Following on that great tradition that I have started in my own mind, I have managed to get this race report written well within my self-imposed cut off time of ‘do my legs still hurt?’. Two days on, and I still have aches in my quadriceps, while I’m also generally stiff all over. Indicative of a well-run effort or an over-exertion in the face of under-preparedness? Read on to find out…
I signed up for Aberdeen what feels like a lifetime ago (literally it is – I signed up before my son was born) at the advice of Anna (the artist formerly known as ‘The Lady’. About time I actually named her I think.) It was a bit of an excuse to head up to see her parents, as when I signed up we knew that we would be +1, and that it would be nice to spend some time with family not long after the baby arrived. I saw it as a backup opportunity at running a sub 1:30 half marathon to my main tilt at Hampton Court, which then became my main effort given the 1:37 I ran there earlier this year. It also served the purpose of being a waypoint on the way to my second marathon of 2017, which is the as-yet –to-be-run Frankfurt Marathon in October. So in my mind I couldn’t really work out if this was an ‘A’ race or a ‘B’ race; I think it was more of a matter of seeing how the season went and then retrospectively assigning importance to the races depending on performance. I’m fairly sure that is not how the system is supposed to work.
The leadup to the race probably saw some of the best training that I have done in a long time, albeit for a few weeks rather than a sustained period of any kind. I managed to get 6 weeks or so of training in, with a nice balance (for once) of bits of speedwork with some small elements of endurance in there. I did quite a few 13km-14km efforts, as that is the distance between work and home – something I will hopefully continue to do in the leadup to Frankfurt. I peaked with a 29km long run in the weekend before the race, but I still felt that my change in approach (greater focus on speed and less focus on endurance) might leave me short in the back end of the race. I had to try something different though, as doing the same thing again and again wasn’t seeing any performance improvement strangely.
I flew up to Aberdeen after a week without either of the kids, or Anna (I spent it drinking with friends and catching up on a couple of films I had missed. Not PhD like I bloody well should have); getting in on the Friday before the race on the Sunday. Alistair (newest family addition) was spectacularly happy over the couple of days prior to the race, and his newly found ability to sleep more than a couple of hours in a row in the night was greatly welcomed. I spent the day before the race relaxing at home with family – preparing for what I knew was going to be a painful 90 minutes or so the following day. The butterflies fluttered, the mind raced and the muscles tensed up. Usual pre-race build up, naturally.
The morning of the race I woke with some porridge and a coffee, which then led to a further couple more coffees and a brief reconsideration of the diuretic effect of coffee. We (Anna, Alistair and Anna’s parents) drove on down to a park-and-ride before getting a bus into the middle of Aberdeen – where we were greeted by a seagull which can only be described as absolutely massive. I learned at that point that eating outside in Aberdeen was not done, as the seagulls there have a habit of aggressively stealing food from people. You could have convinced me that they might have taken limbs as well, given the size of the bloody thing. We headed for a(nother) coffee from a coffee shop, and then two nervous wees and a hug later, I wandered down to the start line of the race. Naturally, I needed yet another wee (three in 30 minutes pre race) so used it as an excuse to get a warm up jog in the side streets done, trying to shake some of the lethargy from my legs. They were feeling a bit heavy, and I wasn’t sure whether that was a good or bad thing pre race.
I found myself in one of the front groupings for the race, which I think was colour coded by expected finish time. This was quite bemusing, as someone (I won’t say who) described mine as the ‘elite’ group. There is a first for everything, and me being described as an elite runner was certainly one of them. It was nice to be in the first group to get away though, and a horn and gun blast later and the race had started. I self seeded towards the back of the front grouping, hoping not to get in the way and to find some space to get the legs going.
Around 400 metres in to the race I saw my jolly band of supporters by the side of the road, and in typical naff fashion blew them some kisses in a fit of adrenaline fuelled stupidity. I wasn’t so concerned with conserving energy at this point, but rather just enjoying the atmosphere. I put my head down after passing them though, and tried to settle into a comfortable rhythm that might be sustainable for 21.1km. The opening kilometre felt very downhill, and at least one section of it (down towards the harbour and the industrial area aside it) was a downhill drag. Neither of those things necessarily explain running a 3:49 opening kilometre, a time for me that I usually run for a kilometre when making an attempt at a 5km personal best. This persisted in fact, as I ran 21:21 for the opening 5km – which is in my top 10, if not top 5, fastest 5km runs ever. The opening 5km took us out of the centre of the city, down on to the coast of the North Sea and along the beach – replete with ships at sea and what looked to be wooden mooring posts of sorts. It was lovely to look upon, and it was only made better by feeling that I was running within myself, even if I was holding what felt like a pretty suicidal pace. I wanted to run by feel though, sticking to the mantra of running at a pace I felt I could hold until the end. As it happens, and I didn’t know it at the time, I was bang on track to run a 1:30 half marathon.
Things were always going to turn though, and the next 5km were a battle to try to hold on to the pace that I had set. I wasn’t too far off it, as we turned inland, up Ellon Road towards Bridge Of Don (I don’t know what these places are, I’m just reading my Garmin map) and then skirting by the university (they’re always lovely to run through). At the 10km split I was wondering to myself how I was going to hold on for another 11.1km, and with good reason. I hit the 10km split in 43:59, with a second 5km of 21:57. For reference, Strava tells me that my best 10km run ever is 43:25 – so once again I was within touching distance of an open PB within a longer race. Things were looking good, even if I didn’t feel it or for that matter, look it. This was despite the presence of cobble stones on the course at this point, which ever since the Rome Marathon have been cause for me to curse audibly and hop over to the footpath at every opportunity. Fucking cobble stones.
The drop off continued for kilometres 10-15, as we headed back towards the North Sea coast and a horrid headwind for the couple of kilometres there. Garmin tells me that I was only out on the coast for around 7-8 minutes, but it felt like an eternity as my legs left me and my breathing became laboured. I was finally paying for those early exertions, and other runners were starting to edge past me. Those shirts that I had been religiously following for the previous kilometres (including an Ealing Eagles one, as well as a most excellent Irn-Bru one) started to disappear into the distance. This is when the voices in my head started to niggle away, and the prospect of stopping for even a little walk appeared. These are the toughest times in a race for me; too far from the finish to contemplate hanging on, but close enough that walking would feel like a real cop out. I went through the 15km mark in 1:05:55; on track for a 1:32 finish and a new PB – if I could just hold on for the last 6km.
Thankfully, I got a bit of a second wind after we headed away from the coast and down into the relative shelter of the Aberdeen Football Club stadium. I managed to pull some time back on what I had lost out at sea, but was in preservation mode more than anything else at this stage. My main focus mentally was on keeping one foot in front of the other, knowing that I needed to hold as steady a pace as possible in order to secure the fastest possible time I could. I was still hopeful that I could grab a new PB, the only problem being that I couldn’t remember what pace I needed to run for that. It was probably a good thing, as I simply focused on running as fast I could rather than worrying about what pace I needed to run. Heading back into the city centre was a great buzz, as the crowds were growing and the noise was fantastic. There weren’t the usual irritating number of DJs and bands lining the route which was nice, just people cheering us on. I needed it – at this stage my head lolling on my shoulders, eyes raised to the sky in quiet desperation for the relief that only the finish line would bring. I had a couple of (relatively) catastrophic kilometres in here – kilometre 18 being in 4:49 and kilometre 20 in 4:47. I was struggling; and the demands to stop and walk from the voices in my head had grown from a whisper to a scream. My feet were blistered, ankles and calves pained, and my vision blurry. Somewhere in there I had taken on a bottle of water from an aid station and missed the bin with my throw. For some reason I felt compelled to stop and go back to put it in the bin (it might have been the police officers standing next to the bin that I must have nearly hit with my water) which gave me a brief moment to take stock. I then saw Anna and the support group down the road, so I put on my best brave race (not convincing apparently), gave my son a sweaty kiss on the head (I’ve now kissed both of my kids during half marathons this year – achievement unlocked) and took off for the finish line. The adrenaline lasted for a while, or at least it must have as I managed a 4:13 kilometre split for the last kilometre. Once again I proved to myself that I had more energy than I had thought available, pulling out a strong finish to ensure that I had left nothing out there. I stopped my watch some 400 metres short of the finish line, as I continued to refuse to run full course distances but rather run the advertised distance on my Garmin and then slow to enjoy the finish. This inevitably costs me finishing positions as people fly past me in the last few hundred metres, but, well…meh.
I finished with a final 6.1km split of 28:02, which was actually only 2 seconds per kilometre slower than the pace I had set for the 5km between 10km and 15kms – so I did manage to finish relatively strongly. Sadly though, not strong enough to manage a new personal best, as I crossed the line in 1:33:57 – 35 seconds slower than my personal best, but my second best time ever. I finished exactly 200th out of 3373 runners, which by my (poor) calculations put me in around the top 6% of runners for the race. Perhaps it was right for me to be seeded in that front pen at the start of the race after all.
Because I had eased up for the last 400 metres, I felt quite comfortable over the finishing line – it was only the blisters that were causing me grief. Anna surprised me with quite possibly the best post-race thing ever – a can of Irn Bru! The sugar was fantastic (33% of your RDA of sugar, kids), as was the fact that it was probably peak Scotland for me. This was my third race in Scotland – I love racing up north, especially if it ends with incredibly sugary drinks and family hugs at the end of it. We then hopped a bus back to the car before driving home – another race in the bag and some introspection ahead of me.
So what did we learn from the Great Aberdeen Run? Well, I can now say that my ability to run half-marathons at this pace is no fluke; given that it is my fourth half marathon finish under 1:40 (1:33, 1:33, 1:35 and 1:37). That being said, I really thought that a bit more focus on speed would be a bit more beneficial than it was; and if anything the race shows how much my development has stalled. 2017 was supposed to be a year of running gains, and at this point I have just the one personal best to my name – 5km. I also did think to myself that I ran my first sub 1:40 half marathon two years ago now, and I really would have thought that by this stage I would have gone under 1:30. I can’t beat myself up too much though; I simply don’t focus training or nutrition enough to justify the kinds of gains I am looking for. I have always had an attitude towards life of doing the bare minimum while hoping to extract the desired result out of a situation. There are some circumstances under which this can be ok, but trying to maximise performance is not one of them, and in this case I reap what I sow. I have said before that I know I spread myself too thin across things I want to be successful at, and running just cannot be the priority that I need it to be if my real goal is to become a faster runner. For the next few months in the least, being a runner falls well below being a Dad, partner, employee and PhD student; and that is a conscious choice on my part that I need to be more ok with. I would really like to adjust my expectations a bit more (starting with running a sub 3:30 marathon in Frankfurt) and just enjoy my running rather than defining success or failure by arbitrary time goals that may be unachievable given the time constraints that I have anyway.
My immediate goals are to get organised to take a holiday with the family (another one!), get on top of the stuff that is going on at work, get re-started on my PhD and try to wrap my head around everything that is going on. Running will help with that – as it always does. I love to run and I love the way that it makes me feel. Whether I will continue to worry so much about the goals (sub 20 minute 5km, sub 1:30 half, sub 3:30 marathon) – that one is open to debate.
A week or so off, and then its time to mach dich bereit für den Marathon meine Freunde. I didn’t even mention the sudden implosion of my fantasy football team (ugh – Harry Kane. I’m looking at you.), the lack of energy gels at half marathons, the Game of Thrones season finale, drunkenly singing early 2000s Something For Kate songs to no one in London, nor the bottomless pit that is my despair at the Melbourne Football Club. For another time perhaps.
Listening To: ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ by ELO