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

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