Race Report: Royal Parks Half

Fast. Faster. Fastest.  That was my plan for how I wanted to take down my autumn half marathons. A fast Great North Run, a faster Copenhagen Half and a fastest Royal Parks Half.  Well, the best laid plans of mice and men often go wrong.

Royal Parks Half was the jewel in the crown for me. The bulls-eye on the target board, cherry on the top, glitter on the speed tight (anyone else desperate for these) gold medal prize.  I’d been desperate to run this race for years, and certainly since I’d moved to London which was now a frightening three years ago.  I’d simply never had any luck in the ballot and didn’t think it was appropriate to go through a charity having already had so many people be so generous to sponsor me for the London marathon twice.  So, when the opportunity arose to not only run the Royal Parks Half but to run it with the NRC I naturally jumped at the occasion.

Two half marathons in a week isn’t a small ask, but I’d been thrilled with my time in Copenhagen and was chomping at the bit to get going to race Royal Parks three weeks later and try and reach my target of 1:35. I’m going to tell you right now that this did not happen.

There was no definitive injury moment.  However, after a slow but steady 12km run the  Friday morning I noticed that my bum hurt.  Not in a massive way, but in a way that was definitely there.  By the end of work that day, and I have a sedentary job, I was experiencing really bad lower back pain.  This was a new one for me and although I’ve had multiple niggles before that have righted themselves, through experience you get to learn pretty instinctively when something is a niggle or a bit tight and when something is wrong.  It’s normally accompanied by a sinking feeling in your stomach and a panicked assault on Google.

However, at this stage I was none the wiser about what it was, so I did what I now do when something starts to niggle – I myofascial released the living shit out of it. I wouldn’t have been shocked if the spiky ball had somehow got stuck on me I spent so much time on it that Saturday. It seemed to have done the trick though and on Sunday I decided to get dressed and head to my planned speed session: 3x 4000 m at Great North Run pace; Copenhagen pace and finishing on planned Royal Parks pace.  I was going to smash this session and finish the hard work knowing I could take down my goal time.  Of course, this did not happen. I managed to bite off the first rep and when slowing to recovery pace, and naturally dropping form a bit, I knew I couldn’t run another minute on my glutes the way they were.  I limped home and had booked myself in to see Balanced Osteo before my keys were even in the door.

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After a seriously intense sports massage and a week of rest I still had a gut feeling of apprehension, although there was no specific injury – just a general sense of being very tight.  I had a niggling sense that this wasn’t going to be the 1:35 race for me but felt optimistic that a bit of race day magic could go in my favour.  I still had a vague limp on waking most days and heading to the NRC Shake Out Run the Saturday morning before I was hopeful that I would simply start running and it would be like this whole episode never happened.  I was looking forward to a fun day with some good friends, good food, good braids and the NRC spirit and family that has come into my life since January this year. If my life were an episode of Love Island it would be at this stage that the voiceover would say “CUE THE TEXT”.

I started running. Or rather, my left leg started running.  My right leg was dragging.  Within approximately 5 seconds I knew I wouldn’t be running with my intended pacer and running companions the next day.  Nevertheless, the more I ran and the better I held form the less I felt pain, and after a few inspiring rounds with Tom Farrell and Charlie Grice I felt optimistic again.  It was a massive relief to get back to the NRC base to enjoy some Smokey Tails BBQ, have a t-shirt customised and get my hurrr did at Braid Bar, but mostly so I could stop running and be looked at by Six Physio, who to his credit worked some form of magic to give me a full range of motion once again. That sinking feeling in my stomach was becoming more intense with the pain in my glute area.

I spoke to a few of the NRC coaches and pacers and received a variety of responses but all with the same core theme – don’t hurt yourself. I’d gone from planning on finishing my 2016 races in a blaze of 1:35 glory to questioning if I would run within a week. I decided to go home and really seriously think about what this race meant to me.  Were it any other half marathon I suspect I would have dropped out at this stage, but I really wanted to run the Royal Parks. I decided to stretch, foam roll, do glute activation sequences, spiky ball, take ibuprofen and carb load as normal that night.  The plan was this: wake up with a limp and I don’t start, wake up without pain and I start.  If I’m in pain soon after starting I stop at Mile 5 and experience the Royal Parks from the NRC cheer zone, and if not, then, I try to finish.

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This was the most nervous I’d ever felt for a race where it wasn’t my first attempt at the distance.  However, for my first half and full marathon I knew on both occasions, especially the latter, that no matter what and even if the distance was too much I would finish.  This was the first time I knew there was a chance I simply might not have been able to, and that was something I’d found really pretty troubling and upsetting. I knew I couldn’t have started unless I’d made peace with a potential DNF.  The one thing that helped me with this was knowing that if I chose to ran I wouldn’t be alone as the NRC community were taking over the start line, and if I didn’t finish I still wouldn’t be alone as I’d be with them on the other side of the barrier screaming for all those who could carry on.

I woke up without a limp.

Starting off I felt sore but it was dull and it was manageable.  I was running alongside NRC pacer Chewy and runner Rob, and although I wasn’t on PB pace we were still running at a pretty nifty pace and I was feeling able to keep up.  Crucially, I knew that holding a good form made me feel better and it was just about running relaxed.  Running at a slightly more social pace was actually pretty good fun for the first half and running without the pressure of a time was making for an amazing morning.  I went past the cheer zone with a smile on my face and decided to commit to finishing the race.

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Naturally, my pain started not much after that and just past the mile six mark where the way had narrowed I lost pace with Chewy and Rob but carried on.  I saw my parents and dog at the half way mark precisely and decided to stop and stretch and speak to them, as I knew they’d been fairly concerned about me taking on a race with an injury – even if we had no clue what it was. I saw pacer Saheed and runner Grace fly past me after a few moments and decided to try and catch up with them.  By then the stop and start had not done my pain any favours and from then on I was running with gritted teeth, made easier by Grace and Saheed’s company and some runners from Run Dem Crew out cheering.  Eventually at Mile 10 I had to stop and stretch.  I knew there was no way I wouldn’t do the next 3.1 miles, but equally at that precise moment in time I couldn’t think of the way that I would get them done. I’d lost Saheed and Grace by then but I picked up my feet and carried on.

I wasn’t running for a time, but I started to think about what time I would get and where that would sit in my runner as a journey.  My first half marathon three years prior in Sheffield saw me finish in a time of 1:54:56 and I decided I wanted to beat this if I could.  I kept going until I saw my mother again at mile 12, where I stopped for a power up (hug from mum) and decided to just. keep. going.  By this time it really did hurt, but the end was near enough that I knew I had it. I was going to finish.

I was on course to beat my Sheffield Half 2013 time when I went past the final 800m sign and realised that if I pushed hard I could do it in sub 1:50.  I didn’t know if I had it, but I knew I wanted it. I wanted the medal and to make the last few miles of pain stand for something. I wanted them to stand for the time that I pushed through and did not give in.

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Finishing the Royal Parks Half was a moment of victory combined with relief that it was over.  My calves and quads were burning from the work they’d had to do without the support of one of my glutes, but I had done it.  This was not about proving I could run on an injury – that is stupid and not something you should do, but for me it was about not giving in and knowing I have that mental fortitude to carry on.  That experience is one I hope to take into many more marathons to come and one I’m proud of.

The other milestone moment of recoginition provided by Royal Parks Half was the importance of community.  Even when I wasn’t running with someone I was never alone in my experience out there.  I knew I had a community with me in spirit, and rooting for me the whole way round. People see running as a solitary activity but this couldn’t be further from the truth – if there’s even a fibre of your being that is curious about going to a running group like NRC then the answer is 1000000% to try it. I could go on and on about this one, but a picture is worth a thousand words: we’ve known each other less than nine months.

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Royal Parks Half: My View

  • A brilliant course – normally even the best race will take you through the ‘ugly’ bit, be that a dual carriageway or industrial estate.  Royal Parks is attractive from start to finish and the relative flatness makes it a good course for beginners.
  • I will be back at some stage to reclaim this race and really give it my all.
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