When I was planning my #18in18 Half Marathon Challenge Lisburn was arguably the race I was least looking forward to.
I had ran last year in the associated 10k event and absolutely hated it. I stated at the time that it was my worst ever performance so, as you can imagine, I wasn’t particularly keen to be returning a year later and doing double the distance into the bargain.
To be fair to the actual event my dislike of it had nothing to do with the organisation or occasion. Quite the contrary, it is one of the biggest races in Northern Ireland numbers wise, the set-up runs smoothly and the support from the locals is amongst the best I’ve seen.
Last year my biggest issue was the heat. My Garmin tells me it was 22° at the time and given this is an evening race it’ll give you some idea of what the day was like.
So it was with a sense of relief I noticed that the temperature this year was forecast to be a much more manageable and pleasant 13°, perfect conditions for running.
Also, last year, I arrived at the venue with around 30 minutes to spare, and it was all so hectic collecting my number, getting changed and so on. This year was the polar opposite of that. I used public transport to get there and, leaving nothing to chance, left home almost four hours before the start! This was also partly to give me time to grab a quick snack upon arrival and to limber up properly after enduring two bus journeys along the way.
It all meant I was as chilled as I possibly could be come the start of the race.
After bumping into a work colleague and more than a few from my club I edged my way to the back of the pack.
This was deliberate. I’m very well aware of my limitations, and I also know how easily swept along I am at the start of a race. I had a gameplan for this one and was worried too fast a start would ruin that before I had even given it a chance.
I had plotted the route a day or two beforehand so knew what to expect right from the start. That was one thing that hindered my performance twelve months ago … I don’t know Lisburn, had no idea of the profile of the course and therefore didn’t anticipate a reasonably sharp climb almost from the start which I used too much effort going up and never really recovered.
I was ready this time. I dropped almost to the very back – I think only one person was behind me – and just slowly navigated the climb. I was going to be here for the long haul so there was no point wasting any more energy than was necessary.
That over I was then able to focus on my run. Despite my gameplan the first three miles, had they been done at parkrun, would have set a new personal best. This was faster than I had wanted this early on but, yet, I felt ok. I didn’t have a sense of being too quick so I thought I’d let it play out and see where it took me.
Shortly after the 5k mark came my only real moment of concern throughout the entire race, the return of the pins and needles which I suffered from at parkrun on Saturday.
It had affected me a lot earlier at the weekend, and increased in discomfort the more I ran, so I did have a sinking feeling that their return would mess up my chances of a decent performance especially since I’d been going so well up to this point.
Thankfully, whilst it did hurt for a couple of miles, it wasn’t as painful as Saturday so I was able to push through and eventually the sensation disappeared.
This took me to around five miles, one of the markers I always use when judging my performance mid-race … and it was good. Indeed, I was running at pb pace. There was still a long way to go but I was still feeling ok, I was still maintaining a quicker pace than I had planned. I couldn’t, could I?
Let’s see where I stood after 10k. Yep, still good. Seven miles? Not bad, around the same time as my 6.2 a year ago. This was looking promising.
It’s around this point in a half marathon that my mind starts to play tricks on me. I’ve done just over half the distance and now I have to go and do it all over again. The miles between seven and ten are always a slog, before I get the boost of knowing there’s only a parkrun left.
Not this time. I had, by now, slipped into my planned for pace and had little difficulty sticking to it.
I was also beginning to pick off runners in front of me, which I had also hoped to do. The idea was to focus on my own run, let everyone else set off too quickly if they wanted in the belief that by concentrating on me and me alone I would eventually haul them back.
This was exactly what had started to happen. However, I decided to be a little bit selfish. Because I knew I struggle mentally at this point I thought I’d use my fellow runners to unwittingly help me through it. So I caught up with one and, instead of passing him, opted to run and chat for a while. He was a pleasant enough chap, and it was good exchanging stories and experiences.
I think, in all, I did this four times. I was running faster than these people, but it did me a lot of good to hold back a little each time to regroup and to ignore the thoughts in my head.
Almost before I knew it I had reached ten miles, and I had done so whilst still at pb pace. This was now very much definitely on. It was up to me now.
I knew there was another hill in the final mile so I was aware that I shouldn’t go too quickly now in case I had nothing left for the finish. But I also knew how many minutes I had to go, divided it by three and aimed to go slightly quicker than that pace to give myself a little wriggle room should the climb take too much out of me.
Still making good time, I paused at 11 miles for a drink and some energy safe in the knowledge that barring something going wrong I had this in the bag.
I was still picking other runners off and felt strong going past them.
And then a curious thing happened. I got to the top of the hill without even realising. I was so focused on knocking out a steady pace that I never noticed the incline until, at one point, I looked round and saw the slope fall away behind me.
I remarked earlier on the good support from the locals last year, and so it proved once again this time. At many points on the course there were little pockets of people applauding, cheering, handing out sweets and so on. This was great to see and fair play to them for hanging around until us backpackers had passed. If any of them should ever read this I can tell you it was very much appreciated.
Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said for the last half-a-mile or so. I know it was after 9pm on a school night, I know there were only a few of us still out and about and I know the light was beginning to fade but this last section was empty. Indeed, apart from one arrow pointing along the road towards the finish there was no-one or nothing to even indicate we were almost at the end.
I actually wondered if I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere before I spotted a vision of wonderfulness, an angel if you like … it was Bronagh, one of my training buddies, who had come down for the finish and to take me home. What a welcome sight she was (and thanks again for being my saviour)!
All that remained now was to navigate those almost deserted final few yards, and I elected to do so as quickly as I could in order to shave as much as possible off my pb, there’s nothing like a big finish after all.
I had done it! I had produced a strong, steady performance throughout the entire 13.1 miles, and I had felt good doing it. Not only had I set a new personal best, I was also around ten minutes quicker than in each of my last three outings.
What a fantastic, amazing way to kick off the second third of my 18 and especially doing it in a race I wasn’t really looking forward to.
However, there’s no rest for the wicked. My next half is this coming Sunday in Swansea, number eight in my list and my third in a fortnight. It’s the UK’s favourite half and is billed as a flat and fast course so who knows what might happen but, for now, I’m just going to bask in the glory of Lisburn!