After almost two years of training, with London completed, it didn’t take long to start thinking: “What’s Next?”
With my fitness levels sat nice and high, another attempt at my half marathon PB was on the cards. The next question was where. The obvious answer was my “home race” in St Neots, but there was a good chance we’d be away for the weekend so I held off entering, looking for alternatives. However, luck was on my side as our plans became concrete and I was going to be around for the race. What’s more, the race had fortunately not yet sold out. Historically it had sold out very quickly but a combination of covid and a new organiser had left it not quite full so the entry was in and training carried on.
The target was to get under 1:40. Deep down I knew I could do it but it was a target that had become my unicorn. I had first started thinking of this time when I surprised myself with a 1:43 at the 2018 Great Eastern Run. However, since then I have had a string of races from St Neots, to Bedford Half Marathon and Hertfordshire Half Marathon where my race has just not gone to plan. This coupled with several time trial attempts over the past two, covid hit, years and me blowing up was a common theme! This time I was determined to not make the same mistakes.
One of my biggest mistakes was going out too hard and then having to hang on at the end. In part this was thanks to a pacing strategy I had followed since I returned to running in 2017. I would calculate a target split and try to hit that each km. In my mind I would then keep note of how much I had banked or needed to make up over the rest of the race. This had worked well for me but it has a couple of major flaws.
- Read any worthwhile pacing guides and they will suggest negative splits, aiming for flat is fundamentally wrong
- Having a target time tended to encourage me to try and bank some time early on, this tiring out
- This approach gave no leeway to a fast/slow km due to hills etc. I’d find myself pushing to make up time I should have accepted losing
- As I started to tire and the banked time became a defect, mentally it becomes much harder and the impact gets worse and worse
Too many races had ended with me blowing up as a result and going into London my biggest fear was screwing up my pacing and hating the later stages of the race. Therefore, despite the mantra of “nothing new on race day”, I went in with a different pacing strategy for the marathon. I set in my mind a window that I was happy to be in and therefore it didn’t mean if I was a lite faster or slower. My splits from the race bear this out as, whilst I dropped right towards the end, the consistency up to that point was unheard of for me! Therefore, I made the decision to adjust this new strategy just slightly and see if it could be the magic ingredient to get me under the target.
Race day arrived but before I could put my plan in to action, it was time for the fun run. My boys decided against entering but my daughter was 100% up for it. The race was 4 laps of approx 750m so was going to be a little more than junior parkrun and the longest she had run without me alongside. I needn’t have worried about how she would do as she smashed it finishing as 3rd U9 girl for extra measure!
Next it was my turn. This was the 4th time I had run this race and it felt so good to be back in the starting pen after the events of the last couple of years. My new pacing strategy would see me aim for the window as I had done in London, the difference being that I had broken the race into three sections with each section’s window getting progressively faster. I was going to try and negative split if I could.
What this meant was that for the first 7km I needed to be running at a pace not much faster than 1:45 that I even achieved a few weeks ago in training so I was able to head out quite calmly. Every other year I have shot off so it was really pleasant as I fell in with the 1:45 pacer as we headed out of town towards the village of Abbotsley. What with this being my 4th race and having used the course numerous times for training, I was just able to settle in and not think about anything else. Each km I glanced at my time to check I was in the window but as soon as I had verified this, the time was forgotten, I just had to trust in the process.
As you enter Abbotsley you hit the first hill of the race and whilst it isn’t huge, it is enough to get you working. It also saw me start to push on a bit as I approached the second section. Looking back at my splits I was a couple of seconds ahead of the faster end of my window, driven by the downhill section into Abbotsley so all was good. I took on a gel and pushed forward.
The day had started coldly but the temperature was starting to pick up, the sun was out and I was feeling good as we turned to head towards the halfway point. At this stage we were heading into a little bit of a headwind but it wasn’t enough to dampen the rhythm I was still feeling. However, I couldn’t avoid the nagging doubt as I had felt good at this stage in previous years and then the wheels had come off. The middle 7km were again a couple of seconds quicker than the faster end of my targets so I was starting to worry as we approached Abbotsley for the second time that I had gone too hard.
It is this hill that has done for me before and as I went through the drinks station I started to get real pain in my right hip. I wasn’t sure if it was real or the little devil sat on my shoulder but decided to push it and see, thankfully finding it to be the later as we turned for home at around 6km to go. I had run this stretch of road last week as part of a a surprisingly fast 10km but it had been a bit greasy under foot thanks to rain and mud. Today it was dry and there were no such worries.
It was at this stage I allowed myself to start playing with times in my mind. As I went through the 15km mark I started to work out what pace was required to get me to the promised land. With the worst part of the race behind me, still feeling strong and a downhill finish, the splits were looking more than achievable. By the time I got to 4km to go the required splits were 5:00 and I had just knocked out consecutive sub 4:40 kms. I now believed today was going to be the day, the question now was by how much.
The course threatened to have a sting in the tail as the headwind reappeared but unlike previous years, I was now the one reeling in tiring runners one after another. It felt good and I was getting faster. As I approached the finish the target of 1:38:30 started to solidify itself and although I missed that by 2s, I crossed the line with fists pumping.
In a way it felt really strange. The arbitrary time of 1:40 has been hanging over me for so long yet when I finally beat it it felt, dare I say it, easy! I was able to walk around and before long had my son up on my shoulders so we could cheer in friends. After so many races and runs where I have felt down at not achieving the target, I am now thinking, what is achievable? The run did really highlight how important a good pacing strategy is. Without it this could have easily been another “what if?” I think I’ll want to refine it a little but can definitely see me using this again. I don’t currently have any other races booked but will probably be remedying that soon as I really want to maximise this new found speed and stamina before it goes.
The event was really well organised yet again despite the changes and it really did feel like normality returning. Its only about 500m from the finish line to my front door and I love that we have such a good race so close to home that brought out good crowds and made sure that St Neots stays firmly at the top of my favourite races.