When training for a marathon the received wisdom is that it’s a great idea to race a half marathon around 4-5 weeks out from the event as a “tune-up”. This is the time to test out race day routines, clothing and paces to see where you are. Despite currently training for my 9th marathon, last weekend was actually my first ever tune up half thanks to my tendency to pick up injuries during the training cycle. The race was written into my training plan right from the start, however I held off entering until mid-February, right before entries were closing. Apparently even with training going well so far, I still retained a degree of caution!
As the day of the half marathon approached, I began to consider my plan. Since I have been running my long runs quite slowly, this was going to be my first opportunity to see if I could hold my target marathon pace for the duration of the race. But I also saw an opportunity to FINALLY get a new half marathon PB. I wanted to beat my time of 1:56:35 from Aviemore in 2012 and a little bit of runner maths showed me that if I could run at the top end of my target pace, I would finish around a minute quicker than this. The challenge was on!
With the race not starting until 12:30pm, we opted to drive up on the morning of the race, setting off around 8:30am. To save time, I organised all my kit the night before, but somehow neglected to take a “flat runner” photo, however my selection was similar to what I wore in Paris last year, just a different colour: Under Armour running skirt and top, Bondi Band calf sleeves, Lululemon arm warmers, Adidas Ultra Boost shoes and my trusty Spibelt to hold my phone. I was so beautifully colour co-ordinated that during the race a woman actually ran alongside me and complimented me on my outfit!
The drive up to Inverness was pretty uneventful. I’m not overly fond of the journey as it’s quite long and can be slow, but some of the scenery is absolutely stunning. We did, of course, make a pit stop at the House of Bruar for a “comfort break” as they have really nice toilets!
Not long after Bruar we were at the Drumochter Pass where the view really opens out to some spectacular hills.
Once in Inverness we opted to use a multi-storey car park in the city centre then walk along to the Bught Park, an area we are pretty familiar with from marathon-related trips. To register, we had to walk through the Bught to the sports centre on the other side, and this is where I began to get a bit irritated. We had plenty time until registration was closing, but we immediately found ourselves in a queue. There were people trying to register for the half marathon, people trying to register for the 5k, people trying to get in to the toilets: people, people, people and no real order. I felt like there were too many people in the available space and nobody there to manage it so we couldn’t really be sure we were even in the right queue! By the time we got in to the sports hall, I was pretty grumpy and this wasn’t helped when I was told they were out of small T-shirts so I had to take a medium – and a “unisex” medium at that, which is basically a men’s top that’s far too big for little old me! I always wonder why race organisers can’t sort things out so that people are given the T-shirt size they requested on their entry, rather than whatever is left when they collect their race number – if you have to show ID to get your number, then your T-shirt size could be part of the same process to save disappointment. Grrr!
By this time I also wanted a pre-run toilet stop but was feeling so claustrophobic that I just couldn’t face heading back into the queues of people we had fought through. Instead, I found a different exit and located a different toilet. Still a queue, which I fumed my way through, but a little easier. I then stomped my way down towards the start area, still in a bit of a mood!
I stood just to the front of the 1:50-2:00 section, still grumping about how busy it was, and waited to get underway. There was that heartbeat music that seems to be de rigeur at big races these days, followed by the obligatory countdown to the the start, huge cheer…and no movement whatsoever. Soon, though, I was moving towards the line, starting my watch and settling in.
The start, which is the final part of the marathon/10k in September, is fairly narrow so I found it difficult to settle into a rhythm. Already grumpy, I caught myself muttering about preferring training by myself so I can do my one thing. On the plus side, I was quite disciplined about not wasting energy weaving around people, knowing when the field stretched out a bit I would have plenty of room to run. There had been lots of announcements about record numbers, so perhaps the race is becoming a victim of its own success and organisers now need to consider ways to streamline registration and perhaps using a wave start to help ease congestion.
By the time I was about a mile in I had space to settle into my pace and began counting down the miles. Target marathon pace is between 8:50-9:00 per mile so my plan for this race was to have each mile average out at, or faster than, my target, taking account of the fact that I would be slower over hills. I found myself keeping a very close eye on my Garmin to see how I was getting on and right from the start was running faster than marathon pace. I wasn’t sure how this would pan out, but just let my body dictate the pace.
I sustained a pace quicker than marathon pace through the first 8 miles, but then as I began the 9th mile, the rain began, I found myself running uphill into a headwind and there were a couple of tight turns. It was a bit of a miserable mile with the rain washing sweat into my eyes and it feeling harder to keep up the pace. Mentally, I checked out a bit and had to refocus myself on what I was doing. Steve had told me that there was a great downhill section at 9 miles and I clung to this information to get me through. Sure enough. towards the end of the mile I turned a corner and saw not only the 9 mile marker, but a fantastic swooping downhill. I leaned forwards and went for it. I might as well have been screaming “wheeeee!” as I went!
By the 10 mile marker we were retracing our steps from the start of the race. I was feeling much better thanks to the downhill section and a gel, so was ready to keep on going to the finish. The only thing was, the finish was NOT at the start line, but about 1/2 a mile or so further on behind the sports centre. That last mile felt absolutely endless and I have a recollection of a headwind. I also wasn’t entirely sure how far I still had to go. I trusted the distance on my Garmin, but since I couldn’t actually see the finish line it was hard to judge. At long last, however, I entered the running track which formed the finishing straight. I had half a lap on that lovely, bouncy surface before crossing the line.
I stopped my watch at 1:53:03, a time confirmed almost immediately with a text containing my official result. And what a result it was! At long last I had a new half marathon PB, and a much faster one than I had anticipated. I’ve often thought I might be capable of a 1:52:XX so those pesky 3 seconds were a little irritating, but I soon forgot that in my joy at running so well. Every mile except the 9th was faster than target marathon pace, and that was a very positive result.
I made my way though the finish area to collect my medal, as well as a banana, Clif bar, packet of pistachios, water and somewhat ironically, suncream! Given that I was a bit of a bedraggled mess from the rain earlier on, this item was probably a bit superfluous on this occasion. Perhaps it will come in handy for another race where there is actual sunshine rather than “liquid sunshine”.
Steve, who had also run a PB, was waiting for me and we got some photos before I headed off to get changed into some warmer clothes.
We were both starving thanks to the lunchtime start, so made our way to McDonald’s to refuel (with me eating a protein bar on the way!). McDonald’s may not be very healthy and normally I would turn my nose up at it, but I must admit I don’t mind it after a race. Once refuelled, it was back to the car (via a quick stop for a takeaway coffee) for the journey home. We had to pull in a couple of times for Steve to stretch and get some air, so we were glad to get home and inhale the steak pies and rosemary potatoes we had waiting for us. Then it was time for a bath and bed, worn out but happy.
Overall I have mixed feelings about this one. Obviously I’m delighted about the PB and the race itself was really nice. The negatives for me were the crowds that I think the organisers need to look at as the race continues to grow in popularity. There’s also the long journey there. We would have happily got the train, but there wasn’t one early enough on Sunday morning to get us there on time so we had to drive. The only other option would have been to go the night before, but that would have added to the expense with the need for a hotel. If we could have been earlier at registration I would have felt much more relaxed, but that just wasn’t possible for us. Still, I would recommend this event, with the caution that it is very popular and there will likely be crowds.