06:00 Sunday November 1st 2015: Stevenage Half Marathon day! I’m awake, mainly due to my daughter, Amber, deciding that the day starts now. With my kit all laid out the night before and a 10:00 start, I have no worries for a little while. Might as well get up and play. And by play, I mean read her some books, get poked in the eye a few times and make sure she doesn’t wreck the place.
07:00 The white toast pops up, done to perfection. Might even have a third slice, especially as I’m bound to be sharing it with Amber, whether I like it or not. She’d better be there to cheer me on.
08:00 Engage bowels! Sure, no-one will want to read about this, but as every distance runner knows, it’s an important part of race prep. The alternative isn’t worth thinking about.
09:15 I get a message from my mate, Chief, saying that due to him working, he wouldn’t be able to see me run, although “…it would be entertaining to see you blowing out of your arse on a foggy winter morning.” Foggy? Winter? Looks nice and bright here. He might be right about the other bit, though; I’ve had nowhere near enough training after knee problems, and have no idea whether I’ll even make it round a tough course for 13 miles.
09:30 I arrive at the start: Ridlins running track. It’s no Olympic Stadium, but it’s Stevenage’s finest. Ah, here’s the fog. I say goodbye to Amber and my wife Michelle, hoping to see them after a few miles still looking fresh.
09:45 I’m changed into my kit. Legs out, number pinned.
09:50 I go for the vital, final toilet break. It’s a fine line between leaving it as late as possible to empty out as much liquid as I can, and making sure I’m not in a long queue and then rushing. The difference between a relaxed start and one where you’re searching for a spot to pee like a dog hunting a lamp post.
09:58 I line up with 500 runners, most of which I’ll won’t see for dust.
10:00 The hooter goes to start the race. Game on.
10:06 Damn. I remember this long slope from previous training. It’s ok now, but this course is two loops, so in about 6 miles’ time I’ll be back here. A bloke strides past me, which wouldn’t be too surprising if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s pushing a buggy as well. With twins in. Show off.
10:20 There’s my parents! Dad’s snapping away with his camera. Like son, like father. I smile and step up my pace.
10:30 There’s Michelle and Amber! I stop for a few seconds to give them a sweaty kiss. Amber’s got a look of “What the hell are you doing and who are all these nutters?” about her. If she could ask me this, I wouldn’t have the answer.
10:40 I unwrap a sticky Gu energy gel, jet blackberry flavour. Tastes goooood.
10:50 Five miles in and I know I’m gonna be in trouble. My legs are tired. They know in less than two miles I’ll have done my biggest run this year…but then I’ll have another six to go. This won’t be pretty…
11:00 I’m euphoric. I’ve emerged from an underpass and the sun hits my face as I reach a nice downhill. I’m beaming, almost laughing. This is great! What a wonderful day! I love running! What the hell was in that Gu?
11:15 “This slope’s more of a hill now.” A quick chat with a woman next to me to occupy my mind as we ascend the slope for the second time. We reach the top and then soon have another small incline to tackle. My speed falls to near walking pace.
11:20 I see a familiar face up ahead – a friend who popped out during work. He’s done this course too, so understands my suffering as I go past.
11:30 I must walk. I need to walk. Can’t keep going on and on. Water station coming up. Lovely water. Stop and walk, just for a few seconds. Oh yes.
11:32 Half the family have gathered to see their hero, only to see me casually stroll towards them with a plastic beaker in his hand. Great timing, Andy. Maybe Dad can use Photoshop to blur the background. Amber still looks bemused. I briefly stop and thank everyone, wishing I could stay longer.
11:35 I’m playing cat and mouse with two women who overtake me then start walking. I do the same, and we continue this pattern for a while up some small slopes. They have music blaring and are chatting so not even sure they notice. My right leg is reporting damage in the knee area and it ain’t good. I know my time won’t break any records, so I’ve decided to limit damage and not risk anything. These inclines, I’ve decided, are made for walking.
11:40 “This is the worst bit,” I say to a marshal. “Every bit is the worst bit to me!” she helpfully replies. I’ve reached the furthest point of the loop and I’m on my way back. Albeit with the finish line on some other planet.
11:43 “Fulfill your dream. Reach your goal. You have the strength. You have the strength.” Yep, it’s my New York Marathon mantra again, dug out in my time of need and repeated as I zombie shuffle along the cycle track.
11:44 Family alert! This is the last time I’ll see them in the race so I lap up all the encouragement. Is that Amber clapping? I pick up my pace, and with a downhill stretch coming up, my grimace turns into a grin.
11:45 “Just 5K to go!” I’ve even found time to encourage a guy at the 10 mile mark, although I think he got confused with my conversion of the 3.1 miles left.
11:50. Run. Walk. Run. Walk. It’s not ideal, but it’s protecting knee, which is reminding me it’s still here and that it would be nice to stop and have an ice pack. Fat chance – I’m getting to the finish line even if I have to crawl there. A man who’s a decade or two older than me jogs past. I’ll catch you later, I say to myself, then suddenly realise that might be wishful thinking.
11:55 A moment of realisation: I haven’t had to run in pain for a long time. I’ve forgotten that long distance running requires you to be mentally strong, to keep going when the going’s tough. With so little training this year, I haven’t had to push myself beyond just being tired. Mentally, I’m as prepared for this as if I was in the final of Mastermind tomorrow. I yearn for my previous inner strength from years gone by.
12:00 I know I’m near the back of the field now, among the stragglers. I may walk for a minute here and there, but no-one really overtakes. A man and woman, the latter complaining of her new pink trainers, slow to a walk and I chat, mainly because being this close to them and to say nothing seems rude. The downhill comes and I pass. “See you later!” I say, before regretting it as they resume and glide past me.
12:05 The old guy is in the distance. Dammit.
12:09 The last water station. Can I run all the day to the end after this? Let’s give it a go!
12:10 “Jelly Baby?” It’s not Tom Baker asking, but the offer of the runner’s favourite from a marshal is music to my ears. Just the thing for the last mile I think, as I blindly grab a couple from the box and shove them in my mouth. Wait minute – yellow and green? Damn the Jelly Baby roulette…
12:15 I’m slowly jogging and catch up one woman whose back number I recall seeing occasionally over the last few miles. We exchange a few words and I decide that as I’m not going much faster, I may as well run with her.
“Last hill,” I say, muscles screaming to walk.
“C’mon! Let’s do this together!” she replies. Part of me screams to just let her go, but my competitive side knows that I can do this, that it’s the best option. I’m a runner for goodness sake; man up for the last stretch. We soon reach the top.
“Just one corner to go!” she says.
“Plus one lap of the track,” I add. By the look on her face she didn’t know that. Ah. Yes, the final 300m is done on the stadium track, a fitting finale but a bit unexpected if you hadn’t run here before.
12:18 “Go on Andy!!!!” It’s Michelle and Amber! They’re here, just before we enter the stadium! Seeing them, after over two hours and plenty of struggles, makes me momentarily overcome with both pride and some other emotion causing my eyesight to become blurry. Almost there…
12:19 250m to go and I can taste the finish line. The angel who helped me up the hill is slightly behind me. “Go on,” she says, beckoning me to go ahead. I contemplate this for a second or two. Should I stay and finish together? Seems cruel to leave her so close to the end. But it’s a running track. I love a sprint finish. Whether it’s the last of the Gu, Jelly Babies or seeing my wife and daughter, my legs do have a kick that would rival Mo Farah, albeit a Mo running backwards, with the ‘flu, carrying an anvil.
“Are you sure?”
She agrees and I kick for home.
12:20 “And here comes 317, Andy Males!” The stadium announcer has had less to do in the last half hour, so for a second I’m the man. I cross the line, arms in the air, stop my watch, grab a water and flapjack, collect my well-earned medal and t-shirt, and look for my family.
Take me home.
Fairlands Valley Spartans for brilliantly organising a great event.
Lady Sponge Fingers – After 13 miles, your flapjacks are a moist slice of heaven.
Claire Macdougall – For helping me up that hill!
Michelle, Amber and family for their much-needed support.
Same time next year?
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