Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Race Report - Tunbridge Wells Half Marathon 2013

Sitting in an airside bar in Edinburgh airport on Friday night, nursing a pint of Deuchars as I waited for an increasingly-delayed miseryJet flight to Gatwick, my phone picked up an email from the organisers of the Lifestyle Renault Tunbridge Wells Half Marathon.

 “Important!! Information re: 2013 Tunbridge Wells Half Marathon” screamed the subject line,  followed immediately by ‘Weather Information!’ in large letters. My heart sank. Last year, after a lengthy drive, I picked up a similar email apologising for the weather-related cancellation of the Hadrian’s Wall Half, and I worried that this weekend was about to go the same way. Communications from the organisers earlier in the week had been bleak: beware snow, beware ice, beware wind, beware a ‘feels like’ temperature of minus ten. Generally don’t get your hopes up.

The race is intimidating enough as it is – the pre-race hill murmuring is among the loudest I’ve encountered, but unlike so many other races, it is justified here. The profile is brutal, with some considerable rolling hills leading to the infamous Spring Hill climb after 6 or 7 miles. Between the weather warnings and the course itself, coupled with the Team Cornwall Half Marathon Smackdown (a competition entirely of my own invention whose protagonists remained blissfully ignorant of their participation) being staged at this race, I was getting a little edgy.

Cold already. Still indoors.
But Saturday came and went, and only little flurries of snow and biting cold punctuated an otherwise unremarkable weather day. No blizzards, no gales, no floods, no famine, no pestilence or plague. Looks like the race is on. Blast.

I spent the weekend at my parents’ house in Sevenoaks, about a 25 minute drive from the start line in Tunbridge Wells. My brother Nick (notorious teacher of maths) was racing too and so we had the morning to swap notes and safety pins before Mum drove us to the race. It was bitterly cold. Even with leggings, a base layer, shorts, vest, hat and gloves I was shivering a little. The sooner this race got underway the better…

Once through the traffic and at Race HQ we fell into the familiar pattern, and after catching up with Matt ‘Bathmat’ Pritchard, preparing for his first race, first half marathon and also first 21 mile run (more anon), we worked our way through the portaloos, bag check, T-shirt pick-up, portaloos, start pens and portaloos in time for the off.  The start-line announcer had been given three things to say: that two of today’s runners had run the first ever TW ½ in 1983, that this was the 30th anniversary of the race, and that the mayor was firing the starter’s pistol. Not wanting to mess with success, he told us these things quite a lot of times. But no matter – clearly he got his message across as I remember them all. Kudos.

Nick and I started together, arbitrarily a few metres behind the 1:50 pacers, and immediately lost then found each other half a dozen times as we weaved around slower runners. The route takes in some major roads where one lane was closed for our use (more than enough), and a number of smart, quiet residential areas where the roads didn’t appear formally closed but were totally devoid of traffic and a joy to run on. A couple of miles into the race the views started to unfold from behind buildings – rolling hills, red brick cottages and verdant green farms that make you feel like spending the rest of your life in rural Kent. Bliss. Apart from the cold.

Nick caught me for the umpteenth time and we swapped positions as he edged a few metres ahead. We were averaging around 8 minutes a mile, comfortable but not easy off my slow training regime, and at around mile 3 he surged off into the distance. I let him go, already practising my gracious loser face at the Team Cornwall Half Marathon Smackdown press conference. Moments later I had a tap on the shoulder. The tall, broad and devastatingly handsome figure of Chris ‘These guys call me Steve’ Stevens was bearing down on me at an impressive clip. Nick and I had failed to find him at the start line but he bumped into Matt, who told him what we were wearing so he could track us down. Chris had put in some very fast miles to catch us and I was grateful for the effort.

I pointed out Nick - now maybe 15-20 metres ahead - and Chris and I silently fell into step and stuck together for a little while. When Nick veered off the road for a pit-stop in a field (evidently not having visited the portaloos enough times), Chris and I cruised past him, slightly smug. Nick caught us again, and we ran together for a few more miles in a vaguely social peloton, the silence only broken by Nick shouting things at us over the huge volume of his headphones. Our fellow runners were particularly startled when Nick took a cup of water, and finding it inconvenient to drink on the run, bellowed “THIS IS DIFFICUUUULT!!!” at such a volume that I can’t think of an adequately surreal simile to describe it. Racing without headphones (as I always do these days) I advised him to turn his music down a touch.

Nick, me and Chris in a rubbish peloton.
With apologies to SportCam.
Apart from being served in the difficult cups rather than bottles, the water stations and other marshall/volunteer roles in this race are carried out in a wonderfully good-natured and professional way. A lot of bigger, for-profit races could learn from this event. Even the police seemed to be having a jolly time.

Winding past more picturesque corners of the countryside; ivy-covered cottages and stone hump-backed bridges and rolling fields and I think even a petrol station with a thatched roof, we came upon the infamous Spring Hill. Being the only one in our peloton with much hill training in my legs I eased into the front, got my head down and started overtaking. It really is a beast of a hill, probably more than a mile long and steep enough to make a lot of runners resign to walking, this less than halfway through the race. I didn’t look up until I was sure it was over. Even then I only peeked. There were more hills to come.

Emerging from the hill-trance with screaming quads but having made up a hundred places or so, I discovered that Nick had been on my shoulder the whole time, but we had lost Chris on the climb. Nick and I ran in step for the next few miles, slowed only by icy winds and occasional snow flurries. The crowd support through the villages was quite amazing given the weather, and some brave and foolhardy souls had even pitched up in the remotest corners of the course. It’s always such a joy to see so much local support for these events, handing out sweets and high-fives. One small boy clearly hadn’t managed to keep control of his jellybaby offerings, as the road was strewn with hundreds of jelly casualties, gradually being trampled underfoot in a tragicomic reminder of the transience of the humble jellybaby’s existence. I felt better by comparison.

My lungs were burning with the cold, my left shin, calf and knee were sore and a fresh crop of blisters were maturing on my insteps, but the end was nearing as Nick and I picked up the pace. Things were going well – there would be a joint winner in this year’s Team Cornwall Half Marathon Smackdown. Until, that is, somewhere between miles 11 and 12, I noticed that I had lost Nick. I slowed to let him catch up, but he claimed to be (and also looked) totally spent and told me to go on. I briefly protested but to prove his point he slowed down even further. With plenty of bounce left in my legs and no more than a mile and a half to the finish, I put the hammer down and really went for it, arms pumping, legs turning over in rapid, long bounds (or so they felt) and streaming past runners who had run a more even race. The last half a mile or so afforded runners little more than a cycle-path in width so as to allow the traffic to flow again, which limited my overtaking capacity, but no matter. Before long I lurched over the line to take the First Annual Team Cornwall Half Marathon Smackdown trophy, and also a beautiful medal presented to me by Team GB Paralympic footballer Alistair Heselton, whose congratulations were probably the most sincere I have ever heard from someone doing such a lengthy and repetitive job. Thanks Alistair, it meant a lot.

Nick finished one minute and ten seconds later, Chris followed two minutes behind him. We reconvened and started the obligatory process of swapping war stories and demolishing anything edible in our goody bags, including the peculiar non-alcoholic beer. Matt phoned Chris about ten minutes later, presumably to say he’d finished, but Chris missed the call and we could only guess. Matt, Chris and absent-Ed are running the Barcelona Marathon on March 17th, and Matt decided to use the TW ½ as his last long run. So he finished the race in 1:57:40 for a debut PB, collected his medal, ate as much as he could fit in his face, then ran another eight miles, still wearing his race number and with a medal in his pocket. What a legend. We bumped into Ed’s brother Mark, who had also run a debut half at TW in preparation for the Silverstone half…which is this week. An unusual training plan for sure, but nice to catch up!

As we left the race HQ, runners still finishing with 2:40 on the clock, it started snowing again as if to really confirm that it was very cold indeed. We took the hint and went home for Sunday lunch and an afternoon in the pub.

Congrats and thanks to Tunbridge Wells Harriers for putting on such a well-managed event, high-fives to Nick and Chris for their silver and bronze medals in the Team Cornwall Half Marathon Smackdown, but frankly I reserve my greatest respect for Matt – there could not have been a more hilly, cold and challenging environment in which to run one’s first 20+ mile effort, and even then with the enormous and quite reasonable temptation of stopping after 13.1. High ten to you, sir.

Happy running,


2013 to date: miles run - 197.23, races: 1, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 3

Friday, 15 February 2013

Here come the races

The season is upon us, and as usual, my spring race calendar has morphed from a carefully-designed schedule of well-placed races into a multi-faceted beast of confusion. Here goes:

Next weekend I am taking my first stab at the Tunbridge Wells half marathon. Local to my parents and the town I grew up in, this race is the stage for an almighty smackdown of old schoolfriends. Five of us are training for two different marathons and we are all using the TW half as a tune-up event – and probably a vehicle for extensive side bets. It’s an oldie but a goodie – this is the 30th running – and has an impressive pedigree, associated with Dame Kelly Holmes and this year started by Richard Whitehead. Apparently there are a couple of tricky hills but otherwise an enjoyable course.

Then in April, two days after I get back from a family holiday necessitating long-haul travel, my jetlagged and rum-soaked brain and I will be running the Edinburgh Rock n Roll half marathon – as I understand it a new and improved version of last year’s race.  As with all local races I’ll be out to recce the course beforehand and get a feel for what the event will be like – but I have suspicions that the Rock n Roll brand will make for  a good day out... One of my Wall Run teammates will be joining me too, so there will be a decision-making point probably about 200 yards from the finish line as to whether or not we are racing each other…

Not sure if I’ve mentioned, but I’ve only gone and got a place in the VLM. It’s the week after the Rock n Roll half, which should be fine. Should be. Fine.

A few weeks later it’s back to hillrunning, and I am planning on a first crack at the Dumyat Hill Race in May. Based on a historic bet and starting 30 yards from my office, it would seem ridiculous and foolish to pass up the opportunity to run thousands of feet up a large hill/small mountain and back down again in the space of five miles. I have two goals: 1, don’t break an ankle and 2, finish. I’m less bothered about 2.

The Wall Run. I’ve definitely mentioned this before. It’s in June and it’s really far and you should sponsor me.

As usual, I entered the ballot for the Great North Run this year, but most unusually I actually got  a place! OK, with it being in September I am rather stretching the spring season, but after The Wall it’s the only thing in my calendar at all. This year I think I’m going to wear shoes, and might actually try to run it for a time rather than just plod along soaking up the atmosphere…

Are you racing this year? Have I missed anything that I should really have a crack at ASAP? I am open to suggestions...

Happy racing


2013 to date: miles run - 141.38, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 3

Friday, 1 February 2013

The Wall Run - assembling the team

Some months ago, the seeds of an idea planted in June 2012 germinated into a little seedling of a thought, which sprouted rapidly into a massive hairy triffid of a plan that wrenched itself free and ran off into the distance. Quite a long way into the distance, as it happens.

That idea was that I should enter The Wall Run, and it started while Ben and I weren't running the Hadrian's Wall half marathon last year. Years ago I decided that my running strengths lay in going further, not faster, and now five marathons later it's time for a new challenge.

But running 69 miles from Carlisle to Newcastle on my own was too daunting, too alien, too alone.

Quickly and inexplicably I recruited two partners in crime: Ben and Alex. Both are men of fine running pedigree whose only failing is being highly impressionable. I once made Alex come out for a run by threatening to call him 'The Paunch' for one month. I can't think of an equivalent anecdote for Ben but the same principle applies. They were both chomping at the bit to get themselves into the challenge.

Thinking that three was a non-ideal squad size, I planted the idea in Neil's head. He's run a marathon recently and is usually up for a challenge. I was certain that he'd be in. Our four-man team was complete.

Neil flat-out rejected the idea as total nonsense. 

I was disappointed, but I totally respected his decision. Until, that is, I gathered a big enough audience for a second attempt to convince him... And so it was that at two in the morning on Halloween, after a few cold drinks and some slurs on his adventurous spirit and sporting credentials, with a dozen pairs of eyes bearing down on him, Neil caved. The game was on.

And the game isn’t racing. It’s adventure, it’s exploration, it’s triumph and disaster. It’s survival. But it’s not racing. Let’s be clear about that. Well, certainly not racing within the team, anyway. Not much. Not much at all. Hmm.

Anyway, at roughly the same time as this plan took shape I was hatching another plan, bidding a fond farewell to my employer of three years; the personal development charity Venture Trust, and moving on to a new role at the University of Stirling. Having seen first-hand the difference that VT’s programmes can make to young people’s lives, I valued the opportunity to contribute to such valuable work through my day job for a number of years, and it seemed only fitting that my step up to ultramarathoning should somehow be positively linked with my move away from VT.

So the Team was assembled, a fundraising page set up, and a challenge set. We would endure 69 miles of banter and blisters, and would attempt to attract some serious money to help people with difficult pasts aspire to better futures.

There will be updates. Many updates. And probably the most epic race report ever to grace these pages. If you’ve read this far, you’ll be excited about the value you’ll extract from these. Please quantify this value in pounds and go and donate it over there. That would be ace.

Happy running,


2013 to date: miles run - 102.05, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 3