I suffered at the world half marathon championships held in Cardiff earlier in the year. I’d put in the training but failed to shake off a heavy cold by race day, besides which the weather was foul.
The inaugural Port Talbot half marathon offered a chance to bury that memory. A small, local event with an entry limit of 200 people, staged on grit and tarmac cycle tracks in the beautiful forest of Afan.
After a technical opening section though width restrictions and around a fishing lake, we were on a firm gravel track heading gently downhill, and that’s pretty much how it continued for the next 6 miles. The weather was cool, with a light breeze, the sun occasionally threatening to break through.
I found myself shoulder to shoulder with Gareth Poston. We worked together.
“We’re not catching them,” I said, meaning the group of 4 about 200m ahead.
“Wait for the uphill,” he said.
I felt dehydrated and made sure I got some water in at the feed station at the turning point. Gareth pulled a lead on me, maybe as much as 20m, but I wasn’t going to lose him. The track was heading uphill now. The next groups of runners were entering the feedzone. Time to dig in.
I caught up with Gareth and again we worked together. A runner in a red vest, dropped from the fractured group of 4, was in sight. We went past him. Just a couple of miles from the finish we caught and passed another runner. Now I was hurting. Gareth pulled ahead. This time I let him go. I could see he was fading but I was too.
I finished in 6th place with a time of 1:22:33, which I was pleased with on a sloping course.
The Blaise Blazer is one of my favourite events. Short but tough, it packs plenty of racing into 4 miles of footpaths and tracks through the beautiful Blaise Castle estate. The hosts, Westbury Harriers, are a fine club with a thriving junior section and a strong cross country tradition.
Three years ago Southville RC won the mob match. This evening we didn’t even have a team. In fact, only Westbury and Emersons Green had a full team. Blame the weather — relentless heavy rain.
Cycling across to the race left me soaked before the start. I shivered and tried to stay warm in the clubhouse whilst the deluge continued. Pinned to the wall was a picture of the new route, which, rather than ending at the folly, passes in front of it before a final charge back down to finish just outside the clubhouse.
At last we were off, 76 of us speeding over the wet field. The race starts downhill and fast. Ascending the zig-zag I figured I must have been around 10th. My wet feet were warming up. Down across the meadow and back on the path, trying not to skid on the greasy camber. How dark it was for a summer’s evening!
Climbing again, murky and muddy, roots and stones. Passing runners. I could barely see what was underfoot on the wooded descent but attacked nontheless. Alex Hamblin and a younger lad were just ahead of me. I didn’t know who was ahead of them. Now we were following the new route. I closed on the two in front of me on the steep ascent to the folly. Past the folly and back down on an unfamiliar switchback of a path. I took the corners carefully. Out at last and on my way across the sodden field to the line.
I was surprised to learn I’d come in third. The two runners in front, Alex Hamblin and 15 year old Aidan Noble had taken the first two places. Could I have found something extra if I’d known I was contesting the lead?
The Purdown Pursuit very definitely counts as a home run. I’ve used Purdown as a training route for a good 15 years now. I love the short, sharp climbs, the mixed terrain, the urban views, the buzzing hum of the motorway. The communications tower. The WWII gun emplacements. The teenage parties when exams are over. The barbeques. The fishing lake. The joyriders. The abandoned vehicles. The other runners. Even the dogs.
Building works meant a couple of slight tweaks to the route. We started maybe 100m further back to give the race a chance to string out before the restricted access to the path, and later, after the short circuit, we had to skirt round a new fence protecting the landworks.
I felt energetic and ready. I attacked from the start and led the race over the first and longest climb. Then Chris Mcmillan hared off. Another runner in a blue vest passed me. Don’t let him go, I said, meaning Chris. I stormed down the first descent; I’ve been working on the downhills this year, and it’s paid off. I still felt fresh on the second proper climb. On the long, straight, almost flat section after exiting the woods I ramped up my pace and slowly, slowly closed on blue vest — Jeroen Bromilow.
If Jeroen had faltered I might have caught him, but he didn’t. Over the next winding and technical section, on road, steep descent, ragged ascent, steps, hole in the wall, overgrown pathway, he put distance into me. When I got to the top of the final open downhill, he was already at the bottom. I finished in 3rd with a time of 41:53, a minute down on Jeroen and 40 seconds ahead of Andy Hickman in 4th. Southville smashed the team prize with 4 runners in the first 5 places.
The end-of-series proze giving was held in the courtyard at the back of the Masons Arms. Congratulations to Chris Mcmillan and Clare Prosser, who took 1st male and female in all 4 races. I thoroughly enjoyed completing all 4 races and was delighted to end the series on a high.
Dundry Thunder, third race in the Tach summer series and I’d say the toughest.
It had been raining during the week and during the day. The skies were heavy as we lined up to start. The race tore down Littleton Lane, runners ricocheting across the damp, uneven surface, each of us trying to find our own racing line. I was wearing my lightweight race shoes, which are fast and comfortable but don’t have much grip. I skidded in the slick mud like Djokovic on a grass court.
Knowing what was to follow, I eased up a little and must have been around 10th by the foot of the hill. The meadows heading back up hadn’t been mowed or grazed. We were wading through long damp grass, stopping for gates and stiles. Getting into a rhythmn was impossible. I’d climbed to 3rd by the top of the hill and pushed hard along the level section through Dundry, getting a gap on my chasers. By now Chris McMillan was way out in front, but I had the second runner in my sights. Running through a field of oil seed rape, the rain bent the heavy pods across the track; they wrapped and trashed at my legs. Back downhill, this time through long damp grass, scanning for route markers.
James Killingbeck, in second, must have been about 20m in front of me at the foot of Littleton Lane, which we would now climb to the finish. I dug in, but he must have done the same. I wasn’t closing on him, and settled gratefully for a third place finish.
By now it really was raining, and within a few minutes the downpour had us racing for the shelter of the pub even though slower runners were still out on the course.
I’ve never actually run a flat 10k, other than as the first section of a half marathon, so I decided to give the Clevedon 10k a shot. It’s a fast course which attracts fast runners and a fast time is what I wanted.
It was a blowy evening but not too hot. Over 200 runners packed the quiet lane heading into the flat fields to the west of Clevedon. From the start the pace was swift. I passed the 1K marker in 3:35. Once again, I found myself alongside training partner and lift provider, Andy.
I’m not used to running at an even pace. The effect was hypnotic. I chose the racing line around corners, leaning into the gentle camber of the road which, strangely, seemed to tilt downhill, slightly, for the entire distance.
We turned into the wind after the 4th kilometre. I slipstreamed Andy. Whenever the road straightened we could see Will Smith ahead, running with his quick, loping stride. I upped the pace once we turned out of the wind and into the final 3k. Andy followed. We pulled in a couple of runners. Andy dropped me in the last 400 metres, opening a gap of 3 or 4 seconds. At the line, I retched, retched again. Sometimes that happens.
Southville had 6 runners in the top 25, led by club captain Mark Ducker in 13th place with a time of 35:09 — some 45 seconds faster than he’d run in the Bristol 10k.
I finished 22nd overall and 2nd MV50 with a time of 36:31.
It helps to have run the TACH races before, so you can gauge your effort for what’s coming. I have run the Burrington Blaster previously, but just the once, three years ago. From memory, we were facing a never-ending uphill followed by a treacherous downhill.
Either my recollections were faulty or we’d gone the wrong way, because, after an initial climb the route levelled then dipped. We were running full tilt downhill when, in my head, we should have been grinding uphill.
I was relieved when the course did turn upwards. My legs were ready. We shook off a few runners who’d been seduced by the fast start. Now I ran with three training partners: Andy, Neil, Paul. How many times have we climbed Nightingale Valley together, only to find ourselves shoulder to shoulder in a race? Paul set the pace. I expected Andy to pull away — he’s been flying recently — but eventually it was me who picked up the pace, passing Paul as the climb opened out from the woods and on to the top of the beacon.
Last time out this exposed section had been windy, wet and boggy. Today found the going still and dry. My chance was now! Convinced longer legs would catch me I hurled myself at the first open downhill, launching off ridges, sliding on bare earth, using the grassy verge to decelerate as needed. I knew my pursuers had me in view and didn’t want them to think they were closing in. Now the patch narrowed and swerved though bracken, gorse, brambles, still downhill. Room for one only: noone could pass.
I was on my own anyway. No sight of anyone ahead. No sound of anyone behind — even if you cannot hear a chaser directly, you can hear the spectators cheering them, or marshals guiding them. Of course you would never look back!
The final woodland descent, I took carefully. Three years ago I’d lost fourth place slipping and falling, and had considered myself lucky not to get hurt.
Today, I finished unscathed, 4th overall and 1st veteran, with a time of 35:36.
The winner, Chris McMillan, completed the course in a blistering time of 32:33, nearly two minutes clear of the next runner.
“So unless the weather picks up a lot I’m probably not going to spectate. Enjoy the rain!” Andy emailed, despite the fact Hannah, his wife, would be running.
Yet again the event defied the forecast. Heavy showers had blown themselves out during the day. The sun shone. Tyntesfield’s stone work gleamed. The lawns sparkled.
After a couple of laps of the lower meadow and formal gardens the race leaders had a substantial gap. From here, the course plays hide-and-seek through woods and rough pasture, and I wouldn’t be seeing them until the finish. I wouldn’t be looking back either, I’d be playing my part in a racing allegiance of four:
- the tall veteran from Weston AC
- Bristol and West, wearing tights
- a North Somerset runner
- me, the Southville second-claimer
Bristol and West led us through the woods, ducking, skipping, dodging and sliding. A wrong turn was quickly corrected. He made an error trying to squeeze between gate and fence, failing to spot the barbed wire. That hurt! Now we skirted the furrowed side of a planted field.
Weston charged into the downhill only to fall heavily on the wet mud. He was OK, he was up again. I dropped to the back of the group and chose my route carefully. North Somerset had built a clear lead.
After a short set of steps the course returns to a tarmaced road for the final section. There’s an uphill, neither steep nor extended, but brutal after 6 miles of multi-terrain racing. I caught and passed Bristol and West and Weston.
I could see the finish line. Andy was there, with Sam and James. Giles with his boys too. They were cheering me on! I had better support but Bristol and West had a better sprint. He stormed past me to take 9th in the race.
I came 10th overall with a time of 40:34, a little slower than last year. I was second veteran (behind Keiron Summers) and first MV50.
Special mention to Harry Allen, a young runner who has been training with Southville — let’s hope he signs up! — and who won the race in a time of 37:34, in the face of some very strong competition.
Thanks to Rich Kenington, Dermot McCann and Phil Murray for the photographs
This is my fourth year of running the Tach summer series, four multi-terrain events held on Thursday evenings in May through to July. These races play to my strengths — hills, uneven footing, twists and turns; long enough to require level-headed pacing, short enough to race the whole way. And when you look up, the scenery is spectacular.
The Wrington run starts with the steadiest of climbs on a woodland track. The leaders accelerated up the gradient and were soon out of sight. Some quality runners there, but did they realise how long this climb was, and how much tougher the following climb would be? Their enthusiasm carried me and I picked up my own pace.
In wetter weather there’d be a section of energy-sapping clay towards the top. After an unusually dry spring, we danced past any remaining mud on the course. I had picked off Matt and Paul by now. I could see Mark Ducker, Southville captain, not so far ahead.
The downhill transitions from footpath to farm track to tarmac. Then there’s a level section along Ropers Lane. I was running just behind Keiron Summers and just ahead of Ben Anderson. We turned up Bullhouse Lane, a rocky path littered with leaf mould, branches and loose rocks. I passed Keiron but he was having none of it. The route swerved, the gradient sharpened.
Back on tarmac again, along the top of Wrington Hill. Views of the Severn Estuary. Ben passed me. The bluebells glowed in the evening sunlight. I could still see Mark.
I caught and passed Ben when the road surface deteriorated. Keiron was still in range. We hurtled down the final woodland descent, shooting across the narrow bridge, over the stile, then stumble-running across the meadow to the line. I finished 4th with a personal course record of 37:52.
Thanks to John Cooper for the photos
If you’d asked me whether I wanted to run another half marathon immediately after finishing Cardiff 2015, I’d have said no. That’s not when I was asked, though. Almost as soon as I’d signed up for the 2015 event I got emails inviting me to pre-register for Cardiff 2016: a one-off, a world championships, limited places, sign-up now for a time-limited price of just (!) £50.
Still, I enjoyed training over the winter. If I was going to compete in a world championships I wanted to run at my best. By now, I know what that takes.
Just a week before the race I ran my first ever parkrun, in Swansea. I wanted to test my speed and, examining recent results, reckoned I might have a chance of winning. Unfortunately Richard Copp showed up at the start line; I wouldn’t be close to him again until I got the chance to congratulate him at the finish. I ran the course pretty much alone, coming in 2nd with a time of 17:52. I’ve gone faster but was pleased enough.
On Monday I felt a cold coming on. Tuesday and Wednesday I was feverish and struggling for breath. By Friday I’d recovered enough to contemplate running. The forecast for Saturday was gale force winds and heavy showers. I was going to run. I had to run. When else would I get a chance to compete in a world championships? On the day, despite a glowering sky and gusting winds, the rain held off as we queued at the start line. The organisers had issued disposable plastic jackets. With 5 minutes to go I balled mine up and threw it to the side. Rhydian sang live, badly. After a trumpet fanfare the elite athletes emerged from their private warm up area inside Cardiff Castle. Mo Farah, Geoffrey Kamworor, Dewi Griffiths. With these legends up front, how could I fail?
The first few miles went well enough. The weather could definitely have been worse. I’ve never had so many athletes around me at a 6 minute mile pace. After the mid-point, when I should have been cruising, fatigue set in. Legs and lungs ached. The wind whipped into action, then the rain. Just before the hour — the time when the winners would be sizing up the finish — the skies opened. I was drenched by icy water in seconds. A gust of wind punched over one of the water-bottle tables placed alongside the road and sent it skidding across the tarmac. Plastic boundary tape snapped and thrashed. I kept going, painfully aware that my reward, at the finish line, would not be the time I wanted. Runners passed me on both sides. Raul, an indomitable Swansea Harrier friend, caught me with just over a mile to go. He bellowed encouragment and I stuck with him, finally limping over the line with a time of 82:42. I had wanted to go faster than 80 minutes; that’s what I’d trained for.
The winner, Geoffrey Kamworor, ran a blistering time of 59:10, almost a minute ahead of Mo Farah. An astonishing run in those conditions, even more so when you learn that he fell over at the off and, lucky not to have been trampled in the starting stampede, had to slalom through elite club runners to regain his proper place at the front.
I am not running the Cardiff half again.
During the Christmas break I went on a long, slow run from home, through Stembridge to Llanmadoc, heading back via Burry. The weather was unseasonably mild. After several days of rain, the going was heavy. Cresting Llanmadoc hill, 4 miles in, after a steep, slippery climb, the view opened out: far ahead, Black Mountain and the Brecon Beacons, the salt marsh to my left, its maze of waterways reflecting the pale light; then Whitford Sands, the green smudge of pine trees, the cast-iron lighthouse pinned against the Loughor estuary. The glow that comes with exercising outside spread through my body. Not long ago I had been picking my way through the marshy lowland and now I was up here. I had earned my view of this landscape. Covered in mud, I was part of it.
Ahead of me stood an isolated building, plate glass windows, granite walls, rusting iron, concrete. My route skirted the perimeter joining the track which provided vehicle access. Stormy Castle, the nameplate read, gold on slate. Separate from the main building was what looked like a shed. Originally for livestock maybe? This too had grey stone walls; inset in the north wall was a floor-to-ceiling window. Looking in, I saw, placed in front of the window, a treadmill. Whoever inhabits Stormy Castle enjoys a gym with a view.
Madness, I thought. Why run on the spot in this fish tank when you could be outside? Don’t peer at the view, engage with it!
The next week, back at work again in Bristol, I went on my regular long run, the Abbots Pool Loop. St Mary Redcliffe’s bell rang seven times as I passed through Queen Square. Usually I’d hook up with one or more running friends here. Today, on a cloudy morning, 80 minutes before sunrise, I was on my own. I had no head torch. I ran through Millenium Square and along the harbour, negotiating steps and bridges to cross the harbour and river at Cumberland Basin. Soon I would be out of the city. My feet slipped as I left the access road to Ashton Court, the point where trail began. Road shoes which had been ideal for the pavements so far were now a liability. To my right I could just see the dark silhouettes of the red deer herd at rest. I could smell their damp, musky smell. At the northern boundary of the estate I crossed Beggars Bush Lane to continue along the farm track opposite.
Uneven ground, downhill, too fast, a cross-slope. My left foot slid underneath me and I instantly knew I could not recover, and that the stony ground was going to hurt when I struck it. In those few airborne milliseconds I also had time to reflect this was a bad place for this to happen: on my own, without a phone, about as far from civilisation as you can get by running 40 minutes from the city centre. I fell forwards full length, somehow turning in the air to take the impact on my left elbow and the back of my shoulder. The mud which precipitated my fall also mitigated its effects. I slid rather than scraped. Head and face untouched. Wrists and hands OK. Legs fine. Elbow hurting and bloody, but that was the worst of it. I’d been lucky.
No, I’m not going to run on a treadmill, not even when it’s dark and muddy. Especially not when it’s dark and muddy. I’ve tried head torches and they spoil my night vision. Have you run past Abbots Pool at dawn? Have you splashed through puddles on the towpath as the sun rises to colour in the Avon Gorge? You should. But I should be more careful.
Thanks to Heather Cowper for the photo of Abbots Pool, as seen in daylight, on a dry day.
Strangely I’ve forgotten the pain suffered in the final miles of the Cardiff half marathon. What pain? I’ll run it again and get the PB I missed by 10 seconds!
After the event I caught up with the coverage on iplayer. I knew the headlines — that Kenyan athletes had won both the men’s and women’s race — but didn’t know how. Both races turned out to be fascinating and thrilling to watch, the women’s race especially.
It seemed the race would follow a standard script with the leader, Jerotich, ratcheting the pressure until she dropped her rivals, and then holding on. Soon after 10K a winning margin was established. The commentators were struggling to find anything to say. The kilometers ticked down. Jerotich runs with that efficient style the top endurance runners employ; quick, shuffling strides, feet barely clearing the tarmac. As a spectator you can sense the long hard miles of training and the long hard miles to come.
Live coverage returned to the women’s race coming along the straight road back from Roath. The winning margin remained in place, though it hadn’t extended. Jerotich was frowning. What the commentators failed to notice was a yellow vest in the background. It could, of course, have been an elite male runner making a late surge, but the mystery athlete’s hair was gathered into a swaying top-knot. Now the cameras went back to her. It’s Rebecca Robinson, said the commentators, wrongly. It was Jess Coulson making her competitive half marathon debut and she was motoring, bouncing off her toes, eating the gap to the second runner, Areba. Wasteful, the commentators tutted, arms flapping all over the place. Maybe, but fast, gutsy and exciting to watch.
Jess Coulson’s effort brought the race back together. With 400m to go, suddenly three runners were in it. If Coulson wanted second place she may have struck a fraction early, passing Areba on the final left hander — but she wanted first. It wasn’t to be. Jerotich had something left and held on for the win; Areba came back for second; Coulson got third. Great race!
Last year I DNF the Cardiff half marathon. This year I went one worse and DNS the Swansea half. Consequently I was determined to turn up in good shape to complete this year’s Cardiff half.
Racing the week before probably wasn’t a great idea … but the race happened to be a short one and close to home … and the weather was perfect … and I hadn’t raced in a while … and Alex didn’t have a rugby game and … well, I went!
Llandmadoc is the first fixture of the West Glamorgan cross country league. It’s four and a half miles, out along a woodland trail then back on the beach. I tried to run within myself on the outward section and fell in with Peter Osborne, another V50 who I’ve battled with on several occasions. He upped the pace as we hit the sloping sand around the point and then he was gone. Coming back along the beach in the blazing sun, there was a gap of 50m to the next group of runners — a gap I reduced but never closed. Despite my conservative start, when we went through the wet sand I felt as energetic as one of the many stranded jellyfish which littered the course.
I finished 19th in a time of 28:32, officially first in my category but second really since Peter beat me and he’s an age band up.
I avoided the track training session with Bristol and West on Monday evening — the same session, last year, had been one too many. If I’d had doubts about running the cross country race just a week before the half marathon, my main target for the year, then I had real concerns about testing myself at the Aztec West 5K on the Tuesday. I felt I was running well and knew a PB was possible on the fast Aztec West course, but did I want to know just how well I was running? A slow time would have rocked my confidence before Sunday’s longer race.
Well, I went. As for times, I had no idea during the race because I forgot my watch. In contrast to Llanmadoc, my legs felt strong, decidedly sprightly in fact. I settled in with Will Smith and Paul Deaton, friends from Southville Running Club, and we barreled round the three lap course, overtaking some very decent runners who’d started more quickly.
Will accelerated with 200m to go, attacking the next three runners, and Paul went with him. I let them go. After the final sharp left, Paul faded, enough encouragement for me to sprint past him. When the results were announced I discovered I’d won the V50 category with a PB of 17:22.
So, Cardiff. The race is bigger than ever — twenty two thousand entrants in 2015. Despite this, it was straightforward getting to the start line warmed up and ready. The elite athletes (including me!) have their own baggage drop round the back of the castle in Bute Park. From there, it’s a short stroll to the right start pen.
I didn’t think I set off too quickly but my 10K time was 37:10, on target for a 78:30 finish. I guess my legs were still dialled into my 5K pace. Ifan had set out even more quickly, but I caught him around the half way point. In a half marathon I usually feel a glow during the middle of the event; the sensation that I’m going fast, but at a sustainable tempo. This time, the sensation never came. I wasn’t glowing, I was aching. Enduring. Maintaining a steady pace seemed impossible and I found myself repeatedly dropping then being passed by the same group of runners. Why couldn’t we team up and work together? I went through 10 miles in 1:00:25, still on course for a personal best but hurting badly. Ifan went past me again at around mile 11. I didn’t even try and go with him. My muscles were sore, my feet were sore. I knew I’d complete the course but I was no longer shooting for a personal best; I just wanted to finish without losing too much time. Actually, I just wanted to finish.
On the final turn I realised that 80 minutes was still on and managed to sprint for the line. My time, 79:43, was just 7 seconds off my PB.
Clocking a sub-80 half marathon at Swansea was my finest running performance in 2014. Things were bound to cool off after that. Just four days later I showed up for the Purdown Pursuit, the final event of the Tach summer series. The race started late and required re-routing; it was a sweltering evening and there’d been a fire on the course. I took the downhill sections cautiously on sore legs but still managed 4th place with a time of 42.39.
A couple of weeks later I finished 5th at the Blaise Blazer mob match. It’s one of my favourite races and I set a personal best for the course of 23.51, picking runners off steadily in the final stages then holding on in the final sprint from the top of the steps to the folly. Southville RC put on a spirited defence of the team prize we’d won the year before and, once the results had been counted and checked, to our surprise, it was announced we’d retained the trophy. Later that evening after a recount the results were corrected; Westbury Harriers had, in fact, wrested the coveted Blazer Cup from our grasp.
My mistake was not resting up over the summer. I wanted to go under 80 minutes for a second time at the Cardiff half marathon, a far more established and prestigious event than the one I’d run in Swansea, and one at which friends from both Bristol and South Wales would compete. On the Monday before the race I tweaked my hamstring towards the end of a track session with Bristol & West at Whitehall. Not good. During the remainder of the week I rested before lining up on Sunday in Cardiff ready to race. I stormed the first mile in 5:40, hit a similar pace for the second, and then felt the injury ping. I pulled up and walked along the pavement, assessing the damage. I figured I could at least jog around the barrage to the Senedd but I couldn’t. Instead I ended up limping from Pennarth to the centre, reaching the baggage collection around the time I should have been finishing.
I didn’t race again until the combined Welsh Inter-regional and Welsh Masters cross country championships. This is a proper cross-country course featuring mud, meadows, woodland tracks, slopes. The weather played its part: rain during the week and freezing temperatures on the day filled the puddles with ice; grass sparkled with frost as the sun broke through. I ran a measured race ending up with an individual silver in the MV50 category just two seconds behind Peter Coles, the category winner. I did get a gold medal as one of Swansea Harriers’ winning MV50 team. In the inter-regional competition, we came second, I think. There are so many competitions being run in the same race it’s hard to remember. What I do remember thinking is, what a shame such a great event gets such a low turnout. In an age where people part with serious money to tackle military-themed tough guy obstacle courses, for just a couple of quid you get to represent club and region on a challenging course in a fabulous setting.
The moustache, by the way, was for movember
Back in June I went to the launch of Paul Jones’ book “A Corinthian Endeavour — The Story of the National Hill Climb Championships”.
It was a great talk and it’s a great book. Here in the UK, we don’t have Alpine cols or Pyrennean passes. We have hills. Hills with erratic gradients and peculiar names — Nick-o-Pendle, Mow Cop, Pea Royd Lane — hills which, at the end of the cycling season, draw nascent professionals and amateur specialists to battle.
Jones has the credentials to tell the tale: an unashamed fan and a talented writer, he is himself a tidy competitor. The book begins with him interviewing Vic Clarke, the man who finished second in the inaugural national hill climb championships in 1944 and who would go on to win the event three times. Also present is Lyn Hamel, a current competitor and multiple champion herself. When Jones offers biscuits (Marks and Spencers Belgian chocolate selection!) both champions decline: for climbers, gravity is the enemy.
Gravity isn’t the only enemy. Competitors don’t race head to head. The courses are too short and the roads too narrow. Instead they face off against the clock. The fastest time wins.
As the book continues Jones deftly weaves the history of the championships around more interviews with their protagonists. There’s Chris Boardman, who set and still holds several records. There are other less familiar names: Wilson, Sydney, Armitage, Dobbin, Pettinger.
I discovered Paul Jones via his Traumfahrrad cycling blog, a forum where he allows himself more freedom to poke fun and sound off. His blog describes the joy and pain of early morning training rides. He chortles at triathletes who get their socks wrong. You’ll also find the details of his own assaults on the hill climbs: despite his self-effacement he’s clearly a feared and respected rider. In the book, though, he reins himself in and logs the facts. The who, what, how and when are painstakingingly researched and recorded. Gear inches matter more to the author than, apparently, to Chris Boardman, who can barely remember if he took part in a race which he won, let alone the number of teeth on his sprocket.
Occasionally, though, Jones takes a step back from the details. In one chapter he asks: “When is a Hill not a Hill?” A good championship course:
… should be run on closed roads […] Riders should be digging out their hill climb bikes and making absurd modifications for no real gain […] each competitor needs to be left flailing on a grass bank like a dying goldfish.
Contrast this to the 2011 championship on Long Hill:
At the last, Jones claims hill climbers are ascetics in search of transcendence who tilt their caps backwards. By battling time and human frailty paradoxically they escape it and themselves.
This is the first thingI have understood:Time is the echo of an axeWithin a wood.
For me, a half marathon is a race against the clock, a notoriously ruthless opponent, and since the city halves are fast, flat and accurately measured, you can compare your time in Cardiff to your time in Bristol, or your time in Cardiff to Neil’s time in Brighton or Matt’s time in Bath. There’s nowhere to hide.
Maybe that’s whay I prefer trail and cross country, where conditions and tactics seem more important than minutes and seconds. For a half marathon conditions are either suitable for a PB or unsuitable, and there’s just one tactic:
Run an even pace, or
Don’t go out too fast, or
Don’t slow down, or
Keep going, for, in my case, 80 minutes-ish.
Oh, but the -ish matters! My personal best of 1:21:30, Cardiff 2011, the last time I ran a half, was 90 seconds over. At the start of this year, 2014, I decided to do something about that. I’d return to Cardiff and I’d try and go under 80 minutes. Effectively, I’d have to cover a distance which previously took me 60 seconds in just under 59 seconds, and I’d have to repeat that record breaking performance 81 and a half times in a row.
Such a calculated task requires planning.