Monday, 16 May 2016

Halstead Marathon Race Review

May 8th was a lovely day across most of the UK, temperatures in the mid 20s, bright strong sunshine and not a cloud in the sky. A brilliant British summers day, a lovely day to spend in a beer garden, out for a country walk, sitting in the garden, lounging by a pool, relaxing with a cold drink, a lovely day to do anything a part from run a marathon. 

And what was I busy doing on May the 8th? Yes you guessed it I was running a marathon, my 8th marathon, a marathon that I had trained well for, a marathon I was in good shape for, a marathon that had the potential to bring me my long awaited sub 4 hour finish. Unfortunately as it turned out a marathon that almost reduced me to tears, turned my skin a lovely shade of beetroot and really challenged my resolve to finish.

The day started off so well, my running buddy Tony picked me and gave me a lift to the small picturesque Essex town of Halstead around a 40minute drive from where I live. With a race start at 10 am it was quite a leisurely start to my morning and I rather enjoyed being chauffeur driven to the race start, thanks Tony! 

Arriving at race HQ we found a busy mass of eager runners and a well drilled large number of marshals and organisers. Parking was achieved with military efficiency thanks to the assistance of local cadets and number pick up and bag drop off were similarly completed with minimal fuss. 

We sat inside the sports hall for as long as we could to stay away from the heat outside as the temperature was already rising, but before long it was time to venture outside to conduct a brief warm up and to line up with around 400 other runners to take on 26.2 miles of Essex countryside. 

My thoughts before the race start were of excitement at the race that lay ahead as it is regularly rated as a top ten race in the UK by readers of Runners World, trepidation as to what affect the heat would have on my race performance but anticipation as well at what I was capable of as I knew I was potentially in good shape to run a good time.  

I had scheduled in the first few miles to be gentle at a little outside 4 hour pacing and these were achieved with little effort or note other than a procession of classic cars that rolled past runners on their way to a classic car show, quite a surreal site.

After around mile 3 the first warning sign reared its head via a pain in the ball of my right foot. Its a pain that I have experienced a few times during periods of high training mileage but never during a race. My taper had been the most restful of any marathon preparation so I thought it was odd to get this pain and probably not a good sign.

I tried to put it to the back of my mind and pressed on with the race, soon enough the first 10K was up which I completed in around 56 minutes, perfect 4 hour pacing!

It was at around this point that I started to become very conscious of the heat and it started to creep into my mind that the weather might play a large part in my race performance. 

After around 12 or 13K I decided to try and shift up a gear to take the pace into sub 4 hour territory which felt OK for a short while but soon felt too taxing in the heat. Meanwhile the pain in my right foot began to worsen to the point that it was affecting my running. 

I kept on at a good pace probably just outside 4 hour pacing feeling comfortable until around mile 11 when things took a turn for the worse. Quite quickly things didn't feel so great and the heat was really starting to hit home. Over the course of a few hundred metres I went from feeling OK to feeling like I had run over 18 miles and I was in the later stages of a marathon. I don't know about other marathoners but there is a certain level of fatigue you start to feel at around the 18 mile stage and I start to get a shaky, tingling feeling it was then that I knew I was in trouble and the remaining 15 miles were not going to be pretty. 

About a mile later I caught up with Tony who had gone out at a slightly faster race pace than I but had similarly been struck down by the heat. When I met him he was walking and talking about how close he had come to pulling out so tough was he finding running in the heat. We managed to encourage each other to keep pushing on and alternated between a few hundred metres of running and marching at a brisk pace. After a mile or two we started chatting with several other runners and before I realised Tony had pulled away into the distance. 

I kept up with another mile or two of fast paced walking mixed with regular bouts of running. 

However my next low point occurred pretty soon at around mile 16 when I started to experience significant discomfort in my quads and thighs, they simply had nothing left in them. The thought of walking 10 miles in the heat was an awful prospect.

I will be honest and say I did walk the vast majority of the remaining 10 miles, I just didn't have the energy to run in the heat and my legs just felt zapped of strength and power. 

Most of the remaining miles were characterised by an ongoing battle between the good angel on one shoulder that was urging me to keep walking until I felt strong enough to run again and the devil on my other shoulder who kept trying to convince me that walking was not helping and a nice lie down under the cool shade of a tree would reinvigorate me to run the remaining miles. Luckily my will power prevailed as I knew that once I sat down it would be so hard to get up and continue. 

All thoughts of finishing times had gone from my mind and the battle was just one to get to the finish, I have never been in that position before other than in the final miles of Beachy Head Marathon where a combination of poor training and the brutal seven sisters hills almost destroyed me. 

Its funny how your mind works though as my mentality changed when I reached mile 24 where I managed to start some jogging and then again at mile 25 where I was able to almost run most of the remaining distance. 
The finish couldn't come soon enough and the off road hill in the final half mile I found particularly cruel! 

I crossed the line with little adulation as the only thing I had to celebrate was the fact I didn't have to run any more! 

My finishing time of 5.19 represents my slowest ever marathon and although Halstead is certainly a hilly challenging course its nowhere near as tough as Beachy Head or even Vanguard Way marathon which takes in part of the North Downs Way, it was just the heat which had defeated me on this occasion.

My disappointing performance has led me to some stern reflections which have resulted in the following conclusions;
  • Firstly that I was in great condition and on a flat course in good conditions I could have rivaled a 4 hour finish, if it hadn't been so hot I would have been more than chuffed with a 4.30 finish at Halstead.
  • I am too much of a typical Brit to perform well in the heat, I tire at the best of times when the weather gets hot let alone when trying to run a marathon.
  • Lastly my running performance is significantly affected by my enjoyment of a run. I wasn't let down by my physical preparation or my mental attitude but as soon as I stopped enjoying running, because it was just too hot for me to run, I struggled to perform at my peak. 
Anyway enough of me moaning about a disappointing run how was the actual race?

It is very easy to see why Halstead is rated so highly, it is superbly organised and administered from the car parking, to the bag drop, the marshaling and the drink stations. Tony and I summarised it as an excellent example of a grass roots running event, the community really seemed to come together to support the race and really wanted to be proud of putting on a great event for runners to enjoy.

As for the course its certainly not PB potential as the course has one large hill and several decent climbs as well as always seeming to be on a slight incline or decline. However if you can handle the heat and the hills then the scenery and landscape are really spectacular. Rolling hills, patchwork fields as far as the eye can see, quaint thatched cottages in peaceful villages and quiet country lanes, every example of picturesque English countryside was on show and it was a pleasure to experience it on such a beautiful day. 

I have saved the best to last, for a modest entry fee the race provides an awesome medal, a generous goody bag packed full of snacks for the journey home and a really attractive T-shirt. 

If your looking for a spring marathon next year why not stay clear of the big city options of Manchester, London and Brighton and come and see what lovely Halstead has to offer. Th