'It’s a tough one!'. That was the tweet that greeted me as I checked my phone for the final time before heading to the start line of the Leek Half Marathon.
The fact that those words came from a seasoned marathon runner who I have huge respect and admiration for did little to ease my nerves.
I knew to expect hills. The event description had said so (albeit without any specific details or course profile), plus the early morning drive in, skirting around the picturesque Staffordshire Moorlands, was now giving me clear confirmation.
Had I ran this event last year I’m pretty sure it would have been a disaster. I’d have gone off too quickly, tackled the hills too aggressively and not thought about fuelling. But since then I’ve completed Snowdonia and that taught me an awful lot about ‘uppy downy’ courses and the importance of being patient.
Drawing on that experience and recalling the lessons learned calmed me down. It also made me take several big steps backwards further into the pen and towards the back of the field so I wouldn’t get drawn into making a fast start.
Leek half is a relatively small event with less than 300 runners. Mine had been a very late entry after I became unexpectedly free on the weekend, but with number collection on race day for all participants it didn’t make any difference.
A bit of Googling revealed a suggestion of this being the UK’s ‘third toughest half marathon’, although on what basis the author decided this ranking I do not know (nor what he or she considers the other two events to be!).
Still, it’s a nice claim to fame regardless and fell exactly at the point on my current marathon training schedule for when I should have been running a 13 miler anyway. Might as well have some company and a t-shirt for my efforts, rather than just running solo.
Before the off from the edge of Brough Park the race director piped up on the tannoy with some safety announcements. One was for a ‘puddle’ at mile eight that we should be mindful of.
A few sniggers from my fellow competitors led me to suspect ‘puddle’ might be something of an understatement given how rainy the previous few days had been and I shuddered at the thought of wet feet for the final five mile slog.
And so it began. Into the unknown and a self-set target of going sub-two hours, however tough the terrain. The weather was fine, the atmosphere welcoming and chatty and a fair number of locals had come out to show support, at least in the town centre stretch.
Straight downhill for the first mile and then out of town and into country lanes. The scenery was stunning and the roads blissfully quiet, which was just as well because none of them were closed, leaving us to either take to the pavements (where they existed) or doge the occasional car and motorbike.
A bit further in and I noticed a reversed marker for mile 12. That could only mean one thing – we’d be coming back this way in order to reach the finish and there would be a one mile uphill trek to the line. I made a mental note to save some energy – and water – for later on, not least because the temperature was gradually creeping up.
The next few miles included a number of cheeky hills, but things levelled off by the time we hit 5k and the small village of Meerbrook. I used the gentler elevation around here, and nearby Tittesworth Reservoir, to make up some positions and increase the pace after my steady start.
It felt great to still have relatively fresh legs, especially when we turned off the A53 at Upper Hulme and I got my first glimpse of the climb ahead.
This really was a throwback to Snowdon as we followed a narrow lane straight up towards the landmark rock formation known as the Roaches. Cars – mainly driven by tourists – became quite a problem here as they were more concerned about passing each other than they were lycra-clad runners.
However we avoided any major dramas and I’d like to think those who were bibbing their horns were doing so in support of our efforts!
My calves may have been burning, but I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to be out there in the countryside and being rewarded for all that climbing with unspoilt panoramic views of the Moorlands.
At the seven mile marker the route reached a sharp left turn and took us back down the hill. The climb up had been long and steady. The downward stretch was short, sharp and therefore very steep.
And while I wasn't quite brave enough to give it the full ‘Barber’, I did lengthen my stride and let gravity do its thing, overtaking another half a dozen or so runners who were instead taking the tippy-toe approach for fear of falling over. Not surprisingly, this was by far my fastest mile of the day and it kept me well on course for sub-two.
Mile eight and I encountered the aforementioned puddle. As suspected, this was more flood than puddle and I was instantly reminded of bedtimes with Izzy when she was a baby reading ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’.
We can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can’t go around it… Looks like we’ll have to go through it. Water immediately over the ankles and into the shoes and socks, what a delight. Luckily the damage was limited to a couple of minor toe blisters which have pretty much gone now. My trainers could do with fumigating though!
Soon we were back in Meerbrook and local pub The Lazy Trout (hardly a name to inspire a tired runner) was filling up nicely, meaning lots of welcome cheers before the return leg to Leek.
Given the size of the field, participants were really spread out by this stage, but I was starting to catch a young woman who was probably 200 metres up the road. She was run-walking and the hills were definitely proving problematic.
As I passed, I offered a few words of encouragement, to which she said: “I’m fine, but I need someone to pace me”. I was happy to oblige and we ended up staying together until the final mile.
Her name was Katie and it transpired that this was her first half marathon. Talk about ambitious, and it left me all the more impressed that she was well on track for sub-two at our current pace. Going into coach mode was also a welcome distraction for me as my legs were getting decidedly heavy.
On a couple of occasions she told me to run on, but I held back and coaxed her up the various lumps and bumps in the road. I could see how determined she was, but equally that meant she was attacking the hills and going too hard. Together we established a nice rhythm, backing off on the ups and regaining time on the downs, but never stopping to walk (that's her on the right).
I’ll admit it was very satisfying to think I’ve gained a certain level of experience over the years – who would have thought it considering where I started back in 2012 with the ambition of completing my first half, but no real idea as to how I’d actually achieve it.
Mile 12 and Katie decided it was best to put her earphones in, cease the chat and push onwards by herself. I said I’d be continuing at the same pace and she should do all she could to keep me in sight, that way she’d make it in under two hours, remarkable for such a challenging course.
Mind you, keeping that pace going was no mean feat and the final climb to the finish felt like running through treacle. I looked at the time and was thrilled with a 1:54, well inside my target. I was dizzy and felt a bit sick, but it soon subsided – just in time to see Katie finish a mere 30 seconds behind me.
And when I later looked over the final results, she was the ninth female finisher. Not a bad debut! I managed a top 100 placing (100th exactly) and 20th in my age group. Overall times spanned from a winning 1:20 to 3:30, with 244 competitors successfully making it home.
So all in all a fabulous event and one I’d definitely consider running again. It fitted in perfectly in terms of my current schedule for marathon training and with almost 1,250 ft of elevation gain it was great Snowdon prep too.
During those final few miles, Katie asked me who had come along to support me. To conserve energy, I just said nobody, I was on my own. What she didn’t know is that in my pocket was a mobile phone primed and ready to ping your messages and comments as soon as I switched it back on again.
You may not be there in person, but the backing I get from fellow Buzzers week in, week out – be it race day, or just training sessions – spurs me on no end. I draw strength and inspiration from your achievements and I hugely value the warm wishes and positivity you direct my way, right when I need it. Shoulder to shoulder.
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