Sunday April 27th, 2014. 6:15am
I was up and into by now my tried and tested race day preparation. Porridge and golden syrup? Check. Banana? Check. Tea? Check. Gels, hydration, race kit? Bagged, worn and ready. I got out for my bus to Huddersfield with no disruptions and onto the connecting bus to Salendine Nook, before arriving at the YMCA for the Huddersfield Marathon. I found my name amongst the half marathon entries, registered, and applied my race number. All very mundane, by now, bar a quick pic of the race number to proclaim ‘race day!‘ on Facebook to the Running The World group. Granted, none of this sounds particularly interesting, but it portrays a sense of normality that for me was about to change its very plans.
Four weeks prior, I wasn’t even in the Huddersfield Half Marathon. I was asked by a good friend of mine to take her place and I didn’t need much convincing. I wanted race experience and here it was. I offered to pay my friend the £30 entry fee but she called it an ‘early 30th birthday present’. I’ll always be grateful for such kindness. The organisers sorted out the transfer and they even kindly obliged my requests for retweets to my fundraising for the MND Association. Not to forget them of course – this was another race I could race for them this calendar year, another chance to proudly wear the blue and orange vest.
From about 9:30am I got more involved in the spirit of the event. I got talking to the lady marshalling the baggage area, as she too had run previously for the MNDA. I discussed the downside of wearing glasses in the rain, tentatively forecast for this race, and threatening to make its presence felt. I got stretched up and warmed up, and even got my picture taken by The Pulse radio crew.
10:00am arrived. I was still at the front of the start line. Well, here goes. The countdown began, and we were off. The Half Marathon and the Marathon, back for the first time in 20 years. And to my surprise, no one had passed me yet. I approached the first corner, and was a couple of seconds up already. ‘Enjoy it while it lasts‘, I thought. Yet as I approached the first corner, there wasn’t a clear indication of whether to turn left or right. There were no marshals, no signs. Just a number of people collected to the right hand side of the path. Believing this to be the direction to go, I turned right. I carried on up the road. I briefly looked over my shoulder once or twice. There were a few runners behind me. We went further up the road. Then eventually a car passed and a man shouted ‘you’re going the wrong way!‘ Collective groans from the four of us as we turned around and headed back down the road. I had fully expected to be overtaken. I hadn’t expected to drop from first to last in a flicker. Then, quite farcically, the four of us all missed the second corner too. Again, not clearly signposted, and this time, a cyclist who appeared to be marshalling pointed us back in the right direction. By now, we were a bit cheesed off and left with a bit of work to do.
It wasn’t too long before we caught up with the back of the pack and one lady asked me ‘where on earth I’d come from’! I managed a smile but I knew there and then that my race plan – supposing I had one – had truly gone up in flames and I was now maximising my effort to get back on track. A team leader from my office then appeared, walking in the opposite direction as runners surged past him. I said hello and surged on as he encouraged me to keep it up. I didn’t think he’d seen what had happened.
I got to Outlane and was making good pace now. I saw a lady from the RTW group cheering me on from her marshalling post as we turned onto Stainland Road. The course’s most wicked parts were yet to come though, and as I followed behind two runners up the cobbled stones of Steele Lane, perhaps Stainland’s toughest street, my legs just didn’t have it. I started walking. Hands on thighs just like I’d seen on the coverage of a Snowdonia race last year. I tried to start the engine but it wasn’t happening. This whole race just wasn’t happening. And then it became a mental cluster bomb as I debated whether or not I should even bother going all out for this race. I’d run further than everyone else in the half race and I felt as though I couldn’t get going again. There was little motivating me, bar the big reminder on my chest of who I was running this for and that there was to be no turning back, and no giving up. I continued to plunder up Steele Lane, merging into Clough House Road and finally onto Scammonden Road. That was one killer hill section, which walloped my pace down to 8:40 for one mile section.
I’d come across my team leader again long before I hit Scammonden Road, urging me on, and it was here where my race was about to really play out. The sun started to come out as if on cue and the sight of Scammonden Dam was a sight to behold. I got past a number of runners on this relatively flat section of the course and I reached the water and 9Bar station at last. Around halfway by now. I dropped down the road to run along the path running beside the M62. I could see just one runner in the distance. He was a good minute or more ahead. I tried to make inroads but in the end he disappeared. I ended up walking briefly again on Quebec Road, in the Pole Gate area, but resolved to keep going. By mile 8 or 9 – I forget exactly where – I was feeling very much alone. As I often am when running. Just not in a race. It was beginning to feel like a training run. Me, the open road, and occasionally, an arrow or a marshal to guide me onwards.
The race hit Scapegoat Hill and then Leymoor, a part of town where the only way was downhill, and so I began to thunder down Pike Law Road and Swallow Lane. I really lengthened my stride now and I seemed to be putting daylight between myself and those behind me, hitting near enough 6:00-6:15 pace. At least I was making a go of it now, and the residents were on hand to give out orange juice, water and sweets. I got some jelly beans and a swig of water. Then further down a little girl, about two years old perhaps, stopped as she saw me careening down the hill and immediately produced a mile wide smile and started clapping.I gave her a wave and carried on. That one was a cheery moment. However, still no sign of anyone in front, and that’s how it was to remain.
Then, as mile 12 approached, I started to hear footsteps behind me and heavy breathing. I was starting to get reeled in. 12.5 miles in. A sign proclaiming ‘one more hill!‘. Up a slight descent. Again whatever my legs wanted, I put a kick in. I suddenly wanted to defend my position. Then we hit a really steep hill – Lamb Hall Road. Right at the end of the race. A killer. This time, I didn’t stop. It was slow going, but I kept running. Through the subway, and back onto New Hey Road. Now the finish was upon us. At last. 400 metres or so from the end, there was the team leader again. I think that was the fourth time. Anyway, he told me not to let the guy behind me catch up. I laughed and put a kick in. Round the corner, back to the YMCA. I approached the line, and that was it. It was over. I approached the finish with about as much enthusiasm as that ending to Lost. Across the line in 1:36:04. I collected my medal and wandered off for my bag. One of the other finishers came up to me afterwards and he was one of those that headed off course with me at the start. About 40 minutes after this, I began to wander off down towards Lindley to catch my bus home. The lack of immediate buses meant it was a good 15 minutes before getting on a bus and having aggravated something in my left foot, it wasn’t the most ideal scenario. For the rest of the day, I tried to take the positives from the race. I’d just got around arguably the hardest half marathon course in the country.
It began to unravel somewhat. First I checked my mile splits, and it showed my first mile to be at 5:59, by which time I’d only just got to Laund Road, following the third and fourth corners of the course. I estimated that I’d perhaps lost 4 minutes because of that error, based on that pace. I got into work the following day and I talked to the team leader in question. He agreed it was a farce, though I’m not sure what, if anything, he saw of the start. He then suggested I had finished in the top 10. I asked if he really thought this and he did. He reckoned I was only seven minutes behind the winner which went some way to explaining my loneliness in the position I was in, that the race had obviously got spread out due to its intense difficulty. As the wait for the official results moved into the Tuesday, I began to feel somewhat downcast again at what had happened. Realising that if my predictions were correct, I may have been able to do roughly 1:32-something had I not gone the wrong way.
It was late Tuesday afternoon when the results went up, and my team leader was proven right. Not only had I come top 10, I’d finished 4th.
I was in utter disbelief. By rights I should have been doing cartwheels in the street. But I didn’t feel much at all, and what was already a mixed bag was now about to get, well, even more jumbled. On the one hand, it was fourth place. In my third half marathon. In only my fifth race. On the toughest course of them all. On the other hand, it felt very underwhelming. I proceeded to log back into MapMyRun and tried to work out exactly how much time I lost running off course. After a bit of fiddling, it turned out I’d lost roughly 3:30 looking for a clear marker. Which on the face of it, potentially cost me a top three position.
I’m not going to say I would have finished third, because those top three guys would certainly have responded had I been buzzing around behind them. However, the marshalling error appeared to have cost me a chance to fight for third position. Which taking everything into account, felt a bitter pill to swallow. For the next day or two, I lost motivation to run – I had held off on the basis on a muscle I thought I’d pulled in my left foot, but I didn’t even want to test the waters.
Do I want to come back here and prove a point next year? No. Not because I’m bitter about what happened – which I’m not. Because racing to prove a point is against what I’m about. Additionally, the race does not fit in with my plans for an April/May Marathon – and yes, I know the main race here is a marathon, but it’s not the A to B I desire and besides, do I really want two laps of that?! It would fall either too soon or too near to a potential marathon for me to recover from one or the other. And the error itself, so long as they don’t change the course radically, is not going to happen to me at this course ever again, so one marshalling error doesn’t mean I’m done with the Huddersfield Marathon event forever. Just not next year.
I’ve had time to dwell on the result now and everything that happened, and while I believe I will never be wholly satisfied with how this turned out, it is pointless beating myself up about it continually and to continue to make light of the situation is only going to make myself look bad when the organisers have admitted already to what happened and apologised. That’s absolutely fine. I want nothing more than for the race to succeed – Huddersfield has been without a marathon for 20 years – it’s also had the Hilly Half Marathon for the last few years – and it ought to become a marquee event for the area, as it ought to in Wakefield and Halifax (where marathons have also been introduced by the same organisers, Team OA). Mistakes happen at races from time to time and most people appeared to laugh this one off – although most of those people didn’t run a considerable distance the wrong way before the penny dropped. And if I’m gutted at the time I lost, I feel gutted for the guy in second. He took the wrong turn and went all the way with me. To then clock 1:32:00 is simply outstanding, and hats off to him for making it up in such a way.
What I am currently grateful for from this race is that, first of all, I finished. That means much to me as a runner, both to myself and the fact I’m racing much of this year for charity. There can be no giving up, and I didn’t. Though for much of the race I lacked motivation in my predicament, the last mile alone was a huge lesson for me in defending a race position. I should have had nothing going up Lamb Hall Road, but hearing the guy in fifth behind me gave the spark to kick on, to keep running up that hill, and then when my team leader urged me to not let him catch up, I lengthened my stride and secured that fourth place by nine seconds. For all the races I’ve entered now out of charitable spirit, I discovered that I do have a competitive edge within running. I experienced being in the lead, albeit briefly, and learned much about defending a position in a race. So that in future, should I ever get this close again to a ‘podium’ position, I know that I can fight tooth and nail, instead of allowing my lack of race experience to have me believe again that I’m simply in ‘no man’s land’. It will prove to be one of those days that made me as a runner.
I cannot deny though that this race left me feeling, eventually, the lowest I’ve ever felt as a runner to date. I had no motivation to get back out of the door for a few days and that’s despite another race on the horizon. What should be my most celebrated result yet is instead one I can currently only look back on for what might have been. In time I’m sure I will completely simmer down and be able to look upon the race with the satisfaction it really deserves and not constantly cursing the lack of course marshals or markers. I’ve another race to focus on now – that’s the Blackpool Beach 10K Run in just over a week – and I just want to put this one behind me for now and get on with preparing for a weekend of family fun and racing.
· I wish to stress that I thank Team OA and the Huddersfield Marathon team for their support before, during and after the race. They didn’t have to retweet my tweets aimed at raising money for the MND Association yet they did, and it generated an additional £20 in donations just like that. They were straight enough to admit the issue at the first and second corners, and my personal tumult does not get in the way of my appreciation of them as an organisation for a great day overall for everyone. The marshals were magnificent and I’m sure this race will get better. If you’re a fellow runner reading this, I urge you to do this race next year if you’re seeking a challenge and some of the most scenic views possible. You will get them, trust me.
Additionally, thank you to everyone who in the last few days has helped me to see the positive side of this race and indeed my result, particularly my team leader who was my biggest supporter on the course. It is a staggering achievement for a person who was content in the mid-30s for position as long as I was cracking my PBs. I’m sure I will celebrate it as much as you all have one day.