New Half Marathon PB of 1:35:24!
I’m pretty damn happy with this. I’ve just knocked 3mins 34secs off my previous Half Marathon PB at The Great North Run, a run which is substantially easier than this one. The Sheffield Half is a big loop out of the city, climbing up a big hill just into the edge of the peaks and then back again down to Sheffield.
That hill meant I really had no idea how to pace it. I didn’t know how big an effect it would have on me, nor how to plan it into my race plan. After browsing the official website and reading about the pacers, I remembered Neil Aiken’s advice from the Venice marathon of just going for it and trying to hang on and decided to just try and keep with the 95 minute pacer. He’d handily added his rough pacing plan to the website giving me the vague idea that if I could just keep up on the hill climb, I’d be able to cruise down the hill on the way back. I figured my biggest problem would be keeping up on the hill climb.
Roll on race day. Normal race morning prep. Some cereal, coffee, getting my stuff together and off to get a tram into the centre. I got to the race village by about 8:40 giving just under an hour to mill around and have a loo trip. The queues were already getting pretty big, so I joined one as a precaution. 25 minutes of queuing later, sorted and I decided to find some water as it was getting rather warm. I had to give up and ask someone for a swig of their big bottle of water. No water anywhere? What gives? I then bumped into a fellow Plusnet runner and had some of his isotonic drink. It was pretty much time to get into the pens, so I found the blue zone and got in it. I pushed through the crowd to the front of the pen to have a look and saw the flag of the 1:30 pacer, and off the left outside the pen the flag of the 1:35 pacer. I figured that being as the 1:30 was just ahead, and the 1:35 was close I was in the right place!
It was then time for the warm up. Just like the warm up for the 10k, we had lots of shouted instructions, but the instructor was nowhere in sight. I couldn’t even tell what direction they were in! Pretty much everyone around me seemed just as clueless and as a result there was virtually no warm ups done at all. I just sorted myself with some dynamic moving about. Lifting knees and a little bit of lunging. The race kicked off right on time and we started off. Then I realised I couldn’t see my pacer. I’m not really sure what happened, but I guess he’d jumped into the pen ahead of mine and the squeeze that happens just before starting meant he moved further ahead. I wasn’t too concerned though, as the first 1km was downhill so I figured I’d be able to catch up him up…. nope!
In fact, I didn’t really see much of him till halfway along Eccelsall road. I remembered this from the 10k. The road is a reasonably gentle climb out towards Hunters Bar, but it does sap the strength somewhat. Once I’d spotted his flag, I reined it in a little, slowly gaining on him to try and not over do it. I started to catch up with some other PN runners in their pink vests. Each one I had a quick chat with then went back to my aim of chasing down this flag bearer!
Eventually we got to Hunters Bar and we rounded the park and started up Eccelsall Road south. This is there it became a real hill, but I felt pretty good. The bottom half seemed to be the steepest, so I shortened up my stride a bit and pushed on, trying to keep the pacer in roughly the same place. He set a pretty strong clip on the hill so I figured that “hanging on” was the best policy, so hang on I did.
The hill went on FOREVER. Thankfully, there were the odd flattening out sections which gave you a very brief respite. We had 2 water stations along the way which were really needed as it was started to get very warm. I cocked up the second water station somewhat, completely failing to get any water. There was no way I was losing any momentum and stopping though, so I continued on and took one from the hand of someone who was just about to throw their bottle. At least, I think they were!
There were plenty of families of spectators along the side of the road and I couldn’t resist high fiving some kids. They love it! I also succumbed to a small child’s offering of jellybabies. I really need to learn to resist them on a run. I’m sure they are a great option if you are doing ultras or something, but trying to breath around a jellybaby while going at a pace is rather difficult!
So, the hill went on and on and I really thought it would never end, just like this blog post! But then we passed a timing marker and I realised we’d just started the King Of The Hill section so I knew it was the hills last gasp. This is a timed section for the last mile of the hill so we were almost there. My pacer was still there about 100 yards ahead; we’d been in a strange dance of him pulling away, then being caught back up again when I gave myself a mental kick. Having hung on this long felt great. It was all going to plan. I just needed to stick with him for this last section, then I’d cruise back down the hill.
Right at the top of the hill, just before we swing left at the Norfolk arms was another water station and a High5 Gel station. I’d packed 2 gels as well, planning on having one about now, but I had the High5 Gel instead. I’d had them before during the Venice Marathon and got on with them, but this time combined with the heat they were just far too sickly. I’d necked it, but my mouth felt like I’d troughed a family sized bag of skittles! Blurgh! A couple of swigs of the water didn’t help either! Does anyone know of gels which aren’t really sweet? (I appreciate that’s a tall ask being as they are basically fructose/glucose syrup!).
We swung left, and after a short continuation of the hill, we started descending. Oh yes, it was all done now. I just needed to run another 12k downhill.!??!… but my pacer stubbornly refused to come any closer. He’s picked up the pace, as planned, but I’d under estimated how hard it would be to catch up. Ok, lean into the downhill, pick up the cadence, push off those toes… and I’m flying! The pace picked up quickly and I started to gain on him, finding another pink PN runner and after a quick chat overtaking him. We were at 5k pace now, and then the hill steepened up and I felt like I could really use it and caught the pacer.
Then my tired brain made a bit of an error. This pacer is going quicker on the downhills than I expected, so I need to get some distance ahead of him in case I can’t keep it up on the less steep Eccelsall road return section. I really should have just stuck with him, but instead I overtook up and kicked it up another notch, now doing about 3:40mins/k. It felt bloody great and not hard at all flying down the hill. All for about another 2 km. Then this happened:
It doesn’t look like much on the grand scale of the overall elevation, but I’d completely forgotten it was there. This little hill brought my momentum to a shocking stop and all of a sudden all the people I’ve overtaken caught me back up and overtook me, including the the pacer. I struggled to keep up but just couldn’t manage it.
From this point I went into survival mode, just trying to keep going. The next 4km weren’t a downhill like i’d expected, it was more of an undulating flat section meaning I couldn’t really recover. I’d find the odd burst of energy to try and make ground back up, but would then lose it again on the next little incline. Eventually we got back to Eccelsall Rd South and it’s descent. This helped a bit, but I just didn’t have the energy for the speed needed. In desperation I pulled out the caffeine gel and necked it, and then took a paper cup of water from a spectator. I tried to drink it and failed, instead almost choking myself on it. Really not what I needed!
Looking back now, I think that last desperate gel actually helped a lot. My pace on the final section of Eccelsall road was right were it needed to be and it just flew by in a fuzzy half remembered pain-cave-haze. All of a sudden my Garmin beeped and flashed 20km at me and I was at St. Mary’s Gate. Only 1km and a bit to go and I just needed to hang on… which I think is becoming my motto! This last section was tough, the last hill climb back up to finish on Pinstone Street, but it was almost done so I could push it, and as we came around the last corner, I could see the timer showing 1:36 and I found the last bit of energy for a big push to the end in a vague hope that I’d duck under the 1:35 mark based on chip vs gun time. Not that I cared that much!
Crossing the line I was fairly broken and hobbling. That last 20 metres was a full on sprint with everything I had left and it took a good few minutes to get my composure back. I picked up my goodie bag, had a medal hung around my neck and got a free pint of alcohol free erdinger! That stuff really hit the spot!
Next stop, the massage tents! There wasn’t a queue here at all so I got straight on a table and had them try and beat some looseness into my calves. Based on the noises the Hallam Physio students were making, that wasn’t an easy process. It certainly was pretty sore. Once done I bumped straight into Liz who was looking for me, and we headed over to the engraving tent to get my medal engraved. While waiting for the engraving, I caught up with some PN people and some other friends who were also running. After a good amount of wandering around to keep the legs moving, we headed up to Division Street and The Steamyard for a Salted Caramel doughtnut and a cappuccino, and then over the road for a huge burger at Bungalows and Bears.
So yeah, yet again Neil’s “just hang on” plan kinda worked. Obviously the training I’ve done over the past few months has paid off with a good chunk off my PB, but I am left wondering a couple of things. Could I have got a better time I’d have started with and stuck with the pacer? Did the hill really affect the time and would that translate to a faster run on a flatter half? Despite the downhill not quite being as constant as I was expected, it still gave me a whole bunch of ‘fake’ PBs (1k – 3:29, 1 mile – 5:44, 5k- 19:54, 10k – 41:52. Fake as in they were created by the downhill so I can’t claim them. Shame!) Without that downhill, would I actually be able to keep up the 4:30 pace for the whole run?
Congrats to all my other friends who ran it as well. Andy S, Paul P, Lindsay F, Sallyanne B, Nick R, Cameron B, Farhan Z and Sarah L!