Once again I had volunteered to run the Tunbridge Wells Half Marathon as a pacer. The event is organised by my club, and everyone works hard to make it a success. This year the race was also part of the Kent Grand Prix series, so with points on offer for the championship a lot of the fast guys were keen to race, and there were few volunteers to run the 1:30 pace group. I did this role two years ago, and although I’ve not run a competitive half marathon (or indeed any shorter races) for a while, I felt I would still have the speed to do the job, but it would be tough.
The hilly nature of the route makes it tough to judge pace. I had my notes from 2014 (1:30 pacer) and 2015 (1:40 pacer), so planned a couple of training runs to practice. Sadly these never happened as something always got in the way, so I felt slightly under prepared on race morning. As we lined up for the start one of the runners nearby told me he was aiming for his first 1:30 so “Please don’t have a bad day”… With the pressure on it was a relief when Dame Kelly Holmes sounded the hooter to start the race.
My pace plan from 2014 was to run the first two miles at 6:50 pace before speeding up for the next few miles to take advantage of the downhill section to Penshurst. I would then arrive at the half way point in 43:45 before tackling Spring Hill – one mile of steady climbing at 6% gradient. The pace here usually drops to 7:40 or even 8:00. After this, from mile 8 to the finish it is more or less flat, so a steady 6:50 pace to the finish. I decided to use the same plan, but go a little slower in the first half, as the last mile is downhill, and most runners should be able to pick up the pace a little along Mount Ephraim, especially with the wind at their backs.
The pacing teams always work in pairs, and I was pacing with Chris Smith. We had agreed we would not run side by side, but spread out a little. This means you don’t get a large bunch right behind you, as runners can slot in the gap between pacers. After a mile of so, Chris took the lead and I was happy to drop back to about 30 or 40 metres behind him. As usual there was good support as we ran through the villages of Bidborough and Penshurst, and everything was going well. The only issue was the wind which seemed determined to try and blow the pacing flag out of my grip and smash it into the runners next to me.
We hit the half way point in 44:05 and started the long climb up to Fordcombe. It’s a tough climb, and I hate seeing runners get dropped from the pace group, but it inevitably happens. However our plan to split up a little seemed to work. When runners got dropped by Chris, they could try to latch on to my second group and stay in contact. After the race a couple of people told me this really helped them.
While the hill itself is hard, it is usually the next mile that really breaks people. It’s fine to slow down for the hill but you need to pick up the pace once you get back to the flat. As we came up to the 8 mile point, I was getting back to my 6:50 target pace, and quickly closing the gap to Chris and his group who were struggling to get back up to speed.
Every race as his ups and downs, emotional as well as literal, and this was no exception. I was swapping the flag from one hand to the other, when I saw a used gel wrapper thrown into the hedgerow at the side of the road. Casual littering always makes me mad, so despite being out of breath I shouted at the runners in front demanding to know who and thrown it, and why. I don’t understand why people can’t put their litter in a pocket, or just carry it to the next bin or aid station. The offender confessed and apologised, but i was running angry for the next couple of miles. Sorry if my pace seemed a little erratic!Most people in the race were very good, and I had seen several runners cross the road or pavement, going out of their way to deposit litter in the street bins. I just wish everyone could do the same.
I ran alongside Chris for a while as we came into Langton Green, and we picked the pace up a little to ensure we were on track for our 1:30 finish. We were both a little concerned when we saw the 10 mile marker, as it suggested we were 30 seconds late at this point, but we agreed it was probably in the wrong place. After the 11 mile marker we confirmed we were on track, so I again dropped back from Chris and the main group. There was a small group some 40 to 50 metres behind us, so I waited for them and then tried to encourage them on. I also reminded then that we were pacing to Gun Time, so they could still get under 1:30 chip time even if they were slightly behind us. A strong finish should seem them home.
I knew Chris was on pace, but I was now some way back, so had to put in a fast finish to catch up. It is a gentle downhill from St Johns Church to the finish, so I didn’t find it too hard to speed up and was only just behind him as we turned off the road and into the school car park to see the finish line and the clock ticking steadily up towards 1:30:00.
As we crossed the line and stopped our watches, both Chris’s watch and mine recorded 1:29:59, so 1 second out. However the official results list Chris with a perfect 1:30:00 gun time and me with 1:30:02. Not a bad effort.
Pacing is a great way to help out in a race. For a start you get to run as well as marshal, but with a bit of luck you get to play a small part in helping other runners achieve their goals. For anyone to run under 1:30 at a half marathon they have to put in the training, and work hard on the day. On a route like Tunbridge Wells where the first half is downhill and the second half has 445ft of climbing, local knowledge is also important, and hopefully the pacing team can provide that.
p.s. I’ve went back after to collect the gel wrapper i saw thrown in the hedge. What I saw disgusted and enraged me. There will be more on this in my next blog.