… in 3 years. The Vitality Oxford Half Marathon has been my most anticipated race this year. As you may have read in my previous blog post, I did not do particularly well in this half marathon last year. In fact I DNF’d, and needless to say, I was determined to make things right this time and earn the finishers’ medal with a strong finish.
For starters, I signed up to do this race alone. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I find it more liberating to just run on my own, in the spirit of ‘my race, my pace’, without having to worry about slowing my friends down or pushing the tempo too hard for them. (In my Mum’s words, even when I walk, I am like a tank engine; going slow is not something I can easily manage!)
Anyways, back to the race. I woke up with some butterflies in my tummy on the morning of the event; I found myself being filled with a mixture of excitement and fear; however, I tried not to allow myself to dwell too much on my epic fail last year, but instead, I tried to draw strength from knowing I had done everything I could to run well and injury-free this time.
I chose to leave my car in one of the Park & Ride places on the outskirts of Oxford and then catch a race bus from there. This seemed like a convenient and stress-free option to get to the race HQ with advance booking, and leaving the hassle of driving through the city centre to the bus driver. However, nothing prepared me for what greeted me upon arriving into the Park & Ride place.
Even with 1.5 hours still to go until the start time, the place was already buzzing with runners, turning the bus station into a giant bee hive. In moments like this, I start to really appreciate the remarkable ability of the English to queue. There is no room for any mistakes about when it is your turn to board the bus!
After spending about half an hour in the cold, hopping from one foot to another in a frail attempt to keep myself from turning into an icicle, I finally managed to get onto a bus, which later turned out not to be a race bus, but a regular one. Bummer! This meant that we had to hop off in the city centre and take a 15 minute walk into the race HQ at University Parks. ‘This is a good warmup’ for the half marathon, I said to myself, trying to calm my nerves, as I was trying to follow anyone wearing running gear, like a lost sheep.
The sheer size of the event really hit me as I entered the race HQ. There were people flocking from every possible direction; the atmosphere was electric. Later on, I found out that there were about 9,000 of us running that morning. Definitely not a small affair!
Fortunately, things got better from a logistical perspective after I managed to drop off my bag and my jumper in the baggage tent; clear signs and plenty of marshals were directing us to the starting point in the historic centre. Each of us were allocated into a particular pen, based on our predicted finishing time. I thought this was a good idea to reduce congestion and potential tripping over each other. Sadly, this did not seem to work for one guy just in front of me, who, within only a matter of minutes of starting, somehow landed on his face on the pavement and spread out flat with all fours like a dying octopus. Ouch!
Whilst we were waiting to start, the organisers were trying to keep our spirits up by playing some classic songs – you can’t call a mass running event a race without The Eye of The Tiger blasting from the loudspeakers, right?!
After what felt like an eternity, we were finally released onto the streets with some minor delays. I felt elated as the streets were lined with cheering spectators, and the sun was shining on us brightly, just giving us the perfect conditions for a good race.
I cautiously settled for a pace that felt relatively comfortable – after not running for two weeks during our road trip in California, I was not sure what time goal I should be realistically aiming for. I thought anywhere near 1:50 would do the job just fine; however, when the 1:45 pacer suddenly appeared by my side at about 7km’s, I felt I could not let her go just like that. Because I was feeling good and my body seemed to be co-operating, I set myself the challenge to glue myself onto her as long as I could. I broke up my plan into smaller segments: first, let’s see if I can stick with her until 10km; then 14km; then 18km; then see what I have got left in my tank on the final 3km. Those of you who have earnt at least one half marathon finishers’ medal know that the half way point in a half marathon is not the mathematical halfway point at 10.5k-ish, but it is the final 5kms that make or break the game. In this instance, I ran that final 5km on sheer gut, and nothing else!
Apart from that, I felt energetic and strong throughout the whole run, felt incredibly chuffed that I was able to keep up with the 1:45 pack; the longer I stayed with the pacer, the more I started to believe that I could even potentially set a new PB, dipping just below 1:45, which is my best ever half marathon time I set in Budapest 3 years ago. I was holding onto that thought for a very long time. I administered two energy gels at 14km and at 18km to make sure I did not run out of fuel. When I was starting to flag, I tried to focus on my form and just moving one leg in front of the other; just going as fast as I could, without being too fixated on what my Garmin was telling me.
Sometimes, it also helps to take my eyes off the runners and just take the views in. Having promoted itself as a scenic race, the starting and finishing of this half marathon was spectacular indeed, however, I have to say that the majority of the route was not that exciting after all; there were plenty of residential areas with a bit of countryside and farms, but on the whole, it was the crowd support, the musicians and the atmosphere that I found to be the most uplifting, not the views.
This furry supporter was especially helpful when I was facing my first dip. A high five and a laugh with him got me right back on track!:-
Some non-conventional signs were also encouraging us ever so tired runners to keep going, such as “You are running better than the government”!
As I said, I found the last 5kms the toughest; all I remember now is just a blur as I was dashing back to the centre of town through some green parks, feeling really tired. I even had to yell some encouragements to myself about not letting my ambitions go during the final push – all the hard work can’t be all for nothing! With the 1:45 pacer slipping farther and farther away from me, I was determined to get at least a second best half marathon PB; nothing less would do! With these thoughts in my head, I blasted through the finish line in 1:46, achieving exactly that. I collapsed onto the pavement to catch my breath, whilst I was trying to register what I had achieved. It was one of the incredible moments I will always want to remember, when I doubt myself or don’t believe in myself. Feeling on the runners high, I could not decide whether to laugh or cry! As commonplace as it may sound, you truly are capable of doing more than you think you can. This lesson I did learn at this year’s Oxford Half. The lesson I learnt last year was a painful one; albeit a necessary one to set me up on the road to becoming a much better and wiser runner.
I also have to add that we often need the help of others to push us harder than we would push ourselves – I doubt that without a pacer I could have achieved anything close to this time! In a similar fashion, it was also a pacer at the Black Park parkrun this spring who helped me get a new PB on the 5km distance. I can’t say enough how much I appreciate pacers during half marathon races.
Having earnt my finishers’ medal, I strolled back to the HQ for a snack, coffee and some stretching. I hope I will be able to finish many more races with a big smile on my face like this:-
Once the initial adrenaline rush wore off, I remembered I had to get back home somehow, so I headed out to the streets again to find the bus back to Park& Ride. Unfortunately, I ended up doing a bit more post-race sightseeing than I had planned, as I found myself swept away by huge surge of crowds having the same idea in their heads, and with no clear directions about the exact location of the Park & Ride buses. I regret not researching in advance where to get the bus from; after about half an hour of feeling completely lost and overwhelmed by the huge flock of people, it finally occurred to me to use google and maps on my phone. At least I had a nice lady sitting next to me on the bus. We had a good chat about our shared passion and exchanged some running stories to pass the time. One of the things I really love about running is how it can bring total strangers together and create some camaraderie.
On the whole, I loved the Vitality Oxford Half and would definitely like to do it again. The flat and smooth route makes this race an excellent PB potential, not to mention the encouragement you can get from the supporters. The organising itself was good, perhaps would have loved to see more buses leave the Park & Ride place to ensure there is not too much unnecessary queuing in the cold. Just a word of warning if you have knee issues like me – the majority of the route is on hard pavement; I could really feel it in my knees the next day. Ewww!
Hopefully see you at next year’s race?