Earlier this month, I completed my 5th half marathon this year which turned out to be a very unique experience in many ways!
My latest race took place at a very iconic venue, at the RAF airbase in Upper Heyford, near Oxford. Chances are that you have never heard about this place so here are a couple of interesting facts for starters: It is one of the world’s oldest military air bases – approximately 100 years old. It officially closed in December 1993, so it has not been maintained formally in more than two decades. The airbase, which was home to US air forces throughout the Cold War (and even rumoured to hold nuclear warheads!) now stands abandoned… These days you are more likely to spot a Hollywood star than the military in the air base as it is often used as a film set. For example, you might recognise it from Brad Pitt’s zombie apocalypse blockbuster World War Z; but the location was also used by the James Bond movie producers who took Roger Moore there to film Octopussy in the 1980s. Most recently, the abandoned and decaying airbase has been graced with the presence of hundreds of runners, including myself, completing either a 5k, 10k or a half marathon race through Purple Patch Running.
I was completely blown away running at the airbase – I wish I could say I was blown away by the special surroundings, but I was more by the gale force headwinds which we had to battle against for at least half of the time – a bit more on that later.
First, the logistics. We all needed a special permit to drive into the air base, which we received by email from the organisers prior to the event. There is plenty of parking as it is a huge place, so no need to get there mega-early to secure your spot. (I’m one of those runners who is known to rock up at races at first light, ‘just in case’!) The race HQ was only a 5 minute walk away from the car park which is a good warmup if you are arriving close to the starting time. By the time I got there, a junior race was taking place, followed by a wheelchairs race. Given it was promising to be a hot and sunny day, at a venue with virtually no cover or shade from the sun, I was slightly apprehensive about the 10am start. Fortunately, the heat wasn’t too bad and the sun decided to hide behind the clouds in the second half of the race.
The fact that it is a pancake flat course with lots of different distance options, the race attracted quite a diverse audience – I saw plenty of recreational runners, parent runners with buggies (jeez, they are really hardcore – I think I would faint pushing a big and heavy buggy after about 5 minutes!), children, and of course the speedy Gonzaleses in their incredibly short shorts flashing their meaty thighs and calves.
The race is positioned as a PB potential course – which, in my opinion, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, as a lot is dependent on the weather conditions on race day. Given that the race is in June, prepare to run in the heat with no shade (if you are not used to running in these conditions, maybe this is not a good time to push yourself beyond your limits), and if it happens to be a windy day, prepare to get nearly blown off your feet and accept that your energy is likely to get sapped as you are trying to run against headwind. On the positive side, when the wind is behind your back, it is really nice, and you do get plenty of high fives after surviving the windiest segments!
Apart from the giant aircraft hangars and smaller utility buildings scattered around, there is really not much to see, and you need to do two laps if you are running a half marathon. Therefore, if you get bored easily but like running with music, this is the time to load yourself up with your favourite tunes to keep you going. I forgot to bring my iPod (yes, some of us still have these!), so I ended up listening to the crickets in the grass and chatting to a bloke who was aiming for a similar time as me. I also heard other people talking in smaller groups to break the monotony. (You might have guessed that I was not running this race very quickly, despite my best intentions). There was a live music band playing us some tunes about halfway through the course, which was a really nice touch. My Gu ‘Chocolate Outrage’ energy gel was the only other thing that temporarily lifted my spirits – it is so delicious that it’s unreal, it tastes like dessert and not like a traditional energy gel. I think I will keep running long races just as an excuse to try some of their other flavours, too, such as Vanilla Bean, Salted Watermelon, Caramel Macchiato or Lemon Sublime just to mention a few… Yumm. You get my message, if you have not tried this brand before, you should definitely Gu for it! Notice the pun LOL. (And no, I am not being paid by Gu to rave about them, I am just giving credit where credit is due!)
I felt I was doing relatively well until about 15km. The final few km’s felt the longest ever, as I was running into headwind. That reminded me of those dreams where you are trying to run away from a threat, but your legs feel like cement and you can barely move. The large inflatable purple gate (our finish line) in the distance ahead seemed to be getting farther and farther away with every step, instead of getting closer! In addition, there was a lady running next to me who kept breaking into a walk, but somehow always managed to overtake me every time she switched to running speed again. Of course, this brought out my competitive inner self even more, so I gritted my teeth, started pumping my arms vigorously and increased my cadence to get ahead. This trick seemed to work out really well as I finally managed to not only overtake her on the final km but also widened the gap between us so much so that she finished at least a few minutes behind me. If nothing else, that was a small victory, even though I did not do too well in this race time-wise (missed my target finish time by about 30 seconds).
Needless to say, it was a huge relief to cross the finish line, after being sapped of nearly all my energy and feeling quite defeated by the windy conditions. If you asked me if I would do this race again next year, my answer would be only if I am desperate to do a race in June! I really can’t fault the organising though – as usual, you can expect seamless logistics, friendly marshals, good catering facilities and a rather unique location from Purple Patch Running.
What has been the most challenging race you have done this year so far?
The airbase images I used were taken by urban photographer Jason Kirkham and were originally published in the Daily Mail online magazine.