I need to begin by saying I’m not in any sense a runner. Until two weeks ago, the furthest I had willingly run in my life was three miles. I’m fairly sure they tried to make me run further than that when I was at school. But I’m also fairly sure that I walked as much of any cross-country run as I could get away with.
Three weeks ago, while I was recovering from the Birmingham International Fencing Competition, one of the Stratford upon Avon Liberal Democrats emailed me to say “you should definitely do the Shakespeare half-marathon”. At any other time I would have definitely agreed with her, and definitely not done anything about it. But I was already conscious that fencing at the club level was demanding less of me than when I started: as I’ve got better at it, I need less energy to win. At the club level that is. In major national competitions, it’s a different game. It was definitely time to start doing something to push my performance up.
It took me a week to recover from the Birmingham International, which gave me just two weeks to register for and train for the Shakespeare half-marathon. Opinion among my friends and colleagues was divided about whether this was a good idea or not. Those who knew about running gently suggested that two weeks was far too late. I got plenty of tips about how to train. Unfortunately, in the same way that buying books for your degree course is not equivalent to having read them, there was actually some serious training involved as well.
So, on the Saturday, I set off through Sutton Park for my first ever attempt at five miles.
Sutton Park is Europe’s largest enclosed park, and has the some moderate inclines here and there. However, when I set off to run through it, the moderate inclines seemed to rear up into serious hills. I have to confess that I did must have walked about 200 yards, and made frequent stops.
My respect for regular runners went up steeply. My legs, on the other hand, ached for two days.
On the Monday, I set off from my house to run a mile round the block. My house is actually at the top of the hill, which is very useful in case of flooding, or should the car not start one day, but is not quite what you want for running.
I was going to run again on the Tuesday, until a work colleague (the benefits of working in the NHS) explained that muscles took 48 hours to rebuild, so I should wait until the Wednesday.
I gratefully accepted the advice (and the respite), and slept in on Tuesday.
On Wednesday I set off once again before breakfast, this time to run two miles. Going down the hill the other side meant I didn’t have to go as far down, and therefore didn’t have to go as far up again afterwards. Two miles didn’t seem anywhere near as bad as Monday’s one mile.
So, on Friday, I set off, this time with a very old friend who had come to stay the night, to run four miles. The friend was a regular runner, and managed to keep me going the whole way.
This left just eight days to go from four miles to thirteen and a bit.
On Sunday I set off to run all the way around Sutton Park. The map said this was eight miles, although someone had told me it was actually a measured ten miles. I took my old GPS with me to settle the bets.
I stood for parliament in Sutton Coldfield in 2001, and I’d leafletted the entire area. It seemed a fairly flat terrain at the time. However, clearly there had been a major programme of hill construction since, and I found myself in what seemed to be an endlessly undulating terrain. After four miles I was saying to myself “I can still give up now â€” few people know I’m doing this â€” I can just abandon the race.” This is my real problem, of course, when it comes to running. In a fencing bout, 4-3 down with 5 seconds left on the clock (up to five hits), I’m more than up to summoning up everything I have and nailing the other guy. It’s a very good feeling. Even 14-10 down, up to fifteen, I will keep fighting. I’ve won some pretty big fights in serious competitions that way. But the long slog of running up hill when no-one is watching you is something I struggle with.
Nonetheless, I made it to five miles, at which point it was definitely further to go back than to go on. I eventually made it around to where I started from in 1 hour 30. However, horror of horrors, my GPS told me that I’d only run 7.2 miles â€” barely more than half the full distance I would have to run the following week. I was so cross that I drove right the way round in the car to check the mileage. It said 8 miles, but that was including going round roundabouts.
However, this was the point of no return â€” I could pull out the half-marathon then, and tell my friends that “It didn’t seem sensible” (too right), or attempt what might very well turn out to be failure.
I suppose I wouldn’t be a fencer or a parliamentary candidate if I didn’t believe that “it’s better to have fought and lost than not have fought at all”.
I just did a couple of miles on the Tuesday and Thursday that week â€” though I did fence non-stop for two hours on the Monday, an hour on the Wednesday, and two hours on the Thursday.
Then, the race. I always have trouble sleeping the night before a fencing competition, which isn’t good, since alertness in the opening rounds is crucial. At least, I felt, with running it didn’t matter how alert you were.
My wife and my parents both decided to come and watch me. This added to the embarassment of dropping out half-way, but it meant at least there would be someone to drive me home afterwards.
Before the gun went off (I didn’t actually hear a gun going off, but, apparently, the time from the start of the race is still ‘gun-time’, even if there isn’t a gun) I found myself surrounded by keen runners, all with the names of clubs emblazoned on their shirts, all talking excitedly. Some were running the half-marathon, some the full marathon. Distressingly, there were people at least twenty years older than myself who were running the full marathon. I kept my mouth shut. However, one of the girls near me confessed that she “wasn’t a regular runner”, promoting consternation among the regular runners around her. I was glad I hadn’t said anything.
And then it started. The first mile was the worst. And the second mile. That was the worst too, until I got to the third mile, which made the first two miles look rather easy. The Shakespeare marathon is supposed to be “quite a flat course”. I hate to think what a hilly course would be like. Endless inclines (which made Sutton Park look like Lincolnshire or Holland by comparison) reared up ahead of me, and when I’d got to what seemed to be the top, they turned a corner and went up more steeply. “Is this the big hill?” I asked one runner who seemed inclined to be chatty (it was his one hundredth marathon). “Oh no, that’s half-way round the course” he said.
After four miles my right leg began to hurt. Being a highly intensive asymetric sport, fencing develops the two legs differently. I know this, because my right thigh is visibly more muscular than my left thigh. I think my left lower leg may well be stronger than my right lower leg. In any case, it was the right lower leg that began to hurt. I was expecting my legs to hurt, but having just one hurt made me hobble, which I didn’t enjoy at all.
By this point I was already passing other runners who had stopped running and started walking. I’d told myself that I would not walk at all. This was partly personal doggedness â€” what’s the point of running a half-marathon if you don’t actually run it? â€” but also partly self-preservation. I was fairly sure that if I started walking I would never start running again. Just occasionally I did break into a single walk step (and I walked a couple of steps when trying to synchronise myself with the people giving out water bottles at 2 mile intervals) and I felt my legs immediately locking up.
On the other hand, ever since I set off, I was being passed by other runners. Actually, it was difficult by the four mile point to understand how there could still be any runners left behind me to still pass me.
You must understand that I had no intention of achieving any sort of respectable time. My one intention was to get round the course â€” running. I’d put on my form that I expected to run it in two hours twenty minutes. This was a complete guess on my part, as, when I registered, I had absolutely no idea what speed I could (or should) be going at. But there was a cut off point at two hours thirty, where anyone who was attempting the actual marathon would then be directed to complete the half-marathon, and I definitely wanted to be inside that time. In practice I’d been averaging between four and five miles an hour â€” according to my GPS, but I had since discovered that the GPS ‘cuts corners’, so it wasn’t actually measuring how far I was going, but how far I would have been going if I had the good sense to run from point to point in straight lines.
After six miles something improved: my left lower leg started hurting as well, so I was able to run with equal pain on both legs.
I stumbled a bit coming up to the eight mile water-bottle-table. “Go on, keep going. You can do it,” said one of the water-givers helpfully. I’m not sure what evidence-base she was using for this conclusion, but it did help me push on.
“On the home straight now,” said a man a little before the ten mile marker. I wondered for a moment if I had missed a marker, and was coming up to the end. “It’s just three miles straight down the greenway,” he added. Clearly he had a different view of “the home straight” from mine.
The greenway, which is a dismantled railway, is really a very nice place to run, without cars driving past you (one motorist had his car slapped by a number of runners, who called out “are you trying to kill me? You nearly killed meâ€¦”) or, worse, waiting patiently with engines ticking over for three thousand runners to pass. However, I was now passing a lot of people who had given up running and were now walking. This might seem encouraging â€” I had read a club runner’s account of the London marathon on the BBC website who said that the last three miles are a great feeling because you start passing people â€” but it didn’t have that effect on me. I kept thinking “if they’re walking, why shouldn’t I â€” I could walk the rest of this in an hour”.
By this point I was also starting to get thirsty. I’d had no more than a few gulps of water from each bottle so far, but now the idea of another drink was really starting to appeal. When we finally did reach the very last drinks station, I drained my bottle and wished I’d picked up a second. However, there was absolutely no way I was going to go back for oneâ€¦
It was round about that point that the idea of a really big ice-cream made its way into my mind.
At the end of the greenway we reached a road and a bridge. “This is the cruellest bit” someone said. And it was. You had to run along the road for quite some distance, then descend a ramp, and then run back along at river-level back to the bridge to go underneath it and along the river towards the finish.
“Does anybody want some water?” Called a woman waiting at the bridge. “Yes please!” I said, and took the bottle out of her hand. I think she meant “some water”, but when she saw the look on my face, she said “You take all of it, mate”. I’ve no idea who she was, but if she is reading this, then let it be known that I was deeply grateful.
And so we ran along the riverside. The day had started chilly, but it had now blossomed out into a marvellous spring day, with the sun gently smiling on us.
I ran past clumps of well-wishers and small children. “You’re doing great, mate” said one small boy, who had probably already seen a thousand runners who had been doing rather better. Good for him.
Finally, we drew in sight of the finish line. The runners around me put on a burst of speed. I didn’t. The result was that everyone else seemed to be tearing down the final concourse, while I stumbled my way (though smiling) to the end. As I pointed out to my wife afterwards (I did feel the need to), they had been running at more or less the same speed as me throughout, otherwise they wouldn’t have finished within thirty seconds of me. In retrospect, though, I suppose they were right â€” it does look a lot better if you really belt your way down the last few yards.
I ran through the finish line, which seemed to be some kind of adapted bouncy castle. The first thing that happened was that someone put a medal round my neck, and the second thing was that someone gave me a banana and a bottle of water, and someone else helped me to take the measuring chip from around my sock, which was used for calculating exact time.
This was a really nice touch. At a fencing competition, when you’ve been knocked out in the direct elimination, you typically slink back to the changing rooms, quite possibly muttering about the referee, drag yourself into the showers (preferably after taking your kit off), dry yourself, mutter comiserations to other people in the changing rooms, get dressed, stuff your kit into your bag, and then drag it along the corridor to the exit. If the organisers are especially nice, one will say “I hope you come back next year”. However, they are likely to get a grunt for their trouble.
Being given a medal for finishing was quite unexpected, and the free banana was out of this world. And then my wife brought me an ice-cream. Heaven.
Why I did the Shakespeare half-marathonâ€¦ all kinds of reasons. Did I enjoy it? No, I hated every minute of it. Will I do it again? Very possibly. It seems to me the compensations, and the cameraderie, vastly outweigh the two and a half hours of pain. Well, two-hours-nineteen minutes (chip time) or two-hours-twenty minutes (gun time) to be precise. So it turned out my guess at my timing wasn’t so bad after all.