We were up at 6.30 this morning in order to drive to a trail half marathon that started in a picturesque Oxfordshire village, all ancient, honey-coloured stone cottages trailed through with rambling pink and white roses....
It was hot. 26 degrees. This may not seem hot, but believe me it is hot for here in the UK, where the warmest we tend to reliably get is just-out-of-a-cardigan-if-you're-lucky-kind-of-warm. Our weather has been misbehaving this year and has blasted us with unseasonable heat of the kind that makes running trying, and running endurance distances in particular Hard Work. A perfect temperature for running is 12 degrees....
We set off, a fairly small field, and trundled round a playing field then out into the village past the church. Reaching the top of the road up a slight hill, we ran on into parched fields where horses swatted lazily at flies while sensibly standing beneath the shade of huge oak trees and then slowed down for the first of several stiles.
While not as hilly as The Ridgeway, there were nevertheless two or three substantial hills on the course which were particularly taxing in the heat. I ran up half the first one then decided to walk the rest. At that point my phone buzzed with a text from friend Saz who's just started the couch to 5K programme, telling me she'd been out for her second run, a cool one along the river. Struggling up the hill at mile 5 in the full blast of the frying sun I tried not to think longingly of cool runs by rivers, and instead texted her a well done and an update on my race progress and then concentrated on getting up the hill and enjoying the beautiful countryside.
I fell in with an endurance runner who'd done a 54 mile run in 11 hours two weeks before. We chatted for a bit then I decided I needed to put some effort in or I'd be out there all day, so I left him behind and ran on to overtake the next chap along.
The course ran along a main road for a bit then dived off back into countryside. My blister-plastered black toes started to hurt at this point (around mile 6). It was an exercise in putting your attention elsewhere. Luckily at that point the path turned downhill so I made up some time with the help of gravity and ignored the throb in my toes.
I ran the next 2 miles alone, but by that point I'd got into the run, knew I was coping with the heat and I imagined Pop running with me to spur me on. It worked, the loneliness disappeared and my rhythm picked up. It was so easy to imagine her there I could almost see her, little ears flying along out in front. I did wonder briefly if the heat was getting to me. Possibly because friend Sue had recently told me about how an endurance runner she knows hallucinated an entire conversation with the Letter P whilst tackling the end of a particularly gruelling run. He was very specific about which letter P it was too (capital, sans serif, in case you're wondering). This is what running long distances can do to you! Sue herself once thought the boulders she was running past were bunnies, both stories that the children in her class love ;o)
On I went, up another hill along a lane where flax fields bloomed sky blue and a friendly Marshal at the top waved encouragement.
I cracked on as the course twisted along paths and through fields, feeling the heat but ignoring it, glad of the hydration vest and the jelly babies, glad too that my toes had by now gone numb so I couldn't feel them aching any more. Finally I saw a runner ahead: he'd stopped at the St John's Ambulance and I fell in step with him when he started again. I checked to see if he was OK. He told me he'd stopped to get some tape put over his nipples which were rubbing raw.
Am I selling this whole distance running thing to you?
We carried on together for the next couple of miles, both glad of the company as there were no other runners in sight. He knew the course well so gave me some useful info on what was coming up, and we chatted over marathon ambitions.
As we ran downhill and reached mile 10 we were greeted with two stiles, one after another, and then a long climb up another hill. I got over the stiles OK, ran half way up the hill then strode the second half at a fast walk, because, although I'd set off determined to abandon the idea of time entirely in deference to the weather and told myself I'd just be glad to get round in hotter conditions than I've ever run before, glancing at the GPS had told me I was in fact on track to get a new half marathon PB, if I could do the last three miles in under 30 mins. I can usually do that comfortably, but asking your body to step up at the end of a long run in heat is something else and I knew it was touch-and-go.
The final three miles were littered with stiles, which slow you down at the best of time but at the end of running 13 miles are just no fun at all. I climbed each one with increasing labour but a steely determination to grit my teeth and get the job done. The second to last km was along a burning hot field in full sun, it felt like it went on for ages. I knew I was stumbling one foot in front of the other and slowing down. There are times on runs when it sounds so easy to say: just go faster, but you really can't.
I thought in despair: I'm not going to make it. Then I remembered the jelly babies I'd stuffed in my pocket. I chewed one and gulped down some water and seconds later felt the injection of carbohydrate in the form of sugar shoot through my system.
The effect was marvellous. My knees lifted up, my feet stopped dragging, my gaze lifted from the floor and I was off. I caught the lady in front just after the next stile and was off after the next one, just visible as she ran past some horses. The gate swung open and we were back out on the lanes, lined with ancient stone walls. I glanced at the GPS. Half a km to go and I thought I'd worked out that I had three minutes to do it. For speedy runners that is so doable, but for me, at the end of 13 miles on a boiling hot day and feeling it, it was touch and go.
I overtook the lady I'd been chasing and that gave me a boost. I tore down the hill, hearing everyone at the finish and praying that my legs would hold up long enough. I came round the corner onto the playing field and saw the finish, enticingly near but still with a quarter of a field between me and it, and, seeing the minutes ticking down on the GPS tried to speed up but the sun was hammering down on my shoulders and the Jelly Baby Effect appeared to have run out.
I could hear M yelling and then saw him jumping up and down at the finish. He was roaring encouragement and for some reason the lady next to him was also screaming my name and yelling me in, although I didn't think, in my sun-addled brain, that I knew her. M told me later that she'd asked him my name so she could cheer me in. The kindness of strangers. I ran as fast as I could, stopping the GPS as I hit the chip timing mats under the finish and grinned the biggest grin when I realised I'd knocked 4 minutes off my PB!
I did have to collapse on the ground under the shade of a tree for a while after, and one of the children who were handing out medals tracked me down and hung mine about my neck with a smile. I wasn't too coherent until I'd glugged down a bottle of water and then sufficient energy returned to tell M about my time :o)
I feel I've banished some serious demons today- I'd been worried about running in the heat for days, obsessively checking the weather and feeling more and more concerned as the temperatures rose instead of falling. I was especially worried about running in heat over what is for me still a substantial distance, but the best way to banish demons is to conquer them, and now I know I can run a HM in hot weather it will hold no fears for me. Another Great Race!
Hope you're all well?