This weekend it was time for what is fast becoming a regular event on the calendar.
Cast your mind back to 2006, when I had this stupid idea that I would like to try a half marathon. The one I chose was the Great North West half in Blackpool, and I surprised myself by running it in 1:55, well inside my 2 hour target. Last year I bagged myself a PB of 1:47, and this year it was almost inevitable that I'd go back for more.
I wasn't sure what to expect. Since the last time I raced a half marathon I've done three marathons, and one slow half with two wheelchairs. I've done a lot of training over the last few months, but my only races have been cross country races or 5ks which aren't really targetted towards marathon training. My schedule said to aim for sub 1:45, which I felt I could do, but I wasn't sure aim higher and try for a PB, which was sitting at 1:43:04.
There was a 1:45/8 minute mile pacer, and I was considering sitting with the group until 8 or 9 miles and then attempting a strong finish if I felt up to it. That way I'd feel confident of getting 1:45 even if I just stuck with them, but would give myself enough time to challenge my PB by picking it up by 20 or 30 seconds per mile towards the end.
But at the start I felt good, and the throw caution to the wind part of my brain took over. I started next to the 8mm pace group, the first hundred metres or so tend to be slower as everyone crosses the line, then they start speeding up to their target pace. They got there and stopped, but my acceleration carried on. Before I knew it the gap was opening a bit, and I was settling into a faster pace. I tried to decide whether it was a stupid idea and whether I'd suffer later (my recent racing experience being races which are over within 30 or 40 minutes, rather than nearly 2 hours), but decided to trust my instincts.
And it turns out they were good instincts. By the time I got to 8 miles I was still running at roughly the pace I started off, and started getting into the maths test phase of the race. This is where I start trying to work out how fast I need to run the rest of it to hit various targets. So how much could I slow down and still hit 1:45? How much could I slow down and still hit 1:43? Not that I intended to, but it's the sort of calculation that gives me confidence, particularly when I realise it's a pace I can do easily. What time will I do if I carry on at this speed? Not being particularly good at maths, by the time I've worked it out I'm another half mile down the road and have to start working it out again... Still, it keeps my mind off the pain in my legs, and it's quite nice when you get to the point where 10 minute miles would get you to the end within your target.
It was noticeable that on the second full loop of the course (it was one small loop then two bigger ones) I hardly saw any women. Looking at the results there was one just in front of me, but it seemed like I was running with the men all the way round. I was far enough up the field that I'd hear spectators point me out as though at that stage of the race, seeing a woman was a rarity (and I did indeed finish 47th out of 363 women, 359th out of 1186 overall, and 22nd in my category). In fact, on the last leg back to the finish, the only women I really saw were the ones I lapped!
As ever on that course (although it was slightly changed this year for various reasons), going north isn't too bad apart from the surface being concrete, and then when you come back south you hit the wind in your face, and the slight undulations of the upper level of the prom. And you always come south to the finish. That made the last few miles a bit of a struggle (and at the end someone who had passed me said it looked like I was struggling at 11 miles, although I didn't think I felt that bad), but I kept my pace at around 8 minute miles, slower than I'd started but still the pace I was planning to run the whole thing.
Even more of a struggle was the fact that because of a last minute route change, you had to run 200 metres past the finish, double back on yourself and then back again, and at that point I realised that I was just going to miss a significant landmark time, albeit one I hadn't actually set myself. No sprint finish will take 11 seconds off my 200 metre time at the end of a half marathon, so sub 1:40(!!!) will have to wait for another day, and I am still more than happy with a time of 1:40:11, which is far faster than I'd been aiming for and a 3 minute PB. And next time I get a half PB it will almost certainly be in the 1:30s.
Amusingly, feeding that time into a race time predictor spews out a marathon time of 3:28. I'm not going to read too much into that, as there is a margin of error in those things, but it does make me feel better about aiming for sub 3:40 rather than sub 3:45 at FLM. Partly that's psychological, to give me a bit of room for manouevre if I end up having to go for my back up plan midway round, but the idea of running Boston is getting more and more appealing so I may as well have a shot at qualifying for it...
So that means I'll have to stick with the speedwork and trying to at least vaguely follow the training programme, because it's looking like it definitely works.
The downside is that one of my running club friends isn't going so well with her training. We were both following the same schedule, but she's been struggling with injury and pace, and is falling off it a bit. I feel quite guilty about telling her my times, because I know that if it was the other way round I would be insanely jealous. To be fair to her, if she is, she hides it well because she's still being ultra-supportive while admitting that her target is now 3:50 - 3:55.