So… the inaugural Cancer Research UK London Winter Run, all 10k of it. As most people must already know my last actual race (as in a timed event with chip timing and everything – not a parkrun) was back in the mists of time, in March 2011 in fact when I completed the Silverstone Half Marathon in a time that surprised me (2:08 when I’d expected 2:30 or thereabouts), that done despite nagging ankle pain that didn’t seem to want to quit. There followed 9 months of physio, massage therapy, trips to the orthopaedic surgeon who referred me on to one of the country’s top podiatrists, a custom built ankle brace, and dire prognostications about the likelihood of every running again – it was, in other words, apparent that no one expected me to ever be able to do it. So I threw myself into volunteering, and having run 3 parkruns at that point promptly found myself run directing at Milton Keynes and watching enviously as other people did what I loved doing but was no longer capable of.
Sometime during 2012 it became apparent that the brace didn’t work either and I was in a lot of pain even just walking. Scans suggested that in addition to a biomechanical issue with my right foot, and the effects of a torn gastroneucimus in 2001 which meant my calf muscle didn’t work as it should, 6 years of running had also torn my posterior tibialis tendon. There was nothing for it but surgery and so it was scheduled to not impact on the motor racing calendar (luckily there was a gap where the only two races I needed to get to where at Silverstone and Donington, both locations where there is a lift to the media centre) and so, in August that year I went under the knife, emerging with 30 staples holding everything together and a massive screw through my heel bone. The offending tendon had snapped completely a week before surgery and had been reattached to my toes, my spring ligament was repaired and my heel bone had been broken and straightened to the correct position. I spent 6 weeks in plaster and another 6 in a removable splint, with no weight bearing allowed, getting around in a borrowed wheelchair for longer distances and on snazzy blue crutches the rest of the time. I ate well (having done some research into foods used to speed healing in athletes) and I did pretty much as I was told and two days before we were due to fly to Hong Kong for the Macau Grand Prix I was given the all clear.
On my return it was back to podiatry appointments, and I was finally allowed back to exercise, getting out on my bike and back in the pool – neither allowed during the post-op recovery period for fear of slipping/falling off. I’d kept as fit as I could in the run up to surgery with lots of swimming and cycling, doing my first (and so far only) triathlon as part of a team where someone else did the running, and the same with a brace of duathlons. It meant my upper body strength was pretty good and had made me the fastest thing on crutches many people had seen! I mended a lot faster than some expected, and in early Summer that year I had the screw removed from my heel, about 4 months earlier than was expected. In Autumn after one more appointment with the surgeon, he said he thought that once I’d got new custom built orthotics I might try running and see what happened. First I need to build up with lots of walking though. Which I do. Being able to cover one end of Spa-Francorchamps to the other (uphill) and still feel fine suggests to me that it might be time to try and run.
And so we arrive in August 2014… and I decide it’s now or never and the shoes come out of the wardrobe. I battled my way through the C210K programme that I’d used back in 2009, and then signed up for the Winter 10K in the hope that it would give me a focus and prevent backsliding over the Christmas period. The plane was working and I ran MK parkrun a couple of times just to check that I could at least complete half the distance without needing to stop and walk. A cold just before Christmas seemed to go on and on and on… though it didn’t stop me running MK parkrun on Christmas Day, Ashton Court parkrun on the Saturday after, and Buckingham parkrun on New Year’s Eve, the latter such a struggle that I began to seriously consider I might want to give London a miss. In fact it was only two weeks ago that I managed to run comfortably again, covering 7 miles without stopping, no matter how slow – and it was slow.
Saturday saw me do my old pre-race routine of a very short run, just 1.5 miles. The initial half mile is done at a very gentle pace, then followed a half mile of intervals, running flat out for 0.05 of a mile, then jogging gently for 0.05 miles, until you reach the half mile. The last half mile is for getting home at a gentle pace again. I also finally picked up a running club t-shirt on the grounds that if I was the only Silson Joggers member listed (out of 14,500 runners) I was damn well going in club kit! A dinner of lasagne, followed by bread and butter pudding and custard completed the preparations, and with all my kit laid out and ready I turned in early.
Sunday morning the alarm went off at stupid o’clock. I had an hour to spare and used it to good effect, necking a pint of water and two espressos, and breakfasting on muesli, linseeds and stewed apple. I dressed, collected the rest of my kit together and drove to Milton Keynes to catch the train to Euston. It probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but most of the other passengers appeared to also be running, judging by the kit, and the blue and white bags (the only bags accepted at the bag drop) they were all carrying. On the train I ate one of the bananas I’d brought along, and drank another half litre of water. And then I thought I’d attach my race number, only to find that I’d left the four safety pins I had carefully prepared somewhere in my car or at home. I didn’t have them with me. A side-trip at Euston to the ladies loos revealed even more runners and I was able to beg two pins from two different people – it was enough. And from there I made my way to Embankment.
Once there everything seemed to be very well organised, and there was next to no queue for the bag drop despite it being 09:15, quarter of an hour before the first wave (of 1600 was supposed to go off). I duly used my inhaler and checked it, my coat and pretty much everything apart from my iPod and my very smart, trendy green heavy duty plastic garden bin-liner (thicker than a black bin liner and thus warmer) and met up with the first person with whom I’d made tentative plans to catch up, the lovely Marion. She was in the 10:16 wave (wave 7), as was I. We started heading towards the start but I then encountered Liz, a Milton Keynes parkrun regular, who was heading off to meet the other people she had planned to run with. I veered off to use the portaloos one last time (again no queue for the ones at the end of The Mall) before also wandering towards the start. I caught up with Liz and we both collected Polar bear hugs. It was so cold by then that I was reluctant to let go of said bear and did try and persuade him to run with me… anyway, we caught up with the others over on Whitehall and eventually began to make our way to the start, hugging more bears as we went.
The start seemed somewhat disorganised with people simply filtering into the start funnel regardless of which wave they belonged in. At one point it looked as if we were all in wave 6, and in fact the start was given and a whole bunch of forward movement happened, but then we all stopped again and did another warmup (or at least tried to – it was almost impossible with 1000 or so people rammed into the funnel so I just settled for shifting from foot to foot while disposing of my plastic bag and fiddling with my Garmin. We started to edge forward and this time we really were starting. I was quite a way back so it took a minute or so to get across the start line, and so I stuck my earphones in and set off at a pace I figured I could sustain. The first kilometre was comfortable enough and seemed to be over very quickly, and I was passing quite a lot of people, most of them presumably the slower runners and run/walkers from previous waves. I settled in and enjoyed it, at least the first part, though was somewhat disappointed by the lack of “iconic London landmarks” actually visible from the route along the embankment. I wasn’t surprised – I do know that road after all – but then we hit the 4k-ish mark down near the Tower of London and turned back towards the finish without seeing it either! Oh, and the Swiss winter zone wasn’t exactly impressive – it seemed to be a dozen or so people clanging cowbells (that was good) and some slides projected onto the wall of the underpass (not much good – frankly underpowered). I don’t think they’d really go the hang of the event…
Turning round was where things started to get tough because there seemed to be rather more up (and rather more of a head wind) but even though I kept telling myself I’d slow up/walk at the next km marker I just kept on going. The junk up towards St. Pauls was not a lot of fun as it involved a lot of seeing even more runners who were well ahead of you coming back down and heading for home. The second of the snow zones was in front of the cathedral and there were quite a few people cheering us all on at that point, which was more than welcome. There was a short downhill section back to the embankment which seemed to be straight into a howling gale, and then it was the final 2.5km or so. By now I was starting to feel like I’d at least make it – after all I’d arrived hoping to get round without needing to stop, walk, hyperventilate or generally fall over.
Around the 9k marker Liz caught up with me, and by that point I was running out of steam (I really hadn’t managed enough long runs but that will come with time). She ran with me for a while but then left me behind at the 500m to go marker. I wasn’t about to quit regardless so I just tried to concentrate on one foot in front of the other. I could see the final corner (and the final snow zone) and so I slogged round there and turned towards Whitehall – I could see the blow up arch now and so I decided it was time to go for a sprint finish. There were a couple of people going very slowly so I powered past them, flung myself over the line and promptly burst into tears. It was a very emotional moment for me to be able to complete a race when I really had thought my running days might be over.
It became even more emotional when I stopped my Garmin and looked at my time. I had expected a time of around 75 minutes, but was quietly hoping I might do something between 70 and 75. Under 70 minutes and I would be delighted. The watch said 68:30 exactly… I was a sobbing heap when Liz came back to get me and it took me a while to get myself back under control. I was even more pleased when my official time came through and it was 68:24.
From there it was time to collect the very snazzy medal and more polar bear hugs. Oh and a small bottle of water and a carton pineapple-flavoured coconut water. I then collected my bag (again no queue) and was very happy to be reunited with my coat as I was starting to feel cold. It was a shortish hop back to Euston after that and I settled in to eat a flapjack bar and a banana while necking another half litre of water. Once home it was time for a shower and then out for lunch at the local Indian.
Pluses: Very well organised bag drops, very smart and substantial medal, very huggable polar bears, the snow zones, the very flat terrain
Minuses: The apparent lack of organisation around the start waves, the Swiss Winter Wonderland, the lack of capacity of the bags we had to use at the bag drop – given it’s a Winter event it would be good to be able to get slightly more stuff in them.