Painfully steep hills, pouring rain, narrow country roads. My third half-marathon was as different to the previous two as they were from each other but the start-line was wonderfully claustrophobic, with hundreds of runners huddled in a country lane at the top of a hill waiting for what, in the end, was more starter’s suggestion than starter’s orders.
Being in England for over a week before this race I had managed several hilly training runs, including a curiously masochistic session of sprints up a steep hill that made me feel like I was drowning as I came near to the top each time. Coming straight back down again was an adventure in hoping my quads stayed connected to my knees.
Reviews of the Canterbury Half-Marathon (which is not, by the way, in Canterbury but starting at a farm just outside) give it somewhere between zero and 10% score as a course with potential for setting a PB. So I was just hoping to – for want of a better word – ‘enjoy’ the run, and see if I could get somewhere between my 1:55 debut time from the Cayman Half and my 1:51 from the Rumspringa Half in April.
As I looked around the field of runners I was disappointed to see that they all appeared to be, well, runners. There were apparently no half-marathon tourists – there for the bling and a brisk walk in the country. Of course, going for a brisk walk for 13 miles in the pouring rain on narrow roads may be the only thing more futile than doing the same thing at a running pace, so it’s not surprising. It was clear that in order to beat anyone I’d have to be properly running, as opposed to the Cayman Half-Marathon where I know I have a couple of hundred people beat just by future of not stopping to walk.
The first couple of miles were the usual mix of “Oh, I thought YOU would have been keeping up with me”, “Wow, you’re FAST”, and “How do you even stand up with a gait as wonky as that?”
The first half of the race then developed into a great run – really enjoyable just for its own sake (and it’s not often I think that). Beautiful hedgerows, views across valleys and fields, not too hot…very English, down to the summer rain and the chill in the air which just made running that much easier.
About 8 miles in I was making the climb up another fairly steep hill when I caught up with a guy wearing the same brand, model and colour running shoes as me: bright red Brooks Ravenna 5’s. As I passed him I noted that as far as I could tell, we were the only Ravenna 5’s on the course. 60 seconds conversation later and we’ve agreed to run together, with my telling him I was hoping to beat my PB of 1:51:51. He assured me based on our current pace, his significantly superior PB and the fact he was doing this as a training run for an upcoming mountain marathon, that he would “get [me] there”. I thanked him, whilst preparing mentally to say “I’ll let you go”, when his pace became too much.
Oddly, his pace – faster than I was comfortable with – never did get too much. And that was even though I did use the phrase “I’ll let you go”…twice. He wouldn’t let me – I had become his project, which made me feel grateful and slightly awkward. I knew he wasn’t shooting for a PB but still…did he really want to be held back by me?
I was cured of that awkwardness on an absurdly steep hill in the last section of the race – a real Achilles-snapper of a gradient. As we started the climb he turned to me and said, “There’s not shame in walking”. That was very gracious of him I thought, but despite my chunky legs I seem to have a good enough pair of lungs that hills are usually my friend. So it was that I started overtaking people on the hill, and turned back to my running mate to say something…only to find he wasn’t there. I looked back down the hill a few yards and his was walking…
A minute later, near the top of the hill he catches back up to me, breathing very heavily. “You $%^&#@” he said, grinning…sort of. So having pulled him up that hill I didn’t feel bad about him hauling my reluctant butt so quickly across the flat ground.
We finished together, and I knocked a whopping three and a half minutes off my PB, making it in 1:48:13. I was amazed, and very grateful, to think that I could come in under 1:50. I was grateful too for Dad and Jude coming out to a spot half-way through the course to cheer me on. It was the first time I’d had supporters mid-course, and I was surprised how encouraging it was.
The only let-down was the bling: nice relief pic of Canterbury cathedral (which we didn’t see), but a very small and light medal, and it was also given to the people who ran a two-mile race while the Half was going on.
You wouldn’t get that kind of nonsense at an American race…