Matt Hudson, Total Motion Events, September 2017
It was never in my plan to run the half marathon in Reigate last weekend. I had picked out the Ealing Half, which takes place this coming Sunday, as my pre-Yorkshire Marathon half marathon, and where I was going to judge my fitness level against that of earlier in the year. I’d heard such good things about the award winning event in Ealing, that I was super keen to experience it for myself. However, running Total Motion means that often I am at events at weekends, and so the second SLSC SwimRun event at Tooting Lido of course takes priority. It was only after an Instagram exchange with prolific race pacer Paul Addicott that I began to consider the possibility of running in Reigate - itself an award winning race. The fact that Paul was pacing the 1:40 group, 11 seconds inside my PB made up my mind, despite not feeling my fitness was strong enough. Also, for someone who always runs alone it was going to be my first time running with others dictating the pace.
My plan was to stick with him as long as possible, and when the pace became too much then slow to a more comfortable effort. I’d even decided it would be rude to run in a pacing group with headphones, so I brought them with me for the latter stages when I would be surely running alone. That’s proper race management!
On the starting grid Paul gave us the benefit of his previous visits to the Reigate course. I’d looked at the topography on the official website, and noted the hills at the start and the finish, but it was only when the course was described to me as ‘brutal’ the day before that concern grew! We were told that we would take the first incline steady, slower than pace, and then speed up on the descent before settling into a pace to allow us to bank some time ahead of the final hill. Sounds sensible.
Dame Kelly Holmes started the race. There was the usual slow start as runners got up to speed. Great, all good, feeling confident(ish). Then we exited Priory Park, turned right and were immediately confronted with Cockshot Hill. Oh my god! We may not have been ‘on pace’, but we were still running quicker than felt comfortable, overtaking runners that looked a lot more competent than me – I already felt like I was red lining and we hadn’t even done a kilometre! As the crest of the hill approached I looked forward to the respite. No such luck! Although we had been running hard uphill, we had lost time. It was time to get it back. We sprinted, well, it was a sprint for me, down the steep descent. No chance for my spiking heart rate to settle, but now there was also the thought that gravity would force me to go too fast for my legs. What a baptism of fire – Welcome to Reigate!
After the first mile or two we settled into a pace, even finding time to chat to Paul and a fellow runner Rob. They were discussing PB’s, both of them comfortably sub 1:30, with Rob also veteran of 2 Marathon des Sables. Was I out of my depth? For sure! I got my chatting done early as I knew as time went on I would be less able and less inclined to be sociable. Good, intros over, small talk done, now on with the race.
The first water station approached at 3miles. I was on the wrong side of the road so was forced to speed up (I clearly had loads of energy to do this!!) to get to the front of the group and over to collect my water. The group slowed to collect water too and I found myself ahead of the pack. OK decision time, so do I a) accept the ‘rest’ in pace for a few seconds and rejoin, or b) keep the pace, knowing that I could manage my own fluctuations in speed and let the group catch me. I went for b. I never opened up a gap of any significance, maybe 10-15 seconds at most, and could always hear the pacer calling out the mile markers and offering encouragement. As the markers approached I secretly hoped I wouldn’t hear him, meaning my cushion was growing, but I always did.
Just prior to halfway was a switchback in the route. My chance to actually see the gap. It was literally only 20m. At this point it all started to hurt. The beautiful undulating route which had rewarded every uphill effort with a nice gentle downhill was starting to inflict pain. I ‘knew’ that if I was caught there was a very good chance that I would drop off the back of the group, and disappear down the field, so I latched on to runners around me and kept going. My watch vibrated at every km, but I daren’t look at it. I didn’t need Garmin to tell me that my pace was unsustainable; I’d know that for a long time. Inevitably the pace group caught me, and I tucked in behind next to one guy, Phil I think, who was breathing so heavily and irregularly that Rob and Paul were coaching him through it. I couldn’t believe he was still going– that motivated me!
So, 5km to go, one Parkrun, one lap of Tooting Common, time to dig in. I was close to my goal, I couldn’t slow now, I was ¾ of the way through, I was with the pacer, don’t let it slip. On a few occasions I felt the group drifting away, and as my heart sank I caught them, bizarrely on the uphill sections. However I knew that the final proper hill was still to come, I just didn’t know where it was exactly. And then we hit it. Up to that point I’d been running sub 4:40m/km, was gassed, but sustaining it. The hill sapped everything I had; I slowed to what seemed like I was ‘running’ slower than I could have walked. There were plenty of people walking at that point, it was all truly disheartening. The flag of the pacer disappeared out of sight, but then I caught a glimpse. There was hope. The downhill section following the monster incline reinvigorated me, and my pace returned.
As we re-entered Priory Park, the marker showed 500m to go, I glanced at my watch. I had been running for 1:37:50 - Just over 2mins to cover half a km. I tried, I gave it everything. There was huge support from the crowd at this point, but sadly that final hill had taken it’s toll. I ran hard over the line, and fell to all fours, before being helped to my feet. 1:40:14, 3 secs outside a PB and agonisingly close to the sub 1:40 target. Gutted. In retrospect it was a great time for me on a very challenging course, a course that may stand me in good stead for Yorkshire. The fact that I was mostly in reach of the pacer kept me going throughout – without that I would have been well down. The Garmin post-mortem revealed just how much time I had lost on that final hill, with my 1km split for that segment 1 minute higher than my average race splits. The Garmin also revealed I had set new 1km, 1m and 10km PBs on the course, but also told me that I had spent over half of the race in HR Zones 4 and 5. I bit high, but glad that I could sustain the effort physically and mentally.
I found Paul after I had regained my faculties, to thank him, and say goodbye. Somehow I then ended the event by joining him on BBC Radio Surrey for a very short interview!! Literally 15 seconds of fame on a gardening program sandwiched between a segment on leaky ponds and grey heron signings, but a nice way to finish the morning all the same.
I still have unfinished business with my PB, something I hope to address in 2017, but if not, definitely next year…I hope.