Thank heavens for the driver of the next bus, then. Clearly inspired by the driver of the Knight Bus in Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban, he drove with suitably grim determination through the silent, empty and foggy streets south of the River Thames to make sure I stepped onto a frozen Common not quite as early as I’d planned but spot on the agreed rendezvous time to meet my clubmates so we could drive over to Hampton together. With hindsight, it was a pattern of close run timings that was to be repeated in one way or another throughout the coming morning.
The official Hampton Court Half. My club mates and I had chosen this as our first race of 2015, our first team entry of the new year. It was also to be my first in club colours, and the first time I’d run a half marathon in 13 years. Observing a nagging hamstring problem and a slow return to fitness following an unplanned month off in December, the official plan was to get round in one piece but in my heart of hearts, I wanted to finish sub two hours and set a new marker for the rest of this year’s races.
As anyone who’s ever taken part in a race will know, the warm up paddock is a bit of a spectacle…unless you’re watching the elites, that is; they manage to make the whole process look so effortless and straight forward, almost a thing of beauty. As for the rest of us, though, well, I think we amateurs are probably best described as members of the Ministry of Funny Walks out on joint manouvres, but that’s just a part of what makes running fun, isn’t it…?!
At Hampton Court, the warm up paddock has an extra tradition; it is also the starting point for another kind of progress round the race course, a “royal” one led by who else but Henry VIII. Naturally, it being a new race season (note the new shoes), and us in our new club shirts on our first team outing, and with a “royal” personage on hand, also in tights, photographs were required. So here you are. Enjoy.
Photo opps complete, start gun fired and a couple of miles in, we’d each settled into our stride. I had my eye on the sub 2hr pacers, who were about 300m ahead of me, but that didn’t stop me keeping an eye on our surroundings as we moved around the course. From the closed roads at the start, out on to the pavements running alongside the A309 and A307, through Kingston before crossing the river back onto the Hampton Court towpath and through the Palace Park, the route is flat and while the paths are narrow in parts, they were dry all the way to the final mile. I hate running in front of a crowd so I’ll admit to being pretty grateful for the apparent indifference shown by the few spectators and Saturday morning drivers, who were admirably managed by the Race marshalls along the route, but I thanked all my go-faster stripes that as we entered the muddy final mile, there was no one to witness what happened next.
The sub 2hr pacers were still about 300m ahead, and while my hamstring was sore and my legs were not moving as fast as they had been six miles ago, I was confident I was going to reach my goal. The problem was that I was wearing road shoes, not trails. Road shoes have no grip. Mud becomes ice when you wear road shoes. Well, you can imagine the rest and I’m 99.9 per cent certain I was not the only person to practice a few of the more advanced moves from the Ministry of Funny Walks in those final minutes before we reached the finish line.
The sight of the road leading to the finish line never fails to revive. All of a sudden, your head goes up, you push your arms back and forth with real determination and automatically, you pick up your knees. I think I even managed to stick a smile on my face this time and there it stayed, all the way to the end, through the line to get my medal and have my time chip removed from my shoe. I even smiled when I saw my time: 2.01. Okay, it wasn’t the sub two hours I’d wanted but it was still a pb, and it was great way to start of a new year of racing.