I remember the section of the race when I felt in control. It was a satisfying couple of minutes between miles four and five. For much of the rest of the Alloa Half Marathon, however, I felt like the running embodiment of the clown car which increasingly falls to pieces with every passing moment.
I wasn’t supposed to feel like that. Just a week or so previously, I had been beginning to realise that my marathon training was really starting to take hold. Coming to the latter stages of a long run, I was aware that my legs didn’t feel so fatigued, my body wasn’t as dog tired as had been the case earlier in the schedule. It felt like I had extra gears to shift into if I needed to.
It was at that point that I made a mental note to enjoy that sensation. Part of me wanted to stop right there and then…to put that fitness level in a bottle to be re-opened on the start line of the Boston Marathon.
I wanted to take that snapshot because, from previous experience, I know that starting to feel really fit and strong can mean one of two things. Firstly, of course, it can mean you are getting really fit and strong! On the other hand, however, continually pushing your body and aiming for new levels of capability and endurance can leave your immune system teetering on the brink of deciding to down tools and leaving you wide open to whatever sort of lurgy is deciding to lurk nearby.
And so it was that, just when I was looking for a really good indicator of how I was progressing as that Boston start line comes looming into view (less than four weeks to go now folks), I went and got a bit ill in the week leading up to what I hoped would be a key race for me.
I love running the Alloa Half Marathon. It’s an excellent and very, very well-organised race which has grown impressively in recent years. As the first half marathon (and the second road race) I ever took part in, it holds a very special place in my heart, too.
It was only as I submitted my entry a few months ago that I realised this year’s event marked a special anniversary for me – that it had been exactly 20 years since I picked up my first Alloa finisher’s medal. It had been 20 years since, during a previous life as a local radio presenter, I was ‘volunteered’ by my friend – and colleague at the time – Chris to run the race and be interviewed on air at various stages on the course.
As someone who had run just one 10k at the time, and found that task less than straightforward, I can’t say I felt too thankful to Chris when the suggestion was first mooted. However, it was in the lead-up to Alloa in 1996 that, for the first time, I began to tune into the thought that long distance running might, in fact, be a good idea.
It was during this time that I had my first experience of being coached on how to run. Given I was utterly clueless about how I should go about taking on this challenge, I needed someone who did have a clue to point me in the right direction. Someone who knew the Alloa Half Marathon back to front and what I was letting myself in for. Someone who would provide the perfect introduction to running. That someone turned out to be a brilliant man called Murdoch McGregor.
The deal was that Murdoch would set my training plan and get me race ready. He would appear on my radio show every week and we’d have a chat about running, about how I was progressing and what lay in store for me. He was patient, encouraging, positive, enthusiastic – just the sort of person you’d want to have in your corner when taking on something completely new.
I’ve never forgotten our chats, the training, that race, that feeling which new achievement brings. Murdoch was involved in the Alloa Half long before I laced up my trainers to give it a go and he’s still involved in it now. He can be found, on race day, with microphone in hand and thriving in his role as race announcer – being encouraging, enthusiastic and positive to all the runners that come his way. His warmth and clear joy at being involved has helped many a struggling participant get over the finish line.
I have run Alloa a few times over the past 20 years and, much to my delight, Murdoch hasn’t forgotten me either. I can’t deny it, I’m always very chuffed when he picks me out for a special mention over the sound system. He made sure my name was sent booming through the speakers this year, too, and as ever it brought a big smile to my face – as did our post-race chat. I was extremely grateful to him for that. After the run I’d had, I really needed to finish the day on a positive note.
To those of you who don’t know, the Alloa Half takes place (this may not come as a huge shock) in and around the town of Alloa, which sits close to the rather historic City of Stirling (my home town) slap bang in the centre of Scotland.
The course is challenging but reasonably fair. The timing of the lung-busting hill that is Menstrie Brae, which comes just after the 10-mile mark, is perhaps less than ideal but for every incline there is also a downhill and what can be a brilliant stretch of road for fast running along the Hillfoots Road in the shadow of the Ochil Hills.
How fast you run that section depends entirely what mood the weather is in and in which direction the wind has decided to blow. There was a year when I remember a fantastic tailwind practically shoving me through this section of the race. I also remember the following year – at precisely the same spot – running against a fierce headwind. In a blizzard.
The weather was not to be an issue this time, though. Blue skies and bright, bright sunshine greeted race day. It’s still March, though, and this is still Scotland, so the temperatures were hardly going to send the mercury soaring. In short, running conditions were getting close to ideal.
As I got ready to run, however, ideal would not have been the word I’d have used to describe how I felt. Given that my body had decided to react to this whole marathon training lark by attempting a little bit of a shutdown over the previous days, I really didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t entirely sure that I should have been running, but I wanted to test myself, the sun was shining and the wind wasn’t blowing, so what could possibly go wrong?
The fact that the first few miles felt like just a little more of an effort than they should have been was not the best sign. I couldn’t get a rhythm, couldn’t get settled. I like to find my pace, to find the beat to a race, and simply try to stick to it. But I just couldn’t find it this time. Apart from that section between miles four and five when my breathing calmed, my stride lengthened and all seemed very well with the world.
That didn’t last long, though.Around mile seven, a small group of runners came up on my shoulder and then began to ease away. ‘I’ll stick with them,’ I thought and went to engage the gear which would help me increase my pace a fraction, just enough to keep in touch with them. Nothing happened other than that group moved further away. I tried again. Same thing.
It was at that point it hit home that this wasn’t the day when a PB was going to come calling, I wasn’t going to get in the region of the time I had been hoping to run. I knew I was in really good shape – but not that day. I allowed myself to get a little frustrated as my pace continued to drop and I found myself powerless to stop from sliding backwards.
But then I tried to enjoy the run, to enjoy the fact that here I was, on a glorious day, running in a great event and in front of some impressively big crowds of supporters. Then, as I took the left-hand turn on to the finishing straight, I almost immediately heard Murdoch and that grin began to spread across my face.
No, I didn’t get a PB. No, I didn’t get even close to running the sort of time I thought I was in shape to run. But, 20 years after first really connecting with running, here I was being cheered across the finish line at the same race where it all started by the same person who had first really shown me what could be great about the sport. I’ve had worse days…