Reading. A picturesque, and largely flat town lying pretty alongside the Thames. Not quite, and never have I spent so much time amongst such a dismal set of warehouses. As the architecture of start lines go, it wasn’t pretty. A place which was seemingly designed with one true purpose in mind – the ideal location to find a grotty alley for a guiltless splash behind a rubbish skip.
News had come that the Police would not allow the race to begin. Not because the organisers had simply chosen too ugly an assembly point, but because they had been unable to get marshals out to some remote parts of the course and it was too dangerous to begin the wheelchair race in particular. The thought of mixing racing wheelchairs with errant traffic is not a pleasant one, so clearly there was no choice. But it was a long and very cold wait.
Finally we were off. Or not. From where I was, between the 1:40 and 1:50 signs, we didn’t move for five minutes at least. Really I should have started behind the 1:50 mark, but I have learned that many runners are either clueless about their pacing, or hopelessly overoptimistic. Maybe they think that if the winner will do 1:05, then 1:30 is a reasonable time for a plodder on a couple of five milers in training. It isn’t. It’s virtually superhuman. The fastest of 20 runners at my office, Roy, runs like a gazelle. If he didn’t also support West Ham, and hence stop to talk to me about life in the relegation zone now and again, I’d probably never ever speak to him, since on our lunchtime outings he is always at least a mile ahead of me. Roy’s half marathon PB is 1:29. I rest my case.
Finally we made it to the line. I gave a high five to Steve Cram. I said it was good to see him again, but to be frank, he looked blank. This may well have been because he did not remember our meeting last October at the Buckingham Fountain in Chicago, and certainly he had already high-fived at least two thousand others. More pressingly, he was doubtless bored out of his skull having thought he’d have been on his way home to Geordieland at least an hour before.
The first mile was the usual stuff of gentle jogging and frustrated weaving amidst a chaotic crowd. Nine minutes, I would think, although no one saw the mile marker. 8:30 for the next. At this point we were happily inspecting the undersides of a flyover with a bottle of water in hand. 8:40 to Mile 3, near the bottom of a very gentle climb. Tame stuff in this town, I thought complacently, watching the first walkers and unwisely draining the last of that bottle. Now heavy stomached, but looser-legged, I rounded a corner to see a straight uphill mile. And into a stiff breeze. Isn’t Reading supposed to be pancake flat ?
It did briefly level off as we reached the University. I know it well, having interviewed and conferenced there as a student and even researched there briefly some years later. It’s always been tricky circling the campus in search of a parking space, but it was never like this. Yomping across muddy lawns with thousands of others in vague pursuit of an ill-defined route and all the available (and several unavailable) short cuts around it. There were plenty of hoofprints but no tyre tracks in the mud, so presumably the wheelchairs at least had stuck to the tarmac.
A three year old boy stood sad and lost beside the route, with a couple of female runners asking passers by (of which of course there were plenty) if he belonged to them. It seemed unlikely that any of the runners would have abandoned him before heading for the start, but I suppose anything was possible. I hope he found his mum.
Out of the campus on to a pleasant tree-lined road. A lady giving out half bananas, conveniently pre-peeled and in sandwich bags. Still uphill at mile 5. Were there no downhills in this darn town ? And just then the world fell away beneath our feet into a very steep descent. We’d spent the better part of three miles trudging upwards to gain elevation, only to lose the entire altitude gain in two hundred yards. A right-angled bend at the bottom. More short-cutting runners, but this time I held the approved course. Not so sure how many of the wheelchair participants could have made the curve. If this was the dangerous part of the course they were referring to, then it was haybales rather than extra marshals which were the order of the day here.
The mile splits had been forgotten in the haze of uphill breathing, bog-hopping and slow-runner weaving. Mostly 8:40 – 8:50 ish, I think, depending upon the incline and the angle into the gale. But the black-run grade of Mile 6 reaped an impressively unlikely 7:58. No chance to maintain this without serious assist, but it lifted my spirits and I positively surged Mile 7 through a council estate in 8:10, much to the crowd’s delight. All rather rash, especially in view of the ensuing steepest hill on the entire course, more breathlessly conquered in a much slower pace. A small highlight here was to overtake a petite blonde wearing what had appeared to be a West Ham shirt, but which sadly proved to be a travelling Aston Villa strip. Then a fantastically serene fast mile downhill and downwind into the city centre. 8:05 and feeling good for this distance, now successfully navigating a dangerously slick and bottle-strewn, traffic-calmed shopping street back out of town.
Two serious disappointments next, as the road turned fiercely and lengthily uphill again towards Mile 10, just as the Aston Villa shirt appeared from nowhere ahead of me. A sergeant major of a running coach alongside cajoled his crew to the top before cheerfully lying that it was all downhill from here. Ten miles in 1:24:02, just outside my Great South Run PB. Gotta be good. Legs still turning fast. Breathing under control again, at least until the hill of untruth at mile 11, past some cherry blossoms and a park, and then a long twisting downhill hanging on through terraced houses and semis. The Aston Villa shirt ten seconds ahead of me, then seven, six, and holding me off at five.
Overtaking fewer runners now. A grim straight of fresh black tarmac, depressingly decorated with newish office and hotel development so typical of any nineties-aspirational middle England council planning policy. Somehow past Miss Aston Villa with three quarters of a mile to go, but had I kicked too soon ? No looking back, just burning legs and mildly rising nausea now tasting of Ballygowan Spring and Sainsbury’s porridge. Under the railway line and round a fast bend to stop my watch on the finish line at 1:48:58. The strange second mat five metres ahead is explained the following day when the organisers strip me of an entire minute on my new PB through their official 1:49:02. I feel like a world record has been denied me. Almost.
And so to Bath, for their half marathon next Sunday. Just 3 000 runners in an architectural theme park of a city. And it’s flat !
19. A warm Bath
39. Woking – from Necropolis to Technology Junction
141. A winter sky and green and blue – Hyde Park, London
28. Thoughts on racing
78. Spanish stroll: Almería Half Marathon
24. Things I have learned… #267