20 December 2006

Pud Run

Some people might consider it eccentric to spend large parts of one's spare time running, so I guess that a pre-Christmas half-marathon would seem the height of eccentricity to many. Certainly, a serious race in middle of the party season has elements about it that aren't present at other times of year.
Last Sunday was in fact a near-perfect day for a run, neither too hot nor too cold, too dull nor too sunny. There was no wind, no rain, and no fog. Its greatest drawback as a day for a run (for me) lay in the fact that it followed the Writers in Oxford Christmas Party, so I had spent the previous evening drinking an unaccustomed amount of Champagne.
Being an event event for club members only, the Christmas Pud Run lacks the degree of organisation that is applied to the Abingdon Marathon. The course is of uncertain length, further extended by the insistence of county officials that it finish at a gap between two hedges either side of the path to the sports centre at Tilsley Park. This, we are told before the start, will add some 40 yards to the distance. Another reason not to try for a PB.
As with every club run I have taken part in, I set off with only a hazy notion of the route, dependent on others to lead me round. So I fell in for the first section with Andy, returning from injury and therefore for the first time ever not as fast as me, then Dave. Mile one came up in over eight minutes, which took me slightly aback, but mile two was quicker - much quicker than was really wise, or was it just that they weren't true miles? The positioning of the markers is often dictated by the availability of a lamp post rather than strictly by the measurement.
Past St Helens, a couple of miles gone, and the field was stringing out. On the bridge over the A34 I caught Dave, who pleaded that the hill slows him down. I told him that after that one at Streatley (on the Compton 40) I'll won't use the word "hill" lightly again.
The miles passed uneventfully, and not uncomfortably. No trouble with either of my knees. I began to regret wearing a long-sleeved top: in the shade it was cold, but the sun was warm and the idea that I'd come prepared with gloves and hat seemed absurd.
At four miles, by the Black Horse at Gozzards Ford (the venue for lunch with the Kochanskis on their visit to England several years ago) Chris had set up a water station and I stopped to drink. I've never mastered drinking while running, so that allowed Dave to pull away from me and it took me a while to catch him again. "I thought you were seeing how many times you could pass me today", he said, but this time I preferred to stay with him. He pointed out that there was a group ahead of us - a nice group, to use his precise words - so I suggested we chase them down: he demurred: I suggested we return to the matter after half distance: he muttered something about the hill at nine miles. I remembered Streatley again.
Just before half distance we passed the Merry Miller at Cothill - lunch with Grace and Raney, last year - where runners taking part in the relay event were waiting, so cheery greetings were exchanged. Then coming towards us, doing her warm-down, appeared a competitor I hadn't recognised, who'd passed me and disappeared into the distance on the first mile: it was good to find that she wasn't running the whole race!
By eight miles we had meandered through Dry Sandford and Wootton, where Chris was established with water outside the church where we went to Tony Slade's funeral - what, four, five years ago? I stopped to drink again, needing the water to compensate for the dehydrating activities of the previous evening, so Dave disappeared again and I set off again in company with Andy. Shortly, the road started to climb up Boars Hill, a feature which does merit the name, and soon we were among the big houses set in their own wooded grounds, behind huge gates, served by private roads. I put my head down and attacked the climb, swinging my arms and forcing the breath in and out of my chest. Reaching the top of the climb, I felt in excellent shape, and after nine miles of steady seven-and-a-half to eight-minute miling it seemed I had plenty in the tank for the last section.
Past the ten mile mark, with Andy once again dropped and Dave in sight in front, the road started to descend, quite gently at first but then, after a pause, more and more steeply. I hurtled past a man struggling uphill on a mountain bike, weaving from side to side like I do when trying to ride up a steep ascent, so I gave him plenty of space. Dave was closer, and using the downhill sections less exuberantly than me: I lengthened my stride, flailed my arms and let gravity take me - easier than fighting it. Through Bayworth and along the road towards Radley, then right down to Lodge Hill, I was reeling him in steadily. On the A34 bridge he had to dodge a briar overhanging the footpath, and seeing his evasive action I diverted along the grass verge to avoid it.
The two of us crossed the road simultaneously though still yards apart, but once I was on the correct side (and with the 12-mile marker looming) I let the hill pull me along, and suddenly I was flying by him, muttering something about a second wind as I passed.
At the foot of the hill I paused to allow a car to negotiate the roundabout, round which we had been instructed to go clockwise (so, three-quarters of a circle). Stopping on the island in the middle of the entrance to the roundabout, I felt myself falling backwards - perhaps just an illusion, after about a hundred minutes' forward motion - which I tried to check by swiftly resuming running: but my legs steadfastly refused to get going again, and I waddled to the other side of the road, then across the roundabout's next junction, by which time Dave was with me again. Passing him on the last descent now didn't seem to have been such a good idea.
"C'mon, only another half mile", he urged me, and I forced my legs to keep up with him. I stayed with him just long enough to get under way again, but all I could do was keep him in sight until we reached the entrance to Tilsley Park. From there, I could muster something resembling a dash (eyes closed, arms pumping) for the gap in the hedge, and a time of 1:44:36, which suggests I should be able to do reasonably well in my next half - if I prepare a little more sensibly.

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