*LONG POST, GET COFFEE*
In September last year, newly arrived off the M6/M74, I remembered seeing fluorescent signs on the roads near my new house warning of a road race coming up. I looked it up, but a half marathon looked like a step too far after my recent triathlon efforts.
This year, Applecross had been and gone, and I found myself with a worryingly empty weekend approaching. Someone was looking out for me though, as the previous year’s race popped into my head while queuing in the Co-op. I got home, found the entries for the Neil McCover Half Marathon (the Kirky Half for short) closed in four hours, my decision was made and the entry was in for the coming weekend.
13.1 miles. The furthest I’d run/walked before this was 10 miles. I’d done this once. I’d done a few hilly 9 milers but I’d never run any further than 10 on tarmac. The furthest I’d gone without stopping for a brief walk or two was 6 miles. At my steady 11-minute mile-ish pace, I would finish just within 2h30 if I could keep going. The website suggested preferred completion within this time otherwise marshall cover would be withdrawn but I was pretty confident I could do it.
The day before the race, I made the mistake of checking the previous year’s times. I was going to be last. I had a big wobble. Having spent most of my bike racing career bringing up the rear, albeit with a huge smile and a lot of giggles, once again I found myself wondering what on earth I was trying to prove, why I needed to spend £20 on a run I could go out and do on my own any time.
The day came. The weather had looked a bit grim ahead of the weekend, and at 6am on the first hound turn-out, it was looking pretty biblical. Others were away on Arran and I felt for them. A couple of hours later and there was some blue sky in evidence. I contemplated pulling out, still questioning what I was doing while my bed was warm, but the need to not waste money and the constant new-girl-in-town buzz of “go along, you never know who you might meet and sitting at home being miserable won’t change anything” helped push me out of the front door.
Lots of very serious looking people were warming up around the start line but I found another girl who was there on her own and we chatted away. She had done her first half marathon a few months before and finished in 2h06min. I was thrilled for her but it didn’t help the nerves, especially as she was running by her own admission in a 99p vest from Asda and what looked suspiciously like a wonderbra.
Eventually we got started. The pack pushed on, and soon there were just a few of us towards the back. It was an interesting experience running along closed roads where I’d normally sit for ages in traffic, and this was my first race with no cycling or swimming involved – ‘just a run’ albeit a long one.
Before very long at all, I was right at the back. Being kerb-crawled by a police car and a St Johns Ambulance. This certainly kept me focused but didn’t exactly settle the nerves any further. I was pleased to trot happily up the hills and before I knew it I was turning off towards Milton of Campsie, again all along roads I’d normally drive along.
There were some cows and sheep in the field next to the road, and I couldn’t help noticing that one cow was ignoring all the others. There was plenty of lovely green grass and friends to moo with in his/her field, but he/she was out on his/her own and had stuck his/her head all the way through the fence in search of more/better grass. It didn’t look particularly comfy, but I had to admire him/her for his/her spirit.
I missed a couple of the mile markers after mile 4, but did notice a little girl in a pram who was waving at us as we ran along. I hoped she wasn’t getting too wet/cold. By this point, I had company in the form of another runner. Angela and I would trade places and chat/puff pretty much the rest of the way round.
At one point I could almost see my front door, and guessed I was approaching the half-way mark. I was still accompanied by the police car, but the ambulance had now turned into 2 ambulance people on bikes. I had to use my inhaler a couple of times as it was rather damp – I was dreading them being over-enthusiastic and pouncing on me in their excitement at something happening. By this point, my lucky knickers had headed into a rather uncomfortable position, but with my entourage so close behind, there was no way I could do anything about them.
Miles 6-7, 7-8 and 8-9 felt like very hard going. Once I got to 9 miles, things started to lift, although I realised that at 11 minutes per mile, I still had at least 44 minutes to run. But, I was still running. By this point, I had decided that police car or no police car, I was going to keep going to see what would happen. I knew if I stopped to walk on the flat I probably wouldn’t get going again.
A big hill came at mile 10, but I managed to keep going up it. Angela and I were swapping places happily, with heads down and a bit of chat when we could manage. Eventually, a point came where the police car couldn’t drive with us, and I was able to have a quick stretch and sort out the undie situation without giving the policeman an eyeful. I could just imagine the radio chat going on and didn’t want to add any further fuel to the fire.
Another hill came at mile 12. Again I kept going, but by now I was incredibly sore and ready to stop. The last mile was in and out of a housing estate and was deceptive as we really felt we were getting closer to the line. We could see the finish line flags but kept twisting around. The mile 13 marker appeared at last.
On the last corner, we were clapped and cheered by three girls who had waited to run the last bit with us. This really gave us a boost – so many people moan about young people today but here they were, on a Sunday morning probably with much better things to do, lifting our spirits and keeping us going. Angela asked if I wanted to share last place and I was thrilled to accept. We held hands over the line, even managing a brief sprint to a big cheer from those who were still hanging around at the finish.
I couldn’t believe I’d done it. I stopped my Strava and looked at my time – 2h27 something although I wasn’t sure how accurate it was. I was over the moon, in a very quiet and very tired way. I thanked the policeman for his patience and apologised for the likely state of his clutch. He patted his belly and said he admired our perseverance.
Angela’s friend Al was waiting for her at the line. Hugs were being doled out, and I wasn’t sure of the protocol but managed to claim one anyway. The hand of friendship was further extended and I joined them both for an utterly wonderful post-race hot chocolate. Facebook details were swapped, and this being Scotland we worked out who knew who else, and before long, just like that, I had a whole new world of people to run with….
…..And another race to enter, in a fortnight’s time!
The Antonine trail race had been mentioned in a new Facebook group I’d joined at Angela’s suggestion. At 13.8 miles long, it was just over the half-marathon distance I’d done but being off-road it was much more my normal thing. It also had the advantage of being just down the road again. With nothing else planned, I put an entry in. I knew it would be hilly so wasn’t sure I’d be able to run the whole lot, but I was really happy to be going somewhere completely new.
I felt immensely pleased that I was at a stage with my running to be able to enter not just one but two half marathons, on a whim, with just a week to go before race day, and to know I’d done enough work to have a decent chance of finishing. I’ll never be particularly quick but this does have its advantages, in that even the smallest of improvements are celebrated with great joy.
A couple of days before, I found out I would have some company on the start line and at the end. This was really appreciated and made the build up just that bit more special. It was great to share the chat afterwards, although I was in pretty lousy shape at the end this time.
I found this race much, much tougher. The going under foot was much more varied, making things more entertaining but harder work. Ankle deep mud, bogs, tree roots, slippy wooden boards, gravel, rubble, tarmac, there was everything other than ice and snow. I was in my trail shoes, and had never done a long/mixed run in these. With the state of my ankle, I am a bit more sensitive to shoes than I’d like, but I’m getting there.
I had to stop to walk a couple of times – I wasn’t sure whether this was down to me being tired or down to the route. I had much more company at the back this time, and swapped around with a handful of others. There was only one other girl running on her own, everyone else seemed to have brought someone with them. The majority of my running is done on my own, I’ve never really known anything else and am totally content with my own company while I’m huffing and puffing away.
A swan appeared briefly just after the mile-8 marker, and disappeared just as quickly as it had arrived. This picked me up no end, for reasons I won’t go into here.
The route sits just across the other side of the Kilsyth Hills, which are the eastern end of the Campsie Fells and are a major part of home for me. I drive past them almost every day for work. If they’re on the left of me, it’s the morning. If they’re on the right, I’m on my way home. On race day however, the route twisted and turned and I kept losing track of where I was in relation to everything else, expecting to see the hills on my right but finding them somewhere else.
Again there were 2 hills of particular note – one at mile 9/10 which was a beautiful run up through a forest. I could have been anywhere in the world but was really happy to be enjoying myself in my adopted homeland. It was a gorgeous morning by now, there was some sunlight shimmering through the trees in between the showers, and I felt very lucky to be out enjoying the scenery.
Coming down this hill, the monster mile-12 Croy Hill suddenly came into sight. I could see a variety of different colours of running kit working their way up it and my heart sank. I was craving Jelly Babies by this point, and almost utterly depleted. So I couldn’t believe my luck when a very kind marshall appeared with a magic yellow packet of just what I desired. There was a faintly magical feel to the day for a variety of reasons, just a general sense of being looked after by others who weren’t there, and so I took a handful of my favourites – the orange and yellow ones – and set off up the hill.
Ever since I started running, I’ve often felt a magical hand between my shoulder blades, pushing me on when I know I should be stopping. I can’t explain it, but at the same time, I know exactly why it is. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s a wonderful feeling and very much welcome when it comes. Today was one of those days, but this time the signs were manifesting themselves in the physical world a little more than was usual.
I’ve not done a lot of hill walking for a very long time, but what I have been lucky enough to do this summer really helped me up this particular hill. Others were flagging but I kept myself going.
The last mile came, and headed back down towards the start of the race. There were a couple of small hills before the end, and for some reason I decided I needed to run up these. The last one was a total mistake and I felt the sudden and very real terror of an approaching asthma attack. The sharp and audible rasp, the complete contraction of my lungs like when you scrunch up a crisp packet, and the feeling of a very determined elephant being sat on my chest and stomach.
I tried to keep calm but the tears started to come and I knew if I couldn’t pull myself together I would be wearing a nebuliser at the end. I heard someone shouting/cheering at me from further down the path and I got more upset. As I got closer, I realised who it was (he’d got changed from his running kit!) and started to panic even more which was very silly. Somehow I managed to calm down and keep breathing and made it to the line. Gradually everything subsided, but it was incredibly frightening and I was glad not to be on my own.
The first race hurt more in my hips and my feet – I had several layers of blister on my big toe (thanks to my road shoes) which took a good few days to calm down. I felt OK the next day as long as I kept moving. Sitting down for 2 hour long lectures was definitely not a good idea though. By the day after, I felt fine.
The second race really tired me out. My legs were fine the day after, but it took me a good couple of days to really bounce back from it. I’ve lost a stone in a six-week period, unintended and mostly due to not eating enough through house-selling stress. This is a lot for a small person. I’m not sure how much of an impact this has had on how I felt after both runs. It wouldn’t have made me any faster, but maybe I’d have felt a bit more with it afterwards. Definitely something to think about though, as the urge becomes stronger to run further and further to new places.
So now I’m left with a bit of a hole. I hadn’t planned anything else after Applecross beyond continuing to enjoy my running over the winter, but I’ve been grateful for having a couple of big things in the diary. I doubt I would have run all 13.1 miles for quite a while if I’d just been out running on my own. I’ve also met some brilliant people, been supported by some brilliant marshalls, and enjoyed being in the company of others who also enjoy what I enjoy. There are lots of routes planned for the winter, partly to push my distances but really just to continue to enjoy myself being outside in the country that has become home.
I was awful at sports at school, excluded because of my asthma and too frightened to challenge this because it meant getting my wobbly thighs out in front of all the thin girls. My dad always described me as built for comfort not for speed. He’d hate it if he knew now but I carry those words with me everywhere, and when I look in the mirror, even at a body that is shrinking before my eyes, all I see is an overweight teenager.
Even my mum had to ask what the aliens had done with her daughter when I said I was doing my second half and going in for a marathon next year. It has always felt like a bit of a joke, but I guess I can call myself a runner now.
So what of the cow? I’m sure it’s obvious, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do to stay in the field and eat grass with your mates. Sometimes it’s right to poke your head through the fence in search of something new, something better, even if it means risking getting stuck, or hurt, or worse. Sometimes it’s right to move between the two. There’s only one way to find out.