It doesn’t matter how experienced you are as a runner, how much training you have done or how well your race preparations have gone, sometimes things just don’t go your way. Sometimes a race becomes a test of your mettle rather than your physical endurance and simply crossing the finish line is the greatest achievement of them all. For me, this year’s Aviemore Half Marathon became just such a race.
To be honest, this was never going to be one of my finest races. The disruption to my training towards the end of the summer meant that although I was confident I could run 13.1 miles, I also knew that it would not be at a particularly blistering pace. That said, some of my most enjoyable races have been ones where I had no expectations other than to finish, so I was looking forward to simply enjoying the scenery and picking up another medal for my growing collection!
My weekend started with another trip up the A9. I suggested to Steve that we only ever head up that way for races and his immediate retort was that we only ever go anywhere for races. True enough – if nothing else, running certainly allows you to see a bit more of your country! We really should go for a trip somewhere without having a race to run when we get there!
We arrived at registration by about 5pm and it was packed. I got my race number and Steve tracked down the race director to sort out the details for conducting the pre-race warmup and, more importantly, information about our accommodation for the night. I took in the pre-race atmosphere by entering one or two prize draws and enjoying the pasta party. We then decided we should head off before it got too dark.
Last year we stayed in one of the wigwams at the Badaguish Outdoor Centre where the race begins. This year, no wigwams were available, however instead we were offered alternative accommodation on the site. It turned out that we would be staying in a small “house” (which I like to think of as “the cabin in the woods”!) used as volunteer accommodation and comprised of two single bedrooms (each with a high bunk bed), a kitchen, living room with tv (so I wouldn’t miss Strictly!) and, to my delight, a bathroom with shower. This meant that while everyone was queueing for toilets before the race, I would have access to my own private toilet with no queue – luxury!
It was really cosy once we got the heating on and we passed a relaxing evening watching tv and nibbling on some snacks before heading to bed.
As race morning dawned, I actually woke up before my alarm and decided to get up and get ready at a leisurely pace. I had laid out my kit the night before so everything was to hand, the only part I wasn’t looking forward to was breakfast. Unsure about the facilities that would be available to us, we had come supplied with instant porridge and cereal bars. I always have porridge before a race, but I’m not overly fond of the instant “just add water” variety so had to force it down. It was only later that I realised I could have got porridge over in the hall where runners were assembling – at least I’ll know for next time!
Soon after this Steve headed off to get ready for his warm up. With no real necessity for me to leave my cosy cabin, I stayed put in the warm until it was time to head out and find Steve (who would be in charge of transporting my bag to the finish since he wasn’t running). I was glad at this point that I had opted for long compression tights and a base layer under my club vest as it was freezing. I was also really pleased that I had remembered my running gloves. Unbelievably, just over a week previously I had been for my last long training run and, despite showery conditions, had still been perfectly content in shorts and a lightweight jacket to keep me dry – what a difference in the weather in such a short space of time!
There was a slight delay to the race as not all the competitors had been transported to Badaguish yet, but soon enough I found myself lining up ready to be walked to the start. I positioned myself between the sub-2 and sub-2:15 markers and chatted idly with others round about me until the crowd began to move forward. The actual start line was round a corner on the main forest path, out of sight of where we were standing. As we got nearer we were held in position again, before hearing the gun go off for the start. I was in no hurry to reach the start line as this is a chip timed event so my time had not yet started. When I reached the line (and the piper who was piping us off) I started my watch and began running.
My memory from last year was that the first half of the race was reasonably tough with some undulating terrain and a tricky hill round about the 3 mile mark. My plan was to take it easy then up the pace in the second half, so I just trotted along, trying to settle in to my pace. I was enjoying the scenery and was pleased that my left leg, which has been receiving treatment, wasn’t causing me any bother on the uneven surface.
At the hill I noticed a number of people stopping to walk. I’m fairly used to hills given the area I train in, so simply got my head down and plodded my way up. It was as I plodded my way up that the first sign of a problem emerged.
You’re probably expecting me to write that it was a problem with my left leg, but you would be wrong. It was my right. Yes, my strong, reliable, right leg started playing up. As I continued to
run plod up the hill I noticed my lower right calf beginning to feel unusually tight, but hoped that it would ease off as the terrain levelled out. It didn’t. By the time I was beyond the 4 mile mark I realised I would need to stop and try to stretch it off, which I did a couple of times, but nothing seemed to be making a difference. No matter what way I contorted myself, the discomfort was still there. This was more than a little bit of tightness, it was really uncomfortable and I feared causing real damage and needing lengthy time out if it didn’t settle. By 5 miles I had to make a decision: carry on or have my first ever DNF? Either way, I knew I would be unlikely to find a marshall or first aider until about the 7 mile mark at Loch Morlich when we would emerge onto the road and the downhill section. I would see how things went until then and make a final decision at the Loch…
As I carried slowly on, I found that I could run reasonably comfortably downhill (where I tend to land on my heel) but landing on my forefoot, particularly uphill, was causing difficulty as the calf muscle just didn’t want to stretch. With the last few miles on the road being mainly downhill, my decision was finally made: I would finish. If I had to walk some uphill sections, I would finish. Even if I had to crawl, I would finish. I told myself that it would be good mental conditioning, switched into survival mode and carried on. After all, I had to get to the finish somehow!
One thing which really helped was the mile markers. Rather than “miles covered”, I was seeing “miles to go” and something about seeing a diminishing number was a huge mental boost. I also knew the course and knew that largely it was downhill and on the downhill sections my pace was actually quite good. I allowed myself to walk when necessary and the miles ticked by surprisingly quickly. That’s not to say it was easy, as it wasn’t. It was a struggle which I desperately wanted to end. On one or two occasions I realised I was muttering to myself and no doubt swore a few times as I fought my lonely mental battle! I wasn’t running as well as I had hoped, but I knew I could finish and knew things could be so much worse. I even managed to smile for the race photographers at the 12 mile mark!
FInally I made my way up the last short hill past the Aviemore bunkhouse and was directed across the road to the finish in the grounds of the MacDonald resort. My finish time? 2:11:32. Way outside my PB time from last year (1:56:35) but only about 6 minutes slower than my prediction of 2:05 for this year. Those 6 minutes were obviously from stopping to stretch and having walk breaks. It was difficult to be disappointed with the time, however, as I knew it had been a real challenge to get to the finish and I was proud of my own tenacity in carrying on. I shuffled through the finish area collecting my medal, water, banana and shortbread, which I added to the tech T-shirt I had bought for £6 at registration and Run 4 It voucher which had been in the pack with my race number.
Once I stopped running, it became a bit harder to move as my leg began to seize up, so we headed into the hotel so I could have a seat and my recovery shake. We then discovered that post-race massage was on offer for just £10 and I decided this would be a worthwhile investment. I explained the problem to the therapist and she did lots of massage and manipulation which eased it off a bit. I had been concerned that there might at best be a huge knot and at worst some kind of tear or serious damage in the muscle, however all she was able to find was tightness really low in the muscle close to the achilles, and some of that tightness was already easing off from the treatment. She prescribed rest and plenty of stretching in addition to the sports massage I had already booked for a couple of days after the race.
Feeling better, we headed (or in my case limped) to the car as I was keen to get home and relax. Of course, I stopped for a quick photo first!
As I write this, my calf muscle has already improved hugely. For the rest of Sunday I was walking very stiffly (somehow my left leg felt perfectly fine and my right leg felt like it had run a full marathon, leaving me feeling a bit lopsided!) and I expected this to be worse on Monday morning but it was actually much better and has continued to steadily improve. I’ve had my sports massage which confirmed nothing more serious than extreme tightness in the muscle which was responsible for the discomfort and problems I experienced. All being well, it should only take a week or two to heal with stretching and further massage, and since I had planned 1-2 weeks off after the race, this isn’t too disruptive to my ongoing training. Phew!
This was my 3rd time tackling the Aviemore Half Marathon and I still really enjoy the event. I may not have run my best this year, but with limited training (and limited rest in the days before thanks to a busy school trip) this is no real surprise. I’ll certainly be back at this race again, but hopefully with much better preparation. As for this year, I’ll chalk it up to experience and, to quote my dad, “I think we’ve all learned a valuable lesson here.”
Now you must excuse me, I’m off to stretch my calves…!