Me and Standalone go way back. Not as far back as for some no doubt; now in its 26th year, it’s an incredibly well-established event and I bet there’s at least one person out there who’s run the lot of them. I obviously never got in that early (I would have been five when it first started), nevertheless, it’s still a proper blast from the past for me. I ran it for the first time back in 2008, only my third ever event as I was still finding my feet as a runner. With only a few months running under my belt, I was encouraged to enter by my uncle who has been heavily involved in organising it over the years. A veteran runner himself, he is usually to be heard over the tannoy on race day encouraging the hundreds of participants and even entering it himself last year to celebrate its 25th anniversary, receiving a hero’s welcome upon arriving back on the farm at the end of the race.
Unfortunately, I can’t say I took much enjoyment from that first go, with the excitement of lining up in a proper race tempered by heavy rain and gusting winds. I went in without much training; in fact I had been away boozing it up round Eastern Europe for the majority of the summer leading up to it. My training plan when I got back in September involved a couple of jogs around the six mile mark to make sure I could last the distance, then off I trotted on race day, far, far too quickly on the initial downhill sections of the course and subsequently proceeded to blow up completely on the uphill second half, staggering up the bypass with rain blowing incessantly into my face at 90 degree angles and eventually coming home a minute or two outside my personal best in 42:12. Not one of my better days at the office.
I missed the 2009 edition after accidentally letting it sell out before getting my entry in, and then in 2010 I dropped out after planning to run it with my Dad, only for him to be forced out with injury. 2011 it fell the week before my marathon so it wasn’t until last year before I had a chance to avenge that 2008 failure and attempt to put right what had gone wrong before it. Four years older, four years wiser, I went in with big ambitions of hitting a sub 40 run only to get man flu and end up coughing round the course with barely a week’s training in the legs and another result over 42 minutes for only the second time ever. My two slowest 10k runs now belonged to Standalone and I felt restless and unsatisfied, like I still had a job to finish.
Which brings me nicely onto Sunday and my third attempt round the country lanes of Norton and Stotfold. This time last week, I had little confidence that it would be much different to the past two attempts as I had leapt into a fairly hardcore training plan a little too quickly for someone who hadn’t run for over three months, and my knee decided it was going to feel like it was trying to grind its way off the top of my shin and onto the tarmac. As soon as that went, I had a couple of weeks off and began mentally preparing for failure.
With a couple of weeks to go to race day, I eased my way back into the training plan but I was regularly missing sessions trying to manage the knee, making sure I only ran when it was really beneficial, such as the horrendous interval and tempo sessions in the week and then the Sunday LSR to get my stamina up. I didn’t bother with the full on month of abstinence from alcohol, and even shared a bottle of wine with my old man the night before the race. I wasn’t going to be able to hit my sub 40 target after all now, was I? A practice effort on Thursday evening was nearly a minute off the pace after I failed to maintain the required 6:26 per mile beyond half distance and so that was that. I’d just enjoy the day, rounding off my 2013 season with my Dad, my sister, my sister’s boyfriend and 1,151 others on a gorgeous sunny morning in Hertfordshire. Nevertheless, I still found myself lining up near the front with all the other 40-minute runners. Force of habit, I guess. And after a short delay while the record crowd of starters lined up, we were off onto the 10,000 metre loop and the race was on.
Before I’d ever run Standalone, I’d heard many people say it was a fast, flat course with good PB potential. All I can say is I’d hate to see what they consider a hilly one. For me, it’s easily the most undulating 10k I’ve done and a short sharp incline after less than 400 yards is a particularly vicious introduction. I kept an eye on my Garmin on the way up as my pace crept up over seven minutes per mile and instantly thought, oh well. That’s that then. I felt drained and dehydrated already and I still had six miles to run. The dream was over. I’d have to come back again another year and finish the job.
It didn’t take too long for my perceptions to switch again though. That first mile may be uphill, but I had done it in 6:23 and was slightly ahead of schedule. The next two miles were both mostly downhill and I dropped in a 6:18 and then, unbelievably, a 6:12. At half distance I suddenly had 25 seconds in the bank. Could this actually happen? I thought back to Thursday’s practice run where I was also up at half distance only to blow up and finish nearly a minute outside. I remembered the We Love Manchester 10k last year where it all went wrong from the fourth mile onwards. The second half of this course has a few gentle inclines and I knew I would lose time there, so I got my head down and tried to get more time in the bank before it happened. Mile four was another six seconds inside my target and suddenly I began to get seriously excited. I was feeling strong and running at a consistent pace, gradually working my way up the field past several people that had left me for dead at the beginning and had found they couldn’t sustain it. No matter how hilly the fifth mile was, surely I couldn’t lose over half a minute? And in any case, the final half a mile is massively downhill so I could possibly win it all back there. The dream was fast becoming a reality.
The fifth mile was a real struggle in all all fairness as my pace crept up towards seven minutes per mile on the two big slopes, and I began to panic as I knew that could blow the whole thing out the water. Riding the crest of the final hill and into the last section of the race, I didn’t dare check how much I had lost and just tried to run as fast as I could on the flat and onto the big descent to the finish line. Surely I can’t have lost the full half a minute. No, it can’t be. I’m so close. It was flat and I was back below 6:20, and then there was the plummet downhill for the last half mile. Suddenly I was below six minutes per mile and feeling like I still had a kick left in me. Someone steamed past me but I barely registered, it was becoming a bit of a blur like those last few yards in Liverpool as adrenaline took over. I could see the finish, I flashed past my other sister in the crowd who seemed shocked I was hammering past her already. My uncle shouted my name over the tannoy and I saw the timer at the finish line was still on 39-something and then it was suddenly all over. I could hardly breathe, I was dizzy, lightheaded, I could barely bring myself to check the time on my Garmin in case I had missed it by seconds like that day on Merseyside in 2011 when all this sub-40 bollocks had begun. And when I did I was absolutely elated: 39:42.
It really shouldn’t have happened as it did. It was warm. It was hilly. I’d been drinking the night before and I definitely hadn’t felt anywhere near hydrated enough on the morning. I’d missed big chunks of training. I’d trashed my knee. And yet, somehow, it had. For only the second time in my life, I had broke that God damned 40 minute barrier. I left Standalone feeling satisfied for once, job done. I had closure.
It was a special day all round as my fellow runners all put in strong efforts, coming in comfortably inside the hour mark that they had set themselves as targets. My sister had never run a full 10k before and my Dad had been unable to run even three miles only a week previously due to illness, and wasn’t even going to run going into the weekend of the race. I’m so pleased he did as seeing him come steaming onto the finishing straight ahead of hundreds of people half his age was one of my favourite moments of the day. Good on you old boy.
The icing on the cake came late in the afternoon, sat in my parents’ back garden enjoying a well earned beer with the crew. The official time was exactly as I had clocked it at 39:42, and this had placed me 50th overall, my best ever result. Both previous efforts round Standalone had left me well outside the top 100 and, parkrun excepted, I had never finished in the top 50 of anything before. After the failures of 2012, missing every target I had set myself, I had finished 2013 strongly and ensured that everything I had aimed for I had achieved. Ending on a high, you might say. And with that, I’m done for the year. Nothing else in the calendar, no more events to look forward to. Just back to the routine of a couple of jogs home from work a week and planning for 2014.