First, before I get into my recap of the Reading Half Marathon, Tony the Fridge. I passed him in the early miles and, dude, respect. Over a distance in which I could barely carry the weight of my own body, Tony ran with a refrigerator strapped to his back. And, next, he’s running 4 marathons in 1 day! Why not show him a little love and donate to help him fight cancer?
I honestly don’t know where to begin with this race diary. Getting to the Reading Half Marathon has been a year-long journey and I feel like there are so many things to share about the experience. And maybe many of those stories belong in posts of their own, things I’ve learned about myself and about running.
I followed a 12-week training plan, starting at the beginning of December. And in the first couple months I had tons of enthusiasm, energy, and mojo. But then in the last few weeks of my half marathon training, when those long weekend runs were so key, I found myself in a major training slump.
Work commitments exploded in my life like a nuclear bomb, making it more difficult to schedule my runs. Oxford was drowning in flood waters and many of my favorite running routes were underwater. I was running the same routes over and over and over again or diverted into the city center where cars, crowds, and cobblestones greeted me. And I firmly believe that anyone who says they love running in cold, dreary, wet weather is a stone cold liar.
My colon was on amber alert, all the time. Maybe it was a flare up of the Crohn’s, maybe it was the introduction of various energy gels into my routine. I don’t know. But I do know that I’m thankful I could do loops from the house or take a long runs that included McDonalds, the train station, and secluded areas of thick vegetation.
Any nothing speaks to the glamour of running more than spitting out some post nasal sinus drip mid-run only to have it land on your hand.
There have been moments when I wanted to give up. Sleep in. Stay dry and warm on the sofa eating tubs of ice cream with a big glass of wine.
But here’s the thing. Most great things and experiences in life don’t come easy. The more you put yourself out there, the more you get in return. And that feeling of euphoria when, 13.1 miles after I started, I ran into the Madejski Stadium and crossed the finish line to the cheers of a crowd of strangers, that wiped away every moment of despair I felt during training.
So what happened on race day before the finish line? Well, travelling to a race with about 20,000 runners presented a host logistics challenges. I totally missed the memo that said I had to book parking places near the start/finish ahead of time. Oops. Plan B was to take the train and then catch the free shuttle bus from the station to the start. Turns out there wasn’t a single train that left Oxford early enough on a Sunday morning to get me there on time. In the end, I drove and parked in the train station car park, still taking the shuttle. Which, worked great but meant that I was up and out of the house by 6:30 am, peanut butter, banana, and honey rice cakes in tow.
The shuttle bus dropped me at the foot of the Madejski and I followed the crowd into the stadium to survey the finish. I was plenty early, so stood inside the stadium for a while taking in the atmosphere as families gathered and staked out prime seats near the finish. Best thing about the stadium venue? Toilets everywhere. Because no matter how many times I go for a wee before a race, I can always go again.
Outside the stadium, the race village was filled with vendors selling their running wares, shoes and running kit. The weather was overcast and dreary but thankfully not bitterly cold or raining. I had friends running in the race as well and we met up to chat and commiserate about our training before we finally headed for the start, about a 10 minute walk from the stadium.
My friends were faster runners than I, so I bid them good luck as they joined one of the starting pens for the faster runners. I headed further back to the slower groups. I took advantage of the port-a-loos one last time and then joined the huddled masses at the start.
One of the things I find humorous about these big races is the pre-race warm up. Some uber-enthusiastic fitness instructor stands on an elevated platform leading thousands of people through a series of warm up exercises. Warm up exercises that require at least one foot of personal space when in fact you have about one inch of personal space. Knee lifts? Lunges? No thank you. I don’t want to kick someone in the groin.
My hope was to crack the 2 hour time. And the 2:00 race pacer was in my pen, just in front of me. I tried to manoeuvre myself as close as I could get to him, thinking that if I could stick with him from the start, I’d have a chance. In the end, I just couldn’t get close enough and once everyone started running through the start, the 2:00 pacer was just too far ahead and I could never catch him.
So I was left to pace myself and, for the first half of the race, this worked great. I knew what my average pace needed to be in order to hit 2:00 and my Garmin had this nifty feature called the Virtual Partner, a little virtual person that I configured to run at that pace. My watch then showed me whether I was ahead or behind my Virtual Partner. And for most of the race, I was bang on pace. The support from the crowds all along the race route in Reading was amazing and certainly helped me stay motivated.
But by about mile 9, I just couldn’t keep it up anymore. Maybe that was a flaw in my race strategy, trying to maintain a constant pace throughout instead of starting a bit slower and finishing faster. Plus, where did I get the idea that this race was flat? It wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination.
It was also around the 9th mile that my feet just decided to rebel. Despite the fact that I was running in the same shoes I’d been completing long runs in for a couple of months, suddenly every step sent sharp pains through my forefoot. And my legs. The muscles in my legs began to ache with every step. A clear message that my future training regime needed to include more strength training.
So I stopped. I stopped at a water station and walked and sucked down my energy gel (I can’t run and consume food at the same time anyway). And it felt really good to stop. Then I regrouped, said “I can do this”, and started running again.
The finish of the Reading Half is a big tease. At about mile 12, you’re back at the stadium where you know the big finish is. But then you’re forced to run past it, down a long stretch of road back to the start and then doubling back on yourself. And the route around the stadium was a serpentine of twists and turns, I dodged parked cars and lamp posts.
My legs wanted me to stop. Other racers were dropping like flies. But my brain said “don’t you even think about stopping. You have worked too hard to stop this close to the finish.” So I carried on, through the tunnel and onto the weird plastic surface covering the pitch of the Madejski. The crowd noise was electric and I sprinted as fast as my exhausted legs would carry me across the finish line. Official time, 2:03:47. Oh so close!
That stadium finish was amazing! Running into a crowded stadium to the finish really made me feel like a proper athlete, like this was a really big deal. And it was. I did something I’d previously never imagined I could do. I ran 13.1 miles!
Then I stretched, a good long stretch to provide some relief to my tired aching legs. Afterwards, I followed the herd of exhausted runners, clad in their electric green thermal wraps, back into the real world to collect my bag and head home. Being a woman really paid off. The queue for the men’s bag collection? Enormous. The queue for the women’s? Non-existent. I collected my bag and then piled on some of the layers I’d stowed away, grateful to be reunited with my warm fleecy jacket.
And then the journey which I’d completed with such ease at the start, all fell apart. The queue for the shuttle bus back to the station, gigantic. I stood huddled in line for at least 45 minutes waiting to board a bus which was then standing room only. And I stood on the bus for at least another 45 minutes as it navigated through the gridlocked streets of Reading. I realised too late that I would have been better off just walking the extra miles back to my car. Lesson learned.
So I did it! And, I’ll do it again. In fact, I’m running double this distance in September in Berlin, a full marathon. Yikes! But I’ve learned a number of lessons running the half that I hope will help me prepare. Training for these long distance races is hard work. But the reward it gives me back is immense in terms of my health and fitness, mental outlook, and sense of personal achievement. As Christina Rosalie recently wrote:
You can pin a hundred photos of gorgeous abs, but until you start doing crunches, you won’t get your own.
You’ve got to do the work to get the reward.
The Reading Half Marathon marks the end of my 12 month running challenge for Crohn’s and Colitis UK. I started running races back in April of 2013 and I’ve ALMOST run one every month since. My original challenge was to run a 10K race each month for year. But the 10K I was scheduled to run in January was cancelled due to the floods and in February I just didn’t feel well enough and felt rest was more important. However, as I added in the BUPA Great South Run (10 miles) and the Reading Half Marathon, I still feel as though I achieved what I set out to do. I still ran all the miles and made running part of my everyday life.
Importantly though, I exceeded my fundraising target for this challenge, raising over £1500 for Crohn’s and Colitis UK, 128% of goal. I want to thank everyone who donated to my cause over the past year. Friends, family, colleagues, and, amazingly, people I’ve connected with on the internet but whom I’ve never met in person. To all of you wonderful people, I’m grateful for your support and encouragement!
Now, Berlin, here I come!