Going (Half) The Distance

Today we reached the end of week 11 of our training plan for this year’s London Marathon, and the order of the day was to go out and run a half marathon. Luckily, there was one being staged 30 minutes away, around the outskirts of Dartford. This was the 39th running of the Dartford Half Marathon, and the first year in which the event had been moved from its previous summer slot to a cooler time of year. This, and the fact that it now falls perfectly for those of us building up towards the big event in six weeks’ time, had swollen the number of participants to more than 600.

The Dartford course — a little research told me ahead of time — is regarded as one of the toughest in the country, with three or four sizeable hills, the steepest of which comes about 10 miles into the race. Still, I was looking forward to the event. The previous three Sundays in the training plan had been beyond half marathon distance, with last Sunday being an 18 mile stretch that I’d found pretty punishing. I’d been having problems first with my right ankle and then — perhaps owing to overcompensating — my left knee, but the shorter runs during this week hadn’t posed any problems, and I felt good about the prospects of doing 13.1 miles at the pace I was aiming for — despite the hills.

Yesterday, whilst doing a bit of final preparation — checking I had the details of the day straight in my mind etc. — I stumbled on an item in the FAQs that put a real kink in my race plans:

In view of a raised awareness of the threat to safety… runners should not wear personal stereo equipment during this race. [A]nyone wearing such devices during the event will be disqualified.

I’ve been running for a little over three years and I don’t think I’ve ever gone out for longer than 30 minutes without some form of audio accompaniment: music, podcasts, or an audiobook on longer stints. For me this kind of companionship serves a couple of purposes: music is motivating and helps me keep a rhythm, and listening to conversational podcasts or (usually fiction) audiobooks gives me something to involve myself with mentally as the miles tick past. The most important function, however, is to stop me thinking too much about the run. I have a terrible habit, left to my own devices, of constantly calculating the time elapsed vs. the likely time remaining; the pace of the previous mile and the pace of the present one, how they compare and what overall time would result from carrying on at one pace or altering up or down a gear. The prospect of listening to myself think like this for something like 2.5 hours was exhausting in and of itself.

During the event however, there was something about running a route that was new to me (instead of my usual route, which I know very well), and being surrounded by other runners, which kept my mind occupied to some degree. There were still stretches, particularly in the latter half of the race when I found myself running alone for a while, that I caught myself doing the maths, but overall my mind felt relaxed and engaged.

I did find the endeavour of running an ostensibly competitive race to be a bit strange. I’ve never really enjoyed playing competitive sports, and find my personality much more suited to running as I have sold it to myself: as a solo exercise, where my past self is my only competition. There is, however, still room for that conception whilst running within the framework of an organised, competitive event. I enjoyed the camaraderie that many of the competitors showed toward one another, and the encouragement of the course marshals, but when it came down to it I was by myself out there and had only myself to blame if I failed to meet the goals that I had set myself.

I had in mind the rather arbitrary-sounding finish time of 2h 23m (extrapolated out from the 11 minute miles I had decided upon as my average pace goal), and in the end came in with a time of 2h 14m. My knee hurt a great deal in the aftermath of the race, but I’m convinced that was a result not of the overall length of the course, but of the pounding I gave it in the final two miles as I really pushed towards the line. Had I stuck to putting in miles of between 10m 30s and 11m 30s as planned, I think I could have run on for quite a while without any complaint from my legs.

As I crossed the line and had the timing chip cut from my shoe, I was handed a medal for completing the race, and a ticket by a marshal who told me I’d won a spot prize: this turned out to be a big tub of chocolates, which were welcome, even if the set of stairs I had to traverse to claim them were not.

I had only run half marathon distance three times prior to this race, and 2h 14m is a personal best by some way; I’m pretty happy with the effort, especially over such a tough course. The last two miles were done at a pace that I now most likely won’t reach again until after the London Marathon is complete. What remains is another six weeks of slowly, steadily training my body to accept longer distances. Hopefully the ankle problem is truly behind me. Hopefully the knee will repair over the coming week and be stronger for it. Perhaps the most interesting thing I took from today was the idea that just maybe when I take my place at the start line in London on 26 April, I don’t necessarily need to have my earphones in.