Hampton Court Half Marathon – Mud & No Glory

13 miles is a bloomin long way.

My running story started in October 2013 when I decided I ought to be able to manage more than three minutes on a treadmill before starting to make noises like an asthmatic walrus with a bad cold. I’d been a fencer for many years; but fencers have a sprinter’s laziness – short bursts of excitement interspersed with much sitting about eating jaffa cakes. However, I quit fencing a few years back and took to cycling – my first foray into endurance sports. I thought running might improve my stamina.

Running, I had supposed, was pretty much just Moving Your Legs Quite Fast For A While. With that in mind, I took myself out for random Running About in The Streets. On my first attempt I completed four miles at a speed that fluctuated between Too Fast and Eventually. Needing a goal to keep my lazy posterior venturing into the elements, I signed up – along with a conscripted brother – for a 10k Santa Run. We discovered, to our delight, that sodding about whilst dressed as Santa – amongst thousands of others dressed as Santa – has great comedic potential.

I made a reasonable entrance to the realm of running – albeit with no formal training regime – entering several 10ks early 2014 and attempting the Southend half (very hot, walked much). After that, it was all about the cycling as I prepared for RideLondon. Then Mum became ill and everything stopped. Happily, she responded better to treatment than anyone had imagined possible and we began to feel cautiously optimistic about the future. Mum was going to live, so we could begin to live again too. I turned my attention to Brighton marathon, to which I’d signed up aeons ago, and recommenced training. In December 2014 I took part in my first Park Run; finding that my fitness had floundered so much I need to walk parts of it (with Flyer Lin – before we knew one another – encouraging me during the final lap).

Deciding to join a club and train effectively, I happened upon the Flyers via Twitter, visited their Facebook page and liked what I saw – especially the variety of runs on offer during the week. I received friendly, fast responses to my enquiries, and my first outing didn’t disappoint: a welcoming and enthusiastic bunch of runners of all abilities – with a profusion of knowledge and experience.

And so we arrive in the present. I’d signed up to the Hampton Court Half as part of my marathon training. However, the week before the race, for reasons that remain unclear, I bailed out of the Flyers’ LSR after three miles with jelly legs and struggling to catch my breath. I wasn’t feeling confident about running 13.1 and it would have been easy to find excuses to not. Fortunately, however, there’s a masochist in part of my brain that makes me do all sorts of things I don’t want to. (With the notable exception of housework.) The night before the race, I dropped Lexi off at my parents’ and the cats were evicted from the bedroom so I wouldn’t be disturbed by their penchant for late-night shenanigans (the ever popular scaling-the-curtains-then-hurling-self-onto-bed, game and the conjuring-a-carrier-bag-from-cat-teleport-space-and-rustling-it-loudly-at-regular-intervals-throughout-the-night, game.) I still barely slept. Nonetheless, I surprised myself by rising at 5am and –zombie-like – going through the motions of donning running attire (remembering to put pants on before running tights – we weren’t going for the Superhero look today) complete with orange Flyers top – its maiden voyage. In pitch dark silence, I scraped the ice from the car and headed off – brightened up by coffee and film tunes.

For a change, the sat nav didn’t direct me to the middle of a farmer’s field/a remote seaside hamlet with a heavy atmosphere of foreboding and I arrived at Esher College in plenty of time. Henry VIII had turned out to greet us on arrival. Which was nice. The pre-race malarkey was well organised. Hot drinks and bacon butties (for those that eat such) were available, and there was ample space in the sports hall to sit out of the cold, people watch and ensure one’s laces were adequately tied. A squad of polite and efficient Army Cadets took care of the baggage drop. Importantly, there were ample toiletage facilities.

A 10k set off ahead of the half and, whilst awaiting our start time, we lined up behind the appropriate pacers. I put myself behind the 2:30 banner carriers along with other nervous-looking types. And off we set. The great thing about being with a pacer is that it reduces the temptation to get over-excited and go dashing off at the outset. Everyone around me adopted a steady 11min/mile-ish pace.

Hampton Court Half Marathon 2015 #SussexSportPhotography #racephotoNow. Here’s where the criticisms begin. I knew Hampton Court involved some road running – the route was published ahead of time – but I’d envisaged more off-road sections in scenic settings. As it transpired, we spent most of the route running around streets. On a few occasions I had to stop and wait whilst marshalls let cars out of turnings. Furthermore, the route included confusing loops. The fastest 10k runners became intermingled with the halfers. Where we continued straight on, the 10kers were to loop around. We saw several baffled 10kers trying to get directions from not-much-less-baffled marshalls. I imagine they were less than pleased about running extra distance and missing PBs. Running on public paths became a problem over the final mile too. As I was one of the later finishers, the paths were full of people leaving the college grounds with their supporters and families. Even though many of these people had just run the same race that I was spurring myself on to finish, most of them showed little awareness of, or sympathy for, us knackered souls trying to reach the line. To avoid people, I found myself running in the road, or into trees. At one point, I desperately pleaded with a group – completely blocking the route – ‘please, let me through!’ They didn’t. I had to run into the road. There were comments about this on the Hampton Court Facebook page: ‘Did feel for the later runners as they seemed to get pushed off the paths with finished runners just walking in the way!’

And then there was the mud. Oh the mud! We’d been advised that about half a mile of the final stretch was along a woodland track. Doesn’t sound so bad. In reality, said track wouldn’t have been out of place on a Tough Mudder course. Running was nigh on impossible. There was much falling over. I stumbled a couple of times and passed one unfortunate chap being tended by paramedics. Still, at least there wasn’t a freezing river to traverse, or any live wires.

I didn’t feel victorious upon crossing the line so much as relieved! I’d found it gruelling. I mentally broke the race into stages, took on water at each station and had an energy gel at six miles. However, after nine miles I struggled and walked a fair amount of the final few miles. My finishing time (not helped by the obstacle course over the last 1.5): 2:41.

At times I feel I should have stuck with the swords. I’m not going to win any races. But, I’ve come a goodly way since three minutes of wheezing on the treadmill.

Onwards to Brighton!

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