Walking out of the train station at Berko, my race pack instructed me to "look for the ruined castle and turn left, following the signs up the steep hill to the cricket club." I was surprised to find that the castle is in a valley; but equally unsurprised that it is ruined.
I carried this thought with me up a short hill to the registration area/start line. The conditions seemed ideal for running, with a steady breeze breaking up the dark clouds overhead and letting some rays of sun peep through.
1106 runners lined the start of the Half Marathon, the 32nd running of this event. Also incorporated is a separate 5 mile fun run, which set off 10 minutes later and had 481 entrants.
At 10:30am we were counted down by a celebrity I'd never heard of. Suffice to say, his accent did make me think that he would normally have taken the train from London to Berkshire, not Berkhamsted.
On the gun, a pack of runners belted along the opening downhill stretch in pursuit of the pace car. The pace seemed pretty fierce in the early stages, with a group of about 10 runners going through the first two miles in under 11 minutes. Having not raced any distance beyond 10k for almost six months, I was content to sit in the next little group and get some protection from the strong southerly wind that we were running into the teeth of.
After the first two miles, we left the main A Road and turned onto a narrow country lane, the start of a two-mile climb to the village of Little Heath. By this stage the leading group was well out of sight and as so often happens in these races, I found myself running in between the first and second groups of runners. After leaving the village, the next two miles was predominantly flat and down hill, with the half way point somewhere between the quaint outposts of Frithsden and Nettleden.
This section brought Race Gripe No 1. At a number of points on the course, the route coincides with the 5 mile course. These points were well marshalled, but were not well signposted and the marshals made less noise than Helen Keller. At two of the four-way crossings I had to run toward the marshals and ask which way to go, with the only response being a vague point of an arm. At another intersection, the marshal pointed the wrong way and some bystanders shouted after me to turn around and go the other way. Valuable seconds down the pan.
Despite the muted and confused marshals, I was pleased to go through half way in 37:30. My aim before the race was to try to run under 76 minutes, so I was right on target . I had been told that the second half of the race is far hillier than the first, and to leave something in the tank. Right on cue, I rounded a right hand bend and came face to face with the steepest climb of the race. From here, the next four miles was an almost continuous climb, which slowly but surely started to zap the small time buffer that I'd built up. By the end of the climb at 10 miles, my hamstrings were not impressed.
This was the point I came to rue my lack of long runs beforehand, and I did worry that the wheels would come off completely. In the end, I didn't slow down, I just didn't have another gear to pick up speed in the closing stages. So what could have been an Ayrton Senna moment, thankfully ended up looking no worse than the three-wheeled Reliant Regal that Mr Bean was always running of the road.
The 10 mile mark is a sharp left turn that takes runners into a long, steep descent alongside the golf course, followed by a short climb to the final water station at 11 miles. By this point I had caught some of the faster runners in front, and been caught by two other runners, so it was nice to be in a group again to try to push the pace and make up some time lost on the long climb. After one last hill to mile 12, I knew it was all down hill to the finish.
Unfortunately my progress was slowed by Race Gripe No 2 – the fact that this point of the course is where the fun runners merge onto the Half Marathon course, which means the closing stages require Half Marathon runners to weave in and out of the fun runners who generally have no etiquette of how and where to move to get out of the way. An aerial view would have looked a lot like the view of the Place de l'Étoile from the top of the Arc De Triomphe. Confusion reigned. Perhaps some marshals or segregation would be a simple solution. Nevertheless, it was nice to be running downhill to the finish. I crossed the line seventh in 76:03. It would have been nice to go four seconds faster, but I was pleased all the same. Elliot ran a great race to finish 50th in 1:25:56.
The first three runners clocked 72 minutes, which is pretty quick on that course.
In the closing mile I had heard a number of people yelling at me to run faster (I mean supporting me) so it was good to see lots of familiar faces/voices when I'd crossed the line and picked up the worst post-race "goodie" bag I've seen in all my years of running – Race Gripe No 3. Luckily everything in it was paper or plastic, so it was a simple job to dump the whole bag in the big green recycling bin at the front of the cricket club.
All in all though, despite the muted marshals, the no-good goody bag and the mile melee in the closing stages I would recommend the event as a whole. For anyone who has a full season of cross country in their legs, it would be the ideal chance to test yourself on a challenging course. And I dare say that the quiet countryside is infinitely more scenic than the roundabouts and redways of a Half in MK.
Until next year…