was Sheffield after all, so I ventured out onto the track with my Manchester Finishers’ Shirt underneath my Children’s Hospital Charity Vest. I still prefer running in short-sleeve shirts to vests, if only out of habit, but was always going to wear that vest for this one. Well, a second such vest, anyway: I messed up when ironing a G and an O in front of the spare S I’d ironed on the right-hand side weeks ago. Somehow I didn’t contemplate the fact that ironing over that existing, unprotected S may result in the iron wiping it off, therefore leaving me with a G, an O and half an S. Or a full ass. I mean, it’s not as if there wasn’t a warning against this in the instructions… I just didn’t get to that bit, stopping at the last line about what to do rather than looking at what not to do! Men and instructions, eh?
Anyway – the delectable Tonya at TCHC had sent me a new vest and a bunch of letters. By then I’d obviously worn out her biblical patience with requests for a vowel here, a consonant there… she must have thought I was auditioning for “Countdown”! On the Friday night I ironed on my running nickname, ‘GIA’, onto the front of the vest: I can safely say the terror I felt as the hot ironed hovered over those meticulously cut and placed letters by far exceeded any nerves I may have felt at the start of the Greater Manchester Marathon! I felt in control then, I felt there’d be room to correct mistakes… I’m never good with stuff for which there isn’t a Ctrl+Z option, though fortunately I pulled this one off.

Where was I? Oh yes, setting out with a shirt under my vest. Doing in a race setting something I’d never done in training: back in February I was running not too far from where I am now (i.e. somewhere in Sweden) in the snow at 5:30am with just a short-sleeved top… yet for Sheffield in May I thought I’d go double layer. Just bear that stupidity in mind.

We eventually set off (a few minutes late), and I knowingly set off too quick. It was a gamble. I genuinely wasn’t expecting a PB but knew that, to have any chance of a shot at it, at a PB in my hometown, I’d have to set off quickly. Worst case scenario, I’d slow down and post somewhere either side of 1h40’. In fact… I’ll tell you what, here are my splits:
Who runs around with a shirt in their hand?!

01: 6’51”
02: 6:45”
03: 6’48”
04: 7’02”
05: 7’16”
06: 7’32”
07: 7’17”
08: 7’04”
09: 7’25”
10: 6’57”
11: 7’12”
12: 7’14”
13: 7’36”

I’ve laid out my splits before getting into the race because they don’t tell anything like the full story…

…sure, you can spot a trend whereby I slowed down after the third mile, struggling somewhat for miles five and six before picking up the pace again. But they don’t tell you how much I struggled. In what, after all, was only a half.

I’d got off to a good start and felt good, sharing some of the road with Martin as I wondered what etiquette demanded. Was I to stay with him, having caught him up? Hide behind? Try and keep up the pace that had got me there and overtake him? In the end I went with the third option, although I wish we’d discussed running together. Given the way our runs unfolded, it would probably have worked. Then again, I planned on running this one by feel: and that’s what I did as I sought to make hay whilst the sun shone…

…and boy did it shine! Martin was soon catching and overtaking me, not before asking me how I felt. I lied through gritted teeth, maybe out of bravado but certainly to try and kid myself if not Martin. I might have said “I’m alreight”, but I wasn’t. Martin’s choice of words to describe how he felt was far more applicable to me than mine – and off he went…

…and that’s when I started to seriously regret the double layer on this route. Coming past The Home of Football (of course I blew it a kiss), then up Cemetery Road… this was hardly the Marathon des Sables, but I had gone and made it unnecessarily harder on myself. That feeling of helpless stupidity probably impacted my pace as much as the sun itself, and to be fair neither impacted it more than those opening three sub-7’ miles. I had taken a gamble and it wasn’t paying off. Worst still, Hunter’s Bar was approaching – and this isn’t how I wanted my relatives to see me!

Here was a key difference from Manchester: this time, I had a decent idea as to where I’d be seeing family. I knew both The Woods (Dawn, Gabs, Nats) and The Newtons (Jo, Rog, Soph) would be within half a mile or so of the Hunter’s Bar roundabout. The Woods were near the entrance to Endcliffe Park, the Newtons nearer Dover Road, on the other side of Ecclesall Road. I was struggling when I got to that stage: I’d run up a steady incline and was deeply regretting my choice of clothing. The gloves had come off: that was easy enough. I’d duly tucked them in between shorts and shirt. But that shirt… my Manchester’s finishers’ shirt… I needed to lose that but without losing it. Make sense?

So I pulled it off. Literally. Pulled it off, held onto it for a few hundred yards and handed it over to Auntie Jo-Jo when I first passed her, en route to the roundabout. I had poured water over my head and down my back at every water station, only sipping minimum amounts: the shirt therefore felt far wetter than sweat alone warranted! I understand Auntie Jo-Jo wasn’t overly enamoured with me for that… sorry, it really wasn’t as bad as it felt!

When I passed Dawn, Gabs and Nats, I felt less comfortable than I had done at mile 16 in the marathon. It was probably psychological: because of Manchester, I expected this to not feel as hard as it was and I had different expectations. But then it only felt hard because of the speed at which I’d set off: that and the fact that miles four and five comprised 110 of the route’s total 350 feet of elevation. Feelings aside, the Garmin never lies: and my splits were still pretty decent. Heading down Ecclesall Road towards the City Centre, I felt re-energised. Thanks to the Woods, to the Newtons… and to Dover Road. As I passed it, I blew a kiss towards number 13 and beat my chest. Many happy memories are linked to Dover Road, as are people who taught me an awful lot about life and work ethic. They would have expected me to grind it out and I wasn’t going to let them down.

By this point I was past the halfway mark, which in itself is a huge psychological boost. I found other runners to follow and that lifted a load off my mind, which no longer had to worry about pacing my legs. Mile 9 featured an uphill stretch, hence it bucking the trend of splits getting faster. Around this time I looked at my trusty Garmin and started running (sorry0 some calculations in my mind. I had not set off aiming for a PB and that middle section had all but wiped out those thoughts from my mind. However, my legs had once again outperformed my mind’s impression of them, as they had in those final three miles in Manchester where, whilst I’d slowed down, I’d always stayed the right side of 9’/mi. And guess what… actually, I had a shot at this!

For the final few miles I just targeted guys in front of me and had them pace me. It almost feels better to do that than to overtake fellow runners, which often engenders a slight feeling of guilt. But running in their slipstream… that feels good!
Oh, and Sheffield did a better job of calling out my name than Manchester. It helped that I only had ‘GIA’ on my vest, of course. Although I was not prepared for someone to call out “Hey, that’s the Twitter guy!” as I passed by. I have since established (through Twitter, obviously) that that person was Laura Inglis. Thanks Laura!

My pace fell as we entered the stadium, purely courtesy of the incline, the bends and the narrower nature of the segment which leads to a little traffic. We ran a lap of the stadium but on the concourse behind the stands before heading down onto the track for the final hundred metres or so…

…this may sound trite, but it was all very emotional. I saw that stadium go up, in my lifetime, and it’s about to come down, before my youngest son’s even started school. Stadia should last longer than twenty-two years: they’re not websites!

I crossed the line and soon spotted Martin and Philip, who’d finished a couple of minutes ahead of me in 1h32’16” and 1h32’15” respectively. Given how I was struggling when Philip passed me around Hunter’s Bar, I was delighted to come in just over a minute later. Delighted and… well, amazed!

Of course, another reason that final dash felt emotional was that by then I knew I was going to set a PB. 1h33’44”… my first sub-1h35’ half, over two minutes faster than Bath. Take out the fastest and slowest mile from March 3rd (for improved statistical meaningfulness) and the difference between the two extremes left (7’07” and 7’23”) is a mere 16 seconds. Do the same with the figures from Sheffield and you’re left with 6’48”, 7’32” and the 44” in between. You could argue I was far less disciplined in Sheffield and I would not disagree. But that just reflects my choice to run it by feel, to listen to my heart and its pounding beat more than to my Garmin. The Garmin was still very helpful, reassuring me, as it often does, that things weren’t actually as bad as my legs felt. Nor do I envisage such indiscipline becoming a regular strategy of mine. But this was not just any old race: this was Sheffield and this was Don Valley’s final farewell. Extraordinary circumstances called for an extraordinary approach. And, all things considered, yielded an extraordinary result.

So that’s it, folk: no more races now until September 15 and the Bristol Half! That’s over four months between races…
…but don’t worry, things change after Bristol. September 29: Weston-super-Mare Half. October 6: Chester Marathon. October 20: Portishead Half (which, presumably, someone is designing on the back of some of my Strava records!). I may not have anything lined up for the summer, but that’s going to be a busy few weeks. Handling the halves correctly, i.e. ensuring they don’t jeopardise Chester (the jewel in the crown), will be paramount. My goals?
I’d love to break 1h30’ in a half, although preparing for Chester may jeopardise that. I’m not going to get fixated on that, certainly not until I’ve seen the course map for Portishead: the website says it will be ‘flattish’ but I’ve lived here for fourteen years and I couldn’t design a 13.1mi ‘flattish’ course, not without at least half a dozen loops somewhere! But if they manage to do that, it could be where I shoot for sub-90’. Weston is the best bet in terms of being flat… and Bristol’s probably not as bad as I remember. Because I remember it from running it as my first half: I’d be far more prepared now, not least on the mental side for that final detour that takes you away from the finishing line!

Oh, and then there’s Chester…
…yes, I need to fill you in on that. In a nutshell: Running a second marathon with my usual bunch of nutters. Hoping to beat maiden marathon time by 79 seconds to go sub-3h30’. For the time being, that’s about it.

Thank you, Sheffield –
thank you for being there on the day and for teaching me so much of what I know about life. Because they’re the lessons that got me through the tough times and onto recording the best I could. Not for the first time, I would like to add.

Deo adjuvante, labor proficit. And aye, I did enjoy my homecoming gig. Hard not to.

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