Easily remembered, but easily forgotten, too. And at eight miles in the Bath Half Marathon, it was time to remember.
Anyone can make a mistake. It’s easy to do. But after five marathons and eight half marathons, perhaps you don’t expect to make mistakes in races. But you can make them just the same. And with five miles still to run, I was learning just how true that was.
It was the fourth year in a row that I’ve run this race, and every time I’ve learned something new. And there was another lesson learned again today, sure enough, even if not quite the one I’d meant to learn.
It was good to run with Paul again. My old training partner from when we worked together, a few years ago. A natural sprinter, fast of flight down the rugby wing. A good selection of those fast-twitch muscles which evaded me back in the gene pool of millennia past. But not so much experience of running long, slow miles as a dedicated plodder like me. We ran together well, not long ago, when I was in marathon training, and Paul had never run one.
But that all changed, and my mistake on Sunday was to forget that it had. Because last autumn Paul ran his third and fastest marathon yet, a 3:58 in the New Forest race. A finish to beat my best by seven minutes. But it was so much more than time – it was confidence, too.
In the excitement of the start line, I’m sure you can forget anything. It’s almost forgiveable, I think, especially here. It’s a marvellous course at Bath, starting out amongst the Georgian splendour of Great Pulteney Street and down the hill to town. A gentle opening to the race. An 8:30 mile, and that hit it fine. It felt quite good. And so on we went, through the crowds to Queen’s Square, and down the hill beyond. Feeling faster, but still in bounds. I reeled us back a step or two, even if the pace still stayed the same. Another mile went by, and the same again, and then one more.
We’re smack on 50 minutes to reach 6 miles. The pace is great, but it’s a 10 km time, or thereabouts, for me, and it happens very fast just then. One moment I’m hanging on, breathing hard, and the next I’m begging to be left behind.
The mistake I’ve made is to run halfway, on PB pace. But the problem is, it’s not a PB day today for me. There’s no savings bank of 15 and 20 mile runs to draw on this year. There’s a February of little running not too far behind. Some good runs since, but a few more struggled, too.
So halfway round is just the start of the longest way home today. A second hour ahead, much longer than the first. My endurance all gone, and my choices, too. To fall apart, to stop right here, or to live a managed collapse for six miles more. No choice at all.
And so I walk at 7 miles. Well, it’s 7.2, to time my shame beyond the biggest crowds upon the hill. A lonely minute, and then re-start. The same again a mile beyond, and then once again. At 10 miles ‘run’, I’m hardly there, just clinging on. The runners go past me, and that hurts even more, to fall behind where last year I was speeding up. But I hadn’t made the same mistake as now, and the homeward miles were so much shorter, then.
They’re long, today. Each mile receding further. There’s no defence, no way out except long grind behind and more grind ahead. Time drags on slowly, like my feet. It drags.
And then, it happens, at 11 miles run. Unexpectedly – as it always does. A hand on my shoulder, and another runner shouts, ‘You can do it, mate’. The same old words I’ve said before, encouragement to the flagging souls I’ve passed on other days. I smile and shake my head, since I’m no green first-time runner limping home. Don’t you know I’m a seasoned runner, really, just managing my decline ? And yet, the words stay with me, and a minute later, I’m on his shoulder, and I’ll stay there till mile 12 and the bridge. And there, well, alright, I’ll plan a final walk, to regain some strength for that homeward uphill stretch.
The bridge arrives, and I bid farewell. Pass on my thanks for resolve regained. And walk again. Just five steps more, until another voice shouts, ‘But you can’t stop now ! Just KEEP it up.’ It’s a girl, this time, and older than me, too. She doesn’t look that fresh herself, as she trots beside her husband, who’s struggling, too. But I know she’s right, and I try to kick again. The strangest thing is that when I run, it’s not that slow. It’s not that fast, just a meagre trot to get me home, but somehow I’m still not being left behind. I catch her then, and go on past – I don’t know how.
And just ahead, I see him now, my Good Samaritan of mile 11. We run together, for a minute more, at steady pace. Which I can’t do. It’s either walk, or forge ahead, and now the final corner’s almost there, in sight. And so I press on to finish alone. I took energy from these two folk, and abandoned them so near the line. It’s a mental, brutal game.
Perhaps this 1:55 doesn’t feel that bad. It’s not that good, but it’ll pass. And Paul is smiling, at the baggage tent. 1:46 for him, a PB today, and now I realise. I paced him well, those first six miles. An easy pace for him, but one too fast for me. The difference between his swift acceleration, and my sad, slow disintegration.
So what did I learn, from my collapse today ? That you have to run for how you are, for how you’ve trained, and how you feel today. Not how you were last year, not how you will be sometime soon, or how you think perhaps you’d like to be. Or even how your friend can run.
I know that, now. And of course, I knew it then. But sometimes you have to live it first. A joyful risk, to start at heady pace. And then a painful hour, to bring it home. It’s not the way you’d like to run.
It’s thus we learn, from our mistakes. Some lessons hurt, but then again maybe it’s right they should. And if it’s pain that counts, then perhaps I will have learned a lot today. From a lesson lived, and a lesson learned.
The lesson of this Strife of Bath.
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