Having signed up for the Coventry Half Marathon, a few months ago, I later decided that I was going to head out to the States to see Charlotte, for her Spring Break. However, the dates clashed and so I found a replacement Half Marathon in California, which was to be held at Del Valle Regional Park, Livermore. The lovely views of the lake, along with the sun and it, of course, being in California, the tough, hilly, trail run didn’t seem so bad.
A few days before the race, the race organisers had to move the race to a new location after losing the race license due to the park not being ready for the public. Thankfully though they found another location, which was just over the bridge from San Francisco, in Richmond, in Wildcat Canyon. However, it was said to be even tougher than the one in Livermore, with 2200ft of climbing, along with steep hills and all the trails as before, however, it was still in California, it was going to be sunny and it had even better views of San Francisco, so couldn’t really complain. Although, it’s not exactly the road running I’m used to.
Leaving at 6:30 on Saturday, I soon arrived at Wildcat Canyon, ready to race. After checking in, I realised that I had just over an hour till race time. As it was only a run rather than a triathlon or duathlon, I wasn’t used to having that long. However, it gave me time to look at the course OS map and see where all the steep hills were, warm up properly and prepare myself for a hilly half marathon. The first bit was apparently a hilly start, getting stuck right into it, followed by a lot of undulating hills, then another big hill before flattening off for 1500 meters or so before the turning around to come straight back, nicely divided by 3 feed stations. So seeing that I had enough time, I walked up the first bit to get an idea of what I had signed up for. It was a lovely morning, slightly overcast, still warm, and the sun was coming up too. I felt a lot better than the day before where I was tired just walking up the hill so that was a good start and all thanks to my compressions. Heading back down to the race start, I prepared myself some more, warmed up and moved to the start line.
Soon enough, the countdown had begun. I found a good spot, not too far from the front and not too far back either, ready to overtake if needed. I was ready to go and my first proper half marathon as a half marathon was soon underway… no swim or bike to lead so I’d be going into it better off than before and therefore had to make sure that I didn’t go off too hard, especially as I knew the hills would soon tire me out.
5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 … We were off. The marathon had begun and my first race of the season was underway. Here we go! So excited to get racing. The first 50 meters was single file and limited to the speed of the people in front, we were like racehorses being kept in a pen, waiting to be let out. We turned the corner and the course opened up to a wide track. I moved up the field and stayed behind the first 3 runners. I let them pace it up as I was unsure on how to pace hilly runs and was feeling good but I knew that I had 21km to go too.
Heading over the first hill, and now heading up the second fairly comfortably, I thought, I can speed up, the distance shouldn’t be a problem as I do 20km plus every Sunday and although I didn’t know how I’d cope with hills, I thought that I might as well go for it, race hard and deal with the consequences later on.
I, therefore, picked up the pace, moved up a few more places and soon made it to the front. I was actually leading the race…a running race that is! Hoping that I hadn’t gone to early and underestimated the hills to come, I decided to stay confident with the move I’d taken and gain a bit of distance from the pack.
The first descent had come, I had built up a small lead and I was keen to keep it and so I pushed on, trying to stay in control and in good form, while avoiding the rabbit holes, sticks and patches of mud, as my legs rotated faster and faster, it became harder and harder to scan the ground ahead and I felt more and more like a run-away train, but with no one ahead, it was clear ground at least and I finally managed to reach the bottom, into and back out of a stream and out to the other side to continue on around the corner. I was feeling good and more of a runner than ever before. It was a good feeling.
The guy behind was hot on my heals though and didn’t let me go, I could hear him behind me and we were soon having our own race, taking one another repeatedly, him typically taking me on the descents and I taking him on the ascents.
However, about 7km in, there was a long ascent and it was time for me to shine, currently in second but not by far, I kept pushing and gained on him, soon overtaking. I knew that I had to push hard and put some time into him as the ascent wouldn’t last forever.
I was gaining distance on him and although it was mentally tough running up uneven and steep ascents, I just counted it as a test of mental strength, telling myself not to walk but to keep pushing and rotating my legs.
Often feeling amused by this ridiculous hilly course, I ran up another steep path, where I soon heard and saw a helicopter just to my left, no more than 100m away. There was a guy hanging out of it on a rope about 10m long flying around (think he was fixing some of the telephone wires). It just seemed so unreal and I chuckled slightly to myself as I couldn’t help but feel that I was in the Rat Race, for those of you who haven’t watched it, it’s an American comedy with Rowan Atkinson where an acentric casino owner and his friends bet on which team will win the ridiculous race they’ve set up.
I then came to another gate that I couldn’t work out how to open and so jumped over it, as taught in the CCF, and continued running, catching up with some of the half marathon walkers that set off an hour before us. They cheered me on and gave me an extra boost. I was still leading and feeling great.
Heading over the last hill before turning back, I picked up the pace and felt great. Felt like a runner, not a cyclist trying to run but a runner running. I was in good shape, had a good rotation, good form, mentally strong, and now that I hit the tarmac, I was flying. I also had the wind behind me and I was heading slightly downhill too.
Knowing that I had around 2km on this stretch, I kept the pace up and absolutely loved it. The views were great, the hikers were cheering, I was in the lead and I was nearly half way too. Amazing.
I soon reached the turn around point and it was now time to face the headwind, slight uphill but on tarmac and I was now over half way. I thought to myself, not long now… just over 10km, tarmac, big descent, undulating bit, big final hill, then descent to the finish … sounds easy!
Making my way back along the route I’d just done, I saw how far everyone was behind me. They weren’t that far at all. I had a slight lead but not much, the guy that I was rotating around with earlier was only 30 or so meters behind, the next soon followed and then the next. I knew that I had to give it all I had to give myself the best chance of a medal, especially as I knew that the others seemed better at descents.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long until my challenger overtook and built up a bit of a lead too and to add to things I had this massive stitch. The worst I’ve probably had. My head was just saying nope you’ve lost it. You’ve put too much into it already and you’ve overdone it. Your average heart rate has reached a new PB. A horrible stitch has kicked in. You’ve still got nearly 11km to go. You’ve already had one guy overtake and the others aren’t too far behind so it won’t be long till another one passes. Plus there are still more hills and descents to come.
I wasn’t having it though. I said to myself nope I’m not accepting that. I’m not going to give up now. I may have a horrible stitch and things may seem to have gone down slightly but I’m going to do this. I’ve been leading the race for the majority of it and this is my best chance of a podium. I’m going to push through the stitch and race to the end! I’m at the highest point and so I’ve done the hard bit. Take a drink at the feed station coming up and then go for it! No more whinging, no more complaints, think positive, think form and get on with it.
I turned off the tarmac, went through the open gate this time and chased down the hill. I was legging it. My legs were rotating fast, I was scanning the path in front as quickly as possible, avoiding holes and trying to land on the ‘better’ ground, whilst trying to keep my form as well as possible and there was no stopping me…quite literally that is. I avoided the oncoming runners and was just going all out. I didn’t worry about a twisted ankle or an injury … my other races were far enough away and I was loving it, in a slightly weird and wonderful way. It was like skiing down a black ski slope and waiting for that slight little incline to recover slightly before heading down the next bit.
Coming down the last few bends off the hill, I could see the guy in front, having reached the bottom, past the gate and bend back, shortly to be out of sight.
Reaching the bottom, knowing that I was a good 400m away from first, I looked up the hill, as I bent round the corner, to see where 3rd was. As I reached the same position of where the guy in front was, I saw 3rd, he was looking strong, charging down the hill, and experienced probably…he was in his 40s and looked like he knew what he was doing.
Passing the last aid station of the course, with about 4km to go, the marshal shouted out the time between us … “70 seconds !!! You can get him”. I thought ’70 seconds, my goodness. That’s a big lead! Pfft, ok, lets do this. I might as well try.’
I pushed round every corner, and over every remaining hill, passing some of the 10km runners that had started after us. I was on the look out for that 1st place but I couldn’t see him. I turned the next corner … nothing … turned the next … nothing again … hoping that I was gaining on him, I just kept doing all I could. If anything, I’m going to keep 3rd off me. I turned another corner and bingo! There he was, turning the next. Even though he was 150m ahead or so, it didn’t matter, I have spotted him and I’m gaining. Come on, I can do this. Keep going.
With my body now yelling at me and acing all over, I was doing all I could. Another corner passed and although, knackered and my body wanting to crawl over and stop, I saw the final massive hill. Oh great! Haha, perfect. He had been better on the descent and me better on the ascents so this should be mine for the taking but I had to push even harder and pull out all my reserves. I was gaining and I soon passed him but it wasn’t without a cost. I was burning up, hurting and struggling but so was he. I knew that I had to run as fast as I could to gain as much time as I could, as the bigger the lead I gained uphill, however short it seemed, the more it would amount to on the final descent, just at the top. I had a quick look behind and saw that I’d put some distance into him. He was finding it tough (as we all were, I’m sure). The hard work was now over and the descent had begun!
Having passed the final hill and determined not to let him overtake on the descent again, I absolutely legged it. There was no stopping me, I rotated my legs faster and faster, and was jumping all over the track to avoid the holes along with the 5 and 10km runners. Hoping that I wouldn’t take one of them out or twist my ankles, I gave it my absolute all. There was no looking back to see where he was, as I just had to focus on where I was going and be as fast as I could. Every second counted now! I did not want to see him again – well until after the race! My glutes were now screaming at me, my back was in pain, body acing but I was so close and I knew that I could have this! I could win the race and I was so excited about that! My first half marathon as a half marathon and a ridiculously tough course but this was my day! I had trained for this. All those winter months of training had to be worth something. Others were shouting to be careful, yet cheering at the same time, I was a very concentrated runaway train with my legs maxed out.
200m … 100m … 50m … turned the last corner … jumped a tree stump … made it to the narrow grassed pen … my name was called out and I crossed the line. I had done it! I’d actually done it! I was absolutely knackered but the relief of finishing was amazing. I held onto the fencing beside me, trying to gain some of my breath back and recover. I couldn’t move. That was it but I had done what I needed to do. The guy soon crossed the line and then 3rd. I had raced as hard as I could and I gave it everything. Definitely my best run race I’ve done and although it took me the next 4 hours (no exaggeration) to recover enough to leave the race location and make my way back to SF, it was worth it!
I’d like to say a massive thank you to all my sponsors, Apex and daysout.co.uk, for their continued support, TORQ for all their great nutrition, the Stamford Endowed Schools and the LEAP Athlete program for their financial support. Along with my coach, Mark Pearce, at IntelliTri, who continues to help me get stronger every race and to Charlotte’s coach, Helen, who was kind enough to take me over to Richmond and show me around, showing me where the best coffee house and Mexican was, both of which were great recommendations!
Finally, I’d like to say a massive thank you to my incredible girlfriend, Charlotte, who continues to inspire, support and who has encouraged me, over the last few years, to even consider off-road racing. The invite to SF for Spring Break and the perfect lead up to the event with coffee’s, dinners and a great trip to Vegas, The Grand Canyon and Flagstaff along with the great company of strong runners was just perfect.
Until next time, enjoy training, have fun and good luck with any races,