Tuning up: The Wilmslow Half Marathon 2021

It’s good to be back.

No matter how many virtual challenges I’ve taken part in over the past 18 months, even though some of them were amongst the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, there’s nothing quite like taking part in a real race with real people. The adrenaline on the day – for better or worse with my notoriously-unreliable bowels – just isn’t there when you’re starting and finishing solo on your own drive. After the longest break I’ve had from an actual event probably since I became a running wanker all the way back in 2007, it was nice to finally have something in the calendar that might actually go ahead.

The 2021 Wilmslow Half Marathon was an ideal return to racing, falling on a weekend between long runs and four weeks out from the main event giving me a chance to go over the old raceday routine and iron things out before the big day. Without an actual event since October 2019 it’s safe to say my routine was little rusty. What do I pack? What do I eat? What do I wear? Before, after. During? And most importantly, where’s the nearest pub to the finish?

Thanks to where it had landed on my training plan, I’d basically be treating the whole thing as a glorified training run which made a nice change from the same old routes I’d been trudging around South Manchester for weeks on end now. It would however mean running at a much, much slower pace to what I’m used to were it a race proper, almost a minute per mile off what I’d expect to be doing if I was going all-in. There was no talk of sub-90 minutes, no looking at my list of race results and wondering where it would all fit in. It would be comfortably the bottom, so long as I could keep a lid on my natural enthusiasm and not get too carried away anyway. Bigger picture and all that; going flat out on a practice race that just-so-happened to fall at the very start of what would be the hardest week of my entire training plan would definitely be a Very Bad Idea.

So a plan was in place, but I did have a bit of a scare a fortnight out from raceday, which at first actually made me wonder about the actual bloody marathon, let alone this. I’d already listed all the reasons why I thought I might not be able to hit a PB next month but one of the things I didn’t consider was “falling off my bike like a helmet”. A classic low-speed tumble, the kinda of thing I’ve been known for over the years, resulted in a smashed beer in my bag and, potentially worse, a smashed hip after going down pretty heavily on my left hand side. It was one of those where the adrenaline masks the initial pain and at first all I could think about was the smashed bottle of beer I’d carried all the way home ready to drink in the sunny garden when I got back, but then once that began to wear off I gradually stiffened up over the course of the evening and began to grow increasingly concerned my split second of inability to stay upright on two wheels had ruined months of training for the target that had been on my mind since January 2020.

The next day I hesitantly went out to see how it fared, plotting a route with laps so I’d never be too far from home and promising myself I’d abort immediately anything flared up. A bit of a risk, granted, and it felt suitably shit for the first few hundred yards or so, parts of me struggling to move in the manner they were accustomed to. It never got any worse though and thankfully it proved to be just a series of scuffs and bruises; painful, but manageable. Nothing too bad mechanically. The run the day after went better, and by the middle of the week all felt mostly well, with both my weekday speed sessions passing without issue. It all felt pretty much back on track but still, a nasty scare.

By the time raceday came around I felt fully fighting fit and, with the pressure off, the number of visits to the loo before the start were well below average. I kept telling myself it would be fine as there would be no time pressure today, and I could stop on the way round if I needed to, but it didn’t stop the butterflies entirely from rearing their head. I think you need a bit of that for these things though, a bit of the ol’ adrenaline to get you going, and it felt really good arriving and walking up to the startline, hearing a reassuring voice droning over the tannoy about parking, baggage dropoffs and how long before the race started and all that jazz. It was something that had been missing from my running life for nearly two years and suddenly, it felt like I’d never been away.

For the first time since 13th October 2019, I lined up for a race with Other People and then at 10am on the dot, we were off. For whatever reason (lack of practice?) the start had crept up on me a bit and it was a bit of a jolt into action but off we went, out onto the 13.1 mile circuit down to Mobberley and back. My first race since the soggy, shitty (literally) Manchester half in October 2019 was underway.

As predicted, the hardest thing was keeping to my training pace, especially as the first half of the race is pretty much all a gradual downhill. My Garmin helped me keep an eye on things but it was so weird and alien to me holding back when people were streaking past me. It wasn’t even a competitive thing; it was just my subconsciousness telling me I was going backwards due to the constant stream of runners pouring up the road ahead of me. I’d see a few of these again later on as my steady start and constant pacing brought me back into contention, but that was never the point of the day, just something I noticed in the latter stages as you begin to recognise familiar faces from an hour or so beforehand.

It was a good race all in all. I managed to keep a lid on it, mostly, and essentially just enjoyed being out and about running in different surroundings to the usual, and most importantly being a part of AN ACTUAL RUNNING EVENT again. A wave or a shout of “thanks!” here or there every time I passed a volunteer station, almost each and every one of them making the effort to cheer and clap us all on. The locals out and about gave decent support too which was lovely, especially with it being a race without the massive hordes of people you get in the Big City races. The ones that were there really made the effort and it helped no end.

I even managed a (probably stupid) big finish after realising at the 1km to go marker how much I had left in the tank, just gently increasing the pace until suddenly I was steaming over the line almost flat out, just after flashing past my wife and her folks and shouting at them which pub I’d meet them at. It all felt absolutely fine though and totally in control and it gave me a load of confidence as to how well my marathon training was going, and then just like that it was all over. My first race for nearly two years and my slowest race half marathon ever, at the same race where I nearly hit a PB in 2019. A solid morning’s work and time to head to the pub for all of the carb reloading, five different types, if memory serves correctly.

So now, all sights are set to point to the 2020 2021 Manchester Marathon. My final long run is in the bank and now I’m basically looking forward the taper obsessing over every tiny detail ahead of the big day. What do I wear? Which shoes? Which shorts? Will it rain? What’s the course going to be like (it’s, as I write this marked as “provisional” on the race website). Where are the feed stations? Are Metrolink really going on strike? Can I avoid catching Covid-19 in the next couple of weeks and watching the whole thing go out the window? Will I fall off my bike again?

Most importantly: can I get anywhere near that 2016 PB? There’s a lot still to be decided and it wouldn’t be a return to racing without me sat here shitting out a blog saying “I have no idea how it’s going to go”. I don’t, really. I don’t at all. Am I still as good as I was in five years ago, mere weeks from my 40th birthday? Is this radical new way of training going to get me the results I’m looking for? Will I fall over, or worse, need to stop for a dump on the way round?

Who knows but it won’t be long before we find out. Whatever happens though, the generosity so far has been amazing and I’m so, so grateful to everyone who has thrown into the sponsorship pot so far despite the fact I’ve been promising on JustGiving to race a marathon for well over 18 months now. It means so much to me and it’s helped me no end on days when the motivation to go out training at 5am before work has been seriously lacking, especially now those runs are in the dark as I set off, and this week, as I get back.

We’re nearly there. It’s been a long journey to get to this stage as I’m now on the final stretch of my third round of marathon training for the race I entered in January 2020. Not quite up there with my decade-long struggle to get into London, but it still feels like a bit of a effort. Assuming it all happens as planned, I’ll cross the line almost ten years to the day since my very first marathon at the other end of the M62, a day where I swore “never again”. No more marathons, and all that. A little over two weeks today, hopefully we’ll finally have one more.

You can sponsor me here via JustGiving.

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