Four seasons

My third running of the Liverpool Half Marathon and my eleventh effort at 13.1 miles overall, you’d think I’d have seen it all by now. Nearly a decade on from my first ever half at the 2009 Great North Run, there’s been a bit of everything over the years, or so I thought anyway. The sweaty September races in the North East, the crisp, freezing cold spring ones on Merseyside. The October Manchester Half veering from torrential rain, to blazing sunshine, and back again on consecutive years from 2016-18. But nothing – nothing – quite prepared me for what I experienced last weekend on the 25th edition of this little race.

I remember in the buildup to my first effort here back in 2013 when I worried about what would happen if there was a headwind on the final third of the race, the four mile stretch along the Promenade from Otterspool back to the Pier Head. It’s almost completely exposed along the banks of the River Mersey with hardly any respite and unfortunately the prevailing wind off the Irish Sea meant it was always likely to happen at some point. Last year there was a little preview of what it might be like but on Sunday I finally discovered the full horror, and then some.

I blame my wife personally. She is cursed. It’s the only explanation. Three of her recent races have involved 30+ degree early afternoon heat last May, biblical rain in October and now this with 40mph winds whipping off the sea for the final four miles, after the opening hour or so in a torrential deluge just to make sure it really stung, in amongst the occasional stretch under blue skies and bright sunshine before an epic hailstorm just after we’d staggered across the finish line. The whole gamut of UK weather in a single morning, and somehow, we conquered it all. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, eh.

It was bloody hard work though. I wasn’t super-fussed about my time here with it forming part of the training for the Wilmslow Half a fortnight later, a race which in itself I’m also not really pushing for any sort of time either but there we go. I just entered as it’s a race I like, an excuse to get over to my favourite city in the UK and a nice little medal and T-shirt at the end. So as the weather forecast grew more and more apocalyptic in the run up to raceday, I shrugged it off and spent more time worrying about what to wear for a race where I just wanted to make sure I actually survived the journey.

With that in mind, the opening few miles exceeded my expectations considerably, once safely up the bastard hill on Upper Parliament Street anyway. An old nemesis of mine after it destroyed my first ever marathon back in 2011, I’ve not actually raced up the whole thing in one go since then, but the amended route for this year took us right up from the foot near the docks. Once it was out of the way though I was happily chugging along and for the first five or six miles my pace was actually sitting nicely below what I needed for a sub-90. After struggling for weeks with any sort of run faster than long, slow run pace, it felt nice to be hitting some decent speed and thanks to starting the race some way further back than normal I was also overtaking a good number of runners which always helps the raceday morale.

Miles 6-8 however were where things began to go awry as a pain began to develop in my heel / achilles area and on more than one occasion I thought about maybe pulling out if it got any worse. It was a weird feeling in a part of my body I had never, ever had any sort of injury before and the pace began to creep up a bit as I tried to manage it. I ended up dropping back down to my long run pace and suddenly, as the clouds parted and the sun came out, I caught up with my wife as the half marathon and ten mile courses came back together and we had a brief chat as the pain fell away, as if the whole thing had just been a trick of the mind. It was probably my favourite moment of the race; a nice memory to cling onto before the sheer horror of what was about to come.

We had all been lulled into a false sense of security. The trees and buildings around Sefton Park had sheltered us from the escalating wind and with the sun now out and the rain long since gone away, it had all seemed OK, actually. The nice downhill stretch to the prom, a water station. Blue skies. What had we all been worried about? I caught a glimpse of the River Mersey, swung right onto the promenade and felt like I had run into a brick wall.

Fucking hell. I keep trying to find the right words to describe quite what it was like but it’s so hard when I’ve literally never experienced anything quite like it before. A small chunk of last September’s Wirral Half Marathon was perhaps a little similar but this was next level shit. A longer stretch, stronger winds, probably double the velocity and continuing to increase as the morning went on. The final leg of the end of the race instead of the middle. My eyes were streaming, I could barely hear anything other than the incessant roar of the wind rattling my tiny ears.

People were being blown over, I was blown into a post. Mile markers were bending, breaking and blowing away in the wind. Every so often a tiny bit of respite as we weaved back inland for a second and then BOOM back out into it again like a pane of glass had suddenly appeared in my path, blocking my intended route to the finish line.

That was it, I was absolutely spent. I watched my pace drifting up, and up, and up as it almost felt like I was walking at times, often leaning in at a 45 degree angle to try and fight the horrible gusts. I remembered back to that Wirral Half and thinking how oddly epic that had all felt; this just felt cruel. Being repeatedly kicked in the nuts by mother nature after she had already spent the first half of the race soaking us to our bones. Teasing us with a glimpse of sunshine before slapping us in our faces with all her might.

But, slowly, we were getting there, the landmarks creeping ever closer as I ticked them off in my mind: first the Marina, then the Queens Dock. Past the Arena and then finally weaving over the cobbles around the Albert Dock, down the side of the Museum of Liverpool and onto the home straight in front of the Three Graces, out of that bastard wind for the final time. I mustered a half-hearted wave and smile and the crowd responded a bit, and somehow I managed to summon a bit of a push for the finale, just nipping ahead of a chap in front of me before staggering over the line and uttering a few weary expletives. The hardest ever finish to a half marathon of my entire life and my slowest ever time; the pace chart said it all.

I didn’t have much time to grab the bags before seeing Jenn come past and onto that final stretch. Amazingly she was smiling, and even more amazingly her finishing time was only three seconds off last year – by comparison, mine was nearly four minutes slower. She had done fantastically well, even if she would later rue those three seconds scuppering her chance to earn the special PB medal from the race organisers. It was a hard race to PB in though and the fact that I was six minutes slower than in 2013 but only three places worse off shows you how much everyone else had struggled too.

So now we look forward to Wilmslow a week tomorrow and, hopefully, maybe some normal weather. It would be nice to just concentrate on actually running a race for once without all the associated fretting that has come with the last few with their absolute nonsense: too hot, too cold, too wet or too windy. Or in the case of the 2019 Liverpool Half Marathon, almost all four in one single race.

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