Stonehaven Half Marathon 2011
2hrs 15mins 30secs
And with that, another obstacle was conquered.
It’s hard to believe that 7 months ago, when I first started this blog, a half marathon seemed like the biggest thing I could possibly achieve. It seemed like an almost impossible distance; I assumed it was something that I could work towards over a period of time and I’d scrape by come race day. I suppose one of the biggest things I’ve learned since then is that when it comes to running, the word impossible is bunk; it is no longer in my vocabulary when I talk about running. Even saying such a long word takes up too much time – stop making excuses and get running. Somewhere, someone who is busier/lazier/fatter/thinner/faster/slower than you is out running right this second. Nothing is impossible and limits no longer actually exist.
So yesterday I conquered my ‘impossible’ – I put to bed the demons which had taunted me ever since I DNS’d the Great North Run in 2006 and I finally raced and finished a half marathon. I just didn’t scrape by; I’ve covered the distance several times before and knew exactly how to pace myself to kick as much ass as possible. What I didn’t count on was having food poisoning the night before, puking four times and losing all my carb loading and hydration to some dodgy leftover aubergine I’d added to my pasta. I didn’t count on having to get up extra early to eat more food to try and give my body as much fuel as I could. I didn’t count on it being as hot as it was – the mercury tipped 23C in Stonehaven on Sunday, and the race was ran in blazing sunshine without a cloud in the sky. I didn’t count on puking again after 5 miles. I also didn’t count on finding out exactly how tough I am, and that alone makes up for my lacklustre time. At 2 hours 15 minutes it was fifteen minutes longer than I would have liked, but I know I fought as hard as I possibly could for every one of those minutes and I was at my physical limit for the duration of the race. I may not have been at my strongest, I may not have ran my fastest, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t try my hardest.
When I went to my bed on Saturday night I was exhausted from dry-heaving the last of my stomach contents down the toilet, and my brain was in turmoil. I felt 100% better from getting rid of the dodgy food but I was freaking out – this was the absolute worst thing that could happen the night before a race, especially a distance race, and particularly since it was my first attempt at this distance. I was in unfamiliar territory before I even got to the starting line and I was relying on having everything under control. Having this control taken away from me by my body’s rejection of my carefully planned fuel caused me to panic and start to doubt myself and my abilities. Colin was out so I was rattling around the house by myself desperately just needing a hug and to be told everything was going to be ok. Not the most auspicious start to a race I’ve ever had, but somehow I got some decent sleep.
Mike was picking me up at 9:00am, so I awoke at 06:30am to eat and try and get as much sensible food in me and digested as possible before the race started at 11.15am. I had weetabix with dried fruit, peanut butter on toast, marmite on toast and lemon curd yogurt, washed down with powerade and water. I also took a clif bar to eat an hour before the start and packed my race belt with fuel to try and get me to the end of 13.1miles in one piece.
It was the most gorgeous day outside – perfect blue skies unblemished by clouds and a scorching summer sun. So the basically worst weather possible for running a road race in… The drive down to Stonehaven was beautiful, the sun sparkling off the navy sea like glistening sapphires and everything seemed so green. Colours were oversaturated in the sunlight – we don’t get a lot of days like that up here and the North East coast never fails to dazzle me with its beauty on the few days each year that we do.
We talked about our goals for the race; Mike was aiming for a very precise time of 1hr 31m or less, which would be 65% WAVA and help him on his way to getting the gold standard in Stonehaven Running Club this year. I told him about my food woes and that I would be happy with anything between 2hrs and 2hr15mi due to the weather and the digestional situation.
We made good time down, got a decent parking spot and headed over to Mineralwell Park to register.
Since it was Stonehaven Running Club that organises this race I knew a few people at registration whom I had first met at the WHW race – it was good to see Vicky, Iain and George again, and I also got to meet a few people from Fetch as well. There was a fair bit of hanging around to be done since we were there quite early; I spent this mainly trying to put as much liquid into myself as possible, whilst emptying my bladder as much as possible.
I was really rather nervous which was a shame since I love racing and the atmosphere on race mornings, but I just couldn’t relax. At the back of my head doubt was starting to spread – Is this actually a good idea to do? Am I being really stupid tackling this new distance when I’m not 100%? In this weather? Either way I knew there was little to be done – I was there and the race wasn’t going to run itself. 11.15am came and it was time to harden the F up and get running.
In the end I think there was about 270 runners started and we were walked to the start which was on a road adjacent to the park lined with spectators.
Apparently there was a race briefing, but I didn’t hear it and before I knew it there was the sound of an air horn and momentarily the sea of bodies in front of me shifted forwards. A surge of nausea echoed through me as I realised there was no going back and that for the next 2 hours it would just be me and the road.
A note about the course itself now, before I continue with this report. It is considered by some to be the toughest half marathon in Scotland, others consider it to be in the top three behind Heaven and Hell and Cape Wrath. It is a hilly, hilly race with the first 4 miles being constant incline. When I told people this was to be my first half I was told over and over again that if I could do this race, I could do any half with no bother. They also laughed – a lot. Here’s the course profile:
You basically go from sea level to 500ft and back again. So knowing that, alongside the puking, the heat and the general anxiety will perhaps excuse me for being less than my usual positive self.
In the first few miles I panicked, majorly. Once you’re out of the starting road, the climb is swift, immediate and brutal. I concentrated hard on maintaining a steady 10:00mi pace as I climbed but the hordes of people passing me skewed my perception of speed – why the hell were they all going so fast? How are they going to keep this up? What’s going on?! Am I going to be left behind?! I had strong, brutal words with myself to keep myself on track – this is YOUR race not anyone else’s, you will run at YOUR pace not theirs, stop panicking, man the F up and get your head down and run. Take each mile at at time and tick them off as you go. You’ve got this…
Smiling families cheered us on sitting in their front gardens as we climbed up through the streets, oblivious to the stream of blue words I was muttering under my breath. The sun was pounding on my back and the heat radiated up from the hot tarmac beneath me, with each breathless step I pulled more hot air into my lungs as sweat began to soak my top and shorts. Just over a mile in and I could tell this was going to be the toughest physical thing I’d put myself through in my life.
There was a water station at Mile 2, which shone like a beacon in the distance. As it came closer and more into focus I couldn’t see anything on the tables… was this a mirage? Was I already hallucinating?! Approaching it I could see the guys manning it handing out the remaining bottles from an armful each; three, two, one, none. The lady in front of me got the last bottle… However this is why runners are great; she was running with a friend and the friend already had a bottle – she turned and handed it back to me saying they would share.
I took a few sips and squirted my back and chugged on, realising I’d be very silly to discard the bottle of water it at this point, despite despising running with things in my hands. I decided that since they had run out of water, I was clearly very close to the back end of the race and it was my fault for being slow, not the fault of the organisers for not having as much stock as would perhaps be necessary on such a hot day! Despite my heat addled brain deciding that I was last (I wasn’t, by a long stretch), I was trying to keep my spirits up – at least if I was last I’d get a huge cheer and it would make a good blog post about persevering through bad times…I distracted myself from the utter agony of the heat and my increasingly grumbling stomach by thinking up things to write in here for the next few entries. I’ve forgotten them all, naturally.
I was listening to Leftfield’s iconic album ‘Leftism’ – picked originally as it starts off very sedately and it would stop me going out too fast. Not that in the end there was any risk of that happening of course! I realised soon into the race that if I was going to succeed in finishing I was going to have to listen to my body not my watch and forget any ideas of pacing that I thought I had before the start.
Deep into the climb at mile 3ish I spotted a familiar looking marshal up ahead; it was Dave! I was glad to see a smiling face, nay, glad to see anyone else. We were deep in the beautiful countryside by now and the field was so spread out that it really was just me and the road; the next runners were about 100m ahead of me and I was too scared to look behind me in case it was just the sweepers behind me. Dave called something out to me and I smiled and rolled my eyes saying “this is grim stuff!” or something to that effect and continued plodding. I was too scared to even look at my watch to see my pace – at least I wasn’t walking.
There were some children up ahead with dishes of jelly sweets/jelly beans/jelly babies and balloons (I think?!) jumping around cheering – I took a handful of jelly beans and started chewing; I tried to swallow but it just wasn’t going to happen. I’ve read race re-caps where runners have written about not being able to force food down and I now understand the feeling. Instead I chewed for as long as possible with sips of water before spitting the blob of masticated sugar to the side of the road, hoping to have absorbed some vital sugar to boost me.
The top of the first hill was reached at mile 4 and a lone piper signalled our successful ascent to the highest point of the course. It felt soooo good to finally let my legs go a little and stop pushing uphill for the first time in 40 minutes. This sudden relaxation caused a surge of nausea to sweep over me and before I knew it I was vomiting sugary water as I went down the hill. Excellent – another achievement unlocked: puking during a race. At this point I was just glad that the gut failure had headed north, not south.
There was a second water stop at Mile 5 manned by the Stonehaven Rotary Club, thankfully fully stocked with bottles of water and distributed by their cheery members. I had planned to take a gel at mile 5 so set about the task of getting it open – sadly I was a bit enthusiastic and it ended up squirting it over my face and into my hair a la Something About Mary. I rammed the fluid down my throat and washed it down with water, hoping that it would stay where it belonged.
The next few miles all kind of blur together and can be summed up in brief – hot, ow, sweat, groan, doom. I don’t know which point on the course it was, but I had my first experience of a Fetchpoint. I’ll leave the Fetch dictionary to define this one – “Initiated and kindled by the FE supporters group at mile 22 of the London Marathon, especially Max71, Stumpy and John66, and now spreading the globe, what better way to feel inspired to run, than a luminous mass of screaming groupies offering a variety of food, drink, massage, and other extras. Described as the running equivalent of an orgasm.”
Fetch is a British running website – a bit like facebook for runners. You can talk about just about anything in the forums, log training and track progress, look up training plans and tips, and the members are it’s shining ambassadors. Distinctive by their red and luminous yellow tshirts/vests at races across the country, if you do a race in the UK you’re guaranteed to find a ‘Fetchie’ there, either running or supporting. In some of the bigger UK marathons and halfs, if there is a big local Fetch presence they get together and form a ‘Fetchpoint’ to motivate everyone as well as they can with every resource they can get their hands on. I was greeted by the Eye Of The Tiger blaring from car stereos, super soakers filled with cold water and more jelly beans. What a lift! I had been running by what felt like just myself for so long it was so lovely so see so many happy smiling faces cheering me on.
At Mile 8 I really got a sense that I was going to be ok and that I was going to make it just fine. As I’ve said before – the more I run, the more I’m discovering when my tipping points are, and I now know that 8 miles is usually when my legs are ready to start getting serious. It also helped that the course turned back towards the sea and there was a great view down to Stonehaven, glistening in the distance 5 miles away. 5 miles? Pfft! Easy! Let’s go!
I started picking people off one by one – I spotted them in the distance and pushed it a bit until I over took them. One by one I reeled them in; my steps shortened, my pace quickened and soon I was running sub-9:00 miles. There was a little hill at Mile 10 which I walked up to catch my breath a little, but other than that I felt like I was flying. Open Up by Leftfield was repeated several times before my playlist shifted from the sublime to the obscene with Lady Gaga, Britney Spears and Marilyn Manson featuring heavily.
The course followed the road back in to town and soon enough there were people out cheering in their back gardens again as I got tantalisingly closer to the finish. The sea got bigger and bigger as I ticked off the last couple of miles. I had my sprint finish all planned – no matter how much I had suffered on the course I was going to cross that line like a BOSS. The last part of mile 12 wound down the steep road which we had climbed over two hours earlier and was hard to get any speed up on. I had to be especially careful going around the steep turns as my legs were shot – they could basically go one direction only which was in a straight line.
Finally, we were running down the road where we started. There were a small group of people ahead of me…they are all mine, I thought. I looked ahead as the course curved back into the park, threw my water bottle to the side and dropped the bomb. Attack! Attack! Attack! I whooshed around the group of runners on the outside of the bend and pumped my arms and legs as fast as I possibly could.
One of the girls surged when I passed her but I pushed harder and in the end I outsprinted her and crossed finish line 6 places further up the field than I had been at 13 miles.
Vicky was the first person I saw when I crossed the line and she put my medal around my neck as I stumbled over the line
I was so close to throwing up here; the only thing which stopped me was the amount of people around me – apparently I still do have a shred of public decency, who knew?!
I spotted a chair and decided to head for it.
George came up behind me and said something but I have no idea what it was! I sat myself down and a lady cut my chip off and another handed me a cup of water. I looked up, and there was Colin! He had got the bus down in time for the finish – I was so glad to see him, I had a niggle in the back of my mind that he’d miss the bus or get lost and miss me coming in at the finish. I needn’t have worried though, he was there of course, and he brought Neil too!
They got a good spot at the finish line in the sun.
I’ve looked and felt better, but it eventually sunk in. 2 hours 15 minutes and 30 seconds later, I had finished a half marathon.
Mike got a new personal best – 1hr 32minutes and 42 seconds.
But sadly, it wasn’t quite what he needed. A new personal best, but no gold standard The heat was a killer for us all.
Here’s a bonus picture – I don’t quite know where to fit this in to this post; but how awesome is this dog?! Is it a polar bear? Is is a dog? I want to hug it! It’s gorgeous!
After I had caught my breath and regained most of my composure, I got a couple of ice packs for my knees and got changed out of my sweaty clothes. I kept my medal on though We all went down to the Marine for a good feed and some ales and spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the harbour wall soaking up the evening sun before heading back up to Aberdeen.
So I’ve got another medal to add to my collection. It might be the smallest, but it represents the most.
I’ve almost got enough to fill a medal hanger! A couple more and I might need to invest in something nice from Allied Steel…
I feel happy I completed the race and the distance in a respectable time. I feel a bit…underwhelmed though. I’m not sure why – maybe because I’ve ran the distance and more before so I wasn’t accomplishing anything new in terms of length ran? Because I feel I could have done better? I feel like I should be pleased and proud given the circumstances, but I feel a bit robbed of my full potential for my first half.
Oh well – races end, running doesn’t. I’ll have another shot in two weeks time at the Dundee Half Marathon to do better. It’s a flattish course, as long as I suffer no ill effects from this race I’ll have it in the bag.