Pacer

September 25th 2016

Today I ran my first ever half-marathon. Well, first official one.

The start point was in Cheltenham, an hour away from me, and I got up at half six, ready to leave at seven, to be there by eight, to start running at nine. That was a very solid plan full of round numbers that would’ve worked perfectly. As it happened, it went more like this:

Got up at half six, left at half seven, arrived in Cheltenham at ten past eight, drove around Cheltenham trying to traverse closed roads and find my way to the racecourse where the half-mara was starting, ended up at a car boot sale in a village outside of Cheltenham, turned around, drove back to Cheltenham, parked my car on the side of the road, followed the conga line of lycra and vests for a mile and a half to get to the racecourse, ran to the tent to drop my bag off, made it to my starting pen at 8:58am.

Two minutes to catch my breath and I was off.

Not an ideal start.

When I made it across the start line, the chip in the piece of paper safety pinned to my chest started counting. My phone, zipped up in my tiny back pocket, started counting. And I started running.

The start was really weird. Because there were so many people, and I hadn’t had time to orient myself within the crowd, I didn’t know how the runners around me compared to me. Because I have no real mental pacer that tells me how fast I’m going, and my phone was zipped in my back pocket, I struggled to gauge my speed and instead used other runners as my paceometer. (not a word) 

There were a lot of people around me who – no judgement – just by looks, I thought I should be faster than. So I increased my speed and ran past anyone I thought I should be faster than. Grannies, “largers”, a mum with a pushchair, a guy dressed as Mario. Although the piece of advice I kept hearing from everyone pre-race was “don’t set off too fast” I think that’s kind of what I did.

After I’d passed the original crowd and their became more room on the roads, I found someone whose pace I wanted to match. There was this one guy who I tailed for the first five miles. I was never more than 20 yards behind him. He seemed like a decent runner. He was in all black with an orange strip on his left short. He didn’t know it, but he was my pacer. Through miles one, two, three, and four, he was in my sights.

Together, we passed more people than passed us, and to be honest, I was feeling great. I didn’t know how fast I was going, but I was happy with it.

Throughout the course there are various refreshment pit stops for water, gummy bears, Lucozade (and toilets). I grabbed water where I could, although as it was early morning on a mild September day, sweat and dehydration wasn’t as big of an issue as it could’ve been. I’d also brought my own nutrition. Little energy gel packets that supposedly give you a carbohydrate boost whilst running.

At mile marker five is where I had my first gel packet. And a bottle of water. As I was now over a third of the way through the half marathon, and after I’d had refreshments handed to me by a little girl as I ran past, I checked my pace for the first time.

5:12 min/km

Too fast.

To beat my target time of 2 hours I needed to average about a 5:40min/km pace. I was worried that if I carried on at that pace then I’d struggle to see through the entire thing. And all I wanted to do was beat 2 hours.

So, at that point, I said goodbye to my unofficial pacer, and instead focused on the official ones.

During my first 5 miles I’d passed the 2hr30, the 2hr15 and the 2hr00 official pacers provided by the event. I could kind of tell that I was going too fast when I passed the 2hr00 pacer before mile 5.

So, knowing that I was some way ahead of my two hour marker, I slowed down slightly for the next five miles.

My issue with the next (almost) third of the half marathon was that if anything there were too many refreshment tables. The water every 2 miles made me bloated, and gave me a stitch, and the Lucozade at mile 7 made me burp. I couldn’t even swallow a jelly baby at mile 9.

I was also slowed down by my incessant desire not to litter. Instead of taking a sip from my water and discarding the bottle on the pavement, I had some thought for those who had to clean up after me, and held on to the bottle until I found a bin. Which often meant going off-piste and through a crowd. But at least I wasn’t at risk of a fine for littering! I beamed when I made a three-pointer with my water bottle into an open bin. Swish.

Funnily enough, I passed my previous unofficial pacer (all black orange stripe) just before mile ten. He was walking. He’d clearly set out too fast. I was suddenly glad I’d made the decision to slow down.

Mile ten marked the next problem. I saw the pacer again.

Without my glasses I couldn’t make out what time the flag on his back said. It couldn’t have been the 1hr45 pacer. I wasn’t that fast. So it had to be the 2hr pacer.

How was that possible? I hadn’t slowed down that much, and I hadn’t noticed him over take me. And he was far in front of me, as well. The last three miles of the half-marathon loop around Cheltenham racecourse, and it’s all open and flat, so I could vaguely see him in the distance.

Suddenly panicked, I was miles behind (almost literally) so I picked up the pace. I had to beat him to the finish line. I downed my last gel packet, sprayed water on my face (carefully discarding of the bottle in the nearest bin), and put my head down. At some point a lady tried to make small talk with me, but I kind of brushed her off and kept running. Sorry, dear.

I was getting closer by mile eleven, and closer still by mile twelve. I could see for sure that it was the 2hr pacer now, and I wasn’t going to make it. At that point, I was the fastest person on the course. Everyone else was trudging along but I was at full pace. No one over took me. I overtook everyone. Except the pacer. I sprinted the last 200 metres, and the race announcer said “Give a clap for E4819 for sprinting across the line”

But, alas, I finished behind the pacer and the race clock read 2hr03.

Except…

As I was receiving my medal, I checked my phone. As the chip attached to my vest crosses the line, a text is automatically sent to my phone with my official race time.

1:57:28

I’d failed to account for the fact that the pacer probably started five minutes before I did.

I’d done it.

I beat my two hour target.

I’m happy, but frustrated as well. The final mile was my fastest out of all thirteen, and being able to sprint across the line told me that I still had plenty of energy, so I could’ve done it even faster. If I’d carried on at the 5:12 pace I’d’ve broken the 1hr50 mark, or I’d’ve ended up hobbling along the side of the road with Orange Stripe Guy.

I finished in under two hours, and that’s all I wanted.

Until tomorrow, I did it.

Jacn

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