I think we can all learn something from the remarkable performance by Geoffrey Kipsang Kamworor in the World Half Marathon Championships 2016. Right in front of me he fell to the ground as the gun fired to start the 2016 World Half Marathon Championship race. At the time I did not know it was the race favourite and current champ being tripped. I was forced to react and hurdle a small group of people as the Kenyan knelt on the wet Cardiff tarmac. This was not the first time in my short racing history that I had seen people fall at the start. It actually seems to occur all too frequently. The rush of runners desperate to perform, shoot off at the sound of the gun with tangled legs and flailing arms being the result. Kamworor did not stay down for long. He was back on his feet weaving through the masses almost instantly. His fight and determination to catch the lead pack within a mile, and go on to win a consecutive World Half Marathon Championship shows great character. However, for me it is not just in races that you need to show determination and strength. Running races to your potential requires a huge amount of willpower and commitment in training. We all experience barriers and set backs. It is how you overcome those obstacles, and maintain consistency that defines your future performances.
Cardiff was a big race for me. A huge race in fact. I am training for the London Marathon, my debut run at the distance. Cardiff was my big milestone. I had decided before I even started training for the Marathon that my performance in Cardiff would be a perfect indicator of my current level of fitness, and be the decisive factor in formulating a pacing strategy to use in London. I had piled on the pressure. If I underperformed here, then I would have to reevaluate my target time for London, and start the race more conservatively.
I have spent the last few months training for 26.2 miles. I ignored all the good advice I was given and decided to formulate my own plan. Why did I do this? Why didn’t I use one of the many well-researched, proven-results, training schedules? Well, for two main reasons. Primarily because I wanted to listen to my body. If my legs are trashed, I don’t want to feel obliged to do a session which will probably do more harm than good. If I feel fresh, I don’t want to run less miles because that’s what a plan tells me to do. I wanted the flexibility to work towards my goals whilst managing my time and fatigue levels. The second fundamental reason is that I have received so much good advice. By following one plan I would have to sacrifice all of the other great sessions and tips, and follow one way of doing things. Using workouts from different plans, other runners, and my own input, I felt I was able to prepare for London in a way that suited me. I have to admit this way of doing things has it’s flaws. I always have a rough idea of what the next week will entail but I never commit to a weekly schedule. I always want to know how my body feels, whilst working around other commitments.
I have gone through good patches and bad ones in the lead up to Cardiff. Some weeks I have run 100 miles and others the mileage has slipped down in to the 50’s. Sometimes the reason behind the decreased mileage has been due to niggles and fatigue, and other times it has been due to time and motivation. I am always trying to learn, and I recognise that my training plan has not been optimal but I see many of the improvements I can make in the future. As long as I am progressing, then I am happy to some degree.
So, the week leading in to Cardiff I decided to taper and give my legs a shot at a PB and a fast time. My previous best came 9 months after I decided to take up running, with 74:19 at the Great North Run on a hot, sunny day. I had raced a half once since my PB (running nearly a minute slower), and it was the same Cardiff course that I would be tackling again at the Worlds. The taper was not going to plan. I ran far fewer miles, and kept them all slow. Despite this, my legs were feeling heavier each day. This had me worried. I was expecting to feel fresh and springy but I was experiencing the opposite. After a slow, painful 10 miles on Wednesday, I decided to take Thursday completely off. I also decided to eat a bit more. I had been trying to shift a couple of pounds because I am nowhere near my racing weight, but I decided that fuelling properly was more important a couple of days before a race. Friday I went out for 3 miles and felt completely different. The legs were springy again and I felt ready to face Cardiff.
The Worlds were being run at 14:10. This is an awful time for a race. I like to get up early and race. Hanging around until 14:00 would change all my usual preparations. I like to eat 4 hours before a race, so I decided to have a lie in and have my breakfast of porridge with a banana at 10am. I couldn’t really sleep, so I got up and got some stuff together before I ate. Most runners prepare everything meticulously the night before a race. I am not that way…yet. I was deciding what to wear over my kit and packing a bag right up until we set off for Cardiff. I was even still deliberating about whether to wear Saucony Kinvara 6s or Saucony A6s. I went with the lighter A6s. I quite like this approach because it gives me something to do on the morning of a race.
Vicki (my girlfriend), Amy (her friend), and I set off from Swansea at 10:30. I sat in the back sipping an energy drink, whilst scribbling pace times on my hand in biro. I did not know what pace to run at. I wrote down the mile splits I would have to achieve for all of the times from 75 to 70 minutes. This way I could set my Garmin watch to average pace and work out approximately my estimated finishing time, based on my scribbles.
Once in Cardiff we hung around for ages. The worst thing about big races is warming up. It’s impossible. There is nowhere to warm up properly unless you are an elite athlete. I tried a few strides on the packed streets but to no avail. I decided to make sure I was the first in to the Sub 1:15 pen and try and do some very small loops in an empty pen (as I did at the Great North Run). This was not possible either. Everyone was pushing forward to the front tape, so a warm up would sacrifice any chance of being positioned near the front. I had to accept that a warm up was not going to happen, which is very frustrating because I always feel much better when I have 15 minutes of jogging and some strides under my belt.
So, I spent the next hour waiting at the front of the pen as the overcast sky turned to rain. I was wearing an XXXL rain jacket which I had bought cheap for a race last year. It was great at keeping me slightly warmer, and keeping the rain off. Bringing a disposable t-shirt, or rain jacket is vital when it comes to bigger races.
With about 30 minutes remaining until the gun, I took a caffeinated energy gel, and a pro plus. I find that caffeine helps me focus, and I take it before most races now. I continued to sip on an energy drink, as the elite women set off.
With 5 minutes to go, it was time to remove the jacket, as everyone bustled forward.
I wasn’t really nervous, but more excited to get going. The gun fired and everyone sort of shuffled through the start line before there was any space to start running. I hurdled Kamworor and off I went. The start of a race is always manic. There are loads of people going too slow for my stride; whilst I am probably going too fast. My plan was to latch on to a group that would run faster than my estimated time of 73 minutes something, and hang on for as long as I can. The first mile felt easy. I spent most of it weaving past other runners trying to find a fast group. I did the first mile in 5:05. Way too fast. I felt ok though and just wanted to settle in to the race. I found a pack between mile 1 and 2, and tried to shelter from the wind at the back. This worked for a while but I kept misjudging the direction of the wind and finding myself being blown with cross winds. I was happy in the group until I realised that despite my average pace being great, my current pace was already slipping in to the 5:30 minute/mile pace. I didn’t want my pace to be this slow already, so I followed behind the Maltese runner (turns out to be Charlton Debono, who recently won the Malta Half Marathon in 70:42) who started to move away from the group. I tucked in behind him as we ran through miles 5-9 in 5:22, 5:24, 5:28, 5:29, 5:23. The fluctuation in pace seemed to be due to the difference in elevation between each mile. I was growing in confidence, and went through 9 miles in 48:34 (under 5:24 pace, which would give me a finishing time of 70:45), feeling great as I moved ahead of Debono, and started to overtake some other struggling runners. As I overtook one guy, I tried to encourage him and told him to tuck in behind me. He seemed to get a second wind for a few hundred metres before falling away.
Mile 10 it all went wrong. The wind picked up and was straight in my face. I was looking for nearby runners to shelter behind but there was no one. I laughed to myself, as the wind became so ridiculous it was hard to run at all. I still felt strong and tried to fight the wind, pumping my arms to try and force myself forward. Here comes the embarrassing bit. I hurt my shoulder trying to fight the headwind. I have never heard of a runner injuring their shoulder. It was really painful and made it very difficult. I started to hold my arm tucked in to my body, and ran for a bit using one arm. My pace had slowed right down in the conditions, and my shoulder was killing. I used to get problems with my shoulders when I trained in the gym before I started running, but I haven’t had shoulder problems running. I kept fighting and the support lining the streets really got me through. I knew I was still on for a huge PB as the rain started to come down very heavily. At one point the rain turned to hail and the conditions really were laughable.
I dug in to mile 12, and knew I was so close. I started to pick up the pace again and tried to ignore any shoulder issues. It was slightly more sheltered, and I tucked in behind Debono again, who had passed me in the awful conditions. I felt bad using him as a shield, but that’s racing. I saw Nick Francis; the technical director for Swansea Half Marathon; cheering me on. Two days previously at the expo I had stated to Nick that I was looking to run 72 or 73 minutes. I knew this time was still on but I needed to push. The support was welcomed and I pushed on. I could see the final corner. Time to sprint. I always sprint too late, and still have something left. I tried to go early, but in hindsight, maybe left it too late again. I flew round the last corner and was well in to my stride on the short straight to the finish line. I’m sure I made up a few places in the last few hundred but really can’t remember. I crossed the line, and immediately looked to my watch. 01:11:56. I was delighted. Had I really broken 72. Doubts started to kick in over whether I started my watch at the correct time. I started to question whether I had really gone two and a half minutes faster than my PB, and over 3 minutes faster than my last half marathon. I knew it must have been close to my watch time as I looked up to the offical clock and it was still ticking through minute 73.
I felt elated. I just wanted to chat running. I approached my nearest competitor. “Congratulations, how did it go? Tough conditions” I spluttered enthusisastically. “Crap, 2 minutes slower than my PB, that wind” replied the runner. I spoke to a few more athletes and the negative responses ensued. I guess the conditions really had hampered lots of runners hopes of a PB. I strutted through the finishing funnel, colecting my medal, and a ghastly green t-shirt, which went straight on because I was starting to feel very cold. I saw Vicki and Amy waiting by the designated meeting tree.I ran over beaming. They were super enthusiastic and said they had really enjoyed the day despite the horrid weather. We strolled back to the car; I hope that counts as a warm down; discussing my race and the performances of other runners. Mo had fought back from 6th to claim a bronze, whilst my Swansea Harriers team mate Dewi Griffiths had placed third Brit, with an astonishing PB time of 64:10. Hats off to them both, inspiring stuff, and in better conditions they would have both gone considerably faster.
In the evening, Vicki and I celebrated with dinner out in a local Italian restaurant, Pizzeria Vesuvio. The meal was a great treat, and their salty doughnutty bread is amazing, so good we ordered a second basket. It was a great end to a successful day, and my mind started to turn towards London. A good race is a great way to motivate you going forwards. I am looking forward to taking on the streets of London with a new improved target in my head. Bring it on.