The first I knew of being in trouble was when my wrist buzzed loudly at the end of Mile 1. Looking away from the group all around me—six or seven men I’d be doggedly hanging with since the starting horn had blared a few minutes previously—I stared at the GPS watch’s readout: a 5:15 min mile. I knew my watch is generally a bit fast (thanks Garmin), but still, this pace was way off my estimate 5:40min/mi pace I’d been planning for. Hell, this was even faster than my normal 5k times, let alone 10k, but I was going have to keep with it. No one else in the pack seemed perturbed, and I knew if I was to have any chance of hanging in there for a top placement I was just going to have grin and bear it, keep going, and pray to whatever deity might be passing by that the wheels wouldn’t come off three miles down the line.
I love the Olympic Park. In fact it’s my favourite running location in the whole of London, with the possible exception of Victoria Park (go East End). So when my coach Shaun suggested that December’s QEOP 10k should be my race of the season, I was more than excited enough to sign up right on the spot. As it is a regular event—held on the first Saturday of each month—Shaun had done a bit of digging around too, looking into the past results and letting me know that with winning times averaging at around the 35 minutes point, there was the possibility, just the possibility, that I might be able to win the race.
Of course that was exciting and a plan of attack formed for the three lap course that quite was simple but hopefully effective. Judging by previous times a pack of about six runners was likely to break off at the start; it was my goal to hang at the back of this group, keeping calm, relaxed and in control for the first two laps; no minds games, no leading from the front. Then as we entered Lap Three, the next phase of the plan was to reel the competition in, positioning myself for the strong sprint finish I know I’ve got, hopefully snatching a win or a podium placement in the process.
Of course, it didn’t work out like that, not even slightly. The whistle went and a group of three tore off at a pace that would’ve destroyed me even for a mile. Just behind them was another pack of four or five and it was these guys I tried to hang on with. The skies were blowing a gale, the weather report indicating 24mph winds, and the open nature of the course meant there was very few places where you weren’t exposed to awful buffeting on all sides. I tried to duck into the pack itself and let others do the trail breaking for me but they caught onto this fairly sharpish and we had a bit of mind-games tussle as to who would lead into the wind.
My watch buzzed again, I’d just gone through 5k in 16:37; even accounting for inaccuracy it was likely a sub17 time; faster than my current PB over that distance. I was definitely going to be in trouble now. Of course it was just after this point that the rest of the pack made their move; the leader in front I’d be chasing upped the ante, followed by a group that overtook me at the same time. Collectively the five runners dropped the hammer at Mile 4 with what must have been a 5:15/5:20 min/mi. I cracked and fell off the back.
Alone now, and with absolutely nowhere to go except into the wind, the second half of Lap 3 proved the toughest challenge of all. After a lull in pace I’d recovered somewhat, and started to claw back second by slow second from the group in the lead, which was itself fracturing. But the course was busy now from people still completing Lap 1 and 2 and I had to shout rather harshly at some people who literally didn’t have a clue and kept stepping out in front of my path; their headphones blaring loudly. At one point I even had to vault a bench not to crass into someone. I always wondered why race organisers often forbade the use of headphones, always thinking it a bit draconian. But on a tight lapped course like that, I can absolutely see the need for it, as it does get a bit iffy overtaking someone who can’t hear you wheezing a mile off.
And wheezing I was. So loud and so painfully that I was drawing stares left right and centre from the Lap 1/2 runners. But I was closing the gap a bit; what’s more I knew I had to keep the pace if I was to cross through in a Sub36 time. I picked up the pace for the last 200 metres, feeling sick as anything. I hadn’t caught up on the leaders, but there was still 30 seconds on the clock for the Sub36.
Sprinting into a gale, I blazed through the line, straight into Hannah. I couldn’t even fathom why she was there (she’d just completed Lap 2 when she’d heard the presenter shout my name so had stopped and waited), I was so spent I could barely compute what she was saying to me as we high-fived—me robotically and completely not with it— and she ran off to rejoin the race.
I was utterly and totally wasted. Every last reserve in the tank had been used up. But the wheels hadn’t come off the bus and I’d snatched 9th place out of a field of 533. It was definitely my hardest race to date, but boy what a good one. My goal had been 34:59 and I’d missed out by 46 seconds. Given the wind however (which according to a RunnersConnect article, could have amounted to over 12 seconds lost per mile) and a few rather tight turns on the course, I was pleased with the end result; I just wish I hadn’t chosen the one race of the year where the depth of talent of the male field had been so bloody deep! But ho hum. You live, you learn. Hopefully next race, I’ll won’t have to dash myself on the rocks just to hang onto the back of the pack!