Races tend to bring out the worst in me and my running. Blame it on lack of confidence. Blame it on a fear of looking stupid. Or just blame it on my uber-competitive streak. Yes, I’ve been known to put on a burst of speed just to stay ahead of the school kids doing cross-country in my local park.
Line me up behind a Start sign, and the ego takes over. Instead of relaxing and running my own race, I find myself tensing up, focused on what everyone else is doing. Pushing too hard, and falling back into bad old habits.
After last year was such a duffer for running, I’ve been slowly building up the mileage again, but ahead of this year’s Taunton half, I was feeling a little rusty. More than two years since I’ve regularly run double digits, and well over three years since my last 13.1.
Half marathons are tricksy. Get the pacing wrong and those last few miles can be a slow, painful death.
And add to that a new route. I hadn’t had a chance to scope it out, but I knew it involved a nasty little hill towards the end. Not a situation to give a girl buckets of confidence.
But I had a few positives on my side. The long break from racing has taken the pressure off and I’m still enjoying the novelty of competing again. I went into Sunday’s race with no particular goals. Sub-10 minute miling would be nice, but that was as far as expectations went.
I’d had a taste of what racing relaxed could do for me after my experience at Babcary, and I was beginning to have a bit more faith in my chi speed.
And I had the good luck to work with my friend and colleague Gray Caws on a Chi Running performance workshop just a couple of weeks before. A little bit of teaching, and a lot of learning and new ideas. Perfect timing, or what?
With just two weeks to go until race day, I didn’t want to introduce too many changes but one area stood out: breathing. Nothing to make you feel less relaxed in a race than gasping for breath, so here’s where a little work could make a big difference.
I’d played around with nasal breathing and breath holding last year after reading Patrick McKeown’s Oxygen Advantage, but for some reason it really hadn’t clicked. I’d come back to it again at the beginning of the year, though, and was already beginning to notice a positive change. Gray showed us how to use breathing techniques during walking and running warm ups, and the difference it made to how relaxed I felt and how easily I could breathe while running was noticeable.
As an added bonus, we also had some coaching on mental performance from Andrew Cohen-Wray of Athlete In Mind. Andrew has a name for that little confidence-knocking voice in your head that’s always telling you that you’re going to fail: the Running Reaper.
I know that Running Reaper well. Now I had some ideas about how to tame him.
Race day dawned gorgeous and sunny. The start is just a short stroll across the fields from my house so I rocked up with about 30 minutes to go, and warmed up with some easy breathing exercises. By the time we lined up in the funnel, I was feeling a strange mix of nervousness and calm.
The gun went off, and I pretty quickly eased into what felt like a comfortable pace, focusing on keeping my breathing nice and relaxed.
As we hit the first mile marker, I glanced at my watch. 8:50. Eek! At this point, my usual thought process would go something like this: ‘I’ve started too fast. I’ve blown it. I’ll never be able to keep this up for 13 miles. I’m doomed, I tell you, dooooomed.”
But I thought back to Andrew and the Running Reaper, and realised that I actually felt fine. So instead of trying to slow down, I decided to roll with it and see what happened.
As we headed out of Taunton through Norton Fitzwarren, I just focused on getting to the end of the next mile, enjoying the fabulous views around me and keeping my breathing relaxed. I wasn’t really tracking my speed, but as each mile ticked by, I noticed that I was dropping further and further below my target 10 minute mile pace.
We reached mile 6 and turned towards Oake. At this point, my calf muscles started to niggle ever so slightly. I focused on moving from my centre and letting my heels float up behind me, and could feel my legs relaxing and working less hard.
By the time we got to 8 miles and were nearing Bradford-on-Tone, I was feeling really good. Only 5 miles to go. I had this in the bag!
Then a short stop to do up a shoelace which had come undone. As soon as I started back running, I suddenly felt completely knackered. As though my body had decided that’s enough, we’re done for today. And this just as we hit a sharp little hill up into the village.
Somehow I made it to the top. It wasn’t pretty. And it wasn’t very chi. But hey, don’t judge me.
Soon we were leaving Bradford-on-Tone behind, on quiet country roads. The start of the new route and a run into the unknown.
To start with, it was mostly gentle downhills, giving me a chance to settle back into my running. I checked in with how I was feeling: tired, but still pretty good. Each time I felt my legs starting to work too hard, I went back to my focus. And the miles kept ticking by.
We hit an evil little incline that seemed to go on far longer than was absolutely necessary. As I passed 10 miles well under 90 minutes, though, the realisation hit that a sub-2 hour finish was possible. But that steep hill near the finish was starting to play on my mind. I decided ahead of time to concede defeat and walk it.
Mile 11, and exhaustion was setting in. Just a couple more miles to go.
And then at last. There it was. The final hill. Which seemed to have shrunk in the wash. I ran up most of it, but as it steepened near the end, tired legs decided walking was a better option. And then there I was at the top, no more hills and with a little more than a mile to go.
Down the other side, and the realisation that the run from the bottom of the hill is always longer than you think. But then the finish line in sight and comfortably under the 2 hours.
My fastest time in more than 15 years. Not bad for a rusty old half-marathoner.
After being a runner for more than 25 years, and hitting 50 last year, it’s a weird experience to find myself getting faster again. And not by trying harder, but by trying less. It feels as though there’s a lot more to come, and I’m curious to see where this can take me. 2017 looks set to be an interesting year, just as long I can keep that Running Reaper under control 🙂