Another event on the Almost Athletes race series, this is a reasonably fast course on which one may target a PB. Last year I accompanied a first-timer, so entered this year’s event with the aim of putting in a decent time. Alas, a simple cold (sometimes referred to by a specific half of the population as man ‘flu, I might add) proved to be quite stubborn in refusing to be shaken off, even to the point where it curtailed my plans to take part in the first of the Gloucestershire cross-country series and enjoy a social run at Ian and Glenda’s Forest Frolic.
After ten days of no running I joined up with the club on the Wednesday prior to the race. Including a lonesome prelude I managed to knock out a 9½-mile run at a reasonable pace. Unfortunately I did not feel comfortable at any point, my running feeling quite broken and energy simply lacking. I was exhausted by that effort. Any thoughts of a decent time would have to wait.
Having attended (not run) a very breezy parkrun on the morning, and observed a rather sideways rain on the afternoon, of the day before, I could not really state with any confidence that I was looking forward to Sunday’s race, regardless of not concerning myself with a target time. However, with the help of a certain little person, I did a 60-minute makeover of my race number before going to bed with a good dosing of vapour rub.
Sunday morning dawned with brighter prospects. The breeze was gentler, and the sun threatened to join the party. Arriving at Stroud reasonably early, I joined the queue for the toilets. A scenario I expect many will be familiar with, it matters not how much one visits the bathroom at home before heading off to a race, one’s body seems to deliberately hold a little back, specifically to take up some of one’s time at the race venue.
As good as the weather prospects were, it was certainly not very warm whilst we were awaiting the start! Couple that with a cold that I was still struggling to shake off, my choice of race attire was two layers (vest and base layer), long shorts and long socks. Plus a wool hat (habitual bandana taking a back seat for this one). I waited as long as I dared before stripping off my hoodie, dropping off my bag and making my way from the race HQ area (Marling School Sports Ground) onto Cainscross Road, where we would start.
I positioned myself behind Nicky, who was acting as two-and-a-half hour pacer. Race strategy was to go off very steady, find a comfortable pace and use the (three) water stops as breaks. With a target time out of the window, I should simply manage the race as four-mile (or so) splits and enjoy myself. Watching people still streaming into the road, I thought I’d missed that start as we all started to shuffle forward. Pressing the Go button on my GPS watch I silently screamed at it to pick up a signal.
It wasn’t the start – we had just been called forward for the race briefing (and, presumably, to give room to runners still making their way over). My watch bleeped to inform me that the signal had been picked up. Listening to the countdown, I hit start and waited. The field was about 1500-strong and, starting nearer the rear than towards the front, it would be a few moments before I’d cross the start line itself.
As we made our way in the general direction of Stonehouse, and I attempted to find a steady pace, I passed Nicky. Perhaps I’d go a little under 2½ hours, if my body would not rebel against me. We turned right into Stonehouse and I trotted onwards, passing Kim as we made our way through the village.
Leaving Stonehouse, and heading towards Standish, we took on a small incline where I passed Mike. That was brief, however, as the first water station was immediately ahead. Sticking to my take-a-small-break-at-each-water-stop plan I watched him, and several others, go by – one or two people asking whether I was OK. Seeing a fellow runner walking, less than four miles into thirteen, is a reasonable cause to make a concerned enquiry.
Assuring them that I was fine, I picked out a telegraph pole ahead as the point at which I’d break back into a run. As I did so I felt a brief ‘ripple’ in may calves. I’d has a similar sensation at the previous Wednesday’s club run and, just as it had managed itself then, it eased out as I settled into a rhythm.
Speaking of rhythms, I’d spent the first couple of miles struggling to find a tune to play in my head. Various selections had proven to be either too upbeat or downbeat for my stride. I eventually – and quite randomly! – found myself running along to Hands Up by Ottowan.
At the junction to Standish Lane, a little shy of five miles, Art, Jean and Jane were stood cheering us on, along with Nick on his bike. Again, I took a moment to say hello to them, on the basis that as I was not aiming for a time I could take a little of it out to enjoy myself. In good spirits I traversed the motorway and approached the A38, which would take us past the halfway mark and up to Whitminster.
I’d passed Kevin and David by this point, and was making steady progress through the field – the benefits of a slow start! On the main road though, we were having to run two-abreast, restricted by the cones laid out to separate us from the traffic. That made for a useful breather as we tackled the long incline up to the junction at Whitminster – which would leave me sufficient breath to give the support crew just around the corner a decent shout! Sure enough, James, Greg, Simon, Ian and Daniel, amongst others, were there cheering us on.
A little further ahead, Sarah and Beverley were also giving support and, a little further on again, Rob had his camera poised for us. A pretty good way in which to start the return leg! Bouyed by that I made steady ground on another pacer. Passing him as we crossed the motorway bridge I had to do a double-take: he was carrying the two-hour flag!
I briefly had a dilemma to deal with. I had approached this race with no ambition of setting a time, on the principle of attempting to do so off the back of a virus would probably see me break down at some point. Going ‘sub-two’ was not part of the plan. On the other hand, I was about seven miles in and still feeling good – maybe I should just carry on at the same pace and see how far that would take me.
The next water station signalled another small break from running and the two-hour pacer came back by me. Once I was back into my running I re-passed him and made my way towards the Bristol Road where we’d turn towards Stroud, pausing briefly to say hello to Dom, then a ‘fly-by wave’ to Matt and Fi, also out to support the Almosts.
I was still making progress relative to those around me as we approached the nine-mile mark and the section through the industrial estate. This is not everyone’s favourite section of the race; it’s somewhat soulless. However, there was the odd spectator giving support and the marshals there were very encouraging. As we circled the estate I passed Lepha and Dave and, tracking back towards the main road I passed Bob – he was also on schedule for a sub-two hour time.
Wishing him luck I made my way to the exit, passing a choir who, at that moment, happened to be singing Mary’s Prayer. Ottowan was ditched for Danny Wilson in my head and I rejoined the Bristol Road with just three miles to go. I was now beyond any distance I’d covered in well over a month and my legs were starting to feel this. I passed Rich but, anticipating my legs running out of steam, was wondering whether he would come by me again before the finish.
I caught up with Jackie as we came to the final water station but watched her run away from me as I rigidly stuck to my time-out plan. Again, picking a spot to start running from I broke back into a run – but struggled to get going again on now-tired legs. Encouragement from Chris (we had great support all the way through this race!), a mental kick up the backside and I slowly got back into my stride.
I was desperate to find the eleven-mile mark just so I could allow myself to back off for the penultimate mile and leave a little in the tank for a final effort. I was unaware that I’d actually passed it by the water station so was taken a little by surprise to see a big ‘12’ up ahead as we came back along the Ebley Road. No breather then, just another ten minutes of push.
I’d passed Jackie, and was bearing down on another couple of Almosts. Encouraging them to push on also (that encouragement was actually little more than a breathy ‘come on, last mile…’) I pushed on, giving Steve and Jayne a wave before digging in at the final incline. I passed two more Almosts, including Duncan, and kept the effort up back towards Cainscross roundabout, which would signal the last 150 metres or so.
I was not able to manage a sprint finish (are you kidding?), simply following another runner under the gantry. I had managed to go under the two-hour mark though and, despite feeling a little wobbly, was generally OK. There was a long queue for baggage, the previous day’s weather having apparently restricted the amount of canvas that could be erected for the storage area. Twenty minutes of standing around was ample time for my legs to stiffen up nicely for the hobble back to the car!
Despite the tiredness I was quite pleased. I had enjoyed the run and put up a reasonably respectable time whilst being less then fully fit. The course is a good, fast one, and there is plenty of support on the way – not least from the purple army! Many thanks to those who took their time to cheer us on; I’m sure it made the difference between having a ‘1’ as opposed to a ‘2’ at the front of my race time.