68. The Beautiful South – Great South Run 2004

(Images Flickr.com — The Horror, owlhere)

Amongst all of the race distances I run, 10 miles is always my favourite. The Great South Run in Portsmouth is the definitive version, which today I’m sampling for the fourth time.

A ten mile race is a less brutally breathless affair than the 10k, whilst posing none of the recovery problems or tough training demands of a marathon. And whilst the half marathon is fun, there’s nearly always somewhere in that race, around 11 miles or so, when I’m less certain that I’m enjoying it right there.

This, then, is the beauty of a 10 mile race. It’s effectively a half marathon, just without those last 3 miles. And if you’re running regularly, you could run one tomorrow, and still walk again the day after, too.

The Great South Run often takes place on the same day as the Chicago Marathon. And although it’ll always be a stretch for the Esplanade at Southsea to equal the drama of Lakeshore Drive, or for the crowds on Hampshire Terrace to recreate the atmosphere of a Michigan Avenue, despite all of that, the event continues to grow in popularity and scale. Four years ago there were fewer than five thousand runners, and this year there’ll be nearer 15 000, with many more spectators.

If the race is improving all the time, it’s far less sure whether that description can apply to me. My running has reached a flat stage, the dreaded runner’s plateau. Forgotten are the days when I could come into a race far better trained than the year before. I could probably run more miles, but I know now that I’d get injured.

But maybe there are other things which can help. That’s why I bought a copy of Hal Higdon’s book ‘Run Fast’ this summer, and he even signed it for me. I’ll definitely read it, yes – well, maybe tomorrow. Even without it, one thing I’ve already learned is that planning and visualisation can both make a big difference.

So why am I opening my race packet at 8 pm on Saturday night ? And why haven’t I started thinking about the race itself, except suggesting to my friend Paul that we run it gently this time ? So much for ambition. But it’s a fair strategy, reflecting his recent 3:58 in the New Forest Marathon, and my own less focused training over a long recovery summer.

The one change I make today, is to travel by rail. It’s a last-minute decision, following my worryingly late discovery that this year’s race starts half an hour earlier, and some still stressful memories of clutch-pumping experiences in previous years. Portsmouth is effectively an island city, with limited road access, and yet they’ve always managed to close the railway on the very Sunday that thousands of runners will arrive. But this year, by oversight perhaps, there is actually a train. A train full of runners, but there is still a seat. And although we arrive a few minutes late, I’m feeling relaxed and there’s time for a second breakfast of caffé latte and cookie. These are the changes that will define my race.

I meet up with Paul, and we jump in not far from the front. Our conversation takes us calmly over the start line, ambling into a stiff gusty breeze. With my much-rested clutch foot, I feel loose from the start, as we head for the naval dockyards and HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship from the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. We start out quite smoothly, 8:31, the next two at 8:19 and 8:22, and I’m starting to sense that there’s something afoot. A dull dual carriageway and back into town past Georgian terraces, as the pace is maintained, 8:31, 8:24. Five miles have gone by, and there’s no pretence any more – it’s a serious race that we’re running right now.

And that goes for us, and the hero in front. He looks more like a rugby player, but his T-shirt proclaims that London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital has saved his son Harry’s life. This happy father is earning his £ 5 000 sponsorship, as we shake hands in support. Then we weave past some Breast Cancer runners, and put on a spurt in salute. For one perfect moment, I feel the purest of energy, pouring power through my legs – an instant acceleration towards a dream of exhilaration and speed. Perhaps it’s just less slow than before, but it feels electric to me.

Southsea falls swiftly behind us, and we turn towards Fratton, home of an ancient old barracks and Portsmouth FC. It’s back into the wind now, and up-gradient, too, yet our pace is increasing: 8:18, 8:21, 8:10. Hard running.

We rejoin the seafront, and out of nothing Paul asks me, what’s my PB here, and encourages me on. The conversation has dried up now, amidst harrowing gasps. There can only be one pretext, and it’s desperately clear that he wants something more from me, down this final long straight.

The wind’s at our backs again, with only two miles to go to the promise of rest. But something’s not right here, and I just can’t respond. On other days, in other races, I’ve flogged myself home willingly, but I’m finding it hard to match Paul’s motivation requests now. I gaze at my Garmin, inching ever more slowly along, as a red mist and strange hatred of Paul start to rise in my head. 8.89 miles, 9.27, 9.65, 9.71 (only that far ?), then suddenly it’s clear. I’m staring down at my shoes, heaving for air, and rueing the rogue reappearance of my coffee and cake.

This blissful release costs me some time, and more dignity than I’d like, but soon I’m back running, much lighter of stomach and fresher in mind. Of the thirty I’ve lost, I gain ten seconds straight back before a finish line which appears just 400 m too late.

This last mega-hiccup brings me home 20 s behind my best, but still very much faster than I’d reason to hope. At 1:22:41, we’ve somehow carved out a second half two minutes faster than the first, and a final two miles under eight minutes each. It’s been a novel experiment in squeezing the most out of me. And today it’s certainly not running that I’ve left behind on the road…..

There’s time for a third breakfast, and a good cup of tea, as we replay the race in a seaside café. The lessons I’ve learned today are as varied as new. To relax into the day can help you pick up the pace, loose legs proving good mimics for speedworked sprint strides. Race experience and good pacing can hide a lack of hard training, over a distance like this. And if you add caffé latte, shake well for an hour and breathe hard till you fade, a surge up the seafront might paint new pavement appliqué on your Portsmouth parade……

Related articles:
30. Embarkation Beach: Great South Run 2003
26. Great North Run
28. Thoughts on racing
18. Reading Half Marathon
44. Bath Half Marathon: Minerva’s revenge

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