13 July 2009

July Morning

Sometimes we seem to have progressed straight to the back-end of summer. The sixth running of the Didcot 5, and my second time, had a fairly stiff breeze and cool drizzle as well as warming sunshine - not great for most summer pursuits, but good running conditions. It came at the end of a week in which I had failed, for reasons largely of work, to get in a single run. So much for my resolve. Like a friend I saw before the race, I was taking the opportunity to kick-start my running.

"Is it hilly?" asked a female runner, wearing a vest indicating her membership of a club far away, as we lined up. "No", two of us reassured her, before my clubmate warned her about the state of the tarmac. I wondered whether she might consider our assessment inaccurate when she reached the incline opposite Sainsbury's: one person's "flat" is another's "undulating". But she didn't come from the Fens, or anywhere like that.

No chip timing here (though perhaps next year?), but no delay worth speaking of getting across the start line either. The first stretch is across playing fields, the course marked out by tape that crackled in the breeze, then it makes a sharp right turn onto a cycleway parallel to the railway to Oxford. The Didcot Railway Centre was "steaming", pungent coal-smoke drifting over parts of the course: I hope it didn't set off anyone's asthma.

Initially I tried to stay close to a clubmate, then settled for keeping him in sight, but when we reached the first water station I paused for a mouthful or two of water and lost him altogether. The course wends its way through the Ladygrove estate on the northern side of Didcot: it's - presumably - Thames flood plain, and therefore as flat as a pancake. On the other side of the tracks the land rises towards the Downs to the south, but the race only briefly passes under the railway, taking in that gentle incline by Sainsbury's before returining to the cycle paths of the Ladygrove Estate at the first opportunity.

The paths meander across the expansive green areas between the houses. It's not a bad course at all, considering the unprepossesing nature of the terrain, though the sinuous tracks make finding the shortest route something that demands concentration. I measured it at 4.88 miles in the end, and I wonder whether I lost .12 by taking the shortest route along the paths? Much more could be saved by cutting the corners, taking to the grass - but, naturally, no-one gave any sign of even considering it. There's a small amount of road involved, and a couple of points at which the race crosses roads (no closures for the event), but there were marshals everywhere. The compact nature of the route makes it possible to redeploy marshals, and I spotted some of them two or three times (thanking them for their efforts), and positioning the water station at a point where the course almost crosses itself is also a convenient economy - it all seems so well-planned.

Didcot, of course, is famous for power generation, and where you have a power station you are bound to have power lines too. One of these accounts for the green swathe through the housing estate: no-one wants to live under the lines themselves, though I'd feel pretty uncomfortable even in proximity to them. Perhaps that .12 miles can be accounted for by interference with GPS.

The breeze in the first half-mile or so of the race shortly developed into driving drizzle - not unpleasant, not cold, in fact rather refreshing, and that continued up to about mile 2. My suglasses were coming off and going back on for a while, but mostly it was bright enough to need them, though I wondered aloud to someone alongside whom I was (temporarily) running in the rain, before I stopped for water, what had happened to July.

Three or four runners got away from me at that point, and I couldn't close the gap again. The second water stop I managed with the loss of only one place, which I took back again swiftly, but the green vest of one of the first group remained tantalisingly in sight for the rest of the race. As we regained the playing field for the final act, it was - perhaps - in range: at the finsh line it was just an arm's length ahead of me. We patted each other on the back and shook hands in the funnel.

I was surprised to see my watch showing 34:28.something: under seven minute miles for 5 miles. But it averaged my pace to 7:04, because of that missing .12 miles. If the GPS lost the distance, I wonder, did the time get lost too? No, I don't think that could have happened. Anyway, it's slightly academic as the timer pauses when I pause, as I did twice for water. Nevertheless, I impressed myself with that pace at the end of an idle week.

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