Sunday morning, 30th September 2012, I found myself standing under the criss-crossed, vapour-trail etched skies of Ealing with my brother-in-law Gordon. Steam on our breaths and goosebumps on our arms, we were there for the first ever Ealing Half Marathon.
It wasn’t just Ealing’s first half-marathon, either. It was mine, too.
What was nice about turning up for the Ealing Half was that it felt like coming full circle. A couple of years ago, when I was just getting started with running it was Gordon who tricked me into running distances I would normally have run. During that time, I hadn’t pushed my distance past a couple of miles, but on a visit to London, he took me out for a run along Regents’ Canal and kind of tricked me into running twice the distance I’d normally have run. That sealed the deal, and today I’ve got over 650 miles under my Asics trainers.
Now, we did something that in hindsight seems a bit ill-advised. The day before, Gordon and I went out for a 4.5 mile run. It was supposed to be a relaxed run, but we ended up breaking the sound barrier. Or something like that. Either way, we did a great time, averaging 7 minutes per mile, but I ended up with a niggling IT band pain which was not how I wanted to be starting a 13 mile race.
As a first time racer, everything is fresh and new. The little electronic chip you have to secure to your trainers. It records your start and finish time as you cross the line. The gathering crowd of athletes, amateur and professional – how do you tell them apart? The novelty runners. People wrapped in bin liners for warmth. The starting ‘funnel’ where everybody bunches up and gets ready to run. The hilarious motivation music which ranged from Born To Run to the theme from Baywatch. The excitement of standing waiting for the race to start, bouncing on your toes to keep warm and burn off that nervous energy.
The race begins…with a shuffle. Yeah, everybody’s in such close proximity that it takes a few minutes for the runners to spread out and hit a decent stride. And for the first mile in Ealing, that’s what happens: dodging slower runners and trying to keep a relaxed pace so as not to burn yourself out too quickly.
Ealing rocked. The residents were extremely gracious about having their entire town cordoned off so that 4,600 mad runners could take it over. Many of them stood by and cheered us on, whether they knew us or not. We ran past one house which was blasting Simply The Best from unseen speakers for our benefit! Some spectators were out in their best dressing gowns. One woman waved enthusiastically from her bedroom window. I think she was clothed. I hope she was.
The course, however, was tougher than I expected. Hills. Lots and lots of hills. You’d climb a hill and the course would seem to level off, only for everyone to turn a sharp corner and go up…another bloody hill!
From about mile 3 onward, my IT band was playing on my mind. The IT band is a tough band of tissue that runs down the side of your leg, around the knee and attaches to the side of your calf. It’s a common problem for runners to experience tightness in this, and when the IT band rubs across the knee bone, it causes friction, then inflamation, then excruciating pain. I’ve had it before. It’s impossible to confuse an aggravated IT band with – for example – tickling. When your IT band is on fire, it’s like being stabbed in the side of your knee. Repeatedly.
Anyway, there was no way I was limping away from this race without finishing it. My survival strategy? A combination of ‘boxing off’ the pain in my head, forgetting it was there, and favouring my left leg. This was especially important whenever the pain started to get worse: focusing on the strength in the left leg would help get me through it.
Much of the race was a blur of leafy avenues as we wound through the labyrinthine but picturesque streets of Ealing. There was one memorable road which was lined with trees. It was hilly, so climbing it was a bit of a struggle. Then, from out of nowhere, the wind picked up and conkers started raining down around us. They were bouncing and rolling around our feet and banging off the tops of the parked cars. Luckily, no-one around me was hit, but it was a memorable moment of jeopardy!
Closing in on the finish line was tough. Mentally, I segment a 13 mile run into 4 lots of 3 miles, which leaves that final mile sticking out like a sore thumb. Honestly though, the last three miles were hard work. Leg pain and fatigue were draining me. So I picked up the speed and ran a little harder. One mile went down. Then the second last mile seemed to take forever, but recognizable milestones started appearing – Ealing’s main street, places we’d run through on the way out.
And then Lammas Park appeared. The finish line! But what’s this? We’re not finished yet. Yes, we had to do an entire circuit of the park before we hit the finish line. And there was the best part of a mile left to run. For a moment, all the fight went out of me. Luckily, there was a 1:45 pace runner ahead of me – they were focal points for runners who wanted to finish in a particular time – and I fell into step with him. Then the 400 meter sign appeared. And then the 200 meter sign.
And as quickly as that, it was over. The finish line came and went and the running became stumbling around, trying to get out of the way of the other runners. Stopping to have the chip removed from my trainers. Grabbing a bottle of water from one of the helpers. Being handed a finishers’ medal. Hobbling back to the Northfields tube station with Gordon as the overwhelming pong of sweat engulfed us (and the poor Sunday travelers who’d had the bad luck to pick our carriage).
As quickly as that, first half-marathon over. Back to central London for a quick shower and change and then I was en route to Gatwick for the return flight. I have to say a big thank you – to Gordon for inviting me along, to Lisa for giving the green light to the trip and to the organisers of the Ealing Half Marathon. It was a fantastic event, we had a great day for the race and I’d happily do it all again. Once my knee gets better.