Just talking to some runners and then going for a long run yourself doesn't sound like a busy weekend, but it certainly seemed to turn into one!!!
As I'm not a very polished speaker, the talk was shaping up to be the most nerve-wracking part of the weekend, so I decided to go for a stress-relieving run first. I've driven through Consett many times when travelling between Dumfries and Durham, but have only just found out that there is a parkrun there, so I decided to check it out.
Blackhill parkrun (you pass the
bandstand 4 times!)
It's not exactly a fast course (the run director describing it as "like a rollercoaster" as you're always going up or down), but it was beautiful on a cool crisp morning with the sun shining through the autumnal trees. The NE XC league was starting that afternoon and so a lot of adults were saving themselves for that, so there were large numbers of juniors making up the field. The run starts by climbing up a long hill from the bottom of the park to the top (and then there are three laps that involve the top half of the park and some playing fields, with the option of taking the steps if you dont like the slopes). I made this climb seem like a steeplchase with my dislike of starting at the front - as many of the juniors love to start as far forward as possible, sprint off and then start zigzagging/walking as they tire. It was great to see them all taking part, and we were all treated to cake afterwards as it was one of the lads' 8th birthday!
Then it was on to Durham for a Skype birthday chat with 4 year old Cecilia - my parents and I sang to her and we watched her open cards and presents while sitting on my sister's knee. The volume/mute function was playing up slightly so with any luck, they were spared our lovely singing!
Next on the agenda was the dreaded talk - to the Durham University Athletics and Cross Country Club at their pre-season training day. I didn't really know if anything I had to say would be of interest to them, having not been a runner at university, and with neither track nor XC running being my forte. However, I talked a bit about how I started running, my progression, things I've learnt to do and not do (often by trial and error), and the different types of running and races that are available out there. they asked several interesting questions, eg about injuries, nutrition, training, recovery, cross training, sleep, work etc - and it was amazing to see that over an hour had flown by (and they kindly gave me a piece of cake before I left, so they must have known about my favourite food group!).
My TV snack - well, the strawberries
On to York - the drive to the city didn't take long, but getting to the university (multiple road closures) and checking in (it was a maze of paths and buildings with minimal signage) took forever, but luckily I made it in time for a quick media interview and a chance to meet the other Elite British ladies (Shona and Becky) for a race briefing. Unsurprisingly, eating was then my main priority - first while catching up with a Harrogate friend and then with other runners/staff for dinner (and I even managed a "carryout" of a plate of cakes as snacks while watching TV in my room later).
Race morning didn't start well - there had been warning about a possible delay of the 9:30am start due to fog (to enable people to arrive safely), and I could hardly see across the grass to the cafeteria. Still, I headed over for some breakfast at 7:15 and the next disaster happened. My key card didn't seem to work, so I rang the "kitchen" doorbell. No answer.... so I rang again. Still no answer, so I have to admit I rather kept my finger on the bell at this point as I was starting to get worried. Still no answer, and then all the lights were switched off in the building. I was now quite worried (and starving) as the run was due to start in less than 2 hours (though now I was hoping it would be delayed). Luckily my card still accessed the accomodation block so I could get back in and make a panic phonecall to Steve, the Elite organiser. Other runners had either stayed at home the night before (if they lived locally) or eaten earlier.
I headed down to registration, as Steve had promised that if the worst came to the worst, he would refund anything I needed to buy at Costa. The cafeteria by registration was open, but only serving sausage butties, and registration just had Danish pastries and fruit (fruit would be a very healthy choice, but not ideal pre-marathon). Luckily Steve talked them into giving me a couple of packets of Alpen, so this (along with some croissants and pain au chocolats) soon had me full of energy again. A couple of coffees later and I was ready to go up to the start with the other girls - not exactly the ideal race preparation, but luckily it wasn't a target race!
The girls gossip and the guys......
Matt Dawson counted us down and set us on our way with only about a minute of delay - and it was easy to see why people had commented about the fast start in the previous year's race. There was a long downhill (and the fact that we would have to climb it again right at the end still seemed a long way on) stretch, followed by a 90 degree bend which had us heading right into the old town. I commented to Shona that I could see why she said they had got carried away 12 months earlier, as there were many people out in town to cheer us on, and it was interesting to run through historic York, round markets etc, so it was hard to hold the legs back.
As we left the built up area and headed into the countryside the runners spread out and the fog became much thicker. Shona had targetted this race for a fast time (and hopefully the First Brit position) and was feeling fit and strong, so I was happy to see her striding out up the road from me. Becky (who had the home turf advantage, being from York) seemed to go with her initially, but then dropped back a bit. I had planned on a steady run aiming for about 6:30miling, but a few things conspired to make me run faster. A major one was the weather - when it's only 4 degrees and you're wearing a vest and shorts (the other girls had sensibly started in arm warmers and gloves ready to peel them off as they warmed up), you tend to run fast just to keep warm. The thick fog also meant that you didn't want to drop too far back from those in front so that you had some idea of which way the course was going to go - especially important for me, as I didn't know those country roads at all. A positive spin on the fog from many people who had run both this and last year, was that it kept the hills hidden until you were on them, so you didn't dread seeing them looming up ahead. There was a male runner from a certain North Eastern running club who seemed to be there purely to take me out of the race. By the time he'd cut across in front of me for the 4th time, causing me to cut my stride/stumble yet again, I did comment to him. His repsonse was that he could run diagonally if he wanted to, and it was up to me to look out for him. I admit that this did push me on slightly so that I didn't get caught up with him again!
It got lonelier as the race progressed!!
We settled into a bit of a pattern, with Shona up ahead appearing and disappearing out of the mist, and Becky running with a man about 20-30m up the road from me. I thought I was running a fairly constant pace, but would catch up to Becky from time to time, whereupon she would put a little burst in, and within a few seconds be back 20m ahead of me, only for me to gradually reel her back again.
I knew that the Kenyan and Ethiopian ladies would be some considerable way up the road ahead and so I was happy to be staying in 5th place, though I had no idea if there was another lady just behind me. I found myself in a comfortable zone trotting along a few metres behind Becky as we approached the halfway point when Mark (Shona's husband) appeared. All credit to him, as he was really there on his bike to support Shona round the course but he kept dropping back to encourage us as well. He let us know that the Kenyan lady was really struggling with cramp just up ahead, and sure enough she came into view a few minutes later. She was really limping and appeared as a small lonely figure. As I passed her, I tapped her on the shoulder and asked if she was ok. She looked like she was really suffering, but there was little I could do there and then so I decided to let the next marshal know. She obviously dropped out at the halfway point and got a lift back to the university (as I failed to spot her again with the route doing a short out and back section).
Shona looked strong coming back along the road as I was going out, and I also managed to spot the girl behind me. At the 14 mile point, Mark counted back to let me know she was 2mins 50 behind me. The fog closed in again and so I tried to make sure that me didn't lose sight of Becky ahead of me....again I'd closed up but then she'd moved away again. I had been told that we had a gradual drag up an incline to peak at 16 miles, but it didn't seem so bad when your vision was limited to 50m in front of you. Well done to the people that braved the weather to come and support us though.
Miles 17-20 were on another out and back section, with runners heading gradually downhill to the turnaround and then climbing back up again. As I entered this section, the leading men must have already been away and clear, but I did see the top Brits heading in the opposite direction to myself, so we encouraged each other with a shout!
It seemed that the turnaround point would never come but the long stretches did enable me to work out that the first lady (an Ethiopian) was about a mile and a half ahead of me. I caught up with Becky as we reached the turn and this time she didn't push away......in fact she tucked in just behind/alongside me.
It was nice to have someone there with me, and I checked our pace with her. I knew I'd been going at a pace that was faster than my planned low 2:50s and she confirmed we were on for sub 2:50. A film crew on a motorbike drove along just in front of us and we managed to run almost side by side while they were recording. When the camera switched off and they motored away, I lost sight of Becky out of the corner of my eye, and so figured she'd just tucked in behind me.
When I next saw Mark on his bike at mile 21, he said that Becky had dropped right back from me, and that we'd extended our lead over the next girl to 3mins 30 in the out and back section. We chatted for a few minutes as I was running without anyone in sight ahead of me at this point so I gave him some encouragement to pass on to Shona up the road for the final few miles (as she'd struggled from the 22mile point the previous year) and off he went.
Woohoo - made it!
Strange as it may seem, I really enjoyed the last 5 miles. I felt comfortable and strong, unlike some of the other poor runners I was reeling in. There were a few interesting running styles as people got more and more tired - sideways leans, hunched over, some run/walking, but I seemed to pass an average of 2 men per mile. It really helps your confidence when this happens near to the end of a run. I tried to give everyone a freindly word and enjoyed waving and bantering with supporters and marshals along the final sections of the course as we headed back into York itself. Marshals were telling me that I was doing well, but I thought they'd done a much finer job of standing out all morning being cheery despite the cold and the fog!
The final hill seemed to be a long time in coming - probably because it had been built up so much in my mind. Not only had we had to hold back running down it at the start, but several people told me that they had been "broken" and had to walk up it in the previous year's race. I somehow didn't think I'd manage to gain another 2 places in this final mile, but somehow I sailed past 2 guys just as we started up the hill. It didn't feel that bad to me, but I could see how it would be a horrible sting in the tail of a race when you'd given your all and your legs were shot. Having passed them at the bottom, meant that I had empty road in front of me and so I thought that there was nobody to chase to the finish so it would be a nice run in.
As I crested the hill, I heard the announcement of the first lady finishing.....and it was Shona! Yeay - I was so happy for her, but they also said that they "hadn't expected to see her winning" as the Ethiopian was leading at 30K. I guessed that this must mean the Ethiopian had also dropped out, hence I was going to be second lady - what a total surprise!
I cruised round the final corner, past a traffic island, into the last 80m of finishing straight and spied the Finish Gantry. Unfortunately, I also spied the Ethiopian lady still running and also approaching the finish. I put my foot down and sprinted as hard as I could (admittedly, I'm a rubbish sprinter) for the last 50 or so metres..... I managed to close the gap down to 5s but just ran out of race, which was such a shame as I felt like I could've definitely carried on for a few miles!
Pretty in Pink on the podium
Media attention on the line
Slightly gutting finish as it turns out, but there's no point dwelling on "what if"s. I was really pleased with the run, as I'd finished strongly (with a negative split), felt good throughout, finished feeling that I could have continued (though admittedly I did stiffen up standing around for a quick presentation before a cool down jog), made the podium contrary to my pre-race thoughts, and run a much faster time than I'd originally intended (strangely enough, faster than I ran in Glasgow with a focussed taper)!
And with all the cake available afterwards.....it turned into a great weekend!!!!