My preparation for the Swansea Half Marathon (SHM) hadn’t really gone to plan. I wanted to keep doing fast track sessions with the Swansea Harriers on Tuesdays, and fit in some long runs, and long tempo sessions throughout the remainder of the week. However, I ended up entering a number of races in the preceding weeks. In total I ran 6 races in the 6 weeks leading up to the SHM. This disjointed my preparation a little, as I would try to go for a gentle run the day before the race; would race the next day; and go for a recovery run the day after. This meant that I missed a number of the Tuesday and Thursday sessions that I was planning to attend with the Swansea Harriers. My average mileage leading up to the race was a mere 35 miles. Also, the two 5 ks I ran in the weeks nearest the race day were substantially slower than my PB. This knocked my confidence a little. Despite these poor performances I still got a decent overall place in five of the races (4th, 6th, 4th, 2nd, and 4th), but I didn’t feel like I deserved them. I tried to take the positives from frequent racing, and knew that in some respects a race is like a hard training session, and perhaps the 6 races would have helped me ‘race myself fit’.
I was hoping that my weight would have dropped below 11 stones for the race, however a combination of bad diet and a few drinks at my football team’s end of year social meant I was still hovering above 11 stones come race day. I don’t want to force anything and am happy for my weight to fluctuate naturally, but I was hoping that running at a slightly lighter weight on race day would make the pace easier.
Two weeks before the race I finally purchased a Garmin watch (Garming 310 XT). I have been running with my iphone in a waist belt in order to track my runs, but this is useless for important live training feedback. I was hoping the watch would finally allow me to pace my runs better, whilst also giving me crucial distance information during races.
I ran a 9 mile tempo run on the Monday before the race because I had no idea what sort of pace I was capable of maintaining. I was really disappointed when I was only able to manage 6:10 min/mile. Mainly because I found the run really tough, and wasn’t sure I would be able to maintain that pace for a further 4 miles on race day. However, it was really hot, and fairly breezy. So I tried to stay positive.
I didn’t carb-load for my previous half marathons (both completed within 8 days). I didn’t plan to for this half either. I planned to eat a few healthy meals the day before and keep it light on the day. However, this didn’t go to plan either. I spent Saturday shopping with my girlfriend, and sorting some other things, and before I knew it it was 6 o’clock and I hadn’t eaten anything since a bowl of porridge for breakfast. I was hoping this wouldn’t have any detrimental affects, and after a bowl of pasta and spinach I felt good.
Unfortunately my friend’s engagement party/beer festival was on the Saturday night before the race. As best man I had to attend, but had to restrain from the array of beers on offer. Restricting myself to beer sniffing for the night. Hmm I think this is a hoppy ale with a hint of banana in it. The evening was fun, but as a result I didn’t get to bed until 12. Not ideal.
I set my alarm for 5 am, and ate 2 slices of toast with banana sliced on top. I went back to bed and then got up for 7 am to down two BeetIt beetroot shots and get ready for the big day. I had got through a carton of beetroot juice in the few days leading up to the race, and also supplemented my diet with some beetroot. Research says it can improve endurance, and it doesn’t seem to be too much effort to consume, even if it is a placebo effect.
I didn’t set my target until the morning of the race. I obviously wanted to run a PB, but I wasn’t sure what sort of shape I was in or what the conditions would be like. It was cloudy outside, and with only a light breeze. I decided to set myself a list of tiered goals. So if for any reason there comes a point in the race where the main goal no longer seems achievable, I can concentrate on trying to achieve the next goal. This is a way for me to stay motivated even if my main aim starts to slip away. My tiered goals (from the best outcome to the worst) were:
1. Run sub 77 minutes. A difficult target but achievable in good conditions. So I set my Garmin virtual pacer to slightly faster than the required pace.
2. Run sub 80 minutes. A target I expected to be capable of but would still be 90 seconds off my PB.
3. Run a PB. My PB was set in Llanelli Waterside Half Marathon in March. I would be disappointed if 3 months of extra running did not achieve a new PB.
I cycled the short mile downhill to the start from my home. I arrived and there was one free bike rack right by the starting funnel – perfect. I arrived at 8 am for the 9:15 am start. It was already busy, and I started to get excited. I made my way over to Castle Gardens where the baggage drop was, and was handed a free lucozade sport. This was great because I had forgotten to buy myself one and usually sip on an energy drink before a race. I bumped in to another harrier, Simon Brewer, and had a brief chat about how we were feeling. I felt good, less nervous than I expected. I wanted to warm up but I had a heavy rucksack. I decided to strip out of my running tights and long sleeves, and gave my bag in.
Nick Francis; the technical director and co-founder of the race; came over and shook my hand and wished me luck. We have never met before to my knowledge, but we follow each other on Strava. I thought this was a nice gesture. I have never been to a big race where the organiser goes around wishing runners the best for the race.
I started my warm up running part of the route down Wind St and towards the Marina. As I started I saw two more Harriers, Marc Hobbs and Matthew Harvey, Marc seemed concerned that I was already stripped off, and told me to get some clothes on. I would have listened to his advice but my bag was already checked in. So I carried on with a slow warm up. I ran away from the hustle and bustle of the race and over the bridge to SA1, where I was able to collect my thoughts and focus on what I was going to do. I felt good in the warm up apart from my waist belt jumping around. The belt had 2 energy gels in. I don’t usually take energy gels, but after a conversation with a more experienced runner, Raul, I decided they might be good for refocusing the mind rather than any substantial physical benefits. I jogged back to the baggage drop, to see if I could get rid of the belt. My bag was deep under a pile of new bags. The volunteering cadets were very helpful, and we all scrambled through the luggage and finally found my rucksack. I deposited my belt, and decided to take one gel with me. I stuffed it in my boxer shorts and made my way to the start.
The start funnel was packed by the time I got there and I had to push my way past slower runners to get anywhere near the front. I was still back in about 100th place and decided to accept that I would not get near the start line. However, one of the other runners who knew me pushed me forward and said that I should try and get in a better position. I took his advice and made my way to some of the similar standard runners just behind the elite boys. I said hi to Eamonn and Mikey, and I was ready to go.
The start was crowded and I couldn’t get in to my stride at all. I was planning to start slowly but also try to never drop below the 05:52 min/mile pace I had programmed on my Garmin which would achieve a sub-77. I felt like I was tripping over slower runners heels, so I moved out wide and injected a short burst of pace. This was against the plan, but it did help my fly past about 30 other runners and settle in to a nice rhythm on the Kingsway near to other runners I knew would be posting similar or better times than my main target. I felt comfortable coming down Wind St. and on to the main road. I didn’t see the first mile marker, but it turns out I did the first mile in 5:30 min/mile pace (22 seconds faster than planned). I knew I was going too fast but wanted to carry on at what felt like a comfortable pace.
During the second mile, my energy gel slipped from my shorts on to the road, typical. I carried on running. I didn’t panic. I knew I had done the last two half marathons without a gel, and it probably wasn’t important. I settled in to a slightly slower pace of about 5:47 min/mile behind Mikey B, a great runner from the same club as me. He ran 77 minutes in his previous HM and was aiming to go quicker. I still hadn’t seen any markers but I knew mile 3 was approaching because my girlfriend Vicki, and sister Ainsley, were going to be there supporting me. They were located near a waterfront cafe, and there were loads of supporters here. It was good to see some support and it kept me feeling positive. I half wanted to stop and laugh with them about my energy gel-boxer shorts fiasco but I knew that could wait and that they would find it funny when I told them later. I felt good, I was enjoying the run.
I kept with Mikey for a few miles, until I felt it was starting to feel slightly too fast. The clouds had disappeared by now and it was starting to feel hot. Damn, it was meant to stay cloudy. Ifan (also Swansea Harriers and the best V50 I know) came past me just as I was starting to drop off Mikey’s pace. I dropped in behind him and two girls (turns out to be the Olympian Andrea Whitcombe and Jess Parry-Williams) and settled at a pace just slower than 5:50 min/mile. I still felt good, and the crowds lining the streets were cheering ‘go on Harriers’, ‘come on Swansea’, and other supportive remarks. I was still yet to see a mile marker, and I didn’t have my watch on a display that showed distance. I was initially planning to manually record laps on my watch at every mile marker, to have an idea of each split, but I was happy running to the average pace display I was displaying on my watch. The average pace was creeping towards the 5:52 min/mile that I had aimed to be running at. Everything was going to plan, and I felt like I was still holding back. I knew I could push harder as I got to the final 2-3 miles.
As we arrived in Mumbles, I knew we were approaching 6 miles. Psychologically I love the turn. I love knowing that you are running towards the finish line. There was a drinks/energy gel station. I knew this would be here but wasn’t planning on using it. Cadets lined on one side with water bottles and on the opposite side with energy gels. I didn’t feel depleted but I thought this might be a good time to have a gel, and see if I can push the pace on further, or at least stay with Ifan and the girls. I grabbed a gel, whilst Andrea awkwardly tussled with a cadet, dropping the water, and losing time as we kept going. I felt bad for Andrea who collected the bottle, and had to inject a burst of pace to get back on the tail of Jess. It’s not ideal upsetting a nice rhythm like that. As we came out the other side of Verdis with our gels and water the wind hit us. I wasn’t expecting this. I thought the wind was going in the other direction really lightly. It wasn’t a strong wind but it was an unexpected wind. I took my gel and realised I would have to work harder to maintain my current pace.
I passed over the 10 km timing mat in 36:10. Brilliant, 5:49 min/mile pace. Although I didn’t know this split at the time, but I knew I was in a good position. Most of the support was still on the other side of the road supporting the crowds of people heading towards Mumbles. It was a great sight to see. Thousands of runners battling their way in the heat, supported by vocal locals.
At approximately mile 7 something unexpected happened. I started to experience severe stomach cramps. I sometimes get stomach cramps after a race if I eat too soon afterwards. They once lasted two days and gave me a bit of a fright until I did some research online. However, these cramps were on a different level. I have never had them whilst running, and I have never had them so severe. I expect my legs to get tired, and my breathing to struggle, but I wasn’t expecting this. I wasn’t too worried, I reasoned that if I kept my breathing consistent, the pain will go away. It didn’t.
The wind had already slowed my pace and these cramps were like nothing I have experienced. I am lucky enough to have never experienced any sort of muscle cramp during sport or running. I have had a stitch in one race, but felt ok to keep pushing, and it went away when I focused my breathing. This was really affecting me. I could hear my stomach sloshing about, which it never does. My pace dropped by 16 seconds/mile. I was trying to fight it but it was getting worse. At this point I was not sure I was going to finish the race. At mile 9 I realised the pain was not going away. I had to dig deep mentally to decide how to face it. I could stop running, and use it as a learning experience for future races. I could slow my pace even further and jog to the finish line. I would not set a time I was happy with but at least I would have finished the race. The cheering fans really helped. No one knew the discomfort I was in, and no one would understand. When a runner slows you thing they haven’t trained, or went off too fast. In my case both may be true to some extent, but It wasn’t the usual tiring that was affecting me it was the severe stomach pains. I decided to dig in. In my head I scrapped all 3 targets and set myself a new one. Finish the race.
If I could overcome this pain and finish this race it would be my greatest running achievement to date. No one else would appreciate what I had achieved. My friends would be surprised by slower than expected time. Vicki and Ainsley would be waiting at the finish concerned that my PB time had passed by. However, I reasoned that if I could finish this race despite the pain I felt, then I could use this as a comparison when I am struggling in future races. I planned to remember the battle with the stomach cramps, and how much worse things can get. I decided to focus on the pain. I would imagine the pain was fuel. I visualised the pain as a good thing, the more pain the bigger my achievement would be.
Despite these mind tricks between mile 10 and 11 my pace dropped to 51 seconds slower than the average for my first 7 miles. It didn’t matter. I just needed to finish. Other runners were starting to pass me. My friend Raul drew level, and tried to get me to follow him. I appreciated the supportive words but as I tried to shuffle at his pace the pain made it impossible. He was running really well, and I was super pleased because since I have known him his performances have been getting better and better, and this race it seemed to all come together. Brilliant effort by the most mentally tough guy I’ve met in sport.
The next thing I remember is a kid shouting out ‘Go on Matthew! You are the 4th Matthew, Keep going!’. I smiled and it made me think of what a great event I was taking part in, despite my current discomfort. The clapping and cheers were really helping. Eamonn was next to pass me at about mile 11 in the marina area. Eamonn is a great runner and coach, and has beaten me in every race that we have both competed in. I always know that if I can get near Eamonn, then I will have a good result. He has been really supportive of my running, and super helpful in my first few months. He also tried to get me to keep up with him. I mumbled my excuse and he carried on. I felt shit at this point. I didn’t want to be giving excuses. I wanted to stick with my team mates, and finish strong. I then realised that I was still on for a PB if I could finish the final two miles in what would normally be a comfortable pace of 7 min/mile. I could see Eamonn up ahead, and knew that If I could stay at a similar pace, where he doesn’t get any further away from me then I would get a PB. I did the next mile in 6:22 min/mile. Not fast but enough to bring me in to sub 80 minutes contention. I couldn’t work out what I needed to do to get under 80 minutes, and again missed the final mile marker. I could still see Eamonn up ahead as we climbed the gentle slope of Wind St. Along the Kingsway I heard the finish line saying someone had just finished in 78 minutes something. I started to panic. I was so close but I didn’t no how far it was. How long does it take to run down the Kingsway and up some of Oxford Street I thought to myself. I pushed harder, my stomach still causing me severe discomfort. I was starting to draw Eamonn in, who in turn seemed to be getting closer to the runners ahead of him. I took the final turn off the Kingsway on to Oxford Street really fast. I was almost sprinting already at this point. I overtook someone on the turn. I heard one of the spectators say something along the lines of, ‘he’ll make up two places’, referring to my early sprint. I didn’t care about that, I wanted to break 80 minutes. My second target was in reach. Ahead of me there seemed to be loads of runners. Eamonn was there; a Bridgend runner who I now know to be Andrew Hodgson; a big, muscular guy who had passed me earlier, Rhys Harries; and Marc Evans an Amman Valleys runner who had also passed me a mile or two back. I sprinted. My sprint was all over the place. It seemed to be side to side rather than projecting me forward but I was still making ground on everyone. The crowd were cheering loudly. I drew level with Marc, as the group ahead started to sprint too. I started to tire and Marc edged ahead, and I was no longer making ground on the runners ahead. We crossed the line close together, he beat me by .2 of a second. I stopped my watch, and grabbed my knees puffing. Nick Francis the race director approached me and congratulated me on a good run (again a nice gesture). I still didn’t know my time. I dreaded checking. 01:19:44. I had done it. I was instantly so pleased, and went and shook the hands of some of the runners around me. I was confused how I had broken 80 minutes after slowing to what seemed like a gentle jog for so many of the miles. A strong finish had just about helped me achieve my second priority target. Vicki and Ainsley came to the barrier at the side to congratulate me. Vicki looked worried that I would be disappointed with my time. I tried to quickly explain that the race had been a total disaster, and they started to understand why I was so pleased but also disappointed. It was a strange mixture of emotions.
I had a brief chat with some of the runners and picked up a great goody bag. Another free Lucozade, a bright yellow technical t-shirt, the medal, banana, popcorn and some other bits. It was done. I had overcome one of the most severe pains I have ever experienced, and still got a great PB and broken 80 minutes. I couldn’t be more proud. I will use that experience in many races in the future. I was also surprised to hear that many of the top runners ran the race slower than they expected. This gives me the confidence that I can go faster with the right training, good conditions, and a faster course. I can’t wait for my next race now.