What goes down must come back up: The Wilmslow Half Marathon 2019

While not quite in the same league as my epic, decade-long struggle to get into the London Marathon, the Wilmslow Half Marathon has been one of those I’ve fancied a crack at for a few years now but never quite made it in as various things always seem to get in the way, not least the last three springs where I’ve been marathon training and needed to run like twice the distance on that very weekend. It’s quite highly regarded in my local area though as a decent race and always seems well organised, so it was nice to come into 2019 with the diary more or less free for March to be able to pencil the date in and finally get a chance to stretch my legs on the country lanes down to Mobberley and back.

Even better was the fact that the weather ended up being pretty tidy for it, a perfect spring morning with bright blue skies and a nice little chill in the air just to prevent us all overheating, which was an absolute result considering last year’s got postponed such was the magnitude of the Beast from the East that struck that weekend. It was nice for my wife as well who was here running only her second ever half marathon, after the absolute washout at for her first in Manchester back in October. After the rather lively outing in Liverpool the fortnight before this race I’d even begun to question if she was cursed such was the run of bad luck she was on weather-wise with her recent races but here, happily, things looked pretty much as you would hope for in the run up to raceday and sure enough, for once we wouldn’t be able to use the weather as an excuse if anything went tits up on our way round.

Neither of us had a particular target in mind for this one. Jenn had already pencilled in May’s Great Manchester Half for a tilt at a PB and so was using Wilmslow as a bit of race practice, and I was back to just enjoying my running again rather than setting myself mad training plans for six days a week and all that carry on. OK, maybe “enjoying” is a bit too strong a word such was the dreadful weather in the weeks leading up it, with all the wind and rain that battered us for what seemed like days on end, but it was just nice to be back to heading out for a run when I wanted to, rather than when I felt I had to. I had a general pattern of a Sunday long run and then a little bit of shorter stuff in the week and that was that. By and large, the plan wasn’t to go too mental this time around.

The weekend before the race was probably the worst weather of the year so far and thanks to a combination of that and a medical appointment I ended up skipping my last long run. It wasn’t until the next day when I realised that was the first time I’d not run on a Sunday all year, and only the second time I’d missed one since July 8th 2018. I was genuinely shocked to discover that – I know I love going for a bit of a run sometimes, but the fact that something like that had become such a part of my routine without me even realising was really surprising. Every single weekend, bar two, for over eight months, I had planned my weekend around going for a run on a Sunday and I’d barely even noticed it happen. Weird.

Nevertheless, despite all that we both felt pretty ready for it. I’d struggled through the full distance a couple of weeks earlier at Liverpool and Jenn had a couple of recent runs into double figures, so as long as we made sure we started off at a nice steady pace and stuck to it, it promised to be a nice(ish) morning.

Easier said than done. We stood some way apart in our respective areas, me just ahead of the 1:30 pacer through force of habit, and then as soon as the gun went and we headed off, swinging right onto Altrincham Road and out into the sticks, I thought about how good I felt on this lovely morning and noticed I was holding a similar pace to where I was six months ago where I obliterated my PB.

I hadn’t trained for this at all. I had done hardly any speedwork this year, and none at all for around a month after finding myself struggling to hold any sort of decent pace and picking up a couple of minor injuries. All the shitty hill repeats, intervals and tempo sessions had long since been binned off once I decided not to bother too much about aiming for a decent time at either of my March half marathons so it was quite surprising as the opening five miles came in at a similar pace to that epic day back in October and rather surprisingly entering possible PB territory.

I was about to find out why this was. I had been slightly conscious that there had been a quite a few downhill sections and hardly any uphill ones in that opening few miles, and looking back on the route profile after I’d finished it became abundantly clear that this is very much a race of two halves: generally downhill all the way to Mobberley and then all the way back up again as we head for the finish back in Wilmslow. I should have remembered this from my days cycling around many of these country lanes but it never really crossed my mind until it was too late and I started to struggle a bit as the early pace began to tell and the gradual incline back home began to sap my legs.

Thankfully it was nowhere near as bad as the ridiculous second half of the Liverpool half a fortnight previously where it almost felt like I was walking at times, and although the pace did balloon a little bit it still stuck below what I needed for a sub-90 with the exception of mile ten through a water station. Somehow the stamina was there to keep pushing and it was just a case of bringing it home without a total meltdown and I would have another one for the record books.

I headed round the final bend and onto the slight uphill finish and even managed a bit of a sprint for the line, nipping past a couple of people I’d had in my sights for the last couple of miles. I knew I would be outside my PB, but I also knew I had a sub-90 in the bag so it was just a question of where the final time would end up sitting in my list of race results.

The 1:28:00 I set in Liverpool 2013 had been nagging at me for years. The fact that if I had ran it just a single second quicker would have made it look so much better as a 1:27 had long since been a bone of contention for me, and as many half marathons had come and gone since then and I had got nowhere near it, I had pretty much just written off any chance of ever beating it. Then, I trained my nuts off last autumn and duly smashed it to pieces but never expected to ever, ever dip below it ever again. But on Sunday 24th March 2019 I did just that, hitting a 1:27:49 out of absolutely nowhere and consigning that famous run to third place on my all-time list.

It wasn’t all over just yet though as I wanted to head back down the course and cheer Jenn home over those last few hundred yards. It was a nice morning to spectate and I got a good spot just before the final bend to throw a bit of encouragement to runners and let them know how close they were to a finish line they were yet to see. And then sure enough, a few minutes ahead of schedule I spotted her merrily plodding along, slightly pained but still smiling and in much better shape than at the same stage in Manchester six months ago in the pouring rain. She duly brought it home eight minutes faster than last time around and actually inside the original target she had in mind for her PB target for May’s Great Manchester Half Marathon. An incredible achievement.

It had been a cracking morning’s work and it was time for a debrief over a Sunday pub lunch. We’d both done so well that it had raised a few questions as to where to aim for next, least of all for Jenn who is now trying to revise the target for the race she was actually aiming for. A nice problem to have admittedly so we’ll all see where we end up next month.

So that was it for “Marathon March”, the 26.2 mile distance split over two races and nicely avoiding the full commitment for the first time since 2015. Weirdly, the two races almost ended up bookending my half marathon results with the Wilmslow Half Marathon narrowly failing to top the list and the gale-force Liverpool Half a fortnight earlier rooted to the foot of the table. Both races had their merits though and I’m especially glad I finally got a chance to have a bash at Wilmslow, a lovely little race and one I plan on returning to in the future. Almost without exception the races I tend to do are around big towns and cities and I suppose the closest to this one would be the annual jaunt around Standalone, complete with undulating roads and the smell of cow shit every so often from one of the local farms.

It was just nice to be out running in the countryside, and although that meant fewer spectators than some of the city races, those that were there were making a properly decent effort to cheer us all on; clapping, shouting, drumming on wheelie bins or singing along to the music blaring out of tiny speakers. Plenty of shouts in relation to my choice of Spurs shirt for the morning (not always complimentary). Special mention too to all the course marshals and volunteers at the water stations that all made the effort to encourage us all to keep moving.

And so as the next target begins to loom into view, I’m just enjoying having April off for once. There’s no need to run 26.2 miles in one go on any of my Sundays this month. I went out to watch the Manchester Marathon runners last weekend, and I’ll be watching the Londoners on TV in a couple of weeks’ time from the comfort of my own sofa (all the while being secretly quite jealous of them all, of course). The next race for us both will be the big May fundraiser for The Wellspring, aiming for 32.4 miles across three races in a single day. More on that later, along with all the links to donate and all that, but for now it’s feet up to bask in the glory of a very unexpectedly successful month of March.

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