Take it easy, they said. You don’t want to risk an injury, they warned. You need to start tapering now, they reminded me.
Sorry…not listening! It’s 10am on a gusty Sunday morning and I’ve got my race face on for my first event of the year, the Stafford Half Marathon.
I love Stafford. Not surprising really, given that I’ve taken part for four consecutive years and bagged a half marathon PB every time. It’s proved to be a great hunting ground, so surely one more push before I start tapering for Manchester isn’t going to do any harm?
Nope! It did me nothing but good, with a massive confidence boost, some really consistent pacing, fab support and even some fundraising for charity thrown in for good measure.
Oh, and the PB thing? Well, it seems the older I get, the faster I run.
At 01:41:31 it’s nearly a minute and a half off my previous best and more than 20 off my first ever competitive half back in 2012 when all this running madness first began.
Let’s rewind a bit. I genuinely wasn’t expecting to go quicker than last year, partly because I didn’t want to do anything silly to spoil Manchester and also because the weather was rough, with the threat of rain (it didn’t in the end) and blustery winds which you just knew were going to catch you head-on in the uphill sections (and they did).
But as I sat in the car passing time before we were due to assemble I took a quick glance at Garmin Connect and last year’s race. An average mile split of 7:50, so if you’re looking for a target pace and want to have a crack at improving, that’s where you need to be.
Stafford’s a very popular race and always sells out, but they cap it at around 3,100 entrants so it never gets that congested. I lined up about a third of the way down the field, popped my earphones in and waited for the gun.
The opening mile was a bit busy, plus it has a fairly lengthy climb, and I clocked it at 7:51. Bang on. I decided to pick up the pace, knowing that the second half of the route is more uphill than the first, so it’s worth banking some quicker miles as long as you don’t overdo it.
Probably helped by the fact I listen to music, I couldn’t believe how consistently I ran the next five miles – between 7:29 and 7:37, one after the other. Through 10k in 47 minutes flat and eight miles in 1hr 01.
By now, it’s decision made. I could be on for a PB, I feel fine, I’m really enjoying it, let’s keep pushing and see what happens.
The business end of the Stafford course kicks in at around mile nine. It takes you out into the sticks, so inevitably the supporting crowds thin out. And there’s a sustained climb that lasts just beyond mile 10, which gets pretty steep towards the end.
Fortunately, the last three miles are mostly downhill or flat, so you don’t have to worry if the aforementioned hill takes it out of you – a little local knowledge goes a long way! Nevertheless, mile 10 was the only one where my time dipped slightly above eight minutes.
As I reached the top of the hill something dawned on me. I’m surrounded by club runners here. I’m mixing it with people I’d normally aspire to run like. In fact, I’m going past some of them. It not only raised a smile, but gave me extra motivation to take on that final 5k.
Miles 11 and 12 were 7:41 and 7:50 respectively. But while I was looking at my mile splits, I purposely didn’t look at my overall time. I didn’t want to know. Logic dictated I was heading for a PB, but that pressure of knowing exactly how long is left on the clock could be enough to ruin it.
By now my legs are getting heavy. There’s a women running in front of me wearing purple who I’ve seen on and off throughout the race and so I keep her in my sights and refuse to let her get away. The finish at Stafford is great, right in the heart of the town centre and because I’m wearing a charity vest with my name on (top tip!) the crowds are doing a great job of cheering me home.
I’m afraid my temporary running buddy didn’t stand a chance. The 13 mile marker comes up and I go for it, round the corner and into the home straight. Now I look at my watch. It’s in the 1hr 40s and that’s all the incentive I need for a sprint finish.
That final complete mile was a 7:35 and my average overall pace was 7:43 minute miles. Totally unexpected and thoroughly satisfying. I thanked the women in the purple top (she probably thought I was a bit peculiar), I thanked the nearest marshal, heck I even thanked the cub scout who handed me my bottle of water!
And as I queued to get my medal, someone alongside me asked if I’d had a good run. He wondered if I was with a club. No, I said – why do you ask? Because I bet they’d get you to go sub 1hr 40 if that’s what you want! Sounds tempting…
But that’s a challenge for another year, right now it’s time to calm everything down and get back to the job in hand. It’s time to taper. No more heroics, no more fast miles and no getting carried away. And then, perhaps, there might be another PB to celebrate in the not too distant future.
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