08 March 2009

See you later

I quite enjoyed the Banbury 15 last year, even though I contrived to run a decent half-marathon distance and left a tricky two-mile deficit to deal with. I had already put in an entry for this year even before I had an email from the organiser attaching an entry form. I hope that didn't indicate that they were short of entries, because this is a nicely-run, friendly event over an attractive, if undulating, course.

That's how I came to be lining up in the Spice Ball park this morning, only a few hours after finally getting to bed after my daughter's 21st party. One of the party guests, a university friend of my daughter, had risen to the challenge and entered too, and I was glad of the company though I insisted he must run his own race (I don't think he ever intended to do otherwise) and left him at the front of the start while I searched out a place near the back more appropriate to my eccentric preparation. Savouring the smell of roasting coffee from the General foods plant which pervades the local atmosphere, I greeted a clubmate who was wrapped up in several layers, hat and gloves - the hat, she told me, borrowed from another clubmate - while I was optimistically wearing vest and shorts. It was cool on the line, not the sunny spring day that it had seemed to be on the drive north, but I thought I'd warm up enough and that she (and the many others similarly attired) would find the going hot.

The course climbs out of the town on Southam Road, across the M40, before turning right at Little Bourton and wending its way, via the outskirts of Great Bourton, to Cropredy. It's uphill most of the way to Great Brourton, then downhill to the railway, underneath that, and through the village. I caught Andy and ran along with him for a while, testing his pace but finding it not fast enough to suit even my modest ambitions, so I left him behind. On the descent to Cropredy the wind was at my back, though the feeling of flying was mitigated by the many others who were clearly flying even better than me, but through the village I caught and passed a few of them again until I stopped at the first drinks station for a cup of water.

Apart from the wind, the conditions were as near perfect as one could wish, and the wind was at our backs anyway. Would it do that strange thing that winds so often do, and change direction when we reach the turn (but today do it in a benevolent way)? Only time would tell.

I passed the same BMW sports car, with the same guy standing by it ready to shout encouragement to someone not far from my position in the race. You're an inspiration" I called to him. He replied that I was a good man. A little later I passed a runner heading disconsolately back towards Banbury, not obviously injured but for some reason his race run: I wondered whether he might hitch a lift in a BMW.

Past about 5.5 miles, and i was quite warm enough, wondering how Sam in her borrowed hat would be somewhere behind. The wind carried a smell, but whether it was pig manure or pungent roasting coffee was hard to determine - surely the General Foods aroma doesn't reach six miles?

Past the six mile mark and the road climbs, not steeply and not for too long but quite enough at this stage, from a turning to a farmhouse: but as I reached the visible top of the climb I could see that it continued after a right-angled bend. Still not steep, but definitely long. A black Renault Megane sped past taking no prisoners: runners in front of me waved to slow the driver, with little effect. I passed a White horse harrier who, earphones in place, didn't even hear me coming ...

200 yards ahead there was a yellow vest. Should I chase it down and perhaps improve my standing in the club championship? It might, on the other hand, turn out to belong to a Headington Roadrunner or (less likely) a member of Bedford AC. As it happened, I didn't need to wonder - a mile or so later on, after a particularly flowing section of the race, I caught Trish and, for the time being (but not for the last time this morning) passed her after another brief pacemaking experiment.

I glanced at my Forerunner and found to my alarm that I was running at 7:30 pace, but it felt good. We were half-way now, and the wind was still behind us but the sky looked ominous and the temperature was definitely favouring the hat-wearers. we passed a huddle of mobile homes - for whom? What a desolate place to live - unless they were for agricultural or stable-yard workers, and even then it's still desolate. Perhaps it's less so in the summer: tit was becoming more like winter with every step. A steep hill interrupted the flow, and I exchanged comments on it with a passing runner, then shortened my stride, got up on my toes and treated it like a staircase (one stair at a time). At the top, a water station: "We climb that", I challenged them, pointing back over my shoulder, "and you offer us water?" I think - I hoped - that a bit of jocularity will go down well with the people manning the facility, and it did.

Having past Trish, I ran through Cropredy with Kate, who knows another of my clubmates well, but she showed me a clean pair of heels on the climb out of the village which had been such a pleasant descent a hour earlier. The same group of spectators banging cans and blowing horns was still there, despite the now-rotten weather.

"Remind me why we do this", Kate requested, and I replied that it was not for fun - that fun and run should never be allowed to co-exist in a sentence. It is a good question, and one with at least 400 answers among the competitors today. The rain was horizontal now, and the wind pushed the runners off-course when it came from the side: when it came from in front, it made us struggle up the hills. Then hail briefly replaced the rain: not a welcome development. The Cropredy railway bridge had become a wind tunnel, and we were the half-scale cars trying to force our way through the air. This was not north Oxfordshire at its best.

I was alone as I made the descent, back the way we had come earlier, to the Southam Road and the M40 bridge. It's a long steady slope that would carry you down most satisfyingly, if you didn't have 12 or 13 miles' running in your legs already. My pace had disappeared, and several people came past - Trish among them. Then a Headington guy, and a female clubmate of his to whom he was giving verbal encouragement that helped all of us who could hear it: he carried me back past Trish, then up the slope that I recalled so well from last year prior to diving under a road and emerging into the woodland by the park where the finish (as well as the start) was located.

A runner passed me on the final right-angled bend, but I didn't much care. The Headington girl was beyond reach. I sprinted, though spectators might have missed it, but the distance to the line didn't permit any catching of others - even if my speed had been sufficient. I compared times with Trish, and we wandered off to the sports centre, me looking for Dave, our party guest. i found him sitting, looking rather forlorn, on a chair in the sports hall. "So, how did you get on?" I asked, one of those almost-meaningless questions runners ask each other and often a cue for a series of excuses. I expected him to give me a time, probably in the one-thirties (against my 2:03:48), so his answer left me momentarily baffled: "Second", he said.

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