For me, the first race of 2016 was the Four Villages Half Marathon based at Helsby in Cheshire. I want so much concerned about the distance as I was the pace that I’d need to set: I hadn’t done a road race in a few months and most of my running in the build-up had been focused on running shorter distances every day, which meant that I hadn’t been running at a race pace too often.
I had a few friends who were also running, so I decided to run with a friend whom I thought might be a little faster, to lead me out at a steady pace for the first few miles till I found my own rhythm.
The approach worked well – all smooth for the first 7 miles, then I had to dig a little deeper. At mile 10, my pace dropped off noticeably and I thought maybe I was spent, that I’d gone out too fast. One energy gel later, I perked up and the last two miles flew by: I made it to the finish in a respectable time. Not my half marathon PB, but still faster than the last time I’d run this course.
What I’d found hardest about the race was that it was so calculated. I was squeezing every second with my pace, trying to balance speed against sustainability. It took a lot of concentration to keep applying pressure to just the right extent, without burning out.
Skip forward six days, and I was near Dolgellau, North Wales, for the Buff Winter Trail Half Marathon. This was a hilly trail race. starting and finishing at Coed-y-Brenin. Once again I was with a few friends. Given the undulating terrain with over 1800 feet of ascent and descent over 13.1 miles, we all chose starting positions where we felt most comfortable. The field of runners was much smaller – about 600. I stood near the front, but well out of the way of the podium contenders. For me, I wanted to see how I’d fare on this course, which was much hillier than the previous week’s, which had no hills to speak of.
The gun went off and the trail rose steadily; I left my friends and didn’t look back. I ignored my GPS watch and reeled myself in just a little, as I am prone to setting off too fast when I’m in a race. Having been briefed on the route’s profile, I broadly knew what to expect, and settled in to a comfortable pace. The course was stunning, and engaging – I pushed myself uphill and sped down. On the flats I kept a steady pace and made sure I was striding using all my legs muscles (rather than being over-reliant on my quads). The views were excellent and the terrain varied. I motivated to keep slogging up longer sections of hill, knowing that I’d be rewarded with technical downhill sections later. The downhills didn’t disappoint – there was one section of steep downhill where it seemed like the people I was running with were almost stationary as I overtook them. One runner screamed as I hurtled past her through the undergrowth, another caught me later and said he thought I was in freefall on that descent. Lots of fun!
The miles rolled by and I felt strong. I consumed energy gels every 45 minutes and used my Saltstick to dispense electrolyte capsules at two of the water stations. The penultimate mile was dubbed the “sting in the tail” and was a relentless uphill slog. I was slowed to a trudge and this was where several runners whom I’d overtaken caught me up and regained their positions. From the top of the last hill I ran the last half mile or so hard to the finish line, overtaking a few more runners and reaching the finish line in a good time.
Because of the hills it was a slower race, and a harder race, but I didn’t notice that. I felt strong throughout, and the time flew by. I even had a chance to exchange a few pleasantries with other runners. I didn’t have to spend the whole race pacing myself according to my GPS watch, and I managed to motivate myself through the hardest parts with the promise of fast descents. The scenery and the winding trails made the race just fly by.
Looking back, I enjoyed both races, but for different reasons. The first was precise and calculated, whereas the second was challenging because of the hills. Both were well organised, but I imagine I’d be interested in doing more races round that South Snowdonia in Wales soon.