So it was finally race day. For me, it was a familiar situation – standing on the start line of a big race in Manchester as I did at the 2015 and 2016 marathons, but an unfamiliar race – the first time I had run hard and targeted a half marathon as a standalone race since 2011, and the first running of the ALDI Manchester Half Marathon.
Now the only thing people dislike more about people being disappointed in their times when they would dream of doing similar, is people whinging about having poor training, injuries, but still being able to run those times. Unfortunately I’d probably become one of those insufferable individuals in the run up to this race. There was a lot of truth to it though – my high mileage plan had lead to my body breaking through illness and injury, and over the twenty weeks I’d probably done fewer miles than I would have done on previous plans. My taper had lead to me possibly slacking off too much as my motivation waned, and I looked forward more and more to just getting the season over and the off-season on (fast-forwarding to the day after the race, this meant wine and Ben and Jerry’s on a work night).
My form wasn’t terrible though, and I stood on the start line hoping to do something pretty good. I knew it wasn’t going to be under 1:15:00 good – the London Marathon championship start might have to wait – but after running a 10K PB two weeks prior, and running a confidence boosting 5 x 1 mile session on the track on Thursday at target race pace of 5:50 per mile (a race target of around 1:16:30), I felt ready to go.
Ready to go, that was, right until five minutes to go. A dark grey morning that looked perfect and cool for racing, suddenly turned into a light-ish but persistent shower of rain. Standing on the start line in my club vest and my 1980s style race cut short shorts, I was already starting to get pretty cold and wet.
The start of the race didn’t bring much respite. After getting a fairly firm shove in the back when the gun went (I didn’t hold back much in my response), the route headed off for a little 5K loop around Trafford, before heading back past the start and down south-west towards Stretford. The rain was persistent, my top was soaked through, the rain was pooling on the streets and I was splashing through puddles, and I remember thinking that this was going to be pretty grim.
Nevertheless I was on pace. From the point that we came back past the start, I knew there was going to be a long stretch (not that I remembered at the time, but four miles) of road without a single turn, taking me most of the way into the race. If I were to be able to keep to that pace that I was running, just keeping the miles a little bit over or under 5:50s, then I would be on for a decent time. The weather however just wasn’t pleasant, and was the main thing on my mind. Rather than thinking about breaking the race down into three sets of four miles, my main thoughts were just set against the rain, and at the back of my mind that the better I kept to the pace the sooner the race would be over. It felt however as though I’d just about judged my form and race strategy in the run up alright over those miles, because as uncomfortable as the weather was, inside my running was comfortable – not really comfortable, but comfortable enough.
There was very little chatting – none, in fact, although the odd group formed with paces subconsciously synchronising, each individual runner keeping track of those near them or just ahead to judge a gap and make sure they were sticking to their own pace. I’d been a part of such a group for a while until after mile seven, when I had to answer a call of nature. Although I was stopped for what seemed like a handful of seconds, by the time I was off again the group was gone and the vests around me were unfamiliar, and my watch – displaying average pace for that mile – had gone out to the 6:10s. At the pace I was running to recover, or hold on to the target pace, I was going to need to dig deep.
Whether it was just the attempt to pull the ‘natural break’ mile back (in the end mile 8 was a 6:04) or just the accumulated fatigue, but from then on it started to become a bit of a struggle around Sale. Mentally I found this hard. Recently at the big races I’ve targeted I’ve been used to being able to kick hard – now I was finding myself gritting myself not just against the weather but to hold to the pace, worried that the slight drift out to 5:50s was the start of the effort I was able to hold falling completely off the cliff.
The end to the race was immensely tough. All I can remember thinking is that when I got to mile ten then I only had three left, and I knew that the route was to turn back on to the straight to home. Increasingly I was focussed not on being able to hold my pace until the end of the race, but just to the end of the mile, or whatever point I decided upon.
Turning for home and heading back past runners heading out, yet to pass half way in their races, lifted me a bit. I didn’t want to look terrible, I wanted to look fast and strong, and I couldn’t bear my race to fall apart in the full view of hundreds of other runners.
If there’s one thing that I think this Manchester Half route will become iconic for, it’s the finish straight. It bends slightly to the right, and then the finish looks in sight at the end of a straight run towards the cricket ground. That run to the line is actually half a mile, enough to eat into the handful of minutes that you think you have to finish in your target time, enough for you to misjudge how you use the remnants of your effort over a longer than expected distance. As it was, for me there was pretty much nothing left. My race clock was ticking over, and as I got towards the line it was going faster than I wanted, but even if I had wanted to push harder I don’t feel it would have been there. The cold and the weather had punched whatever kick I had left in me – but when I paused my watch as I cross the line I’d held on to a 1:17:00 on the watch, that ended up going out to 1:17:03 officially.
I don’t think the team behind the race could have organised a better event. I paid £28 for a big city half marathon, an incredibly flat race with massive PB potential, and despite the tough weather, really good crowds along most of the route.
What’s more, for an events company that must have been scarred by the bag drop issues from their marathon earlier in the year, this was simply the best bag drop I’ve ever seen. Runners had to use a specific bag given to us before the race. We then took it to one of several tables, A-H, on one side of a marquee tent. One person put a tag on the bag, and another person checked that they were giving out the correct wristband, before the bag was racked in order on a coathanger-style rack. Then when I went back to collect it after the race, someone collected my bag, I went through a funnel to the other side of the tent where they gave it to another member of the event crew, who double-checked that I had the right bag. The organisation was brilliant, the chances of getting the wrong bag or bottlenecks or delays happening were next to none.
Even though I was finished and out pretty quickly, that was good news for me, because as soon as I was on the tram to leave the event village, my legs were shaking and my teeth were chattering – that weather had taken a lot out of me.
I was happy to be done though. From April to October I’ve run PBs across (in order) the marathon, 5K, 10 miles, 5 miles, the mile, 10K and now the half (bettering a time from February). There is still, I’m sure, more in me – not just from being able to run a little faster in better conditions, but also in being able to put together smarter training blocks in the future and continue to get stronger, faster, and more resilient with age.
Now it’s time to switch off from the on season a bit and have more ice cream and beer.