How to run a “perfect race” by Grace Roberts

A definitely not recommended guide on how I ended up running my most enjoyable (and quickest!) half marathon.

– Grace

Step 1: Have a vague goal but a goal non the less

Since I have been running, I have entered the ballot for the Great North Run – and always been disappointed! This year though, I almost had a little cry at my office desk because I finally got that wonderful email – I was in! This really spurred me on to train (properly) for the distance. 

I had ran many half marathons before – the first one I ever did, I followed a training program really strictly, never missing a run and doing what it said to up the distance. My 2nd (Harewood House) and 3rd (Manchester) halfs…. Well I was a bit lazy – I knew I could do the distance and I was doing a lot of running in the run up to both so I didn’t really train specifically for them but PB’d on both so must have been doing something right! 

Since then I’ve done at least one half each year, in 2018 I did two with my mum who wanted someone to help get her round her first half, then we did Round Sheffield Run together. 

So when I got the email at the start of 2019 saying I’d got a place in the GNR, it really spurred me on to training properly. I wanted to see what I could do if I really tried. 

Step 2: Make a training programme that suits you

I’d done “programs” before and often they fall down cos you literally cannot stick to them. SO I made mine flexible – around the social runs I do on a Monday and HPH on a Tuesday (obvs!) but I also kept in the things I enjoyed in triathlon training to keep it interesting. I also gave myself lots of time to up the distances at weekends. 

Step 3: Make long runs fun! 

The first time I stuck to a training program, I rigidly did the exact amount of miles for the long run with no stopping. This time, I did all sorts – I listened to podcasts, I ran to parkrun, did parkrun, and then carried on. I joined up with friends for bits and did other bits solo. Basically. I made them fun – I looked forward to them as they weren’t a chore anymore! I did occasionally get some funny looks when actually LOL’ing to podcasts. I was really starting to see my progress too – PB-ing at several parkruns, and averaging faster km in general which was really encouraging.

I got a PB at Bramley parkrun of 29:27 – a sub-30 at Bramley was something I thought impossible a few months ago!

Step 4: Have a really disappointing race

So I really built up the GNR. It was my race, I was going to “Be My Greatest” –like all the adverts and promos said. My training had gone really well – I even managed a 2:06 12 mile in training, well on track for a PB and a sub 2:20. I did everything I could in the run up to make it perfect – lots of baths, stretching, yoga and rest. I was quite nervous the day before but excited! 

The day before, I nipped to Up and Running (I’d forgotten to pack my gels – numpty!) and the lovely manager there, Marianne, said she was going to be the 2:15 pacer. My training had gone so well, and she was so encouraging, I decided why not?! Let’s stick with her. 

Me and Marianne on the start line – full of nerves!

I found Marianne really easy on the day and she was fab at the start keeping everyone calm but excited. We joined in all the dancing, waving at the cameras and generally having a good time in the long long wait to start. We eventually set off and after about 5 minutes I’d already lost her – it was so busy! Everyone tells you that it’s crazy busy but until you experience it yourself, you really don’t realise quite how bad it is! To keep the pace, the 2:15’ers were dancing in and out of the crowds and I just couldn’t keep that pace and zig-zag around people. I stuck to my own pace and was doing really well – at one point my watch was predicting a sub 2:10 finish! 

At the half way mark, I think it properly dawned on me that I was not going to be able to keep this pace up. It was past midday, the heat was getting intense. The crowds still hadn’t thinned. I was getting really tired at 7 miles. Mile 8 was when it got hard. Mile 9 was when the wheels came off. It was just painful and hard. I was struggling to keep going. I walked a bit of mile 10. I was beating myself up bad. I trained so hard for this and I was watching it all slip away. I managed to get going again and just convinced myself to keep running until the end no matter what. 

Even on the finish straight (which goes on forever!) the crowds were thick – people were walking across the whole route. It was hard to squeeze past people but I managed to spurt towards the finish to scrape a PB – just – by 45 seconds! 

I had ruined myself though. I felt dreadful. I was dehydrated (did I mention how hot it was?!), my legs didn’t work anymore, I couldn’t eat or drink anything without throwing up. My average heart rate had been 182 for 2.5 hours and I was a mess! 

This is my pain face – note the hot weather!

This famous, historic race had become a bit of a misery-fest for me. It took me most of the evening to feel able to eat again and couldn’t walk properly for a good few days. I know I got a PB and should be proud, but I was annoyed at myself – I went too fast, I paid the price and it was painful. 

Step 5: Sign up to *another race* 

I knew I had the Robin Hood Half coming up but I already promised my mum I would run with her for that one. But I really didn’t want all my training (over 14 weeks!) to go to waste. So I was umming and ahhing at work whether to sign up to Manchester (where my previous PB was) and my colleague said, “what’s holding you back?” and to be fair, the answer was nothing really! So I signed up. 

After a week off running, I continued my training plan and used the Robin Hood Half as a LSR (though mentally tough as I paced my mum to a PB), and tapered again. 

Step 6: Have *the best* friends

I have two fabulous friends in Manchester who hosted me and my partner for the weekend. We had a great time on Saturday catching up, bowling, playing games and eating *all the food*! I had no time for nerves cos I was having so much fun. 

My friend Joe also kindly got up in the morning of the race to drop me 100m from the start line (I’m so grateful cos I don’t know the city very well at all!). 

Apparently a great warm up for a race – bowling, food, friends and fun!

Step 7: (and I can’t say this enough!) STICK TO THE PLAN!

So I didn’t know how I felt on the day – was it a PB day? Did my legs feel good? I wasn’t sure. Once think I knew for sure was that I did not want a repeat crash and burn, and ending up not enjoying myself. My plan was to go out for the first km at a leisurely pace and see what happened. 

Back in black in bin bags!

We seemed to be waiting forever in the start pens (there was a delay at the start for some reason) but I kept warm and dry with a fashionable bin bag and chattered to those around me. The guy on the PA was great at keeping up spirits in the miserable weather and with the long wait too – “they don’t make grey skies like this anywhere else in the world” is what he kept saying! We got our own countdown and start at the start line (which they do for each pen), which I think is a really nice touch! I kept to the left and jogged a nice, slow, gentle first km (6:45 – something I would not have considered “leisurely” a few years ago!). I knew to get the 2:20 I needed to average 6:40/km but also knew not to panic – I would make it up after I’d settled in. For many miles I was bang on target 2:20 pace. At each mile marker I would check where I needed to be and I was on the pace to the second. I didn’t feel rough or tired so I kept going – smiling at all the fantastic support and thanking all the volunteers. I got to miles 8 and 9 (still on pace!) and felt fine.

Official pic around mile 10 – smiling and still feeling fine?!

I figured when I got to mile 10 the pain would come – but it didn’t! So I decided to push a little harder, for each of those last miles I stepped it up each time. I was *beaming* on the final straight – I was on for a great time, I wasn’t in pain and I was enjoying myself so much! 

I did an *actual* sprint finish to the line and punched the air – 2:17:29 !!!!!! The MC gave me a shout out after finishing (but attributed us to Hyde Park London – never mind!) I was elated!!! I had a little cry, got my medal and went to find my friends. 

I even ran up to them to tell them the news – a 6 minute PB!!! My partner was confused that I was able to bounce around smiling after seeing me wreck myself from running so many times! But I stuck to the plan, it worked, and I felt fabulous! 

Taken just past the line – comparing this to the GNR finish pic really shows what a difference a race can make! I was so happy!

Step 8: Celebrate, rest, reflect.

We then went out eating and drinking – as you do in Manchester. I wore my medal all day, until I went to bed (as are the rules!) and updated my PB board. The next day I felt mostly fine – no issues walking, wasn’t too tired and I went in group 2 the Tuesday after at HPH with no issues.

My training wasn’t for nothing. It just had to be the right race, the right weather (!!!), and I had to stick to the plan! 

I’ve definitely learnt my lesson and I look forward to chasing PBs in a much more controlled and sensible way in the future. 

Drink and be merry!

Race Summaries:

In terms of races, I’d really recommend Manchester Half Marathon – the course is flat and spacious, the support is fantastic, and the event itself is really well organised and inclusive of all abilities. Manchester is a great city to visit too and not a far way to go for a race. The only downsides was there is very limited bag storage (I just took what I needed plus bin bag to the start, I left everything else with my partner to bring to the finish), and there were not enough loos at the start (though I knew this from before so made a point of leaving the house as late as possible). 

The Robin Hood Half was pretty decent too, a bit of a smaller event, the start pens were a bit confusing but the staff and volunteers were great at helping people. Plenty of space and volunteers on the bag drop and tonnes of toilets. The start village (including the final 400m of the race) was in a field and the bad rain had turned it into a mud bath.  The route was very interesting – not flat but it went round some really great parts of the city including past the castle and through Wollaton Hall (where some of the Dark Knight series was filmed, or the best snow sledging hill in the city to us locals!) which kept it interesting. The support was also fantastic – Women’s Notts Runners were out in force and they even did a “race angels” service where they helped struggling runners to get to the finish from the last mile of the race. They also had loads of sports massage therapists available (all students from the local universities) and we only had to wait about 10 mins to get a slot. 

The Great North Run – where do I even start?! It feels amazing to be part of such a big event. And it is ridiculously well organised for the size. There were 57,000 runners this year, yet there were plenty of loos, the bag storage was brilliantly organised (you pop your bag on a bus of your start pen colour and they write the bus number on your race number, they then drive all the buses to the end and you pick it up there – easy!). It was easy to find start pens, they were well staffed with volunteers, the paces were fantastic and the atmosphere is electric. Doing the “oggy oggy oggies” under the underpass is an amazing experience and the people of Newcastle support that event like no other. Though the sheer size of the event is also what lets it down – it never thinned out, you are constantly overtaking and weaving, there is little shade on the course, and when we approached the “showers” on the course, I was disappointed to see how small they were – designed to be ran through, they were so narrow that people were queuing for some of them. Even at the end, it is totally packed and I was dodging and diving to get to the finish. All in all, it is an experience, but not a run to push on. If I did do it again, I’d like to run with friends and enjoy it. Also running for a charity is amazing – the Breast Cancer Now tent was amazing, they had all sorts of drinks and treats available and sports massages for us at the end. I gave them an extra donation because they were so fabulous! 

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