This weekend, I return to racing when I take on the King of the Hill Half Marathon, part of the King of the Hill Marathon event, in Huddersfield. It’s my third half marathon this year, a trail out and back on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal from Kirklees College near the town centre, down into Marsden, and back again. Although this may seem like business as usual for an avid runner myself, the last couple of months weren’t exactly such a straightforward path to getting back to racing.
After my sojourn to Germany and then my quick turnaround to run the Meltham Murder Maniac, I took a moment, or rather a few weeks, to consider my options for the following few months. I had been dead set on wanting to run a trail marathon in Kirkstall, however my German experience and then a series of family events that I can best describe as ‘life’, (without diving into it), meant that running took a little bit of a back seat. I wasn’t injured, I wasn’t disenchanted and I hadn’t suddenly decided to change careers and move into, I don’t know, water polo. But it did seem secondary all of a sudden and before I knew it, I was in a state of flux.
It could well be to do with the fact as well that, following Meltham, my next race booked wasn’t until June 30 next year. While undoubtedly I had targeted races before the year end I would like to do, I hadn’t got around to entering them yet. When your savings effectively amount to the wage I am paid each month, you see where I often prioritise my purchases and generally this means I put back race entries as late as possible unless I’m certain I’m able to afford, certain it doesn’t clash with anything important, and occasionally this will go on impulse.
Effectively, when I stepped off the plane back in the UK, when I finally found myself alone on the train back to Huddersfield, I pretty much sacked the idea of running Kirkstall, and in fact any autumn marathon. I’d spent the best part of January to April running fast. And then the best part of May until early August running fast. I had no motivation left to want to put myself straight into another marathon cycle. I needed to mix things up a little bit, something to get my head back in the game, some form of motivation to get me back in routine. Essentially, I needed to figure out exactly what I wanted from running. Not in four months, six months, next June, but right nowadays.
The first thing I did, ironically, was to enter another race – albeit not one happening immediately, my next marathon will be the Blackpool Marathon on April 28, 2019. Blackpool is a part of my life I’ve grown up with, from day trips and family holidays, the Pleasure Beach and Coral Island, the Promenade and the beach where I achieved my first ever 3rd place in the Blackpool Beach 10K (in 2014). I’ve really wanted to do that race again, but the spring marathon season often gets in the way. Ironically, so do this race – but it does mean I will have a flat marathon course on which to attempt the sub-3 hour marathon once again. All I will need on the day is decent weather conditions – Blackpool can be notorious for its gusty coastal winds and lashing rain at this time of year, as much as its reputation for attracting boozy stag and hen parties – and a working rail network (given the havoc caused with Northern at the helm in those parts). Of course, this didn’t solve what I wanted immediately from running, but it at least gave me the jump to want to get properly back into the swing of it.
Without question getting back into routine was the most important thing, heading back to club training being a first step where I realised that track pace I became used to had soon disappeared over the course of a few weeks off. I knew it wouldn’t take long to get it back, just some consistency once again. Run commuting wentbback on the agenda, though my regular bus home travels via the motorway, cutting out half the distance before the first stop, six miles from home. It takes me from as far as Birkenshaw, a village between Bradford and Leeds, back to Brighouse, as is hilly by nature. It can be mixed up with a trail to make it slightly longer, or I can get off the bus closer to Cleckheaton, which gives me 4 miles. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got, and presently the trail is my favourite out of these – a little bit challenging but not massively so, and is worth it for a wonderful view over the M62 looking far into the distance on a clear day.
I’ve used the decision to avoid autumn marathon training to basically enjoy a bit of variety around shorter distances. I turned 34 on 9th September, meaning the countdown is on before I become a ‘veteran’ or ‘M35’ under age categorisation. Not that it changes much. This has nicely aligned with a refocus on running fast, but at shorter distances. Before 2015 I couldn’t stop breaking my PBs, but after injury I focused on greater challenges, new terrain. But given how my running has resurged in the last 16 months, in particular since the start of this year, I feel like I should also be making the most of what I’ve got. I felt inspired watching the 5km track races in Munich, particularly among the age group athletes, who I was in awe of for their ability and for making age look absolutely irrelevant. About two years ago, as I found my way into more challenging races, I was motivated by basically doing really hard races, and somehow succeeding. Now, I have a renewed focus on my often neglected distance anything from 5km to track distances, e.g. 400 metres.
I’m more interested in 5km as I’ve ever been, seeing what the track, hill reps, etc. has given me in terms of my speed endurance of late. The 16:39 I ran at a relay event earlier this year (4.8km according to the event, 4.98km according to watch) has given me the belief that I can make sub-17 5K running a personal reality, and not just have this anomaly I ran one day. That really depends on how much work I put in, though, whether the 5K remains an occasional fling, or a dedicated pursuit.
I returned to parkrun, finishing first in my local event at Brighouse (a slightly undulating trail run) just over a month ago, in a now official PB of 17:51. That was off the back of a punishing hill reps session a few days prior as well. It’s a good step forward towards my goal of becoming a regular sub-17 5km, as getting under 18 minutes at parkrun had, until now, proven elusive. The following week, I tried track racing for the first time, at my club’s annual championships, whereby competitors take part in the 100 meters, 400m, 800m, 3,000m, the long jump and the shot put, over two evenings. The less said about my field efforts, the better, but I did finish second in the 100m and 400m, which I didn’t have all my own way. But I did earn a 1:07.6 in the latter, a PB for one lap of the track. I also won the 800m in 2:25.3, also a PB, which I ran from the front from about 150 meters onwards. But the one race I really wanted to target was the 3,000m, in which I had no doubt would be my strongest event.
One of my coaches invited a number of fast runners from the club to take part, and our race was mixed in with the under 17s and under 20’s as well. This included two very, very good under 17 athletes, including one who has been breaking records in his age category in Britain and at the European U-18 Championships. I had nothing for these two lads, who immediately established in first and second, but I hung onto them as long as I could. The leader showed his already evident talent, gradually increasing his lead through each of the 7.5 laps. I maintained a gap of around 60-70 metres to second, but couldn’t catch him. No matter though, I was storming ahead in my age category and this was about seeing what time I could run for this distance. Propelling onwards with my rarely used track spikes, I ran mostly 76 and 77 second laps, bookended with a 72 second lap on the first full lap, and finally a 75 second lap to finish. With about 100 metres to go, the clock ticked on my watch to 9:43. I gave it one last push, sensing I had a sub-10 time in my grasp. Willed on by volunteers at the side of the course, I crossed the line to take 3rd overall, in 9:57.2. And with that, unquestionably (if not officially) my fastest ever race.
It felt brilliant. I thought back to those track races I watched in Germany, seeing those M35 runners go round in somewhere below 16:30. That’s about the pace I was operating at over 3km, and that’s frequently lapping athletes using lane 2 and even lane 3 on one occasion. Of course, there’s the question of whether I could actually run 16:30 on a track, or at least sub-17, and that’s the most exciting part. If I could have got back on the track and run 12.5 laps there and then, I would. I’d have taken my position to see what I could do. I want to see where my spikes can take me next! And not just for the sake of seeing how fast I can go, but indeed, finding my limits and seeing how far I can raise the bar.
In the weeks that followed, routine was back, and my motivation was back and fully firing again. I don’t think I’ll ever be truly settled or satisfied on one particular distance, but I can certainly supplement my long distance training with the variety of training I get with my club, and likewise, I can call on my belief and desire to push myself beyond my current limits and enjoy it as much as the long, lonely morning runs.
With the long, hot summer finally behind us, it’s time for autumnal challenges, and indeed the cooler running weather I prefer. Although tomorrow appears forecast to be a rather humid and damp morning for racing, and potentially quite muddy in parts too. I don’t think I’m in shape for another half marathon PB, but when has that ever stopped me from trying?