I ran the Bristol 10K on Sunday 11 May. It was my first ever organised race, and beforehand, I was dreading it. I was convinced that I would fail. I am 45 years old and just over 18 stone, and had until last autumn not done any running since school. I did, however, complete it – in a slow but steady time of 1 hour 21 minutes. Crossing the finish line was the one of the most exhilarating moments of my life.
How did I achieve this seemingly impossible (to me) feat? Two things: training and planning.
I started running last October as I needed to exercise over the winter and I naturally cycle less during that time. Fair weather cyclist? Guilty as charged, as, oddly, I prefer riding when the weather is nice. Mad, eh? I do keep up riding throughout the winter, but not as much as the summer. And I will not join a gym for very many reasons, so running it was. I started off very slowly, running for 30 seconds and walking for 2 minutes over an hour, gradually increasing the ratio until I could run for half an hour non-stop. Well, almost; walk breaks of 20-30 seconds every ten minutes or so. I developed a steady flowing running style keeping arms parallel and keeping the breathing regular and deep – I believe proper breathing is the key to good running. All my years of cycling had endowed me with stamina and a strong cardiovascular system that no doubt helped with my running project.
By April I could run 3 miles (roughly 5K) in about 35-40 minutes, inluding walk breaks, without (much) pain. My weight came down slightly but remained obstinately around the 18 stone mark. Against advice I did not consult a physio or buy specialist shoes, just a pair of £30 Adidas trainers, the ones I ran in on Sunday. I was warned about the dangers of this, ‘you’ll knacker your knees’ etc but after 7 months have yet to see any adverse effects.
I kept up this training plan, interspersed with cycling and worrying, and as the day of the 10k loomed I began to lose all confidence – but only began. Every time I doubted myself I told myself that I had trained, and I had a plan for the day. The plan was to aim for a 70 minute plus run (with walk breaks every ten minutes), keep it slow and steady, and just get round the course. Finishing was my goal – and never has the title of this blog seemed more appropriate.
I did a final training run the Friday before, 3 miles (roughly) 5K in 35 minutes. If you can run 5K, I have heard, you can run 10K – you just keep going; there will be a point of collapse, but it will be some way beyond 10K.
The day before, I did nothing – I sat in the garden (rain permitting), listened to music, and read. I prepared my kit – packing my bag, fixing my race number to my (also Adidas) shirt with safety pins (fiddly) and the race chip to my laces (very fiddly). In the evening, I ate a chicken balti with rice and a naan bread, a glass of orange juice and some yogurt, and went to bed at half ten, and lay awake until gone 1 am. I knew this would happen. I didn’t let it bother me and rose at 7am after 6 hours sleep. With a sore throat.
You aren’t supposed to run if you’re ill. Was I ill? I think not, as I feel fine now and the sore throat went after breakfast (toast, cereal, tea). I think it was because I left my bedroom window all night, and the dry air affected my throat. Still it was a worry at the time. So was the weather – raining hard at 8am, the time I’d planned to set off.
I almost gave in. I almost gave up. There was no-one at home to voice words of encouragement, except the cat, and much use she was; so it was quite an effort of will to get my ass out of the door. But I remembered my training, remembered my plan – and of course remembered Jack, the reason I was doing the 10k in the first place, to raise funds for the Cardiac Risk in the Young charity. (My fundraising page is here).
So, psyching myself up, I donned my kagoule and set off. By chance, and before I’d got too far down the road, I happened to glance down and notice that my shorts were on inside-out. I legged it back to the house to rectify that, defeat and frustration welling up inside me again, and was soon back outside in the rain.
And then the first positive thing – the rain stopped! And then started again, but not quite so hard. The weather remained squally all day, with some moment of sunshine – it wasn’t bad for running, as the occasional shower of rain proved rather refreshing.
As I walked through Queen Square the scale of the event became clear: there were runners converging on the area from all directions, and tannoy announcements could be heard echoing off the Harbourside concrete. Millennium Square was packed out but I managed to locate Phil Cole for a pre-run pep-talk. After a visit to the toilets that I would rather forget, and some confusion (on my part) about the bag storage areas, I changed into my running gear and took my place in the pens on College Green with the hundreds of other runners in the second wave. At about 0935 we heard the first wave set off and excitement surged through the crowd. I was feeling apprehensive, excited, and humbled by the vast scale of the event. 0945 came and went – our set start time – and no movement. Eventually we began to move slowly down the hill to Anchor Road – in time to see the lead runners from the first wave on their way to the finish line already! (These were all pros and the fastest was Olympic athlete Scott Overall in 30 minutes 20 seconds. Blimey!). I spotted a work colleague in the cheering crowds and he shouted words of encouragement – this did much to lift my spirits. Cheers, Ryan!
As we moved down the slope of Anchor Road cheered on by the crowds, the starting banner came in to view and some started to run before they reached it. ‘Nuts to that! I’m waiting until the last possible moment,’ I commented to the person next to me. I’m always on, darling! By now I was ready and it was do or die, so at the start line I broke into my run – remembering my training and keeping it slow, smooth and steady. I am not a fast runner, ‘largely’ (ha) because of my weight but I have developed a running style which can sustain me. I’m all about stamina – not speed. The key elements are 1. land on the mid-foot 2. keep the arms parallel to the body (the number of runners I saw with their arms crossing in front of their bodies!), 3. keep the back straight and head up – do not slump and, most importantly 4. breathe, slow and deep, right down into the (massive) gut. I can sprint, for short periods, but I did not plan to do so on this run. Slow and steady wins the race, as they say – or rather, completes the race without major injury.
Onto Hotwell Road and past the Mardyke (memories)… A few people were passing me, but I was keeping pace with most and even overtaking some who were walking already so soon into the run. There were a few people with bright read ‘Love Running’ T-Shirts. I asked them if you could get ‘Hate Running’ ones. They laughed. Thank you, I’m here all week! Onto Merchants Road and past the Merchants Arms (more memories…) and then up Humprhy Davy Way, the only real hill on the route, and back down onto the Portway. It was on the down slope of this that I took my first walk break at 12 (not 10) minutes, walking for only 20 seconds or so, enough for a quick puff on the Ventolin (oh yes, I have asthma, as well as being overweight and old). And then it was down onto the Portway for the longest part of the run. The first ten or so minutes or so of any run is the worst, before I hit my stride and the endorphins kick in it can feel a bit of a slog. I just kept it slow and held it back, there was a long way to go.
I passed the 2K marker at 15 minutes, which set me roughly on target for 70 minutes for the whole 10K. Only a fifth of the way through! I quailed, but, unlike the snails, I prevailed, concentrating on my technique, keeping my back straight and head up, arms parallel, and breathing, always the breathing – it’s what got me through. By now the weather was lovely and sunny, and the Avon Gorge looked beautiful, as did the Clifton Suspension Bridge. As we passed under the tunnel a group started the ‘Oggie Oggie Oggie!’ chant – I wondered how they had the breath to do it!
I saw some colourful characters on the run: a chap dressed in full, accurate Star Wars Stormtrooper garb (I quoted appropriately the two times I passed him); a team from CLIC Sargent bearing a Chinese dragon, a chap with a rather forlorn-looking panda head, but most were just like me. People running, for fun and for charity. Though I am a lone wolf, it felt good to be part of something this big.
The sight of the line of runners snaking ahead along the Portway and back was daunting, and prompted wails from those around me – but, again, I concentrated on my technique and rose above it. Someone coming back the other way called out to me, I later found out this was old schoolmate Neal Smith, and I spotted erstwhile workmate Zoe Garratt also.
Along the route Marshals were stationed, and members of the public had gathered, to shout encouragement; and the most oft-used phrase was: ‘Keep Going!’ The first time I heard this I shouted, ‘Thanks! You know, I never thought of that! Keep going! Wow!’ Sarcastic arsehole that I am, but I meant it in good spirits, and some other runners laughed. I heard it dozens of times on the run and it always made me smile – I suppose it’s one of those stock phrases, like ‘is this the queue for the toilets?’ and ‘are you all right?’ that people use without thinking. It was great to have the encouragement and well done to the organisers for pulling off such a massive event.
I had a walk-break again at 24 minutes, after which I passed the 4K marker. Now I was on a runner’s high, the endorphins had kicked in and I was running without effort, coasting comfortably. I reached the U-turn point and skirting round a load of strewn jelly-babies headed back along the Portway, into the sun. I passed the 5K mark, grabbed some water, and could not stop myself from smiling. This was mint! This was what it was all about!
The 6K mark went and I felt myself, ever so slightly, begin to flag. I’d had a walk-break at 36 minutes and another at 48, and planned another at 60. Off the Portway and over the swing bridge past the Nova Scotia (yet more memories…) to begin the last leg along Cumberland Road to the finish. I missed the 7K marker and was therefore surprised to see the 8K marker. Wow! Only 2K to go! I therefore decided not to take another walk break and keep going to the end, but my bladder had other ideas and I had to take a quick detour into the bushes at the far end of the Chocolate Way (ooer) which must have added at least 2 minutes to my overall time.
By the time I turned into Wapping Road I had entered another plane of existence. I was still going at the same pace, but it was beginning to hurt a bit. Something kept me going – my training, my plan, the cheering crowds – and I was determined not to stop until the finish. There were a lot of people walking but at no point did I even want to join them. As I entered the centre full of cheering crowds, I felt like a hero, and again it was very humbling. Past the Hippodrome and 600 metres to go. I saw Ryan again and shouted, ‘Piece of cake! I’m gonna go round again!’ Back onto Anchor Road and I knew then that I had done it, that nothing could stop me now. Maybe a sudden heart attack or my shin splitting in two? Bring it on! As I neared the finish the familiar face of Matt Redmond hoved into view and he took the photo you see at the top of this page. ‘Help!’ I wailed as I ran past him – why, I don’t know. I didn’t need any help!
There it was. The finish line. I pulled myself up and kept my arms parallel and my gait steady, I even sped up a little. Always finish well. The second I passed the finish line I staggered to a stop and sat down on the kerb, my head seeming to spin, my whole body feeling aglow. I immediately got up again as I know you have to keep walking a while after a run. I waved off the offers of a foil blanket until the sweat began to cool on me and then gratefully accepted one. I wandered dazed into Millennium Square, utterly elated that I had actually done this thing.
There were no badges or T-shirts to hand out – they had run out, an unfortunate administrative glitch in an otherwise very well-run event. I therefore detached my runner’s tag, then met up with Matt Redmond and we got the bus to the Lazy Dog for a slap-up Sunday lunch which I had truly earned.
Back home I discovered my time on the website – 81 minutes, 11 minutes longer than planned, but 2 of those were spent answering the call of nature and perhaps 3 or 4 on walk breaks. I don’t think I let myself down, all things considered, and at least I beat the Chinese dragon and the friendly Stormtrooper. And next year when I have lost more weight I will be faster.
The next day my legs ached a bit and I had a weird shoulder pain, but this has passed and I have recovered unharmed, and am even contemplating going for a run… some time next week. For now, though, I’m going to cut back on the running for a bit, and go back to my first love, cycling – but I won’t abandon it completely, and will certainly sign up for next year’s 10K, and maybe other such events. The prospect of a half-marathon makes me wince at the moment, but, who knows? It does seem possible now, and not scarcely.
And if I – 45, asthmatic, overweight – indeed, even obese, according to the BMI chart – can do it, so can you!